I take a course this semester on the Medieval inquisition (as opposed to the Roman or Spanish Inquisitions).

Thursday, we were discussing a book by Christine Caldwell Ames, and a few articles that she has authored in the past.  Instead of focusing on the peasants, she tries to paint a more humanizing picture of “the inquisitor” instead of a group of men who were tasked with rooting out and combating heterodoxy and heresy.

There is a fundamental disconnect that people have when approaching the idea of the inquisition as an action of religion.  Most authors, it seems, have distanced themselves from it and will approach the subject from a Foucaultian perspective.  That is, they concern themselves with the idea of power.  For much of the course, we’ve focused on this idea of power and the relative lack-there-of (except in some cases) of the peasantry and commoners under the roving eyes of the monolithic (except not) inquisitional body.  It has sort of turned the idea of the Latin/Medieval inquisition into a monolithic, widespread, and homogenous organization better characterized by later periods of high centralization.

It’s a lot easier to attack the idea of something as power than something as religion.  It’s a lot more objective.  And, in our post-modernist academic society, it’s something that has become expected for anyone who has dealt with anything resembling a social science.

Whether or not I think C.C. Ames is full of it is not up to debate.  The point of the matter is that she brings up an important idea.  One of her chief arguments is against the idea that the inquisition was operating outside the concept of religiosity of the period.  Of whether or not the inquisition was deserving of the “irreligious” reputation that it has garnered in history and historiography (Ames, pg 12).

An issue that a lot of Western modernists have is that they cannot comprehend the compatibility between something like the Crusades or the i/Inquisitions with the idea of “religion”, especially the Christian religion which is purported to be one of peace.  Because of that filter, because of how we view secularism vs. religion and all that it entails, there’s a historic precedent to cut out the pious connection with the inquisition.  Where these issues might be looked at under the guise of a movement of Faith, they’re often ignored under the guise of religious duty (Ames, pg. 15).  She later goes on to quote Jonathan Z. Smith in saying that faith has superseded practice as “defining” a religion (Ames, pg. 23).

This blog isn’t about Christianity, unless it interacts with my/our own history.  This blog is about the personal reconstruction/construction of faith and religiosity.  It is about spiritualism and evolution in a Pagan (specifically Anglo-Saxon/Northern and Roman) context.  What has this got to do with that?

It struck me that there’s a fundamental disconnect between what we as modernists view as religious piety and what the people whom we’re connecting with could have considered religious piety.  It’s something to say that “Oh, we recognize that human sacrifice is bad.”  But that is one small example of religiosity that has changed throughout the culture.

Do we really know that religiosity?

No.  We don’t.  And a lot of us like to pretend that we do.

A lot of the people in the “community” forget that their view of the past traditions is through a lens or filter.  There are other contextual obligations that are consciously or subconsciously filtered in and out.  Even existent sources, philosophies, and treatises from the periods in question represent a bare fragment of opinionated belief or understanding.

Our understanding of them is through a specific lens of modernity.  Our experiences shape us.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the past.  Religion and spirituality are constructs as much as they are organic developments of societal and social need.  They’re affected by these forces just as much as any other institution.

We have to be careful that we’re not either investing too much or, like the case of many historians when it comes to the inquisition, divesting too much religion from certain acts.

As Caldwell writes on page 37:

We should consider what investments we have in that image, what we are truly looking for when we look at the ways in which our subjects wove variegated bonds with variegated divines, or when we delicately avert our eyes from acts that seem too bizarre, too irrational, or even too cruel to be “religious”.  Rather than the confident inquisitor, so sure of religion and master of its discernment, we must be the tremulous geographer, even when we discover that the world we have mapped is governed by a god who watches, torments, burns, and persecutes.

Thanks for reading.


Sources cited:

Ames, Christine Caldwell.  “Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?” The American Historical Review , Vol. 110, No. 1 (February 2005), pp. 11-37.  Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association   Article DOI: 10.1086/531119

Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/531119