At the Crossroads of History
and the Social Sciences
The “Dissident Networks Project” (DISSINET) follows a long tradition of cross-fertilization between history and the social sciences. We argue that in two crucial areas, those of social microstructure and spatiality, research into both medieval dissident cultures and heresy trials could substantially benefit from the methods of social network analysis and geographic information science. Despite frequent use of the terms “social structure” and “network” in the historiography of medieval heresy, research has tended either to focus on relatively restricted qualitative case studies, or to look in the numbers of persons sharing some demographic characteristics, rather than to systematically inquire into the actual microstructure of dissident communities emerging from local interactions between particular historical actors.
We argue that a coherent methodological framework making use of the techniques and conceptual background of social network analysis, geographic information science, and computational text analysis will fundamentally transform our knowledge of dissident and inquisitorial cultures as well as our theoretical approach to them.
Inquisitorial Records as a Source
of Relational and Spatial Data
Like any type of historical source, records of heresy inquisitions have their specific biases and limitations. We take these limitations seriously and apply several conditions to reduce the risk they represent to the validity of our data. We choose sets of records that the consensus of the research community considers to be among the most reliable in terms of relational and spatial data; draw on the rich historiography concerning inquisitors’ methods, questionnaires, and manuals; practice close and critical reading of the records; and are developping a novel, deeply computer-assisted approach to source criticism.
Despite all their limitations, the records of heresy inquisitions offer unparalleled depth and volume of information, whose focus on the interactions between particular individuals makes them invaluable sources for research into various aspects of dissident religious cultures, medieval societies, and obviously heresy trials. It is through these interactions that information, beliefs, ritual practices, and objects related to dissent flow, forming the complex phenomenon that we call a religious culture.
Beyond Medieval Dissent
While the core of the DISSINET project consists in questions concerning medieval religious dissent and inquisition, we also use the extraordinary wealth of relational information collected from medieval records of heresy inquisitions for wider investigations concerning medieval social networks and the emergence of complex social phenomena. On the most general level, we aim at obtaining results which would impact selected areas of research into human social behaviour. Premodern face-to-face social networks in a world where the quickest means of transport was the horse characterize the overwhelming majority of human history but are clearly underrepresented in theorizing about human sociability. In the DISSINET project, we want to help counterbalance the widespread reliance of research in human social networks on data from modern societies and online social media.
“I would suggest, therefore, that one of the most urgent tasks is to work on establishing a geography, a cartography of heresy; to pinpoint the receptive places in towns or in the countryside, the spots from where the doctrine radiated, the paths it took to spread, and finally the hiding places where the persecuted heretics took refuge (...). This preliminary research would usefully pave the way for attempts at a social interpretation, for efforts to situate the groups of adherents in relation to various social strata (...) and to various kinds of grouping (...).”Georges Duby in Jacques Le Goff (ed.), Hérésies et sociétés dans l’Europe pré-industrielle (1968)