In my library I have three books that cover the Crusade to destroy the Cathars in Southern France. This is one of the first I read and I found it be very enjoyable. In around 264 pages the author, Stephen O'Shea, gives you a decent overview of the life and death of these so-called 'heretics'. The author also supplies numerous notes and a decent bibliography along with a guide to recommended reading. There are a number of small black & white illustrations within the narrative but it would have been nice to see a few colour photographs of the locations visited by the author during the preparation of this book. The story of the Crusade against the Cathars is truly horrifying in some places. The atrocities carried out by men of God against a peaceful population all in the name of religion is outstanding. During the Albigensian Crusade in 1209 Catholic Knights stormed the village of Beziers. Before breaching the walls they asked their spiritual leader, Arnold Amaury, how could they distinguish Catholic occupants from the heretics. His reply was "Kill them all, God will know his own." That one line sums up this terrifying period of French history. The continual battles, sieges and murders where followed by the Inquisition where friend betrayed friend, family betrayed family, all just to survive under the 'just' rule of the Catholic Church. We read about that famous French Knight, Simon de Montfort and we find out that in reality he wasn't all that nice! We read about ordinary people, the true heroes of this story, just trying to survive and elk out a living during extraordinary times. The narrative flowed along and you found yourself drawn into the story with the occasional tourist guide information. This is a great introduction to this period and it should appeal to all that enjoy good historical writing. I would also recommended Jonathan Sumption's 'The Albigensian Crusade' and Zoe Oldenbourg's 'The Massacre at Montsegur'.
Stephen O’Shea: The Perfect Heresy ( Profile Books, 2001) This book deals with the growth and violent demise, at the hands of the Catholic Church, of the Languedoc Cathars in the Middle Ages. The title’s ‘perfect’ refers to the enlightened spiritual state Cathars strove to attain. Once ‘perfect ‘ the dualist Cathars believed that, at death, it was possible to escape this satanic material world and ascend into God’s spiritual realm. Given this subject matter, O’Shea’s book is an informative on both an historic and theological level. Set against the backdrop of the Albigensian Crusade, it is also a deeply moving read. Although written for a popular audience, The Perfect Heresy does not, to the author’s credit, deal lightly with the available facts. O’Shea avoids, for example, giving truck to new age theories grown up around Catharism. From the first few pages it is clear that the author manages to write a popular history without recourse to sensationalism. On the downside, the illustrations dispersed throughout the paperback version of The Perfect Heresy do not reproduced well and, thus, fail to contribute to the overall enjoyment. This said, though, there is provision of an informative notes and bibliography section for anyone interested in pursuing further study. In total, I would strongly recommend O’ Shea’s book to anyone interested in Catharism, the Catholic response to heresy, and the Middle Ages generally.
In a world of increasing religious intolerance and inquisitorial style detentions, lessons from the past become even more important. The treatment of the Cathars by the dominant Catholic authorities is one such experience that should not be repeated. The heresy was almost perfect, against all the church stood for, led by the Perfects and in many ways more akin to modern ideology than medieval Catholicism is. The book is similarly almost perfect. It is a highly illuminating account of the establishement, short rise and long fall of a group of heretics, their sympathetic overlords and the whole regional identity of languedoc. Before reading this work I was relatively ignorant of the internal crusades of Christendom. The Perfect Hersey is a perfect introduction to this period and region, illustrating the sheer inhumanity of the treatment dealt to anyone foolish enough to be labelled a heretic or sympathiser to them. The names of Carcassone, Bezier and Toulouse will signify more than just pretty tourist destinations. And perhaps more importantly the book fills in a crucial gap, illustrating the importance of the Cathar hersey to the forging of a unified French monarch, a dominance of northern 'Langue D'Oi' culture and the creation of the infamous Inquisitions. The book is a well written example of good narrative history. It is chronologically coherent, and provides an excellent starting point to anyone whose interest in the intrigues of the Catholic Church's past has been wetted by the attention given to the Da Vinci Code. Not a must read, but for any one with an interest in the area or period it is a vital introduction.
I believe many Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Catholics, Gnostics, backpackers and those interested in popular European History will love this book.
Despite all the gore and cruelty of the history of the Cathars the reading gives you a humane and fair view of the real soul behind this movement who despite being persecuted by some key figures in the Holy See and medieval politics were in fact well-received by the Catholic populace who suffered side-by-side with them, without turning to reprisals when Catholics were culled just by association and proximity. It says a lot about real Christianism happening in both sides of the medieval divide.
It also covers the rigmarole new age, religious, right-wing and left-wing movements made of them in modern times.
When you start reading you feel like becoming one of those Cathars, at least a credente, by the end of the book you realise their place and role in history is inimitable and respectfully acquiesce that the Cathars were a phenomenon that no one can replicate for the principles they practiced and lived have always been timeless and universal. They found their way of following those in their time, it is up to us to find our way in our times.
Cathars / Albigeois / Albigensians : it would be difficult indeed to live - as I do - in south-western France and remain unaware of them. I knew about them long before leaving the UK, though, and it seems that vast numbers of people all over the world now take considerable interest in the life, times, persecution and (presumed) extinction of this apparently harmless sect, whose history will forever be entwined with that of the Languedoc. The Inquisition was instigated in order to wipe them out (the "Spanish Inquisition" was merely a subsequent phase of this long-running road-show - which ran, in fact, until 1834).
Among the countless books available on the subject, ranging from the unbendingly scholarly and drily indigestible to the hack-written and downright fanciful, with all shades of the literary spectrum in between, The Perfect Heresy stands out as an intensively-researched work, smoothly and compellingly written.
Easily absorbed, and fascinating in its detail, O'Shea's account encompasses not only the overt religious bigotry which fuelled the wholesale slaughter now generally referred to as the Albigensian Crusade, but also the hidden agendas : the before-and-after political map of France is a real eye-opener, as are the clearly-described political machinations by which, concealed behind a screen thickly embroidered with self-righteousness, those in power trampled and manipulated their way towards loftier and loftier personal status, and greater and greedier financial gain. (Good job things are different now, eh?).
My only real criticism of this work concerns O'Shea's eccentric and random anglicism of some French forenames. Perhaps his (slightly patronising?) intention was to smooth the path for non-French-speakers, but if so he has failed : Arnolds and Williams and a multitude of Peters are quite difficult to imagine as Frenchmen, and the latter might well enquire, in wounded fashion, as to why the king of Aragon was allowed to remain as Pedro. And they all might wonder why Jacques never became James.
However, despite that relatively minor irritation, the gripping saga proceeds at a cracking pace, and a bed-time read has suddenly turned into a small-hours session as the characters take on a life of their own. Cathars and kings and priests and peasants, soldiers and popes and aristocrats and inquisitors, women and men and children of all social conditions - each one comes vibrantly alive under O'Shea's pen, thus bringing each separate scenario into sharp focus.
It is to the author's credit that unlike some modern-day commentators he does not seek to idealise or mystify the Cathars. 'Perfect' may have been the title accorded to their spiritual preceptors, but they did have their failings. O'Shea views them with a matter-of-fact eye, albeit a kindly one. On the other hand, we are left in no doubt as to his view of the Church, and of its rôle in the drama ; and it would be virtually impossible to contest that view, however one might feel about the Cathars. Meticulously recorded - in all their gruesome particulars - by the inquisitors themselves, the facts are undeniable. Even when viewed against the savage background of mediaeval Europe, the details beggar belief.
By the time you reach the last page, you will surely have learnt something.
Totally absorbing, thought-provoking history of a religious order who believed in the pursuit of a peaceful, humble existence to help them, once they'd died, either reincarnate
in a life closer to God, or ascend to God without reincarnation as a "Perfect". Their peaceful existence and simple message threatened a world dominated by religious zealots and warring nobility. The Holy Roman Empire had to stop them by whatever means available: crusades, the formation of the detested Inquisition. The narrative is rich and colourful and brings to life the personalities of the key players of the drama over a 200 year period - I felt part of it and emotionally wrung-out at the end of the book. My first foray into Cathar history; its really wet my apetite to read more on the
This is a well written and lively introductory book covering the Albigensian crusade in Southern France (but not, as the title might suggest, the Cathar movement more generally). As with Jonathan Sumption's similar book "The Albigensian Crusade" it is an overview of the period, the personalities and the reasons for the crusade. It is well written, concentrates on history rather than myth (although it does touch briefly upon the myths that have later arisen) and does an excellent job of bringing the period and the people who lived in it to life. Both this and Jonathan Sumption's book work very well as guides to this period of history, and in fairness either would make a good choice if you have an interest in this topic. My personal preference of the two was for this book as I found it somewhat fresher in tone and lighter in touch while still containing much the same level of information, it makes a surprisingly good holiday read whereas Jonathan Sumption's book has a slightly drier and more academic flavour. Ultimately though, both are good and both are well written, with this book being a little more accessible and Jonathan Sumption's book having better illustrative maps and plans.