The Inquisition As A Primary Source: The Fournier Register

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know what a big deal it is for historians to have primary sources. These sources are important because they are created in the time that events happened. It’s reading the Gettysburg Address rather than reading a 21st century book analyzing what President Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address.

One primary source from the Inquisition is the Fournier Register, published in 1965. Composed of interrogations conducted from 1318-1325, this resource was just sitting in the Vatican Library waiting to be discovered. For anyone interested in history, imagine how happy we are to have interviews of 14th century residents of a village in France at the foothills of the Pyrenees. Interviews where the people of Montaillou discussed their thoughts, ideas and details of their daily lives.

Montaillou. Photo by Yann Gwilhoù via Wikimedia Commons

Why were the 200-250 residents of this village interviewed? During this time the Catholic Church was investigating what they believed was a heretical cult known as Catharism. I’m not going to go into how this differed from Catholicism because that information is widely available in books, articles and on the internet. For the purpose of this post, just know the Catholic Church was determined to stamp out this heresy.

Many Cathars ended up in the Languedoc region of France, which included the village of Montaillou. In these early years of the infamous Inquisition, the Bishop of Pamiers was sent to find and deal with the Cathars in the area. He hunted Cathars by talking with all the area inhabitants.

The Bishop of Pamiers was Jacques Fournier (c.1280s-1342). In 1334 he became Pope Benedict XII during the period when popes resided in Avignon, France. Being a historian and not a Catholic, in my view his greatest accomplishment is the Fournier Register, the result of 578 interrogations.

Portait of Pope Benedict XII in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. Via Wikimedia Commons

The value of the Fournier Register to historians and other social scientists is immense. It represents the best available resource for the study of early 14th-century rural life. Because the majority of people were illiterate, we don’t have a lot of diaries detailing daily life. During these interrogations, these ordinary people not only discussed their religious beliefs, but talked about their relationships, what they ate, how their families were structured, their attitudes about sex and death, what they thought about their neighbors and what they did in their day-to-day lives.

An amazing resource for anyone interested in history, but there are some things you want to keep in mind. Basically, everything they said was not necessarily true. The good and bad thing about primary sources in history is that people aren’t always completely self-aware or completely honest with themselves and others. Also, these interrogations were about identifying heretics. I would bet the villagers were not always completely honest with their interviewers. They could be burned at the stake for being heretics, and that is a mighty powerful reason to lie.

The book that brought the most attention to the data available in the Register was “Montaillou” by Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie, published in French in 1975. The English translation by Barbara Bray, which I read a couple of times for various university courses, was published in 1978. This book is a good example of the issue of translation. The villagers spoke Occitan, a regional dialect, but the scribes translated that into Latin, the language of the Register. Le Roy Ladurie translated that into French and then Bray translated the French into English. So it’s not the same as speaking directly to a medieval villager, but it’s what we’ve got.

Church of Montaillou, Ariège, France. Photo by Xfigpower via Wikimedia Commons

No matter the reservations we may have about the Fournier Register as a primary research source, it is still amazing that it exists at all. Although there may always be disagreements among historians about translations or interpretations of the interrogations, seven hundred years later, this is truly remarkable data about medieval life in the 14th century. And did I mention, there’s lots of talk about sex? These are interesting, ordinary people. Check out some English translations.

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About Cathy Hanson

I’m a military brat and grew up on Air Force bases around the world. I discovered my love for history when I was 14 years old and the U.S. Air Force transferred my family to a base in England. Traveling from castles to cathedrals to ruins to cities, I felt the stories of these places and understood that history is not solely about events whose dates we are required to memorize. History is stories. My passion for those stories led me to a master’s degree in history.

Please feel free to comment, ask questions, supply answers, or tell me your favorite history resource or artifact.

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