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[Book reviews]

Lost civilization
Two trips to Cathar country


The Perfect Heresy
By Stephen O’Shea. Walker Books, 333 pages, $25.
The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars 1290-1329
By René Weis. Alfred A. Knopf, 399 pages, $35.

Why do we care about the Cathars, a heretic sect that flourished in the south of France and Catalonia from about 1125 to 1325? We don’t care about the Pelagians, the Docetists, or the Montanists, sects that, in their day, held an even wider sway in Christendom. We don’t much read even about the Arians or the Monophysites, heretical Christian congregations that included kings of nations and influenced the course of European and Middle Eastern history much more significantly than the Cathars. Neither do we read about the Waldensians, contemporaries of the Cathars who shared many of their beliefs.

Yet we do read about the Cathars. Two recent books, Stephen O’Shea’s The Perfect Heresy and René Weis’s The Yellow Cross, add immediacy to an already extensive literature. Weis’s book reads like a local chronicle — as it should, since it draws almost its entire vision from Montaillou, the book by which French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in the vein of his great predecessor, Marc Bloch, brought the everyday lives of ordinary people into medieval history’s center stage. O’Shea’s book, meanwhile, reads like Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini (though without the Florentine’s sneer) or, more to the point, the chronicles of French crusader Jean de Joinville. Pope, counts, kings, bishops, legates, great ladies, burghers, and barons are his main actors, their rivalries and clashing agendas determining the fates of thousands of peasants, burghers, and common footsoldiers. He revels in the clang and mayhem of battle.

And well he might. It is a dramatic tale, the rise to prominence of the Cathar movement and its crushing by armed adventurers in the service of the Catholic establishment; and each author understands, and conveys, his portion of the drama to the reader. Awaiting the 21st-century reader of O’Shea is the anger, diffidence, and occasional heroism of Raimon VI Saint-Gilles, count of Toulouse, who lived from 1165 to 1222 (O’Shea writes that " he refused to persecute his own people " ), and his military-genius son, Count Raimon VII. We also read of the impetuous courage of Raymond Roger, the Cathar count of Foix.

O’Shea’s on-the-scene reporting style creates some unforgettable scenes. First is at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 — at which Raimon is either to be confirmed as count of Toulouse or dispossessed — with Pope Innocent III presiding. Nobles and bishops are present; tempers run foul. Bishop Fulk of Toulouse, who wants the Cathars exterminated, finds himself assailed thus by Raymond Roger of Foix:

And I tell you that the bishop, who is so violent that in all he does he is a traitor to God and to ourselves, has gained by means of lying songs and beguiling phrases which kill the very soul of any who sing them, by means of those verbal quips he polishes and sharpens, by means too of our own gifts through which he first became an entertainer, and through his evil teaching, this bishop has gained such power, such riches, that no one dares breathe a word to challenge his lies. . . . Once he was elected bishop of Toulouse, a fire has raged throughout the land that no water anywhere can quench, for he has destroyed the souls and bodies of more than five hundred people, great and small. In his deeds, his words, and his whole conduct, I promise you he is more like Antichrist than a messenger from Rome.

His words almost tear Fulk’s eyes out (and well they might, for the armies Fulk supports were doing just that to Raymond Roger’s vassals). Yet Fulk refuses to be goaded. There to support the case of Simon de Montfort, whose armies have raped and pillaged Cathar country, he almost begs: " My lord, true pope, dear Father Innocent, how can you covertly disinherit the count de Montfort, a truly obedient son of holy Church, one who supports yourself, who is enduring such wearying strife and conflict and is driving out heresy, mercenaries and men of war? "

And so it went. Perhaps Innocent feared Raymond Roger’s righteous ferocity more than Fulk’s unctuous hypocrisy. A second unforgettable scene in O’Shea reads as if straight from the style of Joinville’s Life of Saint Louis: the siege of Toulouse, in which one hears the crash of maces, watches soldiers dismember each other, feels the blood-and-wetness of moat sappers and walls undermined. The Toulousians hurl fire and guts at the men of Simon de Montfort, and then, after all attacks by the besiegers fail, comes Simon’s last charge, in which his brother takes a spear in the groin and he himself is struck dead by a stone missile hurled from a mangonel. What’s left of Toulouse lives, and breathes again, and you may well find yourself cheering.

The reader of Weis, meanwhile, accompanies Cathar " perfects " Pierre Authie, Prades Tavernier, and Pierre Maury as they try to avoid capture by the Inquisition wandering secretly at night from shepherd households in the Montaillou region to the hearths of peasants in Languedoc hill towns like Tarascon, Larnat, Ax, and Junac. Weis compares the work of his rural and small-town heroes to a much more recent movement, the French resistance in World War II. But that merely begs the question one asks of any work of history: what was singular about the Cathar movement? What lessons does it offer that aren’t offered by other historical dramas?

The answer can only be that it offers no such. We do not read about the Cathars in O’Shea and Weis, or in Ladurie or Marc Bloch, or in Norman Cantor’s magisterial Civilisation of the Middle Ages or Bernhard Schimmelpfennig’s equally imperial The Papacy (in which one sees the long, Roman institutional turmoil mastered by O’Shea’s anti-Cathar pope, Innocent III), because there are unique lessons to be learned here about freedom of worship, repression, and intolerance — though the Cathar story has all of these. We read about the Cathars, first, because they were the religious manifestation of troubadour culture — the poetry of chivalric love, which was inspired in part by Arabic Sufi poetry.

Troubadour poetry dominated the period from roughly 1100 to 1350; its language, Occitan (or Provençal), was, for two centuries, the only vehicle of poetic expression throughout Latin Europe, and the language of the Cathars and their region. We think of Dante as having created the vernacular Italian language; yet Dante first contemplated writing his Comedy in Occitan — how else was he to be read by those who lived outside Tuscany? We think — especially if we have read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading — of Guido Cavalcanti and Petrarch as having invented the sonnet, the most successful of European lyric styles; yet Cavalcanti and Petrarch were adjusting an already existing canon of Occitan verse to their new meter and rhyme system. Occitan poetry has never ceased to be read, in translation or in the original. It feels completely modern. In it, women play the central role, express sexual feelings, ponder their hopes and their destinies. There were women troubadours, most of them the wives, daughters, and sisters of Occitania’s greatest nobles.

It is a surprise to read that Occitan women of 800 years ago were so highly regarded and honestly participant. What sort of faith was this Catharism that flourished in troubadour circles? It was everything the imperial Roman church was not. Cathar women could be, and often were, " perfects " — the Cathar version of priests, authorized to give Catharism’s only sacrament, the consolamentum. Catharism believed that the material world was a deception and a snare, that man and woman were one, that marriage, by attempting to sanctify sexual relations in the real world, tainted them. Catharism’s denial of the goodness of the material world — a viewpoint held by the Gnostics, Christianity’s oldest and longest-lasting heresy — may seem a ticket to extreme asceticism; but in fact, as we read in Weis especially, Cathar believers lived lives of sexual frankness, humorous conversation, and cultural tolerance. Jews — who had lived in Occitania since Roman times — moved fairly freely in Cathar country; some held high public office.

That is why we read about the Cathars today. We read of possibilities blossoming and being quashed. Occitania is sometimes called " the nation that never was " — though as a language and a state of mind it was and still continues (in Catalonia it even has taken political shape); but it is its disappearance, as pope, king, bishop, and Inquisition crushed the Cathar movement, that we mourn for. Because of that, we have had to wait almost 700 years to recover the tolerance and the high position of women that was the promise of Cathar and Occitanian civilization. Seven hundred years lost. Twenty-eight generations. That is why we read about the rise and the defeat of Catharism.

Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001