Behind Closed Doors: Women and the Inquisition - 6 minutes read

An illustration of a woman humiliated by the medieval inquisition
Chamber of horrors: An imagined depiction of ‘The Inquisition in Session’ from The Story of Our Christianity, by Frederic M. Bird, 1893. © The Holbarn Archive / Bridgeman Images

It is a familiar image: a woman in distress, surrounded by men examining her soul in a dimly lit inquisitorial chamber. Fearing torture, she confesses to crimes she never committed.

There is much to redraw here. There was certainly less torture and less arbitrariness in a medieval inquisition than has often been portrayed, and more bureaucratic record-keeping. There were fewer confessions of Satanic conspiracies and sabbaths and more down-to-earth reports of non-conformist meetings and beliefs. But what about the dimly lit inquisitorial chambers? To what extent were such spaces actually used for questioning subjects? And were women really subjected to the pressure of private interrogation by male inquisitors?

We can take a closer look thanks to a Milanese inquisition register of 1300. It records the trial of the followers of a woman called Guglielma in Milan. Guglielma was considered a holy woman during her life and, after her death around 1280, she was buried in the respectable Cistercian abbey of Chiaravalle near Milan. Devotion to Guglielma began to spread, and pilgrims flocked to her shrine in the abbey’s cemetery.

Such details paint the picture of a local saint. In other circumstances, she might have been considered for official canonisation. But events took a different course. The inner circle of her devotees elaborated a more controversial image of her, one that could not pass unnoticed. They started to talk about her as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity. And this was not all: they even came to expect that a female religious from their midst, Mayfreda of Pirovano, would soon lead the Church as a female pope.

We owe almost all of our knowledge of Guglielma’s devotees to the trial records drawn up on behalf of the Dominican inquisitors of Milan. These contain 67 interrogations and, luckily, the exact place of each hearing is minutely recorded. The numbers are telling: the use of private inquisitorial spaces – for instance, a special chamber within an inquisitor’s own religious house – for interrogation was not the consistent norm. Crucially, in the Milan trial, such locations were never used for women.

Men were routinely taken to the inquisitorial chamber – in this case a room designated and equipped for hearing and recording interrogations in the Dominican convent of Sant’Eustorgio: of the 29 men interrogated in this trial 18 were questioned here. Five were taken to the inquisitor’s personal living quarters in the same convent. Occasionally they were interrogated elsewhere: one at the gates of the convent and three at other ‘houses of the inquisition’, sometimes at a different monastery or elsewhere in Milan. The 38 women, meanwhile, were always handled at the boundaries of or outside the actual cloister of Sant’Eustorgio: one was interrogated at the gates of the convent, nine in other religious houses and the majority (28 cases) in a church, usually that of Sant’Eustorgio itself. By contrast, no man was interrogated in a church. The pattern is clear.

Historian Jill Moore has found a similar pattern in Bologna: women were handled in churches, or even in their own homes, rather than in the inquisitors’ cloister, ‘presumably to avoid exposing other friars to contact with their polluting presence’. Such reasoning would certainly have been familiar among religious men who had all taken a vow of chastity. The Rule of St Augustine, under which the Dominicans professed, was very concerned about the potential for mere eye contact with women to corrupt monks.

The solution to this was written into an early Dominican statute, which declared that women ‘shall remain in the church reserved for the laity or outside in a fixed place, where the prior can speak to them about God and spiritual matters’.

Maintaining a sexual cordon around the cloister was not only about religious purity, but also reputation. This was all the more important for mendicant friars like the Dominicans who regularly came into contact with women outside the cloister. Innuendo concerning friars frequently found literary expression, as in the 15th-century satirical verse of François Villon:

These fathers must have strength and life,
The ones in Paris like the rest;
If they give pleasure to some wife,
It proves they love her husband best.

The public role of friars in inquisitorial investigations would only have enhanced their need to maintain an upright, chaste appearance. For the Dominican inquisitors in Milan, adhering to the letter of their own law in meeting women at the edge of or outside the cloister shielded them from risks that were reputational as well as spiritual.

The Milan trial provides us with a useful lesson about the settings in which women were interrogated in medieval heresy trials. Instead of a dimly lit inquisitorial chamber with a high chair for the lord inquisitor, we would do better to imagine a well-lit corner of a church, with simple furniture set up for the purpose – and with the inquisitor keeping his distance.

Did interrogation in this more public setting give female suspects some relief? Perhaps not much, since these women would not themselves have expected the scenario depicted at the beginning of this article: images of distressed, partially stripped women being examined in private by unscrupulous inquisitors are products of later Protestant and Enlightenment imaginations. Nevertheless, being heard in a church perhaps put them at a psychological advantage to their male associates and relatives, who were typically interrogated on far less neutral ground. Perhaps, too, it spared them any embarrassment from being with male friars behind closed doors. On the other hand, the more public nature of their interrogation probably brought an awkwardness and pressure of its own. Such concerns, however, were not what motivated the inquisitors. Above all else, they sought to protect themselves.

David Zbíral and Robert L.J. Shaw are Associate Professor and Research Fellow at the Department for the Study of Religions, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University. This research has received funding from the European Research Council (grant no. 101000442).

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