The Friar of Carcassonne

October 3, 2011By Paris UpdateBooks
Stephen O’Shea helps shake the dust off the Middle Ages with this gripping tale of a brave monk.

How can people think of the Middle Ages as dusty and dull? To anyone who leans in that direction, en garde! A copy of Stephen O’Shea’s new book, The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars, might be thrust into your unwilling hands with a glare and dare not to like it. O’Shea is a master of popular history, a great stylist and a lover of detail who brings the 13th century to life in a way that is just about irresistible.

From what look like stereotyped ingredients – a monk, an Inquisition, lots of religious intolerance – he has concocted a character study, a political thriller and courtroom drama that has as much to say about the modern world as about the troubled relations between Paris and its 13th-century acquisitions: Languedoc and the Midi.

O’Shea is intrigued by what happens, inevitably, when religion is yoked to dogmatism, and thinking is seen to have only two forms: right and wrong. Bernard Délicieux is the hero of this tale, an outspoken rhetorician who can out-reason the best of logicians and lawyers. He sets out to defend his land and its people against the abuses of the Church, the growing power of the Inquisition and the French occupation.

A little background might be useful here: the 13th century was a low point for the papacy. Caught between its own pretentions to secular political power and the rising influence of the Valois monarchy to the north, it also had to deal with internal dissent. The Spiritual Franciscans, the strongest critics of the corruption and abuses of Rome, claimed to be the true followers of the pure doctrine of Francis of Assisi. That meant absolute poverty and preaching to the people wherever you found them. The more settled and increasingly wealthy Franciscan order, however, already used to comfort just 50 or so years after its founding, were far from happy with this return to what they saw as an unrealistic dream.

Their direct rivals, the Dominican order, founded in 1216 to oppose forms of Christianity that did not meet with papal approval, were leading the inquisitional charge. Not surprisingly, they saw all this talk of purity and poverty as misguided and reeking of heresy. The early 13th-century crusade to free the Midi of heretics and, incidentally, weaken its political centers and will, ended with a French victory, but the brutal repression of Southern mores did not stop with the Albigensian Crusade.

O’Shea is a master on these topics, having already published the gripping The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars, in 2000. Revisiting this period, at the close of the Crusading era, allows him to show us just how crucial its “inventions” – totalitarianism and the notion of a persecuting society – were in sealing the fate of France and even the modern world.

Bernard Délicieux was one brave soul who stood up against the Inquisition, endangering his own life and reputation. A Spiritualist-leaning intellectual and public defender, Délicieux struck out against the construction of one of the first permanent prisons in French history, the mur de Carcassonne, and contested the trials of the political prisoners who were held there for life. In his own wily way, he made known the many abuses of the Dominican inquisitors (torture, disappeared witnesses, never-seen heretics with whom one was said to be associated). By politicizing the issue, he also planted in the mind of King Philippe le Bel the suspicion that the Inquisitors were guilty not only of inciting anti-Church sentiment but, more importantly, of turning people against the French monarchy, thereby solidifying local opposition to both crown and church.

Though he had some stunning early success, we know, alas, that the Inquisition went on, and one might reasonably conclude that Bernard’s efforts were in vain. O’Shea steers us in quite another direction. The name of Bernard Délicieux has surfaced regularly in historical studies of the period, and the archives teem with references to the effects of his courageous stance.

On the basis of what I have just said, you might also fear that the book tips toward the hagiographical but rest assured, O’Shea is too clever for that. Instead, he serves up the portrait of an enigmatic man whose motivations can never be mapped completely and whose actions, though usually canny, were on occasion misdirected. He remains a hugely admirable, if inscrutable figure, one whose name should be on the tip of every southerner’s tongue, and O’Shea deserves congratulations on a job well done.

Bill Burgwinkle


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