jan shirley french translator and childrens author

The Inquisitor's Guide
Translated from French by Jan Shirley

This review of The Inquisitor's Guide was published in The New Statesman on 15th January 2007:

By the early 1300s, papal authorities had stamped out the "worst excesses" of heresy in western Europe, but south-west France remained a stronghold of apostasy. Accordingly, the zealous and uncompromising Bernard Gui was despatched to the region. For over 20 years, the Toulouse-based inquisitor rooted out, tried and punished renegade Christians, lapsed converts, Jews and other transgressors. His methods were "methodical and exact", and this is the handbook he wrote for those in the same line of work. The first few chapters concern the largest renegade Christian sects: the Cathars, Beguines, Waldensians and false apostles. More colourful detail comes later, when Gui instructs on the "error and pestilence of sorcery, fortune-telling and the summoning of demons". He warns of female spirits who go about by night using "songs, fruits, plants, straps and other things" to lure their victims. He also devotes a chapter on the "intolerable blasphemies" of Jews, with a rather grim outline of the "special interrogatory" methods to be used with them. For all its kitch value - Gui's instructions are enlivened with drawings of scenes such as "The Torments of Hell" - this book is important. It is a timeless portrait of fear and ideological dogma, and an apt reminder of how ridiculous they are. MF

The fourteenth century would see Europe wracked by upheaval, war, rebellion, famine and plague. To many it seemed as though society itself was breaking apart, a true age of apocalypse.

No institution was above the tumult. The Church, which had survived critics and outlived sects, found itself under virulent attack from heretics. It countered with the inquisition. Designed to identify, catch and suppress heresy, this notorious institution was born in south-western France and tasked with the destruction of the heretical Cathars of Languedoc.

In 1307 Bernard Gui reached Toulouse to take up his appointment as inquisitor. For the next two decades he mounted a relentless campaign against the region's heretics and schismatics. Targeting Cathars, Beguins, Waldensians, relapsed Jews, sorcerers and 'those who invoke demons' he worked hard to bring such 'twisting snakes out of the sink and abyss of error'.

This fascinating book, a direct result of his experiences, is a practical manual on the conduct of inquisitions intended for his colleagues and successors. It sets out, in a plain and readable manner, how to combat medieval heresy's assault on the Church. How to seek out, identify and capture heretics; how to understand their strengths and weaknesses; how to try them; how to counter their methods and prevent them from 'hiding behind deceitful words'; how judgement should be made and how punishment delivered. By so doing, Gui provides a wealth of information on the Cathars and on medieval life in general.

Bernard Gui (1260-1331) was a theologian, diplomat, career churchman and prolific writer. His manual on the conduct of inquisitions was written in the 1320s.


"There are some among them, as fraudulent as they are cunning, who in order to mask the truth and conceal themselves and their accomplices so that their error and falsity are not discovered, give ambiguous or obscure answers, reply in a general and confused way, so that no clear truth can be gathered from what they say. For this reason the inquisitor must use energy and skill. People like this can and must be forced, compelled, to respond clearly and to say exactly what their answers mean."

* * * *

"Furthermore they hold and teach that God has forbidden all oaths ... applying the words of the gospel and of St James against taking oaths in a sense as crazy as it is extreme, in spite of the sane teaching of the saints and doctors of the Church, in spite of the tradition of this holy Catholic Church and even of the recent decree against this error...
And from the same source comes this error: that all judging is forbidden by God and is therefore a sin, that a judge who condemns anyone for any reason to a physical punishment involving bloodshed or death is disobeying God. It is written in the holy gospel, ‘Judge not, that you may not be judged’, and ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and other similar passages, and they use these texts without due exposition, not understanding or accepting the interpretation that the holy Roman Church wisely offers to the faithful according to the teaching of the fathers and teachers and the canonical decrees.
Also members of this sect laugh at the indulgences granted by the prelates of the Church and claim that they are utterly useless."