DISSINET’s article on the spatiality of heresy prosecutions published in Springer Nature’s Humanities and Social Science Communications

The records of pre-modern inquisition trials contain copious amounts of locational information. These details have the potential to contribute much to our knowledge of the reach and operation of both medieval religious dissent and its repression. Yet, despite the advent of GIS techniques, the spatial data derived from inquisition registers has rarely been collected and analysed systematically, in part due to the many interpretative ambiguities that they contain. In their recently published article, DISSINET authors Robert L. J. Shaw, Kaarel Sikk and David Zbíral set about filling this research gap, taking aim at perhaps the most abundant - but also hardest to interpret - source of spatial data in inquisition records: the toponymic surnames of dissident suspects.

6 Feb 2024

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The article was published in Humanities and Social Science Communications, a Springer-Nature Journal with a first-quartile ranking in Web of Science (JIF index, SSCI), under the title Toponymic surnames and the spatiality of heresy prosecutions: Peter Seila’s register of sentences from the Quercy region (Languedoc), 1241–1242 (available in open access). It delves into the spatial aspects of medieval religious dissent and its suppression in the Latin West, focusing on what the toponymic surnames of dissident suspects can tell us about both these matters and taking the nine sentencing events conducted by the inquisitor Peter Seila in Quercy (Languedoc) during 1241 and 1242 as a  case study. Documenting 650 sentenced individuals, the register from these events stands as the earliest surviving record of an inquisition of such magnitude. 

Rather than allowing the interpretive complexities of toponymic surnames (not everybody had a toponymic surname and multiple meanings are possible) to confine our analysis to qualitative realms, our approach underscores the significance of rendering and analyzing them as structured data. Firstly, we quantify the context of toponymic surnames, placing them against the background of broader name construction practices and other social factors. Secondly, we plot and analyse the geocoded data derived from toponymic surnames in light of this contextualisation with the aid of GIS techniques, looking especially at the distance of toponyms from their associated sentencing centres, in order to derive narratives that best explain the generality of their meaning. The results allow us to appraise the actual spatial coverage of the nine sentencing events, geographically contextualising the reports of dissidence conveyed within Peter’s register and suggesting narratives for how he optimised his strategy for impact in the face of constraints.

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