Under Watchful Eyes

The medieval origins of mass surveillance.

By Amanda Power

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by Charles Joseph Natoire, c. 1740. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Richardson III, George T. Delacorte Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Heinz II Gifts; Victor Wilbour Memorial, Marquand, and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds; and The Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection, Edward J. Gallagher Jr. Bequest, 1987.


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Humanity, according to the most influential origin story of Western culture, was created naked, unashamed, wholly willing to submit to the scrutiny of the god who made the world and its rules. Through an act of defiance urged on humans by an enemy of their happy state, “their eyes were opened”—they realized their own nakedness and sought to hide from view. The god was so angered by this that he threw them out of paradise to suffer and die. This was the original sin, the disobedience for which humans deserved to be punished through generations, centuries, and until the world ends. It was, quite simply, the pursuit of knowledge not sanctioned by the one who ruled them, and the hunger for privacy from surveillance. Or so the ruling elite, through its rabbis and priests, has told the population for thousands of years, through the brief and vivid story of the Fall.

Nor did variants on this god—depending on the teller: murderous or tender, wild with wrath or soberly judging, immediate or remote, but consistently male—cease watching after humanity’s expulsion from Eden. The resulting observations were the basis for a highly interventionist treatment of those he called his chosen people. When they obeyed him, he gave them, in his hot and possessive love, pleasant places to live, and he slaughtered their enemies. When they looked to other gods, he rained devastating punishments on them until they submitted once again. He could see into their hearts and enter their dreams. Much of this remained the same in his Christian incarnation, but the dazzling promise that immortality could be regained through Christ’s death was yoked to the demand for a particular kind of self-scrutiny: the constant examination and exposure of one’s inner self. He knew us but also insisted we know ourselves and share our knowledge with him. Participation in our own surveillance was the price of entry into heaven.

The Eavesdropper, by Nicolas Maes, c. 1656. © V&A Images, London / Art Resource, NY.

For centuries the history of Western nations was traced from these beginnings, and so for centuries this god was part of how we legitimized our forms of government and those individuals who governed us. The flawed nature of societies characterized by inequality and injustice was simply another aspect of life in the unsatisfactory world created by mankind’s original sin. Around 1159 John of Salisbury, discussing governance in his Policraticus, observed that even tyrants of the worst kind were “ministers of God, who by His just judgment has willed them to be preeminent over both soul and body. By means of tyrants, the evil are punished and the good are corrected and trained.” All this, he believed, was a result of humans reaching a “rash and reckless hand toward the forbidden tree of knowledge,” and thereby plunging themselves into misery and death. The only remedy lay in submission to God; the only comfort in hard times was His watchful eye. So useful a tool did the idea of God prove to be—to ruler and ruled alike—that it has been carried, through the teeth of the so-called Enlightenment, into the social imagination of many republics and democracies. And it would not be surprising if these ideas, reiterated so consistently over the centuries, informed our attitudes toward the sort of surveillance we now experience as a novel aspect of modern life.

For it seems to be such a contemporary issue: the mass surveillance of the global population by corporations and government bureaucracies that has transcended all pretense of democratic accountability. The technologies that enable it are sophisticated, sleek, and silent. A sort of cyborg omniscience is obtained by those who control the information. If we have drifted into the dystopia of which George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned, then surely, we are inclined to think, we have entered a terrifying new world.

But those who see in all this something eerily futuristic may have it backward. In our modern surveillance state, it’s possible we have in some perverse and unexpected fashion actually regained something of the comforts of being known by a higher authority—something that the modern West had largely lost, and for which we have perhaps unconsciously longed.


At its most essential level, the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, interested, judging God was translated into our inherited forms of governance through the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s words to Peter, in the Gospel According to Matthew. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” Christ says to his apostle, “and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The Church alleged that this authority had been transmitted through the succession of the bishops of Rome, and flowed from pope on down through the clerical hierarchy, so that every priest shared in the power to bind and loose on earth, in the knowledge that their decisions would be upheld by God.

Secrecy lies at the very core of power.

—Elias Canetti, 1960

Through the priests, God’s power to watch and judge had a human embodiment. They were not to shed blood, but there were circumstances in which they were to hand over obdurate individuals to secular authorities for execution. God’s dispersed authority was thus delegated even to laypeople whose individual jurisdiction extended no further than towns and villages. At the top of the secular hierarchy, monarchs were anointed by priests, thus symbolizing their religious legitimacy. As in John of Salisbury’s “ministers of God,” these monarchs’ worst abuses were sanctioned by the assertion of the elites that governments always operated with the backing of watchful divine will.

Eight centuries ago, in November 1215, Pope Innocent III presided over a Great Council of the Church in Rome known as the Fourth Lateran Council. It was attended by high-ranking members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the monastic world, together with representatives of emperors, kings, and other secular leaders from throughout Christendom. Their decisions were promulgated through seventy-one constitutions. They began with a statement of what all Christians were required to believe, including specifics on the nature of God—by this time: “eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable”—and the view that salvation could be found only through the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who disagreed, according to the third constitution, was to be handed over to secular lords for punishment, stripped of their property, and cast out of society until they proved their orthodoxy, or else be executed if they did not. Anyone in authority would be punished if they did not seek out and expel such people from their lands; their subjects would be released from obedience and their territories handed over to true Catholics. There was nothing empty about this threat: the council occurred in the middle of the bitter Albigensian Crusade, during which heresy—likened to a cancer in the body of Christendom—was purportedly being cut out of Languedoc by the swords of the pious.

The Fourth Lateran Council was talking about crimes of thought, of dissent over matters of belief, matters not susceptible of proof. But whether individuals were heretics could not, in theory, be established without investigating the contents of their minds. To this end, the council decreed that bishops’ representatives should inquire in every parish at least once a year to discover “if anyone knows of heretics there or of any persons who hold secret conventicles or who differ in their life and habits from the normal way of living of the faithful.” These representatives were to follow these external indications of nonconformity into the recesses of the mind and establish their meaning in each case. Over the decades the role of the inquisitor was developed into an art and a science, and elaborate handbooks were produced. But in 1215 it was stated merely that individuals should be punished if “unable to clear themselves of the charge.”

There was vast space for uncertainty and administrative error in a population that was spread, sometimes thinly, across a continent and beyond, and that was largely illiterate and dependent on the zeal of local priests for their religious education. The council sought to address these issues. The eighth constitution set out procedures for inquiring into rumors and accusations of offenses, while the thirty-eighth required that written records be kept of every aspect of a trial; these two combined to lay the administrative foundations for the Inquisition. Those who had been convicted of heresy but had recanted would be subject to lifelong scrutiny of their thoughts by ecclesiastical authorities to ensure they did not return to their old errors. This was such a threat to the freedom of some individuals that there were attempts—some successful—to destroy these records.

The twenty-first constitution provided a framework for subjecting the orthodox population to a similar if less menacing process. It mandated that all members of the Christian population confess all their sins to a priest at least annually, perform appropriate penance, and receive the Eucharist. If they did not, they would be excluded from the Church and denied a Christian burial—a fearsome thing for the age. The priest hearing the confession must “carefully inquire about the circumstances of both the sinner and the sin.” He was, ideally, to be their parish priest, who knew them in their daily lives. Finally, the sixty-eighth constitution required that Jews and Muslims must wear distinguishing dress so that there could be no confusion—what God knew of a person’s faith would be visible to the temporal authorities.

These constitutions were not all effectively implemented, and there were enormous regional differences in emphasis and clerical effort. One bishop, Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln, concerned that others were not zealous enough, wrote in 1242 to the bishop of Worcester that “wickedness must not be spared; indeed…it should be struck down everywhere and put to death with the edge of the sword,” adding, “God forbid that you, who began strong…in the end are found to be feeble.” Partly in response to the perceived failings of some bishops, new religious orders devoted to preaching and pastoral care, notably the Franciscans and Dominicans, spread rapidly with papal support. These orders helped carry out the ambitious project articulated at Lateran IV, pursuing its ends in alliance with popes, bishops, secular rulers, and other influential people.

The Cairo gang, a group of British intelligence operatives, Dublin, 1920. © Sean Sexton Collection / Bridgeman Images.

One example of the influence they had in the lives of the wealthy and the powerful was Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. Simon’s father had led the Albigensian crusade in the south of France, working closely with Cistercians and the first Dominicans to root out dissent. Simon was deeply influenced by the ideas of a group of reformers that included Grosseteste and prominent Franciscans. He frequently sought their advice, submitted to their corrections, exercised his governance in accordance with their ideas, and entrusted his sons to be educated in Grosseteste’s household. Simon’s personal relationships may have made him an exceptional case, but a consensus nevertheless existed among secular and ecclesiastical elites that God was the ultimate source of authority in society.

We hear about the lurid punishments of heretics in this era—what could be more quintessentially medieval?—but little about the great majority of the population who never faced the fires. The difficulty of discovering the views of an illiterate population has been much explored by historians, but as far as we can make out from a range of sources (manuals for confessors, records of pious donations, local saints’ cults, pilgrimages, and the popularity of certain relics) the majority of the population accepted the simple statements of belief they were required to make, and confessed something of their thoughts and actions to priests. They perceived themselves as inhabiting a universe in which the span of mortal life was a brief prelude to eternal happiness or the torments of hell. They lived within a system of full surveillance, which was expected and desired, but also deeply feared. Fear promoted both good behavior and repentance for bad behavior. It offered traction in dealing with intractable people, especially when matters of reputation and family status were concerned.

Even the most powerful opponents of the political activities of the papal curia used the language of faith to defend their positions. They did not dare attack the Church itself but only particular individuals within it as unworthy. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who defied the pope on various occasions, still instituted on his own authority severe penalties for those found guilty of heresy and positioned himself in his struggles with the pope as a man warning against corruption. And even so, Frederick, who was excommunicated at the time of his last illness, made sure to have a loyal archbishop absolve him before he died.

The truth of the Church’s teachings was periodically confirmed to the living by the spirits of the dead, who were in a position to know it with certainty. In the early eleventh century, the chronicler Ralph Glaber reported an incident “certainly worthy of belief.” Wulferius, a monk in Burgundy, was praying alone in a church when the building suddenly filled with stern figures in white robes and purple stoles, who proceeded to celebrate Mass. Wulferius asked them who they were, and they told him that they were Christians who had been killed as they defended their homeland from the Saracens. They had received a divine dispensation to go to heaven (with no time in purgatory), and on their way were passing through the region because many good people there were about to join their company. They beckoned Wulferius to join them but disappeared when he tried. He realized that he was soon to die. Soon after, he did. Thus, according to a reliable contemporary witness, those who died for the faith would go to heaven.

A well-known Bavarian story about conscience was told by Caesarius of Heisterbach in the thirteenth century. The widow of a man who had been an official at the court of the Bavarian dukes was awakened one night by her dead husband, who was forced into her chamber by “a gigantic black man.” She asked him about his condition. He told her he had been condemned to eternal punishment. Horrified, she said, “But did you not always give alms and did you not always keep your door open to pilgrims?” He replied, “Such deeds were undertaken out of vanity and pride, not out of charity, so they cannot give me eternal life.” He told her that “even if all the leaves on all trees were to become tongues, they could not tell you enough about my torment”—and then disappeared.

The first duty of a good inquisitor is to suspect especially those who seem sincere to him.

—Umberto Eco, 1980

What these and similar stories made clear was that everything was known—even the most delicate nuances of motivation never expressed to a loving spouse. Each individual was placed in the afterlife with exquisite precision, punished or rewarded with a refinement of justice possible only through a system of total surveillance. Such stories left listeners in no doubt that the degree of obedience to the Church and its teachings determined an individual’s fate, even after death. This must have been comforting to the majority of the population. They knew what they were to do, and if they did it, God would know they had, and great joys would await them. If they accepted suffering and injustice on this earth in the proper spirit, they would be abundantly compensated. Confession was a tool meant to help people navigate where they would stand in the afterlife. It helped them discover their true motivations and establish what had been their sins. They could then do penance in life—infinitely better than doing it after death.


In a series of lectures collected as Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault proposed that the Fourth Lateran Council’s requirement for annual confession was the beginning of a process of creating self-disciplining citizens who had internalized the values and ambitions of the state, and who therefore did not need cruder forms of coercion to live by them. This may well be a reasonable analysis, allowing for the complexities of implementation, the failures of priests, and some skepticism from the laity. It was certainly the intention of those who decided to mandate these requirements that the lay population should participate self-consciously in a process that would communicate to them what they were to believe, where error lay, and what constituted sin. They knew they would have to perform penances to be allowed to participate in the community of the faithful through the Eucharist. Thus they were trained to hold as their own the beliefs outlined for them during the council in Rome, to discipline themselves in accordance with them, and to shun those who did not similarly conform.

If we imagine cynical rulers and a credulous population, however, we have got it wrong. Some of those most vigorously committed to the pursuit of salvation through the Church were prominent members of royal or noble families. There were intricate connections between their spirituality and their performance of public roles. There are numerous examples of elite women subjecting themselves to intensive regimes of confession and penance, not infrequently resulting in early death. Their actions conferred distinction upon their families and enhanced the moral legitimacy of the dynasties to which they belonged. One was Elizabeth of Hungary, daughter of the king. From a young age she was greatly influenced by the prevailing modes of pious behavior. After her husband’s death, she became closely involved with her confessor, the notorious inquisitor Conrad of Marburg, and under his direction she embraced extremes of self-scrutiny, punishment, and self-discipline, which she pursued as part of an exercise in complete submission to God. She died in 1231 at the age of twenty-four. Shortly afterward a papal commission inquired into her possible sanctity. During the inquest, four of her former companions testified to her sufferings. One reported: “Master Conrad repeatedly tested her constancy, breaking her will in every way and ordering her to do things contrary to her nature…He took away from her all of the human solace that she had in us, wanting her to adhere to God alone.” On the same occasion, another former handmaiden said Elizabeth “used to fear Master Conrad a great deal, as if he were God, saying, ‘If I fear a mortal man this much, how much more to be feared is the omnipotent Lord, who is the lord and judge of all things?’ ” Reports were collected of the many miracles she had wrought, in life and posthumously, among the population. She was speedily canonized.

Louis IX, king of France at the time, was a beneficiary of the policy of handing over to good Catholics the lands of alleged heretics and those who sheltered them. By these means, he ruled much of what is now modern France. A man of fierce piety, he tried to live with some of the simplicity of the religious orders around him; his aim was to ensure the salvation of his subjects through the exercise of his royal and juridical authority. This involved such strategies as punishing blasphemy and prostitution with particular harshness. One of his biographers, Jean de Joinville, described the king’s severe punishments of those who had “spoken basely” or “sworn blasphemous oaths”: one goldsmith was “put in the stocks…wearing his breeches and his chemise and had the guts and innards of a pig piled round his neck—there was such a quantity that it came right up to his nose.” Here was a king who, out of intense commitment to God, adopted the priorities and strategies of the clergy to coerce the population into engagement with God—a secular leader who took it upon himself to police his people’s thoughts.


Perhaps the most curious thing about the response to revelations concerning the extent of modern mass surveillance is that most people in the West have not seemed to mind; we have not perceptibly altered our online behavior or demanded a response from our governments. We seem not able or willing to grasp the implications, and we have shown a weary cynicism that evidently masks a deeper indifference. Many have shown an eager complicity, free of defensiveness. If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear, we insist, forgetting the innocence of millions interned and murdered by Western governments within living memory. Surveillance will keep us safe from our enemies, we say, obediently accepting the pronouncements of our governments on the identities of our enemies and the proper sources of our terror.

Masyaf Castle, headquarters of the Syrian branch of the Assassins, a Shiite Ismaili sect, Syria, twelfth century. © Werner Forman Archive / HIP / Art Resource, NY.

What is all this but a fundamental trust in the experience of being watched? Our trust is so strong that it seems to have found its own protective rationality, deeply rooted in Western consciousness. It’s an addict’s rationality, by which we’re unable to refrain from making public a stream of intimate details of our lives and those of children too young to consent. One must wonder about the subtle, unspoken fear of the consequences of refusing to participate in systems of surveillance, or even to critique them seriously. This would be to risk isolation. It would be a trifle paranoid to reveal less—a little eccentric, not quite rational.

Those who have exposed the extent of surveillance are fugitives and exiles from our paradise. They have played the role of the cursed serpent of Eden: the purveyor of illicit knowledge who broke the harmony between watcher and watched. The rest of us contemplate the prospect of dissent with careful unease, feeling that our individual and collective security depends on compliance. We are unwilling to cease our perpetual confessing. That murmuring of our thoughts and experiences into the listening ears of states and corporations—disguised by the loving online presence of our family and friends, or concealed by the vast anonymity of the Internet—is one of the great horrors of modernity. We cannot conceive of how what we reveal now about ourselves and our children might be used in the future, by the systems of governance that will arise amid the instabilities of a changing climate. And yet, for all that, the deep narratives of our culture tell us that the lost happiness of humanity consisted not of the harsh travails of private existence, but of just this: living naked and innocent within the absolute love of an omniscient watcher.


Further Reading:
John of Salisbury, Policraticus, edited and translated by Cary Nederman (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
The Letters of Robert Grosseteste, edited and translated by F.A.C. Mantello and Joseph Goering (University of Toronto Press, 2010).
Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State 1050–1300 (University of Toronto Press, 1988).
Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories (Woodbridge, 2001).
Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Life and Afterlife of St. Elizabeth of Hungary: Testimony from her Canonization Hearings (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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