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Montaillou : Cathars and Catholics in a…

Montaillou : Cathars and Catholics in a French village, 1294-1324 (1975)

by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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heretical priests in french villages were apparently VERY gay ( )
  alexanme | Dec 9, 2018 |
An interesting study about what would seem to be an esoteric topic. Montaillou is a small (250 people) village in the foothills of the Pyrenees, east of the crest. Although this is now France, at the time in question (1294-1324) is was in the nominally independent County of Foix. Although French influence was obviously strong, the inhabitants spoke Occitan and didn’t consider themselves French.

Being out-of-the-way, the village and its surroundings had been bypassed by the great events of the 13th Century; in particular it had been missed by the Albigensian Crusade. As a result, about half the village subscribed to the Cathar heresy. The Comté de Foix protected them as best as possible without implicating himself. However a series of events brought that to an end. The trigger was the Council of Vienna in 1312: it was decided there that the Inquisition, formerly exclusively the province of the Dominicans, could now be “assisted” by local bishops. In 1317, Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, decided to take advantage of this decision and began pursuing heretics. He also began a more aggressive collection of tithes, which had previously been collected in a lackadaisical fashion. Between 1381 and 1324, Fournier’s inquisitorial court in Pamiers handled 98 cases involving 114 people; five of the suspects were burned and the rest had lesser penalties – imprisonment, fines, and/or having to wear a yellow cross sewn on their clothes. (Oh, and a women had her tongue cut out – not for heresy, but for complaining about priests).

Fournier was a skillful interrogator; he would casually converse with the suspects, presumably to put them at ease, asking about their homes, families, and other matters unrelated to heresy before getting to the point. He was also meticulous; his court recorder copied everything carefully into large folio volumes. And he eventually became Pope Benedict XII, meaning that all his records were preserved, including the trial proceedings from Montaillou. As a result there’s a written record of everyday life in a peasant village of the 14th century – albeit a probably atypical village.

The Cathars fell into the Dualist religious category, like Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, and Gnosticism. Dualist religions have two equal or nearly equal spiritual powers, one evil and one good, struggling over the universe. The Cathars considered themselves Christian (in fact, the only Christians; Cathar code for another Cathar was “Good Christian”), with the Christian God as the good power and the Christian Satan as the evil one. Satan had control over the material world; thus everything in it was irrevocably corrupt. The recourse for a “Good Christian”, therefore, was to have as little to do with material world as possible. Cathars divided into “perfects” or “goodmen”, who were essentially the priestly caste; and ordinary “believers”. A “perfect” had to give up meat and women; a believer still lived in the material world with meat and sex but supported the “goodmen” with money, food, and shelter. When a believer was near death, a goodman was summoned and performed the consolamentum, a blessing that absolved the believer from all sins; there was a catch, though – once a believer had received the consolamentum they were divorced from the material – which meant they could no longer eat or drink. This suicide by self-starvation was called the endura, and could be unpleasant if the recipient of the consolamentum didn’t die quickly. The Cathar position that everything in the material world was evil had considerable influence on life in Montaillou; in particular all sex – even within marriage – was sinful. Author Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie notes that the idea that everything was sinful essentially meant that everything was equally sinful – and, for example, it was no more sinful to have sex with your daughter than with your wife – all would be absolved on your deathbed. The Cather goodmen had some problems with the situation – they had essentially backed themselves into a corner – and tried to resolve things by saying (for example) sex with your wife and sex with your daughter were equally sinful, but sex with your daughter was also “shameful”. The Cathars had pretty much been wiped out in France proper but maintained a foothold in the Pyrenees, by crossing the mountains into Catalonia if things got too rough on the French side, and vice versa. The Montaillionais seemed to have turned to Catharism out of resistance to the collection of tithes more than out of sincere belief; as the Inquisition brought out lots of them has religious ideas that were neither Catholic nor Cathar.

I tend to think of the Middle Ages as very prudish and restrained, but a truly amazing amount of sex went on – and was reported to the Inquisition – in Montaillou. It was Peyton Place in the Pyrenees. Just about everybody is involved in illicit affairs, but the centerpiece is the priest of Montaillou, Pierre Clergue. He was a double agent – a secret Cathar working as a Catholic priest – and took full advantage of the Cathar attitude toward sex. At one time or another his mistresses were Alazaïs Fauré; her sister Raymonde Guilhabert; Béatrice de Planissoles (the closest thing Montaillou had to a noblewoman; she was the widow of the chatelaine); Grazide Lizier (his niece and a 14-year-old virgin at the time); Alazaïs Azéma; Gaillarde Benet; Alissende Roussel (sister of Gaillarde Benet); Mengarde Buscailh; Na Maragda (“Na” is an Occitan honorific for an older, respected woman); Jacotte den Tort; Raymonde Guilhou; and Esclarmonde Clergue, (his sister-in-law). Le Roy Ladurie notes these were just the ones that came out at the trial and suggests there were probably others. Pierre’s approach was straightforward; he simply told the woman he wanted “I would like to know you carnally” (in one case just after hearing her confession) and she always said “Yes”. He only seems to have failed once, and that was when he didn’t use the direct approach but asked his current mistress Alazaïs Fauré to arrange things with her niece Raymonde Fauré. Interestingly enough, the women who were willing to talk about Pierre all spoke well of him, even to the Inquisition where they had no incentive to do so; this may have been due to a convenient local folk belief that if you enjoyed illicit sex it wasn’t a sin.

Interestingly enough, even with all this carrying on, adultery was unusual (although not unknown); it was apparently OK for a woman to be promiscuous before she was married and after she was a widow but less proper – “shameful” – in between. This was despite the fact that almost none of the marriages were love matches; they were commonly arranged for economic reasons (a local proverb was “Marriage is when one man gives a woman to another man”). Similarly there didn’t seem to be a lot of illegitimacy; there are a couple of “natural” children mentioned but not as many as you might expect. Le Roy Ladurie notes that in one case Pierre Clergue seems to have used some sort of contraceptive – the woman described an “herb” that was put “at the opening of her stomach”. It could be that illegitimate children just sank into the pit of childhood mortality; about 25% of children died before their first birthday, and another 25% were dead before they reached maturity. Connected with this is the observation that widows outnumbered widowers, which seem odd, since given the state of medical knowledge you might expect a lot of women to die in childbirth. Le Roy Ladurie speculates that men died young due to a life of hard work.

However, that doesn’t square with another observation – life in Montaillou was pretty laid-back. Almost all the men were farmers; there was the priest, of course, and a cobbler, but no blacksmith or tavern (although there was a woman who sold wine door-to-door). But the people seem to have had a lot of free time. Almost as amazing as the amount of sex in Montaillou was the number of lice. Delousing turns up as a casual social activity in a lot of the recorded conversations; where today someone might say “I was having coffee with a neighbor when this happened” a Montaillionais would say “I was delousing my neighbor when this happened”. All the delousing seems to have been done by women, to men or to each other; the libidinous Pierre Clergue seems to have used delousing as a sort of foreplay for his seductions, and he and other men in the records use “delouser” as a sort of term of endearment for their wives or mistresses.

The actual religious beliefs of the Montaillionais, Cathar or Catholic, seem to have been pretty heterodox. One suspect interrogated by Fournier was a complete atheist; others had rather vague ideas about eschatology and the afterlife. One of the strangest was a man who believed he could see, and talk to, ghosts; he acted as sort of an intermediary between the living and the dead, reporting that the dead essentially duplicated their lives on Earth, going to church, visiting their former homes, sometimes even sleeping in their old beds, until after some indeterminate time they went to what he called “the place of rest”. The Cathars were fond of quoting various sayings of Jesus – for example his instruction to the disciples not to eat meat – that don’t appear in the Bible. It’s unlikely that any Cathar had ever seen a Bible. For that matter, it’s unlikely that anybody in Montaillou except the priest had ever read a Bible – almost everybody was illiterate; even if you were literate it was certainly in Occitan and it was illegal to translate a Bible from Latin; it was illegal for a lay person to own a Bible in the first place regardless of language; and a complete Bible cost about 80 livres, which was about twice the price of a house in Montaillou. Thus most religious knowledge came from the Montaillionais talking to “goodmen”, or speculating with each other.

Le Roy Ladurie regrets that although there’s an unusual abundance of textual evidence, there isn’t any physical evidence; the town has never been archaeologically studied (at least at the time this book was written, 1975). That leads to some puzzles; for example, the kitchen was the focal point of the house and a lot of recorded conversations take place “sitting around the kitchen fire”. But it isn’t clear if there was a fireplace or just a fire pit in the floor with a hole in the ceiling for smoke.

An entertaining and enlightening book. There are a few short fallings; Le Roy Ladurie takes everything the Montaillionais said to the Inquisition at face value without considering they might have lied to protect themselves or others. There’s no index, which is pretty annoying; however there is an alphabetical list of all the families in Montaillou with the pages they’re mentioned in the text. There are a couple of good maps of the area and region, but no other illustrations. All the books in the bibliography are in French or Latin. ( )
2 vote setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
I had read this a very long time ago, and was delighted to find a secondhand copy. I enjoyed it much more on a second reading. Ladurie writes a scholarly social history based on the oral evidence given long ago to Bishop Fournier's Inquisition into the persistence of Catharism in his diocese. But he leaves us with the impression that we have been reading a historical novel about the lady Beatrice de Planissoles, her lover the powerful and duplicitous village priest Pierre Clergue, the carefree shepherd Pierre Maury, and the mysterious green and blue clad "parfaits" or goodmen, who move secretly from house to house spreading their austere doctrines.
  PollyMoore3 | Nov 23, 2014 |
Romanian version
  athaulf | Jan 13, 2014 |
Apparently some Inquisitor back in the 14th century performed exceptionally detailed interrogations on an entire town; the author used those records to piece together a new look at exactly what life was like in that town. So it's not so much about the Inquisition as it is about every day life. Interesting, huh? GR reviews indicate it's not a thrilling read, but it's a pretty cool idea.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurieprimary authorall editionscalculated
Allard, William AlbertPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Boer, Claire denTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bogliolo, GiovanniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bray, BarbaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fagel, RolandTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Between 1318-25 Bishop Jacques Fournier carried out an inquisition in a Pyrenees village. Montaillou was a small community of 250...as a result of Fournier's interrogation, we know more about it than any other medieval village in the world. His motivation was the elimination of heresy, specifically the Cathars...but he ended up uncovering all the secrets of the village, great and small...It is the village, its people and its ethnic identity which is the true subject.
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Life in a medieval French village, recreated from the records of the Inquisition.

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