on 8 August 2011
I have to admit that after 100 pages or so I was tempted to abandon this book. If I hadn't been on an overseas trip with limited other reading material to hand I might have done.
There is such a confusing array of characters and convoluted plot that it is very difficult to follow the story. All the characters are introduced in an early chapter but there are so many of them with similar names that is almost impossible to keep track of who's who. The names are so similar that the author has to resort to A & B versions of some of the families like the Clergues & Authiés to distinguish them. The book cries out for a Dramatis Personae. This simple expedient would make life much easier for the reader, & it is hard to understand why neither the author nor the editor considered this: the book does after all have a prologue, epilogue, introduction & chronology, as well as many more maps & diagrams than is required to follow the tale.
The basic story is fascinating: 40 years after the Dominican follow-up to the Albigensian crusade finally suppressed the Cathar religion in the French foothills of the Pyrenees (with the fall of Quéribus in 1255), 2 brothers from a rich & successful family decided to leave Languedoc & walk to Lombardy to be ordained as `Perfects' (a kind of a cross between Saints & Priests in the Cathar world). This in itself is astonishing as the older brother Pierre Authié must have been well into his 50s at this point. They then return to Languedoc to live precariously, reviving the faith, and relying on a secret network of supporters to hide them (and feed, clothe & house them) until they were caught & burnt as heretics. Aspects of the story here seem very modern: the secret network, with code names, safe houses, Cathar moles in the Inquisition, and Inquisition stool-pigeons amongst the Cathars, could be something out of a modern thriller about the Resistance in WW2, or Terrorist networks today.
However, the Cathar religion was an anachronistic faith, with both Manichean and Gnostic elements; the Cathars were not precursors of Protestantism, as could be claimed for fellow-heretic groups like the Lollards & the Hussites. Their cosmology as preached by Pierre Authié was pretty weird: they believed that the Devil was co-eternal with God & the material world his evil creation. The Devil tempted the heavenly souls to leave paradise by offering them property & luxuries in his world on Earth, having waited his opportunity at the door of paradise for 1,000 years. Those souls who were tempted fell through a hole in paradise for 9 days & nights like dense rain. God stopped the exodus by putting his foot over the hole, but left open the possibility of redemption for the ones who left. This obviously seems much less modern, although some prosperous Christian sects based in the USA have myths which seem equally odd to those brought up in the mainstream tradition.
It is important to appreciate that this book is not a history of the Cathars, but a very particular story about this last forlorn attempt to revive the faith by a few brave & committed people. Weis is not a professional historian & doesn't claim to be, & anyone looking for a general history should look elsewhere. Once it develops however, it is a fascinating and very human story with some fascinating (and sometimes grotesque) characters. The Perfects had to make messy compromises, accepting support from some very dubious people, particularly the Clergues, brothers who ran the village of Montaillou like a couple of Mafia chieftains. Although the choice is a hard one, the elder brother Pierre (the Rector of the village), was probably the most frightful of the pair, being amongst other things a sexual predator who was not averse to consummating his conquests on the floor of his church. The Authiés presumably put up with this as they needed the Clergues' protection, for the sake of the greater good as they perceived it. Also, although the Cathars professed non-violence, some of them would choose murder as a way of ensuring potential informers were silenced. Some of the Perfects were anything but, but the last of them, Guillaume Bélibaste, a deeply flawed individual who tricked his friend the staunch Pierre Maury into marrying his girlfriend, in the end refuses to compromise and readily accepts the martyr's death in the flames.
Weis is obviously in love with the period and the subject, and although much of the book is beautifully written, this does sometimes lead him to go into much more detail than is necessary, with the result that the thread of the story can get lost. It would be better if much of this detail was put into appendices. Overall, though, I was glad I read this book, but readers should be warned that it needs a fair degree of commitment to get through to the end!