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A JOLLY GOOD READ!
on 7 November 2006
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.