A Doubter in the Inquisitor’s Chair

A Doubter in the Inquisitor’s Chair November 16, 2015

“Inquisition” by Edouard Moyse (c. 1872) via Wikimedia

A few years ago, while researching my historical anthology Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics, I came across a 14th c. inquisitor named Jacques Fournier. Bishop Fournier was tasked with rooting out Cathars, an unorthodox sect spreading through the south of France. As he dove into the task, he took the unusual step of having all 578 interrogations transcribed in real time.

The Fournier Register, as the document was known, was translated from Middle French into Latin and locked up in the Vatican Library. Only small fragments had ever been translated into English.

The Inquisitions weren’t much interested in nonbelievers. They mostly sought to squash heretical movements that threatened Catholic religious and political power on the continent. But once in a blue moon, an inquisitor came across not a heretic but an outright unbeliever, or at least someone who doubted major tenets of the Christian faith without embracing any other sect.

I came across a few tantalizing references to three such doubters in secondary sources: Guillemette of Ornolac, Aude of Merviel, and Raimond de l’Aire. All three were interrogated by Fournier between 1318 and 1322, and I wanted to hear them speak. So I tracked down a translator of Middle French (with the unbeatable name Dareth Pray) and had the testimony of these three individuals, and the witnesses against them, translated into English for the first time for Voices of Unbelief.

Hearing their words so clearly after all these centuries was profoundly moving to me. Now I’d like to get them outside of that reference book to a wider audience.

Let’s start with the interrogation of Guillemette and the witnesses against her.

Statement of Witnesses Against Guillemette, Widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac

In the year of our Lord 1319, the 11th of May, Alazaïs, wife of Pierre Munier of Ornolac, sworn witness to the event of the heretical words that it is said were uttered by Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac, said: 

A year ago, in relationship to the present time in which I am testifying, when the leaves of the elm trees grow, myself and Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac, were sitting under the elm of Ornolac, and we were talking about this and that. Among other things, I said, “May God guard your soul, and with your body let God do what he will!”

Guillemette said to me, “Idiot, idiot, what are you afraid of?” I told her that I was afraid for my soul because we sin often, and I asked her: “And you, aren’t you afraid?” She responded that she was not. I asked her why she was not afraid for her soul, and she responded: “The soul? the soul? Idiot! Our soul is no more than blood.” Hearing this, I told her to never again say such a thing, for it could make misfortune befall her. She responded that she would say it in front of anyone she liked: “And what would happen to me, if I said it?”

That year, around Lent, I was in a house that is next to Guillemette’s house, and Raimond Benet, her son-in-law, was in her house, and he was speaking to her (I overheard it). He was saying: “My good woman, preserve your soul!” “Idiot, idiot, what soul? The soul is nothing more than blood.” Afterwards, I spoke of these words to Raimond Benet, who repeated them to me.

[When] questioned if it is out of hatred, love, fear, prayer, the promise of a sum of money, or another bribe that she testifies so, she responded no, it was only because it is the truth.

The same year and day as above, Gentille, the daughter of the late Guillaume Rous d’Ornolac, witness sworn and interrogated on that which precedes, said:

About a year ago, it seems to me, I was in the garden I have at Ornolac, which is next to the garden of Guillemette, the widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac; she was in her garden, and we began to speak about the dead and the souls of the deceased. She said then: “The soul, the soul! Personally, I don’t see anything come out of men or women when they die. If I saw the soul or some other thing come out, I would know what the soul is, but so far I haven’t seen anything come out, and that is why I don’t know what the soul is.” Based on these words, I believe and I believed that she thought that the soul does not survive after the death of the body.

In the same place, she said that when men and woman live in the present life, their life is but blood. I understood by these words that she was saying that the soul is but blood.

I often heard her making such remarks, in my house as well as elsewhere.

[When] questioned if it is out of hatred, love, fear, prayer, the promise of a sum of money, or another bribe that she testifies so, she responded no, it was only because it is the truth.

The same year as above, Raimond Benet of Ornolac, witness sworn and interrogated on that which precedes, said:

Less than a year ago, though I remember neither the day nor the season, Guillemette, my mother-in-law, and Raimonde, my wife, were sleeping together in my house, while I slept in another. In the morning, my mother-in-law told me that she and my wife had heard something that cried “ha,” and asked me if I had heard it. I replied that no, I had not heard it, but that cats often cry in this way when they fight with each other. She told me that it could very well have been the soul of a dead person, for she had heard tell that when souls are not in a good place, they cry and go in the wind, and that one can see them. I told her: “How can you say that one can see the soul and that it goes in the wind?” She responded: “You don’t see that, when men die, one doesn’t see them do anything but exhale? This exhalation is nothing but wind. If the soul were something other than this exhalation, one would see something come out of the body. Now, one only sees this exhalation; that is why the soul goes in the wind.”

That year, I had cut the head off of a goose, and that goose lived and cried still, until its blood had left its body. Guillemette said: “The goose cried as long as it had blood, and the same thing would happen for a man or a woman: they would live as long as they had blood.” But I do not remember having heard her say that the human soul is nothing but blood.

If I remember anything else, I will come and find My Lord the Bishop, and I will reveal it to him.

[When] questioned if it is out of hatred, love, fear, prayer, the promise of a sum of money, or another bribe that she testifies so, he responded that no, it was only because it is the truth.

Confession of Guillamette, Widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac

In the year of our Lord 1320, the 11th of August, the said Guillemette, appearing in the Chamber of the bishopric of Pamiers in the presence of My said Lord Bishop attended by Brother Gaillard de Pomiès, said and confessed:

Three years ago the next grape-harvesting season, I was in my garden at Ornolac, and I fell to the ground from a wall and hurt my nose, to the point that blood came out of it. When I fell, Gentille, the daughter of the late Guillaume Rous of Ornolac, came to help me, and as I saw that blood was coming out of my nose, I said: “The soul, the soul! The soul is but blood.”

A year ago at the end of April, when the elms were beginning to put out their leaves, I was under the elm of Ornolac, which is near the land of Pierre Bordas of Ornolac, I do believe. We were speaking together, saying that one must do good, life enduring, for one’s soul, and that one must fear God for the salvation of one’s soul. I said then that the soul of the man and the woman is but blood, and that when the man or the woman dies, their soul dies also.

That year, around Easter, Raimond Benet had a newborn child who was dying. He called me, when I was going to the woods in the forest, so that I could look after his dying son. I looked after him from morning to night, and I was watching if I could see something come out of the child’s mouth when he died. As I saw nothing come out except an exhalation, I said, in front of Gentille den Rous, already subpoenaed: “Watch, watch, when a man dies, you don’t see anything but wind come out of his mouth. If I saw something else come out, I would believe that the soul is something. But since only wind came out, I do not believe that it is anything.”

Did you say these words about the soul in possession of all your senses, and believing this in your heart, in the meaning of these words?

Yes, and I have believed it for two years, although I have not remained continuously in this belief, only intermittingly. It seems to me that it was during a half a year, in those two years, that I was of that opinion, believing that the human soul was nothing but blood when the man lives in his body, and that it would die when the man or the human body dies.

At the time when you believed that the human soul dies with the body, did you believe that there was a hell or a heaven, or that souls were punished or rewarded after death?

During that time, I did not believe that there was a hell or a heaven, or any other world but the present; I also believed that souls would not be punished or rewarded in the other world.

Why did you believe that the human soul was but the blood of the living man, and that it would die with the body?

Firstly, I believed it because I saw that when all the blood has left the body of a living thing, it dies. I believed it secondly because I didn’t see anything come out of the men who were dying, except wind.

During the time when you were in this believe about the mortality of the soul, did you believe that the souls of saint Peter, Paul, and of the other saints and of all deceased men were dead?

Yes, except that I always believed in the existence of God, of the Virgin Mary, and of Saint John the Evangelist, for the Virgin Mary and Saint John neither died, nor were killed. But for the others, some died, and some were even killed.

From the moment that you believed that human souls die with the body, did you believe that men would be resurrected or would live again after death?

I did not believe in the resurrection of human bodies, for I believed that just as the body is buried, the soul is also buried with it. And as I saw the human body rot, I believed that it could never live again.

Did you have someone who taught this to you, did you learn it from someone?

No. I thought it over and believed it by myself.

Do you believe that the soul of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is dead or with his body?

Yes, for, although God cannot die, Jesus Christ died, all the same. Therefore, although I believed that God has always been, I did not believe that Christ’s soul lived and subsisted after his death.

Do you believe then that Christ was resurrected?

Yes, and it is God who did that.

Do you currently believe that the human soul is anything other than blood, that it does not die at the death of the body, that it is not buried with the body, that there is a hell and a heaven, where souls are punished or rewarded, and there will be a resurrection of all men, and that the soul of Christ did not die with his body?

Yes, and I have believed it since the last holiday of the Ascension of the Lord because at that time I heard tell that My Lord the Bishop of Pamiers wanted to carry out an investigation against me about it. I was afraid of My Lord Bishop because of that, and I changed my opinion after that time.

Guillemette was sentenced to wear a double yellow cross as a mark of shame for the remainder of her life. Fournier went on to become Pope Benedict XII.

Second interrogation: Aude of Merviel

vou315 bSource: Fournier, Jacques. The Fournier Register (1318-1325). Original manuscript currently in the Vatican Library, Lat. MS. 4030. English translations by Dareth Pray, assisted by Dr. Nancy P. Stork, for Voices of Unbeliefed. Dale McGowan (Greenwood 2012).

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