Monastic Witchcraft and other tests of the Visitatorial Inquisition in Late Medieval England.

The Ruins of Leicester Abbey.

The ruins of the abbey of Leicester. The cloister is on the right, and the nave of the abbey church is on the left. The abbey was closed as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries in 1538.

My paper has been accepted for the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America which will be held April 10-12, 2014 at the University of California in Los Angeles.  

Think the medieval inquisition was all heretics and witches? The original inquisition was focused on clerical misconduct. Inquisition was a legal framework that bishops could use for investigation and persecution. My research has explored how this process was used during the bishop’s regular visitation of monasteries. If you’re interested — come see me at the MAA 2014 conference next April — See below.


On December 3, 1440, the bishop of Lincoln, William Alnwick, conducted a routine visitation of the Augustinian abbey of Leicester. During his visit, however, Alnwick heard damning allegations against Leicester’s abbot, William Sadyngtone, who was accused of sexual incontinence, financial misconduct and most alarming of all, of being an active practitioner of witchcraft who regularly cast incantations in front of the other canons. What had begun as a somewhat mundane visitation quickly evolved into a full-scale episcopal investigation into the abbot’s conduct.[endnote Lincolnshire Archives Office, V/j/1 fol. 104-6.]

While accusations of abbatial witchcraft were certainly unusual, the episcopal apparatus of visitation was well-equipped to deal with nearly any sort of misconduct. In the record, visitations are normally referred to as inquisitiones praeparatoriae and indeed, an episcopal visitation was a type of inquisition. While the medieval inquisition is more commonly associated with the criminal persecution of heresy (particularly Cathars), this was not its original focus. Indeed, as a number of scholars have recently demonstrated, the inquisitio actually arose as a means of maintaining clerical discipline rather than prosecuting heretics.[endnote See for example Lotte Kéry, “Inquisitio – Denunciatio – Exceptio: Möglichkeiten der Verfahrenseinleitung im Dekretalenrecht,” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte: Kanonistische Abteilung 87 (2001): 226–68.] The implication of these studies is that episcopal visitations of clergy influenced the later development of the more familiar judicial inquisition, not the other way around. In other words, the episcopal visitation was the original inquisition. However, while there is a wide range of scholarship concerning the use of inquisitio in criminal proceedings and the persecution of heresy, its association with episcopal visitation has attracted much less interest. Consequently, the exact process of inquisitio employed during episcopal visitations of monasteries is not well understood.

My paper will explore how visitatorial inquisition worked in practice based on a series of visitation records which detail numerous cases of monastic misconduct ranging from witchcraft to prostitution from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Lincoln and Norwich between 1420-1530.