Walking the Path of Medieval Inquisition

Friday 21 June 2019

May 24th, 1274, Raymond Baussan of Lagarde, of Laurac is sitting in front of an inquisitor, Brother Pons of Parnac in Toulouse, telling the story of his journey to Lombardy, and therefore his adventure into heresy.[1] He speaks of experiences travelling to Piacenza, Guardia Lombardi, Alessandria, Pavia and all across Lombardy, until finally he confesses to William of Bergamo and makes his way back to Toulouse.

November 4th, 1273, Gaubert of Aula of Benas, of the Diocese of Cahors sits before the inquisitor, Brother Ranulph of Plassac. He admits that he did, often, urinate in the cemetery of the church of Benas against the wall, even on Easter Day:

“He said that he has an infirmity”, I read, trying in vain to hold back my snickers, “and he cannot hold his urine”.[2]

I can’t hold them back – I have to laugh. You’ve got to love medieval texts!

Both of these stories are found inside the Inquisition Depositions of Toulouse: 1273-1282, which contains the records of inquisitors’ interrogations of suspected ‘heretics’, during the height of medieval inquisition in the thirteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church was extremely determined to maintain control over acceptable beliefs of the laity in the face of rivals who offered tempting alternatives, such as the ability for laity to preach (Waldensians), or to live a religious, ascetic life, whilst still engaging in public life (the Humiliati). Of most concern for the Inquisitors of the Languedoc were the Cathars, a mysterious dualist heresy that attracted the admiration of many powerful, rich families in the Languedoc. Even the forceful, destructive attempts of the 1209 Albigensian Crusade couldn’t stamp it out completely, only drive it underground. So, a more subtle approach was needed – Inquisition.

And no.

This is not the Spanish Inquisition.

I expected that response.

We are not Monty Python.

We are trying to do Serious Academic Work here! Focus!

There wasn’t much torture: people were more imprisoned or given penance than burnt; and there were times that it didn’t have much presence. However, the Inquisition was highly organised and insidious. It was effective in causing fear and gaining confessions, whether guilty or not. Furthermore, they did what highly organised operations do best – produce lots of records. These include records of interrogations and interviews with witnesses or people suspected of heresy, called depositions.

And that’s what’s my project is based on. These deposition records. Specifically, the records that were copied by the team of transcribers commissioned by Jean de Doat in 1663-1670. More specifically, Doat Sections 25-6 that have been wonderfully translated and edited by Peter Biller, Catherine Bruschi and Shelagh Sneddon.

The Biller, Bruschi and Sneddon text containing c.200 deposition records from the Toulouse Inquisition

Most writings about heresy are written by the church that is persecuting it. There is little extant about heretics by heretics. If there is, they are converts back to Christianity, making it very much a one-sided account. I admit, these are too, to an extent. They most often work off a proscribed set of formulaic questions regarding, things said, where, when, who with etc. –  all asked by inquisitors of the Catholic Church seeking to persecute heresy.


However, the wonderful thing about these deposition records is that they give you a huge insight into the people who were targeted by inquisition, and a direct look at how people who were part of the dissident groups worked and moved to try and escape or spread their ‘heretical’ views. You can feel their voice coming through, in a way you can’t with other documents.

So I’m going to make a map out of them.

Or two.

Let me explain before you call me crazy.

When I approached my amazing supervisor, Professor Frances Andrews, about wanting to research heresy, and inquisition in particular, there was an immediate problem apparent: I can’t read French. Or Italian. Or Latin. And either the majority of interesting and current work on these topics is done in these languages, or the primary documents are in these languages, introducing quite a huge limitation on what I could access. However, with the recent publication of Doat 25-6 by Biller, Bruschi and Sneddon, there was at least something I could work off that was rich and full of detail.

Furthermore, a little confession.

I’m not on a Medieval History degree, or straight History degree here at St Andrews. I’ve taken all the medieval modules, and caught the medieval bug in college, but I’m actually an Ancient History and Archaeology student. Therefore, with limited access to secondary material, creating a project that actively reproduces the historical information visually and engages physically with the material to draw conclusions in the shape of a map, was something that when suggested by my supervisor upon hearing my degree, caused the little archaeologist in me to scream with glee. I love books, but to be able to create something physical and practical from my historical research, that’s not just another essay?

It was an opportunity I did not want to miss.

And there is lots of workable data in these records! Seriously. People can be moving from house to house in a locale such as Saint-Germier, or they can be traversing the whole of Lombardy such as Raymond Baussan. There is so much movement and data that the first few weeks of my research, I have to admit that I floundered.

I was having to work with a new system I had never used before – QGIS – to create my map(s), which is not always that user-friendly. I had a huge text, containing lots of smaller texts to sort out and find some sort of handle on. I didn’t really have a way to sort them, other than create a big database of people to at least start to see who they were and how they were moving. Trying to find a direction and a pathway, was a big lesson in academic and self-leadership. Often, I was falling down the wrong way. I remember spending two days at the start of my research geo-rectifying a historical map to find that there was a better one I could use that was already geo-rectified and could be downloaded straight into QGIS. Then, I tried to create the historical coastline with the new map, only to find as I zoomed out, a day’s worth of work had only netted me the creation of a small part of the North East coast of France! Then, when the points were added, to find that they didn’t match to the correct places on the new historical map because it wasn’t accurately geo-referenced in the first place.

The data wasn’t much better – there was so much. There are over 200 depositions in this collection, with almost as many deponents. And they all mention people they’ve seen or encountered, or communicated with. It’s such an overwhelming amount of information that trying to narrow it down was a stressful and difficult process. What did I want to know from this data? What groups were most interesting to me? What would work best with my chosen medium? My supervisor asked me these questions and it’s taken me three weeks to answer, but this week I finally hit a breakthrough.

With the helpful and wonderful guidance from my supervisor, I’ve managed to discover that my main interest in these documents is in how families are moving and interacting in response to heresy and inquisition. Which families are moving? What types? Where are they going – local or far? Are they typical? Is social status a factor? Are people actually coming to them? They’re a thoroughly interesting aspect I feel, because we know heresy could run in families across generations, and it will be intriguing to see how this works, visually, in the movements that can be plotted.

I’ve also since abandoned the historical map, and managed to create one using modern boundaries this week, detailing Raymond Baussan’s movements, and the amount of ‘heretics’ he meets in comparable points.

See – a map is feasible!

Map detailing the movements of Raymond of Baussan as presented in the Doat 25-6 inquisition records of Toulouse. It also indicates areas which Raymond encountered/saw fellow ‘heretics’ in comparison to each other.
Map of Modern Day Toulouse created with OSM open source data, with point at the location of the House of the Dominicans


And you thought I was crazy…

I’ve learned a lot from this experience so far, not just in research, but in the leadership too. You have to be able to try again, and keep looking in new directions – maybe one thing won’t work out, and you’ve wasted time; or maybe it does work out, but leads you down the completely wrong tangent so you’ve wasted time again. Being able to be resilient to these things and having the will to recognise them, and pull yourself back to the main thrust of your research is an important element to learn. Not to mention getting back up again to try a new way, a new method after hitting the brick wall a few times. Being determined, adaptable, and resilient are all traits the research experience has taught me are crucial to self leadership and getting my project to work.

I’ve loved every minute.

Well, almost every minute – lets not forget the two days spent frustrated at the geo-referencer, the time my map of France ended up in the Balkans, the time when I spent days inputting deponent after deponent into Microsoft Access…you get the picture.

Still. Being able to research into my own historical interests, for no other reason than I want to, because it’s interesting to me?

It’s a feeling I can’t describe.

Me in St Mary’s Medieval History Library, St Mary’s Quad, with text and laptop.


I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Frances Andrews, who’s amazing guidance and advice I am immensely grateful for – I would not have been able to get this far without her! Furthermore, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for their generous support – without them, I would never have been able to have the opportunity to do research like this and it’s been an amazing and wonderful experience!

All Photos were taken or created by me. 

[1] Peter Biller, Caterina Bruschi and Shelagh Sneddon (eds.), Inquisitors and Heretics in Thirteenth-Century Languedoc: Edition and Translation of Toulouse Inquisition Depostitions, 1273-1282, (Leidan, 2011), pp. 467-479.

[2] Biller, Bruschi and Sneddon (eds.), Inquisitors and Heretics, pp. 231-233.

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