Theorizing the Repression of Religious Dissent in Medieval Europe

David Zbíral

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

Annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions | Grøningen, Netherlands | 13 May 2014


The work on this paper was supported by research grants from the City of Paris (project “Scholastic Rationality and Its ‘Other’: Searching for the Place of Cathar Dualism in Theological Discourses on Good and Evil, Society, and the World, 1160-1300”) and from the Czech Science Foundation (project No. P401/12/0657 “Sources for the Study of Dissenting Religious Movements in Medieval Western Christianity with a Special Focus on Catharism”). I thank the Department for the Study of Religions, Masaryk University, for a six-month sabbatical leave which enabled me to work on these projects.


  • How the repression of religious dissent in medieval Europe has been theorized. Aims: 1) open the panel, 2) classify the theorists according to different criteria, and 3) sketch some of the deeper historical roots of the debate.
  • Metanarratives; necessarily ideological but not necessarily stupid. + Indicators of changes in history as a discipline.

Who is oppressed?

  • Catholic story: heretical sect. Catholic historians, with varying intensity (Arno Borst; Antoine Dondaine; Malcolm Lambert). Deep dogmatic difference, heretical genealogy (Manicheism, Paulicianism etc.), perhaps libertinism, threat to society. Ultimate roots: medieval polemists (creative ambivalence: the offshoot of an old tradition and dangerous novelty).
  • > Subversiveness taken over and inverted: positive forces of reform / revolution.
  • Protestant story: predecessors of the Reformation. Medieval heretics used to bridge the gap separating Protestants from the apostolic Church (Bedouelle 1979; Cameron 1993; Friesen 1998). Martyrologies (Matthias Flacius Illyricus, Catalogus testium veritatis; Peter Wesenbec; Jean Chassanion; Nicolas Vignier; cf. Bedouelle 1979; Cameron 1993; Friesen 1998). The Inquisition denounced. Heretics defended from some charges, notably Manicheism and libertinism > unreliability of Catholic sources (Cameron 1993; see also Limborch 1692: †3r): ethics meet source criticism.
  • Story of emancipation: the oppressed people. Church × people divide. Heroic (to some extent).
    • Romanticists: heroic protest against opression and bourgeois values. Jules Michelet (La Sorcière, 1862; popular revolt against oppression and the Church, spirit of nature, sabbath = back to nature > sciences); republican (cf. Histoire de la Révolution française, 1853). Anne Brenon, Occitanists.
    • Marxists: the oppressed classes voicing their social protest in religious terms (emancipation, liberation), forces of progress. Markéta Machovcová & Milan Machovec (1960); Bernhard Töpfer (1964). All inspired by the The Peasant War in Germany by Engels (1850).
    • Liberalists: reason and conscience against hyperinstitutional religion and religious intolerance (Lea 1888). Close to Cohn ([1973] 2000), Moore ([1987] 2007), Frankfurter (2006; self-proclaimed humanist).
  • Minimal story: vague religious unrest. Invention of heresy by the Church, real content minimal – reformist evangelism (elements of Protestant and/or Catholic modernist story remain?). Raffaello Morghen ([1951] 1991); Gabriele Zanella (“malessere ereticale”; [1986]: 1995); Robert I. Moore ([1987] 2007); Monique Zerner, ed. (1998); Mark G. Pegg (2001). Criticism of appropriations.
    The overall dimension of the movement – if it is possible to use this term at all – is meagre; its political and cultural importance zero. (Zanella [1986] 1995: 117)
  • Power of inversion of stories (of the Catholic story). Playing with the idea of innovation and subversiveness in different contexts. Comparisons first arise in sixteenth-century anti-Protestant polemics, but appropriated to serve different identities. Heroes of Protestantism, of the people, of reason, of rationality (against superstition), of nation (Hussites), of revolution. They suffered for their cause (martyrological template).

Who persecutes?

  • The Church. Protestant version: papacy, Rome, Catholics, superstition. Marxist version: the Church, obscurantism, superstition. Humanistic/liberalistic version: the (institutional) Church in its obscurantism (call for religious tolerance, criticism of institutional religion).
  • From above × from below. The role of the literate elites: tolerant and rational? Huge role in the rise of persecution from the late 12th-c. (inquisitional procedure, expert opinions, preaching, demonology...). Cohn and Moore opt for persecution from above: narratives arise, but the elites interpret them and persecute (Cohn 2000: 233; Moore 2007: 116, 187; 2012: 329).
    As far as heretics and Jews are concerned, it has become more apparent than ever that persecution itself, the ideologies that rationalised it and the mechanisms that realised it, indeed came from the top, even if, in respect of the Jews, there were also currents of communal tension and popular prejudice to work on. (Postscript of Moore 2007: 187) [5]
    The role of popular culture. Scapegoating mechanism: closer to popular violence. Interaction in Delumeau (1999: 522), more mentioned than studied. In the focus in Ginzburg (Ecstasies, [1989] 2004): interaction between the elite and popular cultures.
  • Global × local structures. Close to the previous. Programme of the European elites (Moore 2007)? Local manipulation of existing stereotypes (Nirenberg 1996)? Frankfurter (2006: 7 etc.): meeting of the global and the local, the role of experts.
  • The most persuasive are the accounts stressing interactions between the high and the low, the global and the local. Obvious elite institutions involved + denunciations by neighbours and “urban (and rural) legends” in one picture.

Why repression?

  • Superstition or irrationality. Protestant, Enlightenment, liberalistic and Marxist strategy, very strong. “The Sleep of Reason” (Moore 2012: 274-297).[3]
  • Struggle for power and control (religion = guise, legitimization). Moore (2007: 136 etc.) goes in this direction.[4] Caldwell Ames (“Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?”, 2005; Righteous Persecution, 2009): of interest for the SoR. Caldwell Ames (2005), framed as a critique of Moore, points to an Enlightenment bias in historiography: the inability to think of authentic religion as linked to violence (=> religion as a guise or legitimization). Good point. Smith, “The Devil in Mr. Jones”: the Enlightenment characterized by a refusal to let any human fact outside reason – which should include violence in order to be consistent, reminds Smith (2012). But Enlightenment’s realm of reason does not include the possibility of violence as authentically religious. This inconsistency is inherent to the Enlightenment (definitional inconsistency).
  • Fear. Jean Delumeau (La peur en Occident (XIVe-XVIIIe siècles), [1978] 1999). Christian society (both elites and popular culture) growingly driven by fear searches for God’s enemies. Paranoiac and centralistic ecclesiastical and civil authorities (Delumeau 1999: 513). Scapegoating.
  • Scapegoating, or normal functioning of a society? Dramatic accounts of scapegoating (Cohn 2000), of the “formation of a persecuting society” (Moore 2007)... Tempting: Mary Douglas (used by Moore); René Girard; study of religions has more to say here. × Systemic violence (Nirenberg 1996) – present after all also in “liberal” societies – while most accounts focused on dramatic, exceptional events, overstate “otherness” without paying attention to contexts. “What the repressed were doing when they were not weeping or dying?” (Caveat for global explanations.)

Means of repression

  • Power, but what it is?
  • Power, i.e. legal norms and institutions assuring their enforcement. Normes issued by the Church / the elites for the purpose of control, nothing more to say.
  • Power, i.e. technology: not entirely disconnected from the previous, but more attention to the process: institutions negotiated, practiced, a norm does not explain everything. E.g. Given (1997).
  • Changing views of power (Foucault). 1) Power reaches far beyond laws and physical action > non-physical violence. Moore (2007: 93 etc.): power also in naming and classifications, but Moore does not develop this much further (e.g. preaching, shame), and is indeed not very Foucauldian besides generalities. New questions later on: How texts contributed to the repression of dissidence (Bruschi & Biller 2003)? And visual representations (Trivellone 2010)? Accepting penitential identity also as operation of power (Arnold 2001). 2) Generalization of the “political” > Power is relational. What power (strategies, resources) the repressed had (Given 1997; Arnold 2001)?
  • Lessons:
    • Not just burning. A range of techniques by which control is exercised. Important complement, if not corrective, to the story.
    • Empowering the “subaltern”.

Continuity of repression

  • Several key scholars flirt with equivalence and/or historical continuity between different types of persecution (pogroms / inquisition) and persecuted (heretics / Jews / gay people / Templars / witches). Even as far forward (with more or less precautions) as to the twentieth-century totalitarisms and the Shoah (Cohn 2000: 233; Moore 2007: 93; Moore 2012: 96, 329-330; Iogna-Prat [1998] 2000: 367) and as far back as Christians in the Roman Empire (Cohn 2000: 1-15). Martyrological template.
  • Criticized as anachronism, homogenization, or grand narrative featuring a single persecuted ethnos (Pegg 2001: 195; Biddick 1998: 109, 116; Ginzburg criticized e.g. in Zambelli 1985: 989-990; Biddick 1998: 128-130). A “refutation” of this continuity = frame of Nirenberg (1996: 4-5) who mentions Cohn, Moore, Ginzburg. Critical habit towards grand narratives.
  • But this is simply the tension history × morphology (cf. Ginzburg 1992a; 2003: 121, 123-124). Contextualist claims to uniqueness × potential of comparison. Solution? No hope. These strategies will continue to clash, but also correct and inspire each other.


  • Discussions about medieval religious dissent and its persecution surprisingly important for identity formation. A relatively marginal topic (demographically) gains theoretical and ideological importance. The dea of subversiveness (sixteenth-century polemics) taken over and its value inverted in Protestant, romanticist, liberalist, or Marxist stories. Martyrologies.
  • Critical scholarship in the twentieth century questions these appropriations but wherever it creates a positive alternative, it becomes a metanarrative, too (mostly of pluralism, minorities, the subaltern).
  • As close to ideology or identity formation these metanarratives about repression might be, they have quite some heuristic importance.
  • Good indicator of shifts in scholarship and, partly, the changing values of a society.


Thanks to Stamatia Noutsou and František Novotný with whom I have been working on topics related to repression of medieval religious nonconformism in the last few years.

Appendix 1: Ideological table (simplifying but hopefully useful)

Current Nature of dissent Legitimacy of persecution Persecutor Persecuted Medieval sources ExamplesEnemy
Catholics, 16th to mid-19th c. doctrinal heresy with old genealogy, threat to religion and society legitimate, defends religion and society legal institutions heretics reliable Jacques Bénigne Bossuet,
Guillaume Besse
Protestants, religious pluralism
Protestants, 16th to mid-19th c. pre-Reformation; errors partly real, partly invented illegitimate (against the authentic Christians), cruel papacy, Rome, Catholics predecessors of the Reformation, witnesses to truth, martyrs partly unreliable in charges Matthias Flaccius Illyricus,
Jean Chassanion,
Nicolas Vignier,
Philipp van Limborch
Enlightenment and liberal historians religious difference illegitimate (coercion in religion; growingly implicit in the 20th c.) the Church critics of institutional religion, sometimes rationalists partly unreliable (in “irrational” charges) Norman Cohn,
David Frankfurter
+ links to “Inventionists”
religious intolerance, obscurantism, conservative Catholics
Romanticists individual or local protest, difference illegitimate (suppression of difference) the Roman Church, narrow-minded bourgeois exceptional individuals, radicals or revolutionaries (which is not bad), heroes of the people written by the victors but partly usable Jules Michelet,
Anne Brenon,
Catholics, bourgeois, “Inventionists”
Catholics, late 19th to 20th-century heresy, threat to society, extremism historically understandable legal institutions heretics, radicals (sometimes good faith assumed) mostly reliable Antoine Dondaine,
Arno Borst
liberal historians, Marxists
Marxists social liberation movements, necessarily expressed in religious terms illegitimate, reactionary (defends the established exploitative system) the Church oppressed classes varies according to the type of information Milan Machovec,
Robert Kalivoda,
Gottfried Koch,
Hermann Ley,
Bernhard Töpfer,
Ernst Werner
Catholics, bourgeois, positivists
Postmodern and postcolonial critical theory product of social disciplining (claim to larger control) the question of legitimacy is itself illegitimate discourse more then particular agents or institutions the subaltern, the subject, the constructed source criticism and search for true information abandoned Talal Asad,
otherwise few
grand narratives
“Inventionists” religious reform, otherwise largely constructed (invented) not evaluated explicitly, understood historically clerics, elites, the Church vague unrest (malessere ereticale), political opponents, local reformists, the invented “Other” almost totally unreliable for the content of “heresy” (the content is in fact minimal) Robert I. Moore,
Dominique Iogna-Prat,
Julien Théry,
Mark G. Pegg,
Uwe Brunn
+ some links to postmodernists
(naïve) historians adopting clerical constructions, romanticists, Catholics

Why many historians and schools are absent from the table? In most cases simply because they do not tackle overall theories of repression and, therefore, ideology (in the neutral sense of the word).

Appendix 2: Scholars

Work Reality of the threat Persecutor Repressed Causes / motives Nature of repression Line of persecution
Lea 1888 imagined, constructed the sinister jurisdiction which is the Inquisition victims
Cohn [1973] 2000 imagined, constructed the Inquisition, authorities (2000: 231), bureaucracy (2000: 233), monks (2000: 75), bishops and secular judges (2000: 229), but accusations come from neighbors (2000: 255) Christians demonized by the persecutors (does not focus on the Jews here), innocent people (2000: 233) needs (of what kind?) of bishops and inquisitors and their fantasies (2000: 210) inquisitors, bishops and secular judges take over folk imaginations and start to persecute (2000: 233) strong historical link (2000: 75); early Christians, dissident Christians (heresy), Templars, witches, Shoah; another book on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Delumeau [1978] 1999 imagined, constructed Christian society driven by fear, elite and mass culture interact (1999: 522), paranoiac and centralistic ecclesiastical and civil authorities (1999: 513) heretics (later including Protestants); witches (1999: 538-539); fools, poor and vagabonds tolerated before (1999: 533-538) fear (of Satan’s power, 1999: 507-508; of God’s wrath, 1999: 513); centralization of the state (1999: 513) scapegoating driven by fear, which participates at the process of the christianization of Europe, moralization, unification (1999: 538), stricter control by the state (1999: 539), policing (1999: 525); subsequent toleration and “demobilization” is an outcome of tiredness by seeking God’s ennemies (1999: 540) steady historical link between the late Middle Ages and the early modern era (due more to the emotion of fear than to any continuity of the Inquisition or so), then decline of persecution
Kieckhefer acknowledges popular magical rituals but not a sect or religion (?) elite roots of the sabbath
Moore [1987] 2007, Moore 2012 imagined, constructed the rising European elites (ecclesiastical, secular, intellectual) minorities (Jews, heretics, homosexuals, lepers) as the constructed “Other” struggle for power and wider control (2007); centralization (2012: 330) construction of the “Other” (naming, classification, stereotypes), then physical persecution strong link (historical and morphological) in the Middle Ages (2007; morphological equivalence of heretics and the Jews, 2012: 96), and beyond, to Witch-hunt and twentieth-century totalitarisms (historical, not only morphological, even if cautiously formulated; 2007: 93)[1]
Iogna-Prat [1998] 2000 different actors participating at the building of the papal monarchy minorities (focuses on discourse against the Jews, muslims, and heretics) as the constructed “Other” (acknowledges Moore) more than morphological, despite cautious formulation (2000: 367)
Nirenberg 1996 local interest groups manipulating the general stereotypes minorities (focuses on Iberian Jews) agaist seeing persecution as irrational (but still somewhat present in the “cataclysmic” type of violence) not in the focus
Frankfurter 2006 imagined, constructed (2006: 4), such beliefs are “pseudo-religious” (2006: 3), adopts a “humanistic stance” (2006: 11) global and structures meeting (2006: 7) how belief in bewitchment turns into the belief of a Satanic cult or conspiracy (2006: 2)? cognitive pre-disposition to believe in monsters? (2006: 4) pseudo-religious long tradition of fighting (imagined) general evil, from ancient temples and scribes on (2006: 15-25)
Ginzburg 2004 partly real, of negotiated reality (there are certain folk associations beyond inquisitorial fantasy, grain of truth in Murray’s cult of the witches) elite culture lepers, Jews, muslims, heretics, witches, popular culture certainly repression and christianization, but (probably) not conscious power struggle; and also attempts to understand – translate a different culture into one’s own interaction between elite and popular culture, attempts at cultural translation some historical and morphological continuity (Jews, Templars, witches)
Caldwell Ames 2005 not in the focus religious (to consider religious discourse of repression as mere guise for the “real” meaning behind it is an Enlightenment bias) not in the focus


Since the debates between Protestant and Catholic thinkers and historians in the 16th and 17th centuries, the right to plurality vs. the right to coercion in religious matters has been a contentious issue in the historiography of Christianity. Discussions on religious tolerance were further developed in the era of the Enlightenment, and continue to arise – with more or less significant variations – in 20th-century scholarship. This paper investigates the major contributions of 20th-century theoretical thought on the repression of heresy in medieval Europe and offers an analytical overview of the state of research. Its ambition, however, is not only to introduce relevant scholarship but also classify it and identify the deeper underlying tendencies and legacies in the layers of sedimentary knowledge on heresy and its repression.


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Bedouelle, Guy, “Les Albigeois, témoins du véritable Évangile: L’historiographie protestante du XVIe et du début du XVIIe siècle”, in: Historiographie du catharisme, (Cahiers de Fanjeaux14), Toulouse: Privat 1979, 47-70.

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.

Biller, Peter, “Waldensians in German-speaking Areas in the Later Fourteenth Century: The View of an Inquisitor”, in: id.,, The Waldenses, 1170-1530: Between a Religious Order and a Church, Aldershot: Ashgate 2001, 271-291.

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Bruschi, Caterina – Biller, Peter (eds.), Texts and the Repression of Medieval Heresy, York: York Medieval Press 2003.

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Cohn, Norman, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press [1973] 2000.

Delumeau, Jean, La peur en Occident (XIVe-XVIIIe siècles), Paris: Hachette [1978] 1999.

Fichtenau, Heinrich, Heretics and Scholars in the High Middle Ages, 1000-1200, trans. Denise A. Kaiser, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press 1998.

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Frankfurter, David, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders”, History of Religions 40/4, 2001, 352-380.

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[3] Cf. also the mention of a rationalization of anxieties (Moore 2007: 98), and of “the doctrine that Jews were royal serfs” as a “post factum rationalization of persecution” (Moore 2007: 40). On the other hand, Moore (2007: 120, 125, 179) points to the introduction of the new, inquisitional process as to a process of rationalization. And finally, Moore (2007: 180) also relativizes the idea of segregation of lepers as being simply dictated by rationality. Persecution seems to entertain different relations to rationality in his account.

[4] “But increasingly from the beginning of the twelfth century onwards the suspicion and accusation of heresy among the population at large was used as a means of suppressing resistance to the exercise of power over it, and of legitimizing the new regime in church and state [...]. [...] And it was after 1180 that the transition was completed from the use of accusations of heresy and deviance, often arising from genuine social conflict, as an occasional expedient for the consolidation of power to the establishment of regular machinery for their detection and pursuit as one of the foundations upon which power was erected and maintained.” (Moore 2007: 136)

[5] Cf. also: “Norman Cohn and Richard Kieckhefer have shown the priests, ministers and magistrates of early modern Europe interpreting accusations of sorcery among the peasantry, of storm-raising or casting the evil eye, as confirmations of their nightmare of a satanic conspiracy, and launching the great witch craze to extirpate it. [...] [H]eretics and Jews owed their persecution in the first place not to the hatred of the people, but to the decisions of princes and prelates. In neither case have we found grounds to justify a description of the persecutors merely as the agents of society at large, at least if our conception of society is one which includes the great majority of its members.” (Moore 2007: 116)

[6] “It had a long and terrible history before it, with a period of major growth between the middle of the fifteenth and the middle of the seventeenth century and another, it is hardly necessary to add, in the twentieth. It became, in short, part of the character of European society, and one which began here in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with the persecution of heretics, Jews and lepers.” (Moore 2007: 93)