Into the Pyrenees, almost every wooded slope is topped with a picturesque ruined chateau. Which in itself is a bit weird. But Catharism has become a tourist attraction. The Cathars are hailed as an inspiration by various neo-Gnostic groups, praised for their pioneering vegetarianism, their feminism, their antiestablishment free-thinking, their nature-loving eco-friendliness, take your pick. The Catholic Church had identified it as a clear heresy back in the s, and a twenty-year Crusade was duly waged against the Cathars of Languedoc from — — after which it lingered in scattered remote parts of the Pyrenees until the Inquisition burned the last few believers in the early s.

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For some, the subtitle is Cathars and Catholics in a French Village — which is somewhat descriptive except who knows what a Cathar is? And, even if you know that they were heretics from the Catholic faith, also called Albigensians, why would you want to read a longish book about some religious dispute from seven centuries ago?

For others, the subtitle is The Promised Land of Error which has the virtue and the fault of not saying anything. The investigation focused on the small town of Montaillou in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border, but also extended out into neighboring areas. When he went to Avignon where the Popes of the time lived , he took along the Register which ended up in the Vatican Library and was saved for future historians.

The questioning by and on behalf of Fournier, while seeking to learn the extent of heretical thinking and actions — Cathars believed in dual Gods of good and evil and rejected the sacraments — went into virtually every aspect of the lives of those under suspicion. What Ladurie did was to comb through the Register for insights into the lives of the rich and poor not a very wide divide between them , the townsfolk and the shepherds, men and women, young and old.

Not only does the Register provide facts about those lives, but the actual voices of the residents — their descriptions of their activities and thoughts in their own words.

The result is what is called microhistory. Here, for instance, are some sentences from the deposition of Raymond Sicre about his efforts to learn who was visiting his neighbor: I went to the corner of the house, which was near the door. And with my head I lifted up a part of the roof. I took good care not to damage the roof covering.

I then saw [in the kitchen] two men sitting on a bench. Another — which we might not have learned any other way — is that the houses were constructed in such a manner that the roof could be lifted in order to get a look inside. This was the way depositions were taken throughout the centuries. Even with such scribal tinkering, these words ring true. How can we do such a thing in the church of Saint Peter? In the background are the two major waves of Inquisitional oppression that swept over the town of about people and its environs.

Rather, Ladurie takes an anthropological approach to Montaillou, examining its people and its life, category by category. For instance, he has chapters on how the people of the village thought about time and space, their attitudes toward magic and morality, their thinking about death and childhood and sex.

One of the many vivid characters who stand out in the pages of Montaillou is the village priest Pierre Clergue, part of the socially dominant and often violent Clergue family, who, it seems, was always in heat.

The priest of Montaillou [writes Ladurie]…was a swashbuckler, Cathar, spy and rake — he was everywhere…He scattered his desires among his flock as impartially as he gave his benediction, and in return won the favors of many of his female parishioners….

An energetic lover and incorrigible Don Juan, he presents the spectacle, rare in records of rural history, of the typical village seducer of ancient times. No question of this great carnivore restricting himself to one woman…. He coveted all women. This is the same lusty Beatrice who was shocked when another of her lovers, another priest, Barthelemy Aurilhac, set up a bed for them in church. A woman of wit and witticisms, Beatrice had husbands and lovers well into middle age, and told Barthelemy: You priests and priors and abbots and bishops and archbishops and cardinals, you are the worst!

You commit the sin of the flesh more, and you desire women more than other men do. Beatrice began her affair with Barthelemy with typical directness. He ran the school where two of her daughters were students, and, one day, she told him to come to her house in the evening. I did. When I was in her house, I found that she was there alone. For instance, on the subject of cleanliness, he writes: In Montaillou, people did not shave, or even wash, often. They did not go bathing or swimming.

On the other hand, there was a great deal of delousing, which was an ingredient of friendship, whether heretical or purely social. Who would have thought that lice could function as a sort of social and even romantic glue?

There is the general idea that, before the Industrial Revolution, life was slower, and Montaillou shows, with great specificity, how that was true: The people of Montaillou were not afraid of hard work and could make an effort when necessary. But they did not think in terms of a fixed and continuous timetable, whether in their own fields or, in exile, in the workshops of Catalonia. For them the working day was punctuated with long, irregular pauses, during which one would chat with a friend, perhaps at the same time enjoying a glass of wine.

Consider this charming scene: One of these ladies had a child in the cradle and she wanted to see it before leaving. When she saw it she kissed it; then the child began to laugh. She had started to go out of the room where the infant lay so she came back to it again.

The child began to laugh again; and so one, several times, so that she could not bear to tear herself away from the child. Like neighborly snoopiness, the delight of a parent at the laughter of a baby seems to be part of our DNA. Ladurie is clearly disgusted by the predatory priest who was also an informer, and delighted by the free spirit Beatrice.

But he is filled with endless admiration for the shepherd. Pierre Maury, a wage-earner, not alienated, informed, informal, and sociable, enjoyed parties and entertainment, and even just a good meal among friends. In fact, Ladurie likes that pie story so much that he tells it twice. Or they could make the basis for a fascinating novel. They are — with their yearnings and curiosity and fear and pride — you and me.

Patrick T.


Montaillou (Buch)

Le Roy Ladurie described his childhood in Normandy growing up on his family estate in the countryside as intensely Catholic and royalist in politics. France is full of people who became very important, then became nothing. My fascination is probably due to the fact that my own family was once important and then became zero. There was a contrast between my own career and the feelings in my family. His devoutly Catholic parents had expected him to become a Catholic priest and were scandalized that their son should become an ardent Communist and atheist. The Resistance had fought not only the Germans, but also the police, gendarmes and the much feared Milice of the Vichy regime. Given this background, in which many young French people had seen at first-hand the pretty streets, avenues and squares of French cities, towns and villages sullied by acts of outrageous cruelty and violence, Le Roy Ladurie described his generation as a scarred one, saying: "It was dangerous for young people during the war.


Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou


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