A Consideration of the Medieval Inquisition and the Insufficiencies of Structuralist and Poststructuralist Religious Theory

It is difficult to separate the word “inquisition” from the connotations given it by decades of misdirection and pop culture references. The word has become strongly tied to images of torture, fiery executions, and unjust legal proceedings. Even the satire of the Monty Python troupe, which highlights the confusion and sometimes chaotic proceedings of the Inquisition, serves to confuse matters further. ((There are instances where the comedy of Monty Python has a decent amount of relevance to scholarship—for instance, its treatment of the mythology of King Arthur in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail contains a great deal of the actual mythos of what surrounds Arthur—but the Spanish Inquisition skit is not one of these.)) For most, the Spanish Inquisition is the only inquisition remembered, but even this period in history misrepresents the dealings of the Roman Catholic Church in regards to the Inquisition; after all, the Spanish Inquisition was enacted and directed by the monarchy of Spain, not the Holy See (Roth, 72)!

Regardless, over a period of more than fifteen hundred years, the Church sought to combat heresy through a variety of methods. In addition, its shift in response over the centuries from leniency to outright war is mirrored in the approximately two hundred years of the Medieval Inquisition. This period of history saw the full gamut of Papal response to heresy, and subsequently can serve as a cross-section for examination of orthodox doctrine and dealings. The stance of the Roman Catholic Church held that its truth was the only truth, mutually exclusive to all other religious beliefs and superior to conflicting philosophical consideration. Beliefs or opinions contrary to orthodox religion, defined as heresies, were a threat to the Church in many ways. Heresies had the potential to divert believers, reduce donations, undermine control over areas and territories, and to the mind of the orthodox Catholic, threatened to destroy the bastion of good and cast the world into darkness and evil. Despite that, most heresies went largely unaddressed by the Church until the eleventh century, owing primarily to their insignificance and lack of threat to Catholicism (Deanesly, 215).

The rise of Catharism in Southern France was too great to ignore, however, prompting the Holy See to appoint inquisitors to discover from whence the heresies came, what it was the heretics believed, and to convince the unorthodox to return to the Catholic Church (Arnold, 21). In spite of the conceptualization of the Inquisition that rests at the forefronts of our mind today, its aim was simple: first, to understand why people would turn from the truth of the Church and what it was that diverted them, and second, to persuade heretics to return to the body of believers. In addition, it also served to decrease the violence of the time and instill justice where mob rule had been substituted (Shannon, 67).

The motivations and stages of the Medieval Inquisition are complex and difficult to unravel, where faith and practicality were often at tension. To gain a clearer understanding of this time, we will first review the history of the Medieval Inquisition, beginning with the rise of Catharism, the initiation of the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade, and the restructuring of the Inquisition. Second, by applying structuralist theory we can gain an understanding for the spiritual motivations of the pope and the other actors during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, both their internal and external stimuli. Third, we will consider the insufficiencies of structuralist theory in understanding the Medieval Inquisition and turn our attention to poststructuralism with a consideration of extra-theological factors and pressures. Last, we will assess the weaknesses of poststructuralist theory and examine the complementary nature of these two methods.

The Rise of Catharism

The context in which the Cathar heresy arose differed significantly from the heresies of the previous centuries. Generally, a difference in theology from the Roman Catholic Church was conceived by an individual, for whatever reason, and they began to convince others of their theology. These heresiarchs, the founders of a heresy, were the engines by which heresies were driven, and so the Church addressed these individuals directly. By removing the heresiarch, the heresy would die out, but this was impossible with Catharism. The Cathar heresy did not spring from a heresiarch, but grew rather slowly among the peoples of the region. In addition, its almost independent adoption by lay people resulted in a far more firm devotion to the heresy than previous differing theologies had (Costen, 52).

These lay people lived in a world of Catholic decline in Southern France, where Church rule had been degenerating for two hundred years. In the time of Charlemagne, the Church had been part of the machinery the emperor built to help control his vast empire (Costen, 18), but the power of the bishops had been usurped by local, secular rulers. Without the power of the distant throne to enforce their spiritual appeals, the Church became increasingly irrelevant. “Church property fell under lay control; monasteries and cathedrals ceased to function; bishops were often replaced by noblemen or not replaced at all” (Costen, 3).
To further undermine the credibility and control of the pope, local priests were increasingly criticized and deemed unworthy. Accused of buying their positions, not practicing complete chastity, living a wealthy lifestyle, and generally “failing to adhere to the ideals of the Apostolic life of the Gospels,” ((Here Costen is summarizing R.I. Moore in his book The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 1987, on page 115.)) the priests were viewed as charlatans. These attacks soon hardened into the belief that “the sacraments administered by a sinful priest were inefficacious” (Costen, 53).

To this end, Catharism ((Costen notes that the Catharism of which he is writing is the heresy “as professed by the Albigensians of the Languedoc” (Costen, 61). Though our attention for the purpose of this paper and the consideration of the Medieval Inquisition is on the Languedoc, the Cathar heresy was not native to Languedoc. Rather, it was brought from Constantinople by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land—a rather ironic set of circumstances.))  arose out of a need for religious guidance and security as well as an experiential understanding of the world and the Gospels. The foundation of the heresy was the belief that there are two gods at work in the universe, a dualistic view of good vs evil. According to Michael Costen in his book The Cathars and the Albigenian Crusade,

How could a good God allow the manifest evils of the World to continue? The answer must be that He does not have control over events in the world, which must be governed by some other force. Cathar dualism was a rational response to this problem within the framework of the cosmological and scientific knowledge of the world then available.

Dualism then, was an answer to the problem of evil in the world. For the Cathar the world was mutable and perishable. It was to be explained as the creation of the God of Darkness, satan, princeps mundi, a creation which mocks the work of the good God and which cannot contain life on its own, since that is beyond the powers of the Devil (Costen, 61). ((Costen notes that this was a version of the absolute dualism preached by the Dragovitian Church, represented by Nichetas of Constantinople.))

In addition to the lack of a heresiarch, the Cathars differed from other groups of heretics in that they already had “a defined corpus of doctrine, a tradition of Biblical exegesis, a uniform liturgy and rule of life, and an ecclesiastical organization before they entered western Europe” (Hamilton, 21). Lacking a leader, they were more resistant to persecution, and their use of an entirely Christian vocabulary and acceptance of the New Testament as divinely inspired made it easier to gain converts. Though it is debatable whether they might be considered a part of the Christian tradition, due to their denial of monotheism, this shared lexicon made it easy for former Catholics to become Cathars (Hamilton, 21).

History of the Medieval Inquisition

The Medieval Inquisition, then, sought to both understand and overcome the Cathar heresy, and lacking a focus for its inquiry, the Church turned to the lay people for answers. In addition, the Inquisition was tasked with bringing order and legality to the process of dealing with heretics. While in Southern France the heresy had found widespread acceptance at best and benign indifference at worst, in the north, and particularly in Germany, alleged heretics were often burned forthwith (Shannon, 67).

The Medieval Inquisition began in 1184 with the period known as the Episcopal Inquisition, so called because the local bishops were made responsible for carrying out the inquiries. Unfortunately, due to a combination of distance (many bishops resided in Rome, rather than their local areas), conflicting priorities, and the lack of secular support, little progress was made in curbing the Cathar heresy (Hamilton, 88). The Church itself could not impose physical punishments for heresy, and what’s more, inquisitorial parties relied upon secular power for protection.

At the time of the Episcopal Inquisition, the work of the Church was further hampered by a lack of clear direction from the papacy. Costen writes, “it is impossible to know to what extent the policies of the papacy towards the Cathars were coherent. At first it seems unlikely that any of the popes formulated a consistent policy, other than the general objective that the heretics must, somehow, be repressed. Successive popes likened the heresy to a pestilence or a plague.” As Pope Innocent III wrote to his legate Raoul in 1206, “dificiente materiale gladio, spiritualis contemptu habeatur (with the physical sword lacking, the spiritual [sword] is held in contempt).” The failure of the nobility, and particularly those members of the ruling nobility, caused deep dismay in clerical circles (Costen, 99).

In the spring of 1204, Pope Innocent III wrote King Philippe-Auguste of France and his son Louis to urge them to act against the heretics. Offering the indulgence normally offered to those who served in the Holy Land, Pope Innocent was already firm on the idea of a crusade in Southern France and felt it only right that the king of France should have the opportunity to lead such a cause just as his ancestors had in previous crusades (Costen, 114). Despite the pope’s requests, however, Philippe’s attention remained on England and he continued to largely ignore Toulouse, the hotbed of the Cathar heresy in France. Meanwhile, Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse who governed the area most taken with Catharism, and had grown distant from Rome to the point of sympathizing with the Cathars. When the Holy See sent a representative who requested that Raymond increase secular force to suppress the heretics, the count responded with hostility. Pierre de Castelnau was assassinated shortly after their meeting, and Raymond was believed responsible (Lambert, 101-2). The death of the pope’s legate prompted the Albigensian Crusade, a twenty year period of invasion and suppression during which many Cathars were executed by crusaders (Lambert, 166).

Raymond was, of course, immediately excommunicated for his role in Castelnau’s death, but following his agreement to join and commit to the crusade, the excommunication was lifted (Costen, 115).

The evolution of the Inquisition as an institution following the Albigensian Crusade is what separates the Episcopal Inquisition from the Papal Inquisition. There were three steps in this transition to more centralized control and secular support. First, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX “issued a general constitution excommunicating all heretics in general, and the Cathars, Patarenes, the Poor Men of Lyons, Passagians, Josephines, Arnaldists and Speronists in particular. This decree specified that suspects were to be examined by church officials (inquisitors) and if they remained adamant in their heresy they were to be handed over to a secular judge who would impose the civil penalties. Persons who assisted or defended heretics were to be excommunicated and declared ‘infamous.’” Second, Senator Annibale, the head of the civil government of Rome, enacted similar legislation the same month as the pope’s decree that used practically the same words and specified that “the examination and decision in regard to heresy must be made by ‘inquisitors appointed by the church.’” Now that both the centralized authority of the pope and the weight of the Roman state had issued decrees regarding the Inquisition, the third step of appointing mendicant Friars to be inquisitors sealed the Papal Inquisition. The inquisitors selected were highly trained preachers with special knowledge of the sacred scriptures and theology, and through them Gregory IX was able to “organize a more thoroughgoing, continuous campaign of explaining the true doctrine of the church to all the faithful, answering charges alleged against it, and seeking out and weighing the evidence laid against persons accused of heresy” (Shannon, 68).

In particular, the Dominican Order was singularly well suited for the task of carrying out the Inquisition, and it was primarily from their ranks that inquisitors during this time were recruited. Founded by St. Dominic Guzman, the Dominican Order was specifically focused on combating Catharism after Guzman took part in a preaching mission in Languedoc in 1206-7. This mission included preaching, which was of great importance to the Cathars but which was neglected by local Catholic parish clergy, and was also remarkable for its commitment to apostolic poverty, which the Cathar perfecti (the title of the most devoted Cathars) practiced but which was notably absent from the Catholic Church (Hamilton, 36).

The methods of the Inquisition were remarkable for complying with the desire set forth by the pope for legality and order. With their power and autonomy, it would have been easy for inquisitors to abuse their positions and push more convictions or convince illiterate suspects to sign false statements incriminating themselves or others. Despite being accused of a variety of crimes and malpractices by their enemies, however, falsifying evidence was neither one of the accusations nor one of the internal struggles of the Inquisition. Supposing their primary concern was with convictions and increasing the quantity of convictions, as the inquisitors were sometimes represented as being, this would have been an obvious way to deal with cases that lacked sufficient evidence for a verdict. However, the inquisitors truly seemed to be principally concerned with converting those guilty of heresy, and only a true confession would serve in that regard (Hamilton, 45).

To that end, a number of stipulations were placed upon the inquisitors to ensure fairness in all things. When an Inquisitor arrived in a city, they were to summon the bishops, the clergy, and all the people, and then preach a sermon on faith. This done, inquisitors were to select “certain men of good repute” to help in trying heretics and suspects who had been openly denounced—inquisitors were required to have witnesses in all dealings. Those found guilty or suspected of heresy must promise to obey the commands of the Church, and if they refused they must then be prosecuted according to statutes laid down at the Council of Narbonne (Shannon, 73).

  • These statutes are of particular interest, and a small sampling of them helps demonstrate more fully the aim and motivation of the Inquisition:
  • No one is to be convicted without sufficient proof or his own confession: “It is better for the guilty to remain unpunished than for the innocent to be punished.”
  • The names of witnesses are not to be published  (however the accused is entitled to list the name of his enemies, who then cannot be permitted to testify against him).
  • The inquisitor is to see to it that the accused is provided adequate means to defend himself.
  • Those who wish to repent are to be absolved and given only light penances.
    The relapsed or the recalcitrant are to be abandoned to the secular arm.
  • No attention whatever is to be paid to depositions made out of malice or enmity.
    The “perfected” of the Cathar heresy who wish to be interrogated in secret may do so in the presence of only a few persons, and if they desire to return to the Church they are to be treated with kindness and given as light a penance as possible.
  • Those imprisoned for life — in order to give them time to repent and to prevent them from contaminating others — may be released if their family is in grave need. (Shannon, 90).

As noted earlier, the moral revulsion and generally misunderstood circumstances of the Inquisition is perhaps misplaced. An impression has arisen that inquisitors treated all degrees of involvement with heresy as equally dangerous and culpable and punished all accordingly. In this sense, the inquisitors were not fanatic—they were aware of the pressures which, in the small communities so prevalent in Southern France at the time, made some degree of social intercourse between orthodox and heretic unavoidable. Rather, they were more interested in the willingness of offenders to cooperate with the Church than they were in rooting out and punishing breaches of canon law. Nevertheless, it should be noticed that a tolerance of diversity and difference in religious opinions was viewed as a sin by the inquisitors which, though venial in origin, could become grave if persisted in (Hamilton, 44).

Shift in Papal Response to Heresy

Of course, dealing with unrepentant heretics was a difficult matter. Excommunication wasn’t an effective deterrent when applied to those who had already denied the validity of Catholicism, and while the lay solution of burning the unrepentant may have had a deterring effect, it did not satisfy the Church because dead men cannot be converted back to orthodoxy. What’s more, the same was true of those hereticated on their deathbeds—individuals whose conversion was false and who, when nearing death, declared their support for the heresy—so a true conversion and repentance was necessary. “The Church did not wish heretics to be killed while they were unrepentant, or to be tolerated and infect others with their wrong belief.” (Hamilton, 28)

The struggle of peaceful debate and theological apology, which was largely ineffectual in the face of Catharism, versus the tentatively effective though perhaps ultimately useless physical enforcement of violence was not a new one to the Catholic Church. This tension can be seen clearly even in the fourth century, when Lacantatius wrote the following paragraphs in his Divine Institutes:

We, however, do not ask that anyone against his will should worship our God, who is the God of all whether they wish it or not, nor are we angry if he does not worship Him. But we confide in the majesty of Him who can punish one so despising of Himself as also the labors and injuries of His servants. Therefore, when we endure wickedness, we make opposition by not even a word, but refer vengeance to God, not as those do who wish to seem defenders of their gods and rage savagely against those who do not worship them.

But those who destroy religions ought to be punished. The fact of our destroying is not anything worse, is it, than what the nation of the Egyptians do who worship the most disgraceful images of beasts and cattle and who adore, as though gods, certain things disgraceful to mention? (Lacantatius, V:20)

Consideration of Structuralism

Structuralist theory best explains the fear the Catholic Church felt in the face of heresy, as well as the steps it took to combat heresy. First, we will consider pluralism and the principle of papal infallibility. Second, we will examine again the goals of the Inquisition. And third, we will discuss the goals of the Albigensian Crusade and the punishments meted out by the state on behalf of the Catholic Church.

Papal infallibility, the Catholic belief that a declaration from the pope is inarguable, true, and directly representative of God, has been exercised rarely throughout the life of the Church. Despite that, its premise is foundational to the theology of Catholicism: the Church and its orthodoxy is right, and all others are subsequently wrong. Especially at the time of the Medieval Inquisition, there was no room for pluralism in Western Europe—you were either right, or you were wrong. Those who were right represented God and all that was good and holy. Those who were wrong had been subverted by Satan and would lead to the destruction of the Church and all its adherents.

Certainly, the Catholic Church was not alone in this belief—the Cathars also felt they held special and correct knowledge, and that it was the Catholics who had gone astray, been subverted, and threatened to lead mankind into darkness. The sacraments offered by sinful priests were unholy and displeasing to God, and pure and righteous leaders needed to rise up and once again lead the laity back towards the light. The struggles of orthodoxy versus heresy were founded on this strong desire for truth as well as the fear of subversion and destruction.

Thus, the Inquisition was founded. At first, the Catholic Church seemed altogether uncertain about the heretics. How could people turn against the One True God and His Church, which served to love and protect its flock? What was more, the beliefs of the heretics were in many ways similar to those of Catholicism, so a study needed to be made to find the differences in theology and address those. The Church wanted to protect its parishioners, but to do that it first needed to know who was pulling people into heresy and with what they were tempting the laity. Such knowledge would be necessary to combat the heresy and win people back to the Church.

However, during this time a a shift occurred from inquiry, debate, and conversion to torture, execution, and war. While the Church was altogether more restrained than peasant mobs might be when confronted with heretics, the arguments of Lacantatius were weak in the face of a people resistant to conversion through dialogue but who would quickly fall in line at the approach of a crusade. The Albigensian Crusade saw entire towns of heretics returning to the Church, securing the devout against temptation and restoring papal control.

The Church’s response to the problems raised by the heresies of the Middle Ages—what was truth, how could people turn away, and how would society function without the Church—were swept away with force. The problems weren’t answered, so much as pushed out of existence. When peaceful means were insufficient to resolve the matter, the Church appealed to the rulers of the time for armies and secular enforcement of religious doctrine. The alternative was too disconcerting to do otherwise.
Unfortunately, the order of events and the means by which the Catholic Church obtained its goals undermines the structuralist theory. Structuralism implies a certain adherence to religious dogma, and that this dogma is the sole motivation for action in response to a problem that challenges the religion. A self-awareness combined with ulterior motives leads one from a structuralist consideration to poststructuralist when attempting to understand the Medieval Inquisition.

Consideration of Poststructuralism

Poststructuralist theory suggests that “religion,” in and of itself, doesn’t exist. Rather, religion is made up of a multitude of other factors, such as psychological and sociological considerations, political motivators, economic views, etc. A religion is just a combination of all these factors, and to understand a religion and its response to challenges, we need examine these components. In the context of the Medieval Inquisition, it is important to recall the Catholic Church’s financial concerns, political umbrage, and social desires.

As noted earlier, Catharism took root in Southern France to the extent that the Church was increasingly disregarded at all levels. Monasteries were failing, bishops were being replaced by nobility, and the Holy See was losing its connection to the people of the area. Subsequently tithes were falling dramatically as Catharism advocated a commitment to poverty and proponents turned away from the Catholic Church. This threat to the Church’s coffers was a significant one, and not to be taken lightly. It was also one that the limited heresies of the past had not presented.

With the indifference of King Philippe of France and the growing heresy of the ruling class in the Languedoc, the pope was sending his representatives wherever they might gain an ear. The assassination of Pierre de Castelnau was an insult too much for Pope Innocent III, though, prompting him to call for the crusade he had already been considering for several years. The Church was certainly weakened in Southern France, but its banner was still strong in Northern France and Germany—if the local rulers would not aid the Church, it would call for aid outside the area and have Toulouse invaded. The murder of the pope’s representative was akin to shedding the blood of Christ himself (Costen, 23), but what’s more, it signaled a revolt and gave an excellent excuse to invade.

Last, the Church was once the ruling body over the localities in France, with bishops equal to or greater than the princes, dukes, and counts who presided over the administrative and secular tasks necessary to run a state. Organized thus by Charlemagne, the bishops gave credibility to the rule of the nobility over the peasantry by implying divine right, and the Church benefitted through control, security, and protection for its emissaries. As King Philippe II and Raymond VI ignored or outright defied the Church, the Holy See wanted to regain its influence in France and demonstrate that heretics would be tolerated in no place, at no level of government.

Where structuralist theory would suggest the religious motivations and reasons behind the actions of the Catholic Church, poststructuralism acknowledges that extra-theological reasons existed for its response. In addition, the actions of the Church cannot be explained solely through the use of structuralist theory—it leaves too many holes. If the conversion of souls and protection of the devout from temptation were the only motivation, the Church’s actions would have been more steadfast. Instead, over the decades, it shifted from peaceful response to violent, and from excommunication to pardon to excommunication again. Favours, suspensions of inquiry, indulgences, and a variety of other rewards were offered to those who would support the Church as political considerations influenced the work of the Inquisition (Shannon, 88). ((Albert Shannon tells an amusing story at this point in his book, The Medieval Inquisition:

“Raymond VII dispatched a long list of complaints to the pope and asked for the removal of the Inquisitors who, he said, were biased against him. Gregory IX granted some of his requests, but did not replace the Inquisitors. Meantime, the pope sent a new papal legate, in 1238, who was empowered to absolve the Count and Consuls of Toulouse, and to reduce other sentences of the inquisitorial tribunal. All this the new legate proceeded to do. For their part the people of Toulouse simply ignored the Inquisitors. Gregory IX suspended the Inquisition for three months in regard to the men of the Count while they traveled to Rome, and for six months in Toulouse itself. The Inquisitors, discouraged and frustrated by the absolving of the Consuls who had physically mistreated them, were reduced to impotence. Consequently the Dominicans withdrew from the exercise of their mandate — and the suspension continued for three years! Once again the political realties of life made their impact felt: where the civil authorities cooperated, the pope’s policies went forward; where they were hostile, the work of the Inquisition ground to a halt.”))

Conclusion and Synthesis

As we have seen, structuralist theory does not account for all of the actions taken during the Medieval Inquisition. Similarly, poststructuralist theory seems inadequate on its own. In attempting to dissect religion into its component parts, something seems to be lost and the full motivation of the Church and its Inquisition is left incomprehensible. If only political, social, and economic factors motivated the Church, why was there the fierce devotion to justice and fair trials, and why was conversion so paramount? Similarly, if structuralist theory were sufficient, a consideration of these extra-theological factors wouldn’t be necessary.

Subsequently, I can only conclude that neither of these theories is sufficient and that a third is necessary to fully understand the Medieval Inquisition.  Poststructuralism simply fails to account for the irrational devotion of humanity to that which exists outside of complete human understanding, while structuralism fails to acknowledge anything outside the religion. This new theory, however, does not lie somewhere between structuralism and poststructuralism. Rather, a synthesis of the two theories would suggest that something altogether new and beyond poststructuralism would best help us understand the events of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries.

Because poststructuralism in and of itself is ill-defined (its very name identifies it as nothing more than “the theory that came after structuralism”), we cannot define what this synthesis should be at this time, but it seems evident that further theorizing is necessary to reach a more complete understanding. Regardless, in applying structuralism and poststructuralism to the Medieval Inquisition, we have discovered nothing more significant than that we must inquire further.


Arnold, John H. Inquisition and power: catharism and the confessing subject in medieval Languedoc. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Burman, Edward. The Inquisition. New York: Dorset Press, 1992.

Costen, Michael. The Cathars and the Albigenian Crusade. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Deanesly, Margaret. A history of the medieval Church, 590-1500. Routledge, 1990.

Hamilton, Bernard. The Medieval Inquisition. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1981.

Lactantius. The Divine Institutes, Books I-VII. Translated by Sister Mary Francis McDonald, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

Lambert, Malcolm. The Cathars. Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.

Roth, Cecil. The Spanish Inquisition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1964.

Shannon, Albert Clement. The Medieval Inquisition. Washington, D.C.: Augustinian College Press, 1983.

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