- The Culture of Inquisition in Medieval England ed. by Mary C. Flannery and Katie L. Walter
The study of inquisitio hereticae pravitatis in England has tended to go its own way, separate from the historiography of continental inquisitions. In this, it follows [End Page 630] its subject—with little heresy and persecution of it—in England before the lollards. Moreover, the study of English heresy, much more so than its continental forms, has occupied scholars of literature and culture. This collection of essays takes as its departure that inquisitio had “discursive and cultural implications … as a concept and a discourse … [it] penetrated the late-medieval consciousness in a broader sense, shaping public fama and private selves” (p. 2).
This means great breadth in topics. To summarize: Henry Ansgar Kelly sketches some exceptions in England to inquisitorial practice, which by 1400 was riddled with deviations from, and violations of, its proper procedure. Edwin Craun emphasizes denunciation’s interest in the sinner’s charitable correction, which he contrasts to both accusatio and inquisitio, “with their drive toward punishment” (p. 36). Ian Forrest observes that the advent of heresy inquisitions, with accompanying canon law, in the early-fifteenth century sparked a revival in English provincial constitutions. Diane Vincent uses the case of John Oldcastle to treat reception and understandings of inquisition after its institution in England, with both orthodox clerics and lollards grappling over its theological and social meanings. Mary C. Flannery and Katie Walter challenge an association of the internal forum of confession with interiority, by exploring how the recognized external forum of judgment, including community knowledge and reputation, complicated this. Inquisition, as well as confession, helped to reach and to shape individual interiority. Interiority appears, too, in James Wade’s essay on The Erle of Tolous, with this romance’s diverse inquiries and confessions forming exemplary selves.
Jenny Lee, Genelle Gertz, and Ruth Ahnert all investigate ways in which inquisition was culturally and literarily productive, particularly for those accused of heresy. Lee argues that Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love was a self-conscious attempt to recuperate himself authoritatively amid the erasures of his earlier Appeal. Gertz contends that defendants co-opted inquisition’s language for resistance via written confessions of faith, whereas Ahnert posits Protestant prison writings as a “literature of vindication” that actively redefined the meaning of a trial, whether it ended in recantation or death. In conclusion, Emily Steiner argues for a dynamic, “modern” reading of the seemingly un-modern inquisitio, a (perhaps counterintuitive) spur to imagination and invention.
Evidence is often distant from the historical practice of heresy inquisitions, its mechanics, and its dailiness. This is sensible, amid the volume’s wish to trace inquisitio as expansive and transcendent cultural factor. But at its limits, the distinct legal process of inquisitio shades into general “questioning” or “confession,” with resemblance or echoes at play rather than links or lineage. Relatedly, in inquisitorial practice the complexities of public/private, confession, and the ability of diverse actors to seize and reinterpret the process—all explicit themes here—were most powerfully visible.
With these themes, we might encourage closer communication between scholars of continental and English heresy and inquisition. Does Usk in the late-fourteenth [End Page 631] century seeking to “reclaim his authority to tell his own story” (pp. 102–03) compare to visionary Na Prous Boneta, proudly testifying in 1325? In earlier continental inquisitions, both defendants and communities inverted inquisitorial meanings of interrogations, abjurations, and even executions, whether by violent resistance or by honoring the dead as martyrs. And if Chaucer, influenced by inquisition and thinking of fama, “imagines a readership past, present and future” (p. 169), so, too, did Bernard Gui, to whom records (past ones he consulted, and his own, ready for the future) helped inquisitors to match the earthly judgment of the accused with her transhistorical theological status. Andrew Roach and particularly Mary C. Mansfield would be rich additions to the volume...