"The Cathars of Languedoc defy obscurity because their story has become legend", yet the Albigensian Crusade, sent to destroy them, is far less well known than the crusades to Palestine. Inspired by his travels in France, Canadian historian Stephen O'Shea's tale of this medieval sect and its destruction is empathetic, evocative and sometimes refreshingly witty. The book's recreations of the "medieval phantasmagoria" of siege warfare are superb at bringing the medieval world alive. Present from the 12th century to the first quarter of the 14th, Catharism was "a pacifist brand of Christianity embracing tolerance and poverty". Rejecting the authority of the Church, and clasping a series of unorthodox beliefs, it was considered "perfect heresy". Strong in the towns of southern France, Catharism was initially protected by the "tacit assent--or fecklessness--of its overlords". Nobles, monks, popes and kings star in this story of the "abattoir Christianity" of decades of conflict encompassing religious and secular motivation. Catharism was finally eliminated by the Inquisition whose operational methods are fascinatingly and clearly explained. A highly accessible text for non-specialists, The Perfect Heresy draws on modern scholarship and ancient manuscripts (detailed in the notes) of "chroniclers, commentators, inquisitors, clergymen, and lords". Given the resplendent narrative it's a shame that the meagre illustrations are of such poor reproductive quality. But maybe the book doesn't really need them. --Karen Tiley
Eight hundred years ago, the Cathars, a group of heretical Christians from all walks of society, high and low, flourished in what is now the Languedoc in Southern France. Their subversive beliefs brought down on them the wrath of Popes and monarchs and provoked a brutal 'Crusade' against them. The final defeat of the Cathars was horrific with mass burnings of men, women and children in the village of Montaillou in the Pyrenees.