The Long View: Nobody Expects an Accountable Inquisition

12 May 1299. The day of the sentencing. Bompietro of Giovanni and Giuliano of Salimbene, both pursemakers from the parish of San Martino dell-Aposa, are publicly condemned for the crime of heresy. They stand in front of a large crowd gathered in Bologna’s main square. The bones of Rosaflore, an old lady, posthumously condemned for the same crime, are sentenced to burn alongside them. Upon hearing the sentence the younger man, Bompietro, cries out a final request. He wishes to receive ‘the body of Christ’ – a last Holy communion, and final chance at redemption. Unmoved, the inquisitor refuses the request. The crowd, outraged, clamour for the men to be released. Two men start up a cry of ‘death to the friars’. The inquisitor beats a hasty retreat, and the guilty parties are ushered back to their cells.

13 May 1299. The day of the execution. Several men arrive early, their mood sour. One starts to throw rocks at the hastily-erected scaffold, and another draws his sword, bearing towards the assorted guards positioned around the square. Both are chased away, but others continue to arrive, filling the piazza. The men and the bones are soon brought out to the scaffold and burned. The people are uncharacteristically subdued, watching without protest as the prisoners’ bodies are reduced to ash.

17 May 1299. Sunday Mass. A public announcement is made, stating the terms of the confiscation of Bompietro’s property. The confiscation of a heretic’s property and disinheritance of their heirs are lawful punishments for heresy, which is legally classed as treason. But for some in the crowd, this proves one indignity too far. Paulo Trintinelli, a prominent Bolognese moneylender, speaks out. 

 ‘Why, the inquisitor is able to write as he wishes!’ he exclaims, referring to the infamous register kept by all inquisitors, ‘And I would not give one bean for that writing!’ 

The words incite others, and a chorus of similar cries echo in the church. 

The following day, Trintinelli is dragged before the inquisitor. He denies all charges, and is given three days to reconsider his testimony. The three days pass, and Paulo Trintinelli is ready to confess. He is not the only one.

Monday, 18 May. 24 people confess to words they have spoken against the inquisitor.

Tuesday, 19 May. The inquisition’s busiest day. 46 people come forward. 

By the end of May, 153 confessions have been heard. 

By the end of the summer, this figure will more than double to 316 people. 

Nowhere else in the history of inquisition is it recorded that so many people came to speak to the inquisitor of their own volition. This was a unique event, a moment that unveils a completely unexpected image of the power balance between inquisitors and the communities over which they held jurisdiction. The resulting picture is significantly less one-sided than has traditionally been imagined. The sentiments of Bolognese citizens, habitually depicted among the powerless of medieval society, have survived the centuries, tucked away in the annals of the inquisition register, the Acta Sancti Officii Bononie (Holy Acts of the Office of Bologna). 

Execution grounds: the Piazza Maggiore (painted c.1855)

The register is roughly the size of a tabloid newspaper and looks like a document that was made to be used. Its 161 unevenly-sized sheets of parchment are bound within a modern protective cover, but nonetheless show signs of wear that bear testament to the register’s age. The parchment is paper-thin, and holes have begun to appear in the margins. Original manuscripts of this genre are notoriously difficult to read, each page crammed with thousands of tiny, irregular characters and mystifying abbreviations. By comparison, the Acta Sancti is relatively forgiving. In total, it contains 920 witness statements, written out in Latin in a relatively neat notarial hand between 1291 and 1310. Most of these are only a few lines long, and almost all of them concern the executions in 1299 and their immediate aftermath. The inquisitor, Guido of Vicenza, was clearly not inundated with cases throughout his stay in Bologna. But in 1299 he had just proven himself a dangerous adversary – two men were burned alive on his orders. Did the people not fear him? 

The register suggests not. Its pages bear witness to an act of rebellion, telling the story of how an entire community, armed with only their words and their beliefs, set out to force a kind of social change. Hundreds of men and women came forward. They called the inquisitor a bad man, accused him of performing evil deeds, and cursed him with ill-fortune and disease. 

Such a seemingly inexplicable outcry appears to have been motivated by a keen sense of injustice. The ‘guilty’ parties had not deserved their fate. This was particularly thought to be the case with Bompietro, who was only about thirty-eight years old when he was burned. Giuliano had previously been caught spreading heresy in Padua, and was considered the more serious threat. The confessions indicate that the Bolognese people were less upset by his execution. But Bompietro, unlike Giuliano, had been resident in the city from birth. He was a familiar figure, and well-known for his generosity. 

It is the nature of the law to draw black and white distinctions: ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’, ‘heretic’ or ‘orthodox’, but these were not mirrored by medieval patterns of belief. Many tenets of faith were common to Catholicism and heresy. At the same time, religious networks often overlapped with social networks. This meant that those adhering to unorthodox belief systems could still belong to the same guilds, give to the same charities, and even attend the same churches as their Catholic neighbours. For this reason, even though Bompietro was undoubtedly a heretical relapsus (previously warned) in the eyes of the law, he was not seen as such by his community. In their confessions, 38 people insisted that Bompietro had been a ‘good man’. Most cited the same reason: he had asked for the body of Christ. As one witness mused, ‘I have seen that heretics despise the body of Christ, and yet that man asks [for it], how therefore can he be a heretic?’

Similar misgivings were expressed about the posthumous condemnation of Rosaflore. Like Bompietro, she at least gave the appearance of having been a good Christian, leaving money to the poor and to the church in her will. Just prior to her death she had confessed and received communion from her parish priest, who ensured that she was given a Christian burial. 

Two years later, her bones were dug up and destroyed. 

It is difficult for modern readers to conceive of the desecration of human remains as comparable with the act of burning someone alive. The confessions suggest that medieval spectators may have felt differently. Rosaflore’s presence in the records is significant. She was mentioned in 88 of the 316 confessions, 34 of which only mentioned her. One witness, Bartholomea, described the burning of the bones as ‘the worst (pessimum) thing.’ Another, Diana Alberti explicitly stated that she thought ‘it was better to burn the living than the dead’. 

In the Middle Ages, the desecration of earthly remains was shocking as much for its theological implications as for its flagrant lack of respect for the dead. Dead bodies were inextricably linked to Christian ideas about resurrection and salvation. To destroy earthly remains was to threaten the eternal soul. 

The executions were also widely perceived as unjust because of the character of the inquisitor himself. He was deemed unworthy to condemn others – 140 people described either the inquisitor or his actions as ‘bad’ or ‘wicked’ (malum). Many questioned his motives – four accused him of acting in sexual pursuit of Bompietro’s sister, and 47 tried to imply that he had issued the sentences to obtain money or goods (the profits of confiscation).

The appropriation of anti-heretical polemic and imagery is a common theme. 66 individuals suggested that it was the inquisitor who had sinned. 15 called him a heretic. Benvenuta Iohannis and two other women said that he was ‘the antichrist’. Checola Bartholomew said that he was ‘the devil’, and Jacobus Rolanduc said that the friars were ‘the men of the devil’. 19 dared to suggest that it was the inquisitor, and not Bompietro, who deserved to be burned. Seven individuals expressed a desire for bad fortune to befall the friars or the inquisitor himself. Several resorted to popular Bolognese ‘disease-curses’, which the records quote directly in the vernacular. Bitina Albertini’s malediction invited the ‘vermocane’ onto the inquisitor, while Ale Rainier demanded that the friars ‘contract lupus, for they had condemned Bompietro’. 

Disease was commonly used as a metaphor for heresy, because of the way it spread from person to person, ‘infecting’ the Catholic population. The vermocane is a tapeworm that lurks in the digestive tracts of dogs and, occasionally, humans, and lupus – which should not be confused with the modern systemic autoimmune disorder of the same name – was, much like medieval ‘cancer’, used to describe ulcerous wounds or sores, especially of the lower body. 

It is significant that both of these diseases evoke particular animal imagery – imagery itself commonly associated with heresy and heretics. The vermocane curse brought together two such animals – the dog (canis) and the worm (vermes). In anti-heretical polemic, the dog could stand for a relapsed heretic: the dog ‘returning to its own vomit’. The worm was closely associated with bodies, and especially with the ingestion of dead bodies, which is relevant given the context of execution. Lupus is the Latin word for ‘wolf’. In Christian polemic, wolves were the duplicitous beasts that donned sheep’s clothing to mingle with and ultimately destroy the Catholic flock. 

The use of this animal symbolism to curse the inquisitor reinforced the inversion in the law that these people were trying to achieve. The inquisitor was a worm, a dog, a wolf. He was the devil and the antichrist all at once. He was a heretic! And heretics deserved to be punished – the people never denied this. If anything, the nature of their rebukes illustrates the fundamentally religious response to the inquisitor’ acts. If the inquisitor was a heretic, then, logically, he deserved to be punished as one. Heresy was punishable by violence, ruin, and death. If the inquisitor was a heretic then this was the fate he deserved. 

heretics being burned
Heretics burning at the stake (woodcut dating from the late Middle Ages)

In this era it was not unusual for periods of inquisition to end abruptly, with violence. In the tumult following the sentencing in Bologna, Franciscus Pasqualis shouted out that ‘It would be good to go to the house of the friars, set it on fire, and burn the inquisitor and the friars like they did in Parma!’ He was referring to a communal uprising of 1279. The citizens of Parma had reacted furiously to the execution of the Lady Donna and her maid, Todesca. They had stormed the Dominican convent, setting it alight and killing one of the friars. Similar events had occurred in the south of France, especially in the early days of inquisition. Inquisitors were unceremoniously driven out of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Albi in the 1230s. In 1242, two inquisitors and their entire household were murdered in an attack on Avignonet orchestrated by the local nobility.

The Bolognese case is different from these others in one important aspect: in Bologna, the threats of violence were not carried out. Instead, the citizens enacted an entirely different form of protest. They reported themselves to the office of the inquisitor in great numbers to register their complaints.

This was a less direct method of pursuing social change, but it was arguably more suited to the talents of these particular protestors: 242 of them (77%) were women. 

These women did not eschew violent tactics on principle. Maria Isnardi had urged ‘her boys’ to destroy the scaffold after the sentences had been read. Gesia Frugermi had encouraged others to go bearing weapons to the office of the inquisitor, and Joanna, the wife of Bartholomew, had suggested that ‘the people of Bologna go to the house of the friars and destroy it’. Ultimately, however, these acts were not carried out, and the women opted to confess to their frustrations instead. 

The reason for this is difficult to determine with certainty. Women were rarely invited into the public sphere in the medieval period. However, they knew a great deal about public business. All week the community had been venting its feelings privately with family, friends, and neighbours. Private gossip fed into public knowledge. Public knowledge – or fama – was admissible as evidence in the courts, and the women of Bologna were expert witnesses. Buoyed by a sense of safety in numbers, they marched to the inquisitor’s office. 

There would be no benefit to expressing grievance, however, without hope of resolution. This was a period in which there was a push for officials – individuals appointed to positions of power on the basis of some connection or personal merit, rather than those born to them – to be held accountable for their actions.

The agents of abbeys and lay lords were made to swear oaths that they would conform to certain standards of behaviour. ‘Days of reckoning’ were held to force them to account for their deeds. In Italy, many cities elected an official called the podestà to govern. This individual ended his term with a sindicatio. During the sindicatio, the podestà was called to account for any actions committed by himself or his men whilst in office. Anyone could come forward to make a complaint. Accountability in this case did not just have to be demonstrated to superiors, but to anybody who may have felt the adverse effects of power. 

Unlike the podestà, the inquisitor was nominally accountable only to the papacy. As Paulo Trintinelli had cried out in the church, the man was free to write ‘whatever he wished’, no matter the dire consequences to the community. With no established mechanism for public expressions of discontent, in 1299 people took matters into their own hands.

Inquisition records are compelling documents. They draw in the reader, tempting them to believe that they are being made privy to the voices of long-dead witnesses. In reality, of course, these ‘voices’ are the constructs of inquisition. The inquisitor was able – as Trintinelli quite rightly pointed out – to edit and select which remnants of the interrogation-confession made it into the final written record. Given this freedom, it is surely astonishing that the inquisitor chose not only to hear a series of endless complaints about his own character and conduct, but to record it. Why go to this trouble? 

In truth, the inquisitor’s position in the community was more precarious than we might think. This was a far cry from the Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The inquisitor and the small group of men who made up his personal entourage presided over a local, individualised tribunal. Other inquisitorial tribunals existed, but they were not centrally organised, and nor did they present a united front. In carrying out the contentious task of finding and prosecuting heretics, inquisitors were therefore heavily reliant on the cooperation of local authorities, and goodwill of local communities. The consequences of poor relations could be dire – as with the violent expulsions and murders carried out elsewhere.

The nature of the inquisitor’s task was disruptive. To find heretics, one had to probe deep into the heart of the community, break it apart, and force it to spit somebody out. Clashes between inquisition and community were, moreover, an inevitable consequence of the fact that inquisitorial and popular ideas of ‘heretic’ differed significantly. Inquisitors walked a fine conceptual line between executioner and murderer. They were not popular men.

Guido of Vicenza knew that his executions had been extremely provocative. The punishments issued to those who came forward in the aftermath were restrained, limited to small fines, even for the most outrageous threats. Some steps towards reconciliation were taken. Paulo Trintinelli had the money he had been fined refunded, and his sentence reduced out of consideration for his old age (senectus). The sentence of the priest who had permitted Rosaflore’s Christian burial was mitigated on similar grounds.

Recording the grievances of the community could be a deliberate part of this conciliatory strategy. In Bologna, 1299, the community received an ‘outlet’ in order to foster relations through a strained period, and to prevent angry words from becoming violent actions. Under these circumstances, establishing some degree of inquisitorial accountability was the only way to restore order to the city.

Unfortunately the success of this unique uprising was short-lived. By 1301, Guido of Vicenza was back to his old tricks, desecrating the shrine of a popular local holy man. Through determination and sheer force of numbers the Bolognese citizens had managed to put a spanner in the inquisition’s works  in a specific, local context, but they lacked the necessary organisational skills, resources, and political power to stem the long-term tide of religious repression.

Rachael Hardstaff

Rachael is working towards finishing a PhD at York, where her interest in the social impact of inquisition has led her to write a thesis on the subject of aristocratic heresy networks in thirteenth-century southern France.

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