Being Fair Towards the Dead? Historians and Power Relations in Research into Inquisitional Records

David Zbíral

Department for the Study of Religions, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic,


  • Focus: critical assessment of postcolonial discussions on historical research into inquisitional records.
  • Postcolonial argument:
    • Biases in history. Working with sources “written by the victors”, subscribing to their views, underrepresenting or misrepresenting the subaltern.
    • Scholars establish power relations with the “objects” of their research (inquisitors, deponents). Ambiguity: reconstructing subaltern voices from inquisitional records is impossible without empowering the voice of the inquisitors.
    • => The epistemological issue (the use of the records) has its ethical dimension.
  • Plan: (1) Summary of the postcolonial debate on power biases in research into inquisitional records. (2) Contribution. (3) Limits and issues.

Summary of Postcolonial Debates on Power in the Study of Inquisitional Records

  • Carlo Ginzburg, “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist” (1986): inquisitors ~ anthropologists; deponents ~ informants/“natives”. Records born from a dialogue, though an unequal one. The inquisitor, just like the anthropologist, tries to understand and “translate” (more or less fairly). Cultural translation. Ginzburg mentions (without developing) the ambivalence of his analogy: the anthropologist and the historian resemble the inquisitor, too.
  • Renato Rosaldo, “From the Door of His Tent: The Fieldworker and the Inquisitor” (1986): this analogy used to criticize claims to ethnographic authority.
    • Analysis of Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer (1940); and E. Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou (1975; “historical ethnography”).
    • Evans-Pritchard: conceals the political context of his research in colonial Sudan to ensure the authority of his account.
    • Le Roy Ladurie: Jacques Fournier as a good, meticulous inquisitor (the authority of the source implying the authority of the scholar). The inquisitor quickly disappears from the account; data treated outside the inquisitional context.
    • No positive research program.
  • Kathleen Biddick, “The Devil’s Anal Eye: Inquisitorial Optics and Ethnographic Authority” (1998): a critique of unequal power relations between scholars and their objects. Any search for the authentic voice is naive and empowers the inquisitor. Inquisition’s part in the birth of European ethnographic disciplines. No positive research program.
  • John H. Arnold, “The Historian as Inquisitor: The Ethics of Interrogating Subaltern Voices” (1998); Inquisition and Power (2001): the historian ultimately authenticates the records (or not) => he/she enters power relations with the inquisitor and the deponent. Triangle of historian-inquisitor-deponent. Appropriation (colonization) of the voice of the deponent by the inquisitor and the historian. However, the deponent keeps some space for agency. A positive research program: critical and effective history (Arnold 2001: 113).
  • Traditional source criticism challenged. The myth of innocent objectivity. But research is never innocent. Involvement of scholars in power relations in texts. Ethics and the politics of research.

Contribution of Postcolonial Scholarship

  • Not mere political correctness. Theoretical significance.
  • Redressing power biases embedded in sources by giving voice to the oppressed (cf. Sponsler 1992: 7).
  • Stress on interaction (finally).
  • Sensibility to power relations in inquisitional records.
  • New view of power: primarily not repressive, but creative. Deponents’ identities not distorted, but negotiated.
  • New view of inquisitional records challenging source criticism: not sources to exploit but voices to engage with.

Limits and Issues

  • Different issues.
  • By claiming responsibility for “saving” the subaltern, do we not in fact reproduce their subaltern position and impose ourselves as those in power? (Cf. David Thurfjell at Symmetry 2012, Brno.)
  • Who is the oppressed? Oppression of the inquisitor by Protestant, Enlightenment and liberalistic historiography. Only recently: humanity (and human rights) of the inquisitor (Caldwell 2004, 2005, 2008). Are we really prepared to stop demonizing the inquisitor, start listening to him, and take his views seriously? Or do we share more Enlightenment biases and asymmetries than we would probably be ready to acknowledge? Does our program of being fair towards the dead include the inquisitors?


  • Distinguishing is important: reflexivity vs. flagellantism, practical research ethics vs. moralizing.
  • Good postcolonial reasoning about power in research into inquisitional records. Helpful to sensitize scholars to power biases in their sources, and, importantly, in their own practices. Will to knowledge is inevitably will to power.
  • Implication: If we are not ready to give up our will to knowledge, we should probably not give up all of our will to power.


Arnold, John H., Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001.

Arnold, John H., “Inquisition, Texts and Discourse”, in: Caterina Bruschi – Peter Biller (eds.), Texts and the Repression of Medieval Heresy, York: York Medieval Press 2003, 63-80.

Arnold, John H., “The Historian as Inquisitor: The Ethics of Interrogating Subaltern Voices”, Rethinking History 2/3, 1998, 379-386.

Biddick, Kathleen, “The Devil’s Anal Eye: Inquisitorial Optics and Ethnographic Authority”, in: ead., The Shock of Medievalism, Durham – London: Duke University Press 1998, 105-134.

Caldwell, Christine Ellen, “Dominican Inquisitors as ‚Doctors of Souls‘: The Spiritual Discipline of Inquisition, 1231-1331”, Heresis 40, 2004, 23-40.

Caldwell Ames, Christine, “Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?”, American Historical Review 110/1, 2005, 11-37.

Caldwell Ames, Christine, Righteous Persecution: Inquisition, Dominicans, and Christianity in the Middle Ages, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2008.

Chartier, Roger, Au bord de la falaise, Paris: Albin Michel 2009.

Rosaldo, Renato, “From the Door of His Tent: The Fieldworker and the Inquisitor”, in: James Clifford – George E. Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley – Los Angeles – London: University of California Press 1986, 77-97.

Sponsler, Claire, “Medieval Ethnography: Fieldwork in the European Past”, Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts 7, 1992, 1-30.


This paper focuses on the question of whether historians, who essentially deal with long dead people, should nevertheless pay attention to fairness and symmetrical relations in research. I argue that fairness should not be dealt with as merely a matter of political correctness – unimportant where no real danger of the “objects” striking back at the scholar is perceived – but as having quite some epistemological significance. There are a handful of stimulating reflections on the ethics of research into inquisitional records and on analogies between the historian and the inquisitor (for example by Carlo Ginzburg, Renato Rosaldo and John H. Arnold) showing that ethical issues have to be dealt with seriously in this type of research, as the authentication of information in inquisitorial records by the scholar is in fact a way of empowering certain historical actors, often necessarily against others. This paper takes these reflections as its starting point and addresses some questions about the triangle of power relations being established between the inquisitor, the deponent, and the historian.