FULMEN : a research group



Foudres du Vatican : en rire.
Gustave Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées reçues.

Peu de sujets se prolongent et se ramifient comme celui-ci.
Eugène Vernay, Le Liber de excommunicatione du cardinal Bérenger Frédol, Paris, 1912, p. i.

     Canonical censures or sanctions – excommunication, interdict and suspension – are very long-standing religious and legal institutions, and their prominent role in ancient Western societies has been largely overlooked and understudied. Interdict, as a sanction applied to a region and its population, obviously no longer exists. Excommunication, however, still remains the main « medicinal » punishment (as opposed to « expiatory punishments ») within the catholical Church, along with suspension, for the clergy alone – according to the terms of canon laws 1312 and 1331-1333 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

     From the myth of Emperor Theodosius’ « excommunication » by Saint Ambrose, following the Massacre of Thessalonica (390), to that pronounced in 2014 against the Austrian president of the Wir sind Kirche lay movement (for having organised illicit masses), canonical sanctions have remained, albeit within very different contexts and forms, an instrument of pastoral governance that has proven to be particularly flexible − although tricky to implement due to potentially counter-productive effects. They belong to a very particular normative system to which they owe their highly specific features : their intention is not to strike or punish directly, but rather to assess, weigh and judge, in order to classify, draw up an inventory or record (censeo), and consequently to assign to guilty individuals a special, reversible status that aims both to preserve the community and to encourage the concerned parties to make amends, to correct their ways. To take the terms of the medical metaphor used by the canon law, they are curative measures intended to lead to penitence and re-inclusion − even if this were to imply prior exclusion.

    The consistency of these principles – which can be traced back to before Christianity with the Roman censors’ nota infamiae – and rituals – such as the papal ceremony for the excommunication of « the Church’s ennemies », repeated on fixed dates thrice yearly from the 12th to the 18th century – obviously covers a multitude of situations and numerous developments across different ages and places. The FULMEN group brings together historians, covering all periods, to engage in collective and comparative research on the form and function of canonical censure, from late Antiquity to present day, within Christianity and in particular the Catholic faith, although not exclusively. Care is taken not to neglect any possible comparisons with forms of exclusion present in other religions. Consideration will consistently be given to both long continuities and to specificities, whilst concentrating on two angles of approach : that of the relationships between the subject’s interiority and governance, on the one hand, and that of the relationships between secular authorities and the ecclesiastic institution, on the other.


   As from the central Middle Ages (at the latest), the excommunicated individual was a judge unto himself, and sometimes the only one. Indeed, in many cases, excommunication occurred ipso facto, meaning that it came into force solely by committing an offence, automatically and without the specific involvement of a judge, pursuant to a general sentence (lata sentencia) or a canon (a canone) that had been previously promulgated (in other words a jure, as opposed to excommunication ab homine or ferende sentencie). Such a system tends, to a certain extent, to inject law into facts, and this powerful immanence first and foremost involves the reflexivity of the subject, who may be alone in knowing that he is excommunicated. The latter might also remain uncertain as to his state of excommunication, just as the judge might himself – hence the institution, in the 13th century, of absolution « for safety’s sake » (ad cautelam). The effectiveness of excommunication admittedly relies, today as in the past, upon the existence of a sphere of publicity (which it helps to spark off) within which social control develops and where the punishment makes its effects felt in full – an aspect that we shall certainly be spending some time on. But this effectiveness is also due, maybe primarily, to the self-incrimination of the Christian within his conscience – as still reflected in the canon 1331 of the Code of 1983, where the effects of « non-inflicted or declared » excommunication, which consists in being deprived of access to the sacraments and in being banned from performing clerical duties, are supposed to be enforced by the excommunicated individual himself, and by himself alone. Self-incrimination within the intimacy of one’s conscience actually supposes that the subject bears knowledge, requiring universal publicity, of general excommunication sentences (that the councils and the synodal statutes never failed to publish on an annual or bi-annual basis).

     Moreover, excommunication and interdict belong to the very particular category of actions that are accomplished principally through words. Their history also belongs to the vast and complex history of the socio-political setting of the performatory language from which they draw their substance and effectiveness.

    The historical realities within their complex contexts and the specific formal characteristics of the legal mechanism that consists in the self-assignment by subjects, even before being sentenced, of a status of penitential nature (if not punitive), remain to be examined in detail. If governmentality, as defined by Michel Foucault, is a regime founded on relations that link self-governance, meaning subjectivity, with the governance of others, meaning politics, then the system of excommunication forms a typical example within the Western tradition. The system of interdict also, which sanctions the populations of a region whose government is found guilty, can no doubt be approached from this angle, amongst others.



     The history of canonical censures or sanctions is also, of course, that of the confrontation, convergence and tension between spiritual authority and temporal powers. It affords a long-term perspective of the dualism that was characteristic of Western power, at least until the Enlightment, and the related dialectic interplay – be it the bouts of theocratic leanings or the « secularisation » of princely powers.

     How was the excommunication tradition shaped in Late Ancient Christianity, between the influence of Rabbinical culture and the Roman system of values ? How were anathema and socio-political order then organised during the High Middle Ages, characterised by an ecclesiastic institution benefiting from little autonomy in the face of secular power ? Following the golden age of « governance by canonical sanctions » of the 12th and 13th centuries conditioned, among others, by the « juridicization » of censures, came a very slow decline, coupled with that of the universality of ecclesiastic jurisdiction. How were the uses and socio-political effects of excommunication and interdict reshaped over time, according to the politico-religious environment ? And what remains of this in a world in which religion has largely lost its position as the main organising influence of societies ? We shall strive to compare situations that are more or less distant in time with contemporary examples, drawn from contexts where the Church maintains a strong social ascendancy, for example in Italy or in Latin America. We shall also endeavour to draw possible parallels with non-religious or non-legal forms of exclusion.



     Studies focusing on different historical aspects and the mechanics of canonical censure have been quite prolific over the past century and a half, whilst medievalist and modernist historians are currently demonstrating renewed interest in the topic. Since Henry Charles Lea and his Studies in Church History (1883), however, nobody has attempted to chart this practice over the lengthy span of Western tradition. It is this long and very rich history that we have undertaken to write from scratch, in the only form that it may take : that of a collective, multi-annual research project.

  1. It should be noted that the study of sanctions cannot fail to refer, where necessary, to the history of the censorship of printed matter as from the beginning of the modern age – which involves largely similar issues, even though it remains a clearly separate area of research.
  2. H. C. Lea, « Excommunication », in Studies in Church History, augmented 2nd ed., Philadelphia : Henry C. Lea’s Son & Co, 1883 ; reprint with an afterword by Peter Dinzelbacher, Badenweiler : Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Bachmann, 2009, p. 235-521.