Umberto Eco, in his best-selling 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, summons to life a dark and compelling character: Bernard Gui, a bishop and papal inquisitor. In the movie, he is played with serpentine menace by F. Murray Abraham. The year is 1327, and Gui has come to an abbey where a series of murders has been committed. It falls to him to convene a tribunal and examine the suspects. Eco describes the inquisitor’s bearing as the tribunal gets under way:
He did not speak: while all were now expecting him to begin the interrogation, he kept his hands on the papers he had before him, pretending to arrange them, but absently. His gaze was really fixed on the accused, and it was a gaze in which hypocritical indulgence (as if to say: Never fear, you are in the hands of a fraternal assembly that can only want your good) mixed with icy irony (as if to say: You do not yet know what your good is, and I will shortly tell you) and merciless severity (as if to say: But in any case I am your judge here, and you are in my power).
Bernard Gui is a historical figure. He was a Dominican priest, and in 1307 he was indeed made an inquisitor by Pope Clement V, with responsibility for a broad swath of southern France. Over a period of 15 years, Gui pronounced some 633 men and women guilty of heresy. We know the disposition of these cases because Gui wrote everything down—the record survives in his Liber sententiarum, his “Book of Sentences.” It is a folio-size volume, bound in red leather. File a request at the British Library, in London, and before long the document will be delivered to the Manuscripts Reading Room, where you can prop it up on a wedge of black velvet. The writing, in Latin, is tiny and heavily abbreviated.
Inquisition records can be highly detailed and shockingly mundane. An itemized accounting of expenses for the burning of four heretics in 1323 survives from Carcassonne:
For large wood 55 sols, 6 deniers.
For vine-branches . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 sols, 3 deniers.
For straw 2 sols, 6 deniers.
For four stakes 10 sols, 9 deniers.
For ropes to tie the convicts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 sols, 7 deniers.
For the executioner, each 20 sols . . . . . . . . 80 sols.
In all 8 livres, 14 sols, 7 deniers.
An event like this would typically have occurred on a Sunday, in the course of a ceremony known as a sermo generalis. A throng would gather, and the various sentences would be read aloud by the inquisitor. The recitation of capital crimes came last, and the prisoners were then turned over—relaxed was the euphemistic term—by the spiritual authorities to the secular ones: churchmen did not wish to sully themselves with killing. To emphasize that his hands were clean, the inquisitor would read a pro forma prayer, expressing hope that the condemned might somehow be spared the pyre—though there was no hope of that. Bernard Gui’s most productive day was April 5, 1310, when he condemned 17 people to death.