The annalist of the city of Worms tells us that in 1231
'There came by divine permission a miserable plague and most harsh sentence. for indeed there came a certain friar called Conrad Dors, and he was completely illiterate...and he brought with him a certain secular man named John who was one-eyed and maimed, and in truth utterly vile. These two, beginning...firstly among the poor, said that they knew who were heretics; and they began to burn them, those who confessed their guilt and refused to leave the sect...And they condemned many who in the hour of their death, called out with all their heart to our Lord Jesus Christ, and even in the fire strongly cried out, begging for the help of the Mother of God and all the saints.'
These two were then joined by the eloquent priest Conrad of Marburg. Led by him and with papal backing they continued their work. According to chronicler all three inquisitors were imperfect judges and 'without mercy' apparently boasting 'we would burn a hundred innocent people amongst whom there is one guilty'.
These events in the medieval German Archdiocese of Mainz could be the earliest example of inquisition into heresy in the middle ages. Other accounts of Conrad Marburg's actions tell us that virtually no one could escape his clutches as freedom could only be won by confessing and (especially) by implicating others.
Such dramatic accounts fit well with a popular view of medieval church and society as entirely repressive. But it is important to inquire a little more closely into the events around Mainz.
The chronicle was written by an anonymous cleric who was clearly horrified by Conrad's actions. Further, the archbishop of Mainz wrote to the pope with misgivings stating that he had cautioned Conrad 'to proceed in so great a matter with more moderation and discretion, but he refused'.
Full of zeal, Conrad made the possibly fatal error of accusing a number of powerful noblemen of heresy. When the case was brought before a synod of bishops and nobles in 1233 all charges were dismissed. Three days later Conrad was murdered and similar fates befell Conrad Dors and John.
At first the pope wrote of Conrad as a martyr but unlike later murdered inquisitors he was never canonised. At a church council a year after his death one Bishop exclaimed 'Master Conrad of Marburg deserves to be dug up and burnt as a heretic'.
So while Conrad went about his activities with the blessing of the Pope this does not mean that the church as a whole approved of his actions. Not every ecclesiastic agreed with his views or methods and and nor did the secular powers in society support them.
As a conclusion to these sorry events a papal nuncio on inquisition was issued which meant that in future indiscriminate persecution was to be replaced by the methodical application of the law.
The image of the dark middle ages can still affect scholarship but the image itself has a particular history. It was forged in the aftermath of the reformation. Protestant historians from the sixteenth century onwards sought the roots for their reforms in heresies of earlier times. They associated their contemporary struggles with past persecution depicting an omnipotent repressive Catholic church.
More recently historians have emphasised the heterogenous nature of the medical church and religious toleration in intellectual thought at that time. The activities of Conrad Marburg cannot be seen as representative of the whole church.
Nevertheless Conrad's reign of terror did happen, people were killed for alleged transgressions against the faith and this was not the only occasion.
By substituting canon law for zealotry and arbitrariness the papacy did not institute a new regime of religious pluralism and tolerance. Unbridled religious violence was simply replaced with with a more subtle and arguably more powerful form of violence through the framework of doctrinal policing.
Source for post: Arnold, J. H. (2009) 'Repression and Power' In Rubin, M. and Simons, W. (eds.) The Cambridge history of christianity: christianity in western Europe c.1100- c.1500, pp.355-371, New York: Cambridge University Press.