The Martyred Inquisitor

THE MARTYRED INQUISTOR: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona. By Donald Prudlo. (Ashgate, Hampshire, England, 2008) ISBN: 978-0-7546-6256-3, 300 pages.

This book is an historical biography of the life of St. Peter Martyr, the first Dominican to be canonized.  The author is an assistant professor of ancient and medieval history at Jacksonville State University in Anniston, Alabama.  The book is a piece of formal historical research, as opposed to a popular biography.  It is an excellent example of that genre.

The work is divided into two parts.  There is with an introduction and five chapters.  An epilogue and two appendices with primary source material in translation are thoughtfully included.  Though the author’s presentation is first rate as a piece of scholarship, even a non-specialist can benefit from reading the book.

The first part of the book is a life of Peter Martyr; the second part details the process of his canonization and his cult.  There is an important reflection in the epilogue about the fact that Peter Martyr’s cult was of major importance in the Middle Ages, but now is almost unknown.

This biography fills a longstanding gap.  Peter Martyr’s life has been the subject of great controversy depending on a person’s confession of faith.  Until this book, there has been no systematic study of his life or his cult.  He was a Cathar heretic who was converted to Catholicism.  He was among the first members of the Dominican order and, as the author points out, was, “both a spellbinding preacher and … one of the earliest and most famous papal inquisitors.” (page 5) His cult was the first attempt of the papacy to institute an international cult by law. It had a great deal to do with solidifying the Dominican identity in the early order.  To a post-Christian European culture much in need of the New Evangelization of John Paul II, Peter Martyr presents a strange and interesting kind of priest and martyr, “the Sainted Inquisitor and the Martyred Persecutor.” (Ibid.)

His martyrdom was a source of great romance as the traditional idea of it held that his head was cut open with a sword by a Cathar ambush. As he was dying along the road, he forgave his attacker and wrote, “Credo in unum Deum”(“I believe in one God”), in his blood.  Prudlo provides a critical, historical account of his death.  In this, he affirms that, as Peter was dying, he said both, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” and began reciting the Apostle’s Creed though he did not write these words in his blood.

As to Peter’s character, the fact that he was an inquisitor has influenced the literature.  For Catholics, he has every virtue; for Protestants, he had “monomania’ (page 65) which led him to pursue orthodoxy without fail, even to the detriment of justice and his own health.  Post-Vatican II authors have tried to downplay his role as inquisitor.  This author, however, tries to unravel the Gordian knot which has formed around this lack of objectivity.  Prudlo points out that the actual sources point to someone who may have been excessive in his mortifications, but he was lenient on others, valued friendship greatly, and never committed a mortal sin in his life.

As to his cult, the early friars did not see him as an inquisitor—a role which was popular in post-Tridentine hagiography—but rather as an effective preacher of Catholic doctrine which, of course, included concern for heresy.  As the first saint canonized in the Dominican order, the so-called triple crown of martyr, virgin and preacher was attributed him and was evidence of the friars placing him above many other saints.

The book is highly readable and does not suffer from some of the more ponderous features of many professorial tomes.  It is equally of value to those who wish to advance their historical appreciation of an important, if largely forgotten, Catholic saint, as well as their own spirituality.

Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P.
Holy Apostles College and Seminary
Cromwell, CT

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