The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars by Stephen O'Shea

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The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars by Stephen O'Shea

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An interesting telling of the story of one man’s stand against the Inquisition in early 14thCentury Languedoc, slightly marred by a muddled approach to contextual timelines, but full of colour, detail and intelligent analysis.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846683190

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I hate starting a book review with why I'm reading it. Why should you care? But I break the rule occasionally, because occasionally that 'why' might colour my judgement and you should be aware of that from the outset.

Regular readers of my humble opinions (on sites other than this one) may recall that several years ago I had stumbled across and recommended "Montaillou" – a Folio Society edition, translated by Barbara Bray from Ladurie's original French. That book was not a history book, but a portrait of a place in a time. The place was the French Pyrenees, the time the first quarter of the 14th century. The point was that the village of Montaillou was a seat of Catharism (or the Albigensian heresy) and had attracted the specific and vicious attention of a particular Inquisitor.

Hence O'Shea's subtitle Revolt against the Inquisition in the last days of the Cathars had me intrigued.

In other words, I came to the book with an already piqued interest in this precise niche of our European history. You should know that I also come to the book as an atheist with increasingly anti-church (any church) leanings. Not anti-faith: anti-church. For 'church' read temple, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, conclave, grove, building or institution of choice.

So having told you about my predilections, I guess I should also give the author his space too, and then we can get on with the book. O'Shea is a Canadian writer specialising in Mediaeval European history in general and religious history of the period in particular.

His forward to this book displays a sense of humour and willingness not only to take criticism on the chin, but also to try to take it into account next time round. He quotes previous chiding and his endeavours this time to avoid it. I can only say that if any of what follows feels like chiding (and what a wonderful word that is!), it isn't meant so. Personal preferences are the remit of the reviewer, even more so than the critic, so take them at face value: one person's viewpoint.

Hopefully, you haven't wandered off in desperation that I would ever get to it. The book:-

It starts with a painting. The painting isn't the point: the subject is. In the Autumn of 1319 a Franciscan Friar stands before his accusers. Entitled L'Agitateur du Languedoc the artwork portrays the trial of Bernard Délicieux, the eponymous Friar of Carcassonne. Although O'Shea veers clear of telling us the outcome of the trial, one cannot help feeling that it wasn't an acquittal. Such things tended not to go down in history quite so resoundingly. Not in those days.

We get the feeling from the beginning, then, that whatever Brother Bernard might achieve, it's likely to be only short-lived.

Although O'Shea hangs his tale, with good reason, on the shoulders of this most politically active (or mischievous if you see it that way) Friar, the book isn't a biography. Indeed, so many details of Brother Bernard's life are shrouded in lack of evidence that to produce a personal biography of the man would seem impossible.

Instead, what O'Shea gives us is a narrative of a particular series of events focussing on the unrest in the Languedoc which was heavily tied up with the actions of the Inquisition (or at least the Inquisitors – a distinction that was oft played upon at the time) and at the heart of which was Brother Bernard Délicieux.

An agitator he undoubtedly was, but from O'Shea's sympathetic portrait it would seem a just one, one motivated by genuinely held beliefs that were at their heart moral and compassionate by anyone's standards. It's just that that didn't exactly stop him from being manipulative, devious and at times treacherous. Just another man at the end of the day and not a saint.

For those unfamiliar with the times O'Shea starts off with a great deal of context. Whilst this is useful in many ways, there are also problems with his approach. It's easy to start to lose patience as you get towards a quarter of the way through and have scarcely met Brother Bernard. If you stick with it, you'll get over that. More lingering however is the confusion engendered by the author's tendency to skip about in the timeline. Being assiduous in putting the events in their precise historical context he talks about what came before, what the atmosphere was at the time and what was to happen afterwards. Scientific method, no doubt, but not the best approach to telling history as story.

I feel that the problem is that O'Shea couldn't decide between a popular history book and an academic treatise. In trying to satisfy both aims, he manages to hit directly between them.

Once we do catch up with Brother Bernard, and if we try to ignore the leaps into the future the tale hits a rattling pace, full of intrigue, politicking and general nastiness on all sides and on the whole the work is eminently readable. The nod to the academics is a wealth of end notes, bibliography and an index which in total take up some 65 pages (almost a third again the length of the central text).

The turn of the 13th / 14th centuries were fervent times in Europe. The modern states as we know them were still amalgamations of smaller kingdoms and in Rome sat the Pope, head of a Roman Catholic Church, who believed that he ruled over all. This belief was shared by many of the common populace: either out of genuine piety and religious faith or (let's be honest) because at the time most of them had neither the literacy, nor the liberty, nor the time to think for themselves. Many of those things were on the increase however: literacy, liberty and time to think. People were beginning to question at least that which they could see with their own eyes.

What they could see was a Church becoming immensely rich and powerful. What they could see were churchmen equally becoming rich and powerful (what was that bit about the poor and the meek?). What they could see was an Inquisition hounding innocent people to their deaths, and beyond into an eternity of purgatory. Not content with the Wall, with the rack and the strappado, with burning at the stake, the Inquisitors would pursue their quarry beyond the grave, dig up the corpses and hang them rotting in the streets with the curse of excommunication upon them.

Within the Church there were factions. The Dominicans headed the Inquisition and saw driving out heresy by whatever means availed as their sacred duty. (A long way from Christ's message of turning the other cheek?). The Franciscans (split even amongst themselves) held to what they saw as a purer form of Christianity, a more forgiving and compassionate approach to the heretics. Note: they didn't dispute that they WERE heretics.

Then there were the heretics themselves: the Cathars.

They considered themselves Christian but held to an older version of Christianity strict about biblical injunctions: especially those about living in poverty, not telling lies, not killing and not swearing oaths. They regarded men and women as equals, but they also believed in reincarnation and refused to eat meat or other animal products. They saw the purpose of life as being to live as well and purely as one could with a view to becoming 'a good man' or 'a good woman' – a holy person in their last existence before being received into the Kingdom of Heaven. They served the community tending to the sick and the poor and in many ways stood in stark contrast to the rich and powerful Catholic clergy. Whilst there are clear doctrinal 'irregularities' in the interpretation of scriptures, it is hard not to figure that the Church hated them more for undermining the power-base than for polluting the creed.

The final political context is that the French king is having a hard time with the Pope.

Oh yes, and Languedoc does not yet (or even now!) feel itself to be French, so it might just have a vested interest in playing off the Church and the King against each other.

Much of Brother Bernard's tenacity over two and half decades speaks to a genuine believer in his cause rather than a rabble-rouser but he couldn't have designed a better set of circumstances in which to set up store. Carcassonne is a small town with a Cité above it housing the Dominican Inquisitors and a notorious prison The Wall hulking between the two. The latest batch of inmates in the Wall (alleged Cathars but with no public evidence to prove it) provide the touchstone for Brother Bernard's campaign against the Inquisitors.

The ammunition is all provided by the Inquisition itself. Crimes could have been committed decades earlier, and might have consisted of no more than a brief genuflection to a "good man" – a thing once so common as to be almost no more than a daily greeting at the time, became an adoration of heretics punishable by imprisonment and dispossession. The reliance on secrecy and torture to gain confessions and evidence, meant that both the evidence and the confession were meaningless. Bishops showed themselves intent on land- and influence-grabbing; the threat of the inquisitors was often sufficient to persuade the hand-over of large tracts of countryside to the Bishop of Albi. The secular staff of the 'punishment arm' were corrupt. There were rumours of rape by men of the cloth. Women subjected to the rack, against the laws of the time. And so it went on.

Although O'Shea is quick to draw many parallels with much later history, some of those that hit home most strongly are the ones he doesn't need to highlight. Those who had committed and abjured minor heretical activity would be given two yellow crosses made of cloth to be sewn on the front and back of their tunics and worn at all times… The many and varied enhanced interrogation techniques, which don't seem to have completely gone away and have echoes in more recent conflicts. The schisms and arguments of dogma, so far removed from the source texts of the faith, being used to argue for crusades, holy wars, righteous persecution, judicial killing.

The overriding picture is a church surviving because IT is powerful, not through the power of the faith of its believers. It is a picture of a church compelling belief, not by unanswerable argument but by physical compulsion, by terror.

Plus ça change… !

The Friar of Carcassonne is an easily read history book, which leaves the ambiguities to stand whilst giving as clear a picture as can now be put together of how it was, and intelligent suppositions as to why. If it's read with one eye on the present, it's also slightly disturbing.

If this book appeals then you might like to try The Templars: History and Myth: From Solomon's Temple to the Freemasons by Michael Haag

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