In 1308 Geoffrey d’Ablis, the Inquisitor of Carcasonne, arrested the entire adult population of Montaillou. This village in the Languedoc was one of the few remaining outposts of Catharism, a Christian heresy that saw the universe as Manichaean: that God and Satan were equal powers, respectively ruling the spiritual and terrestrial worlds. Cathars believed that the terrestrial world was inherently corrupt, something to be battled in pursuit of the spiritual life. They rejected the worldly wealth and ceremony of the established Catholic church, and in doing so, came directly into conflict with it — a conflict that they couldn’t hope to win.

Not every Catholic bishop approved of the Inquisition. Many turned a blind eye to their local heretics, believing that faith was better than no faith and that so long as they paid their church taxes there was no great cause for alarm. But when Jacques Fournier was made Bishop of Pamiers in 1317 he determined to stamp out the Cathars, and set up an Inquisitorial Office to track down, interrogate and punish every potential heretic close by. Between 1318 and 1325 the Office carried out 578 interrogations, covering 98 cases of heresy, twenty-five of whom came from Montaillou. These interrogations were painstakingly recorded, and the texts they left behind give us the most detailed, lively and intimate portrayal of everyday Medieval life that we have.

Montaillou, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, was first published in 1978.  Divided into themed sections — The Shepherds, Marriage and Love, Death in Montaillou etc. — it’s a painstaking distillation of the hundreds of pages of Fournier’s investigation, piecing together the details of everyday life in the village. There’s a wealth of fascinating detail about food and clothes and sleeping arrangements; but more than that there are the people. Fournier’s great bequest to us — which is ironic given his mission to erase them — is the characters of Montaillou, both heretic and loyal. There’s the charming, dangerous Belibaste; the sweet-natured shepherd Pierre Maury; the sly, seductive Beatrice de Planissoles; and above all the treacherous, lecherous parish priest, Pierre Clergue, who romps through the book, engorged and monstrous, playing love, religion and politics with equal skill:

Pierre was a swashbuckler. Cathar, spy and rake — he was everywhere … He scattered his desire among his flock as impartially as he gave his benediction, and in return won the favours of many of his female parishioners. He was helped by the general tolerance with which concubinage among ecclesiastics was regarded in the Pyrenees. At an altitude of 1,300 metres the rules of priestly celibacy ceased to apply ... When Fabrisse Rives, another man in the village, challenged Clergue over one affair, telling him “You are committing an enormous sin by sleeping with a married woman,” Clergue replied, “Not at all. One woman’s just like another. The sin is the same, whether she’s married or not. Which is as much as to say that there is no sin about it at all”.

Montaillou was a key source for fiction bestsellers like Labyrinth and The Name of the Rose. It’s not all easy reading — it feels quite academic next to contemporary historical blockbusters from Andrew Roberts or Antony Beevor — but it’s fantastically vivid, packed with quotes from the Fournier text. And however distant the period feels, the characters feel instantly familiar: technology may change, but envy, lust and politics remain the same.


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