Did medieval inquisitors fear accusations of sexual misconduct?

27 May 2024 David Zbíral Robert Laurence John Shaw

“The Tribunal of Inquisition.” (Look and Learn)

“The Tribunal of Inquisition.” (Look and Learn)

It is a familiar image: a woman in distress, surrounded by men examining her soul in a dimly lit inquisitorial chamber. In fear of physical torture, she confesses to crimes she never committed.

There is much to redraw in this well-worn image. There was certainly less torture and less arbitrariness than has often been portrayed. But what about the spaces of interrogation – the dimly lit inquisitorial chambers?

We bring you an online version of our article originally published in History Today.

“Hearing by inquisition.” Frederic M. Bird, The Story of Our Christianity, 1893

“Hearing by inquisition.” Frederic M. Bird, The Story of Our Christianity, 1893 (Archive.org).

Behind closed doors? Not with a woman!

We can take a closer look at the spaces of interrogation thanks to a Milanese inquisition register dating from 1300. It records the trial of the followers of a woman named Guglielma (d. 1280).

In life, Guglielma was considered a holy woman. She was buried in an air of sanctity at the respectable Cistercian abbey of Chiaravalle. In other circumstances, Guglielma might have been considered for official canonization. But events took a different course. Her closest followers started to describe her as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. They even came to expect that a nun from their midst, Mayfreda, would soon lead the Church as a female pope. Inquisitors soon took interest.

We owe almost all of our knowledge of Guglielma’s devotees to the trial records drawn up on behalf of the Dominican inquisitors of Milan. These contain 67 interrogations, and luckily, the exact place of each hearing is minutely recorded. The numbers are telling: the use of private inquisitorial spaces for interrogation was not the consistent norm—and crucially, in the Milan trial, such locations were never used for women.

Men (29 in total) were routinely taken to the inquisitorial chamber (18) or to the inquisitor’s cell (5) in the Dominican convent of Sant’Eustorgio. More rarely, they were interrogated at the gates of the house (1), other “houses of the inquisition” (3), a different monastery (1) or elsewhere in Milan (1). Women (38 in total), meanwhile, were always handled at the boundaries of or outside the actual cloister of Sant’Eustorgio: one was interrogated at the gates of the convent, nine more in other religious houses (female houses in eight cases), and the majority (28 cases) in a church, usually that of Sant’Eustorgio itself. By contrast, no man was interrogated in a church. The pattern is clear.

Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (interior). (Photo: Saggittarius A, Wikipedia)

Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (interior). (Photo: Saggittarius A, Wikipedia)

Jill Moore, in her detailed investigation of the organization of early Italian inquisition, unearths a similar pattern in Bologna: women were handled in churches, or even in their own homes, rather than within the inquisitors’ cloister, “presumably to avoid exposing other friars to contact with their polluting presence” (p. 81). Such reasoning would certainly have been familiar among religious men who had all taken a vow of chastity. The Rule of St Augustine, under which the Dominicans professed, famously voiced concern over the potential for mere eye contact with women to corrupt monks: “Lust for women is mutually stimulated not only by tender touches, but by sight as well.” (trans. George Lawless, Rule of St. Augustine)

The inquisitors did, in fact, not have to weigh the risks themselves on this matter. As was common across religious orders, the Dominicans strictly regulated contact between the sexes within religious houses. With only a few exceptions, their constitutions declared that “[women] shall remain in the church reserved for the laity or outside in a fixed place, where the prior can speak to them about God and spiritual matters”. (trans. Francis C. Lehner, O.P. Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents)

Maintaining a sexual cordon around the cloister was not only about religious purity, but also a matter of reputation. This was all the more of a concern for mendicant friars like the Dominicans who regularly came into contact with women outside the cloister. Innuendo concerning friars frequently found literary expression, as in the satirical verse of François Villon (c.1431–after 1463):

“These fathers must have strength and life,
The ones in Paris like the rest;
If they give pleasure to some wife,
It proves they love her husband best."
(trans. Stephen Eridan, The Testament by François Villon)

The public role of friars in inquisitorial investigations would only have enhanced their need to maintain an upright, chaste appearance. For the Dominican inquisitors in Milan, adhering tightly to the letter of their own law in meeting women at the edge of or outside the cloister shielded them from risks that were reputational as well as spiritual.

The church: a stage for inquisition trials

The Milan trial provides us with a useful lesson about the settings in which women were interrogated in medieval heresy trials. Instead of a “dimly lit inquisitorial chamber” with a high chair for the lord inquisitor, we would do better to imagine a well-lit corner of a church, with simple furniture set up for the purpose, and with the inquisitor keeping his distance.

Did interrogation in this more public setting give female suspects some relief? Perhaps not much, since these women would not themselves have expected the scenario depicted at the beginning of this article: images of distressed, partially stripped women being examined in private by unscrupulous inquisitors are products of later Protestant and Enlightenment imaginations. Nevertheless, being heard in a church perhaps put them at a psychological advantage to their male associates and relatives, who were typically interrogated on far less neutral ground. Perhaps too, it spared them any embarrassment that might have accrued from being with male friars behind closed doors. Such concerns, however, were not what motivated the inquisitors. Above all else, they sought to protect themselves.

David Zbíral and Robert L. J. Shaw are Associate Professor and Research Fellow at the Department for the Study of Religions, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University. This research is part of the “Dissident Networks Project” funded by the European Research Council (grant agreement No. 101000442).

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