February 18, 2015

Women of Doubt: An Unnamed Woman from Montaillou

Today, I'd like to do something a little different with our Women of Doubt.

Usually, I focus on a somewhat well-known woman, someone with what you might call historical value. But today I'd like to talk about an unnamed woman, whom I only have a small paragraph about.

In 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull that approved the use of torture to gain confessions from heretics. The medieval inquisitions themselves had started around 1184, with the Episcopal Inquisition, but hitherto, the Church had not sanctioned torture.

Prior to this period, the Church had dealt with supposed heretical ideas with less bloody and certainly less deadly techniques--expulsion or imprisonment, for instance.

In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht mentions our Woman of Doubt for this week. She writes:

A woman from Montaillou was asked where she got her doubts about hell and the resurrection and she said she got them from no one: she thought of them for herself.

What an amazing statement in extraordinary circumstances.

In the face of death or exile or imprisonment or torture, or maybe some combination of the above, I cannot imagine the intestinal fortitude that was required to make that statement.

What a powerful mind, lost to history.

What was going through her mind? Was she thinking about her family? Perhaps her husband and children?

Was she considering the loss of her own reputation? What kind of punishment she might face?

Was her revelation so powerful that she was willing to face down the Inquisition to hold on to that moment of clarity?

I may not ever know, but it's amazing to imagine.

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