Department of History

The Condemnation of Heretical Texts in the Late Middle Ages

Project summary

This project seeks a new understanding of the condemnation of texts in late medieval Europe.

Scholars have long acknowledged that the condemnation of a text as heretical rarely resulted in that text’s complete suppression or destruction. In fact, heretical texts often continued to circulate and be read by medieval readers well after being condemned. 

There was no ‘office’ in the medieval Church tasked specifically with policing texts, and no centralised, institutional list of banned books which was communicated widely. While condemnation procedures shared similar characteristics, there was also a significant amount of variation in these processes’ form, direction, and effect.

The project asks: If condemnation did not constitute effective censorship, what, then, did condemnation mean in the late Middle Ages?

Detail of a miniature of heretical books and robes of the Turlupins burnt, at the beginning of chapter 38 of 'Charles V' book.

Detail of a miniature of heretical books and robes of the Turlupins burnt, at the beginning of chapter 38 of 'Charles V' book (British Library)
 

It examines the variation in procedure and the effectiveness of multiple textual condemnations in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Key questions of the project are:

  • Did knowledge of a condemnation endure over time?
  • How was this knowledge disseminated and preserved?
  • What effects—if any—did it have on a condemned text’s reception?
  • How might knowledge or memory of a condemnation act as a repressive power on its own?
  • Did the Church’s approach to and perception of heretical texts change over time?

By bringing together several individual cases and exploring issues of institutional power, reading networks, pre-modern censorship, and religious repression, the project aims to present a new overall picture of how late medieval heretical texts were condemned, suppressed, and received. 

Key developments

The initial stages of the project have so far focussed on two main aspects of textual condemnation: the procedure used to condemn a text, and knowledge dissemination. Comparing and contrasting the condemnation procedures of several different texts, which were all condemned in the first decades of the fourteenth century, reveals a significant amount of variation in the forms which such processes took. Rather than coming from any central node of power, the order for the examination and condemnation of a text could come from any number of authorities in the medieval church.

Some processes were highly localised, put in motion by the local bishop or inquisitor and carried out by local officials. Others, however, were begun by the papacy itself, and were carried out at the heart of the papal court. These early fourteenth-century cases show that there was no single, standardised institutional structure that underpinned the condemnation of texts in the early-to-mid fourteenth century.

Research so far has suggested that this variation had a significant impact on the types of records generated and the dissemination of the condemnation itself. Condemnations carried out by local ecclesiastical officials rarely resulted in any effort to formally record, inform, and disseminate knowledge of the condemnation itself to a broader audience. As a result, many condemnations were not communicated in a way that translated into an effective ‘ban’ that was widely known and which endured over time.

In sharp contrast, however, texts which were condemned through the papal court did manage to be communicated more widely, and did also last several decades after the event. In short, the evidence suggests that differences in a condemnation’s setting and the ecclesiastical figures which carried it out could have an impact on whether or not knowledge of a condemnation was more widely disseminated, and whether it endured over time.

The project is also currently pursuing the question of change over time. Research so far suggests that this lack of a formal, codified approach to texts may have shifted over the course of the fourteenth century. The office of inquisition in particular may have shifted over that time to bring the regulation of texts more solidly into its jurisdiction. This perhaps resulted from a cultural shift in how heretical books were perceived, moving from being merely the tools of heretics to being regarded as ‘heretics’ in their own right.

Planned outputs

Planned publications are a monograph and several journal articles. Preliminary results from this project have been presented at research seminars at the Institute for Historical Research, the University of York, the Vermont Medieval Colloquium, and the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. Some of the project’s findings were also presented to the public at the 2019 History Festival at University of Nottingham.  

Who's involved

Justine Trombley

Project schedule

October 2018 - October 2021 

Project partners

The Medieval Heresy and Dissent Research Network

Funders

The Leverhulme Trust 

 

 

Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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