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In fact, the Pope's prior reasonableness was due in part to his lack of success in getting anyone to apply force. For several years, he had been trying to rouse Philip Augustus, the King of France, to invade Languedoc, and he had recently renewed his appeal, adding potent inducements. Anyone who joined what was now called the Albigensian Crusade the Cathars were thought to be concentrated in the town of Albi was offered the same spiritual reward as the knights who were fighting the Crusades in Palestine: a plenary indulgence, a guaranteed ticket to Heaven.

As for earthly rewards, the lands of the rebel lords were offered to those who could seize them. Before, Philip Augustus had hesitated. Now he became more interested. In , an army of about twenty thousand came down on the south like dogs.

It is said that soldiers asked Arnald-Amaury, the head of the Cistercians and the leader of the Crusade, how to distinguish between Cathars and Catholics in meting out punishment—to which he replied, "Kill them all. God will know his own. The remains of a mass grave were discovered under the floor of a church in In some towns, the invaders were more merciful; they just killed the heretics. Normally, they burned them en masse—a hundred and forty at Minerve, three hundred at Lavaur.

Some of the Cathars, it is said, walked joyfully to the pyre. Others had to be thrown. Though the southern nobles won some battles, they never really had a chance. Disparities of wealth had made them jealous and fractious—they could not unite against the enemy. Raymond VI, to protect his lands, actually joined the war on the side of the French. By the middle of the century, the south had fallen. Languedoc was scorched rubble, and it belonged to France.

But it still housed heretics. The crusaders had not destroyed Catharism; they had merely driven it underground. Thus began the Inquisition, which was more terrible in certain respects than the Crusade, for the warfare was now psychological. The job was given to the Dominicans, and apart from the fact that they seldom used torture—the Pope didn't like it—they operated in the usual manner.

First, they appealed to people's grudges and greed. Many people suddenly recalled seeing their old enemies in conversation with Cathars. Then, once the accused were before them, they offered leniency in exchange for information. Even good people named others, and the others named others. It is hard to say how many were burned: probably several thousand. The remainder were imprisoned or released with penances. By these methods the Church, having killed a large percentage of the people of Languedoc, destroyed the rest morally.

Neighbors could no longer look each other in the face. At that time, Montaillou had a population of about two hundred and forty, most of whom were Cathars. Eventually, the Inquisition caught up with them. In , everyone in town over the age of fourteen was arrested. This in itself would have granted Montaillou no immortality.

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But in the twenty-odd years of interrogations that followed, one of the inquisitors, by chance, was Jacques Fournier, the bishop of Pamiers, and he brought to his task an almost disinterested curiosity and patience. He detained the accused, he drew them out—he was the Studs Terkel of fourteenth-century Languedoc. Again, this would not have meant much, but, in , Fournier became Pope Benedict XII, with the result that the Fournier Register the transcript of his interrogations—every word was recorded ended up in the Vatican.

For seven hundred years it moldered in a vault. Then, in the nineteen-fifties, French historians went over to the annales movement, whereby history was no longer to be the chronicle of the deeds of great men but of the lives of ordinary people, retrievable from the annals of the past: tax records, parish registers, and—lo and behold—Inquisition transcripts.

The Fournier Register was soon published. It fired the brain of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, one of the annales historians, and in he produced his miraculous book "Montaillou. Le Roy Ladurie found that, by studying what people told Fournier about the heresy, he could glean a great deal about their lives as a whole. When a Montallian reports that he lifted the corner of his neighbor's roof and saw two Cathar missionaries dining in her kitchen, one learns something about the construction of houses in Montaillou.

On and on it goes. It's like a soap opera but better, because it's also a suspense story we can almost hear the Inquisition coming down the road , and a serious narrative about the human search for meaning. Raymond de l'Aire says that one day he was cutting grass with Pierre Rauzi when Pierre asked him, "Do you believe that God and the Blessed Mary are something—really? Then Pierre said, "God and the Blessed Virgin Mary are nothing but the visible world around us; nothing but what we see and hear.

That was normal in the Middle Ages.

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  5. Such questions are the subject of the Divine Comedy, which Dante was writing even as Raymond and Pierre were cutting the grass. But we never get close to Dante's characters. We wouldn't dare. Francesca da Rimini, Farinata degli Uberti: between us and them stand their high rhetoric and their damnation. With the people of Montaillou, however, we see their faces, hold their hands.

    Because of Le Roy Ladurie's book—and its source, the Fournier Register—we know more about Montaillou than about any other medieval community. And that's just the Vintage edition.

    Good and Evil

    The book has raised the bar on later histories of Catharism. Stephen O'Shea's "Perfect Heresy" is the report of a good journalist. O'Shea is especially useful on background. He tries to give you the basics: what the Cathars believed, how a catapult works, and so on. He is overly fond of cliffhangers and portents and the pride that goeth before the fall, but such things help to keep one awake during the war conferences. And, if his book is heavy on sex and violence, so was thirteenth-century Languedoc. Historians tell us that the word "Cathar" may come from the Greek word for "pure," or it may be a corruption of a German term for a sexual perversion involving household cats.

    Like most fringe groups, the Cathars were accused of elaborate sexual crimes. But, in my experience, only O'Shea has been willing to say what the perversion was see page Sumption has an English way of assuming that he can understand other people, even if they're medieval or the Pope. Accordingly, his book has a moral heft unshared by any of its competitors.

    Sumption tells you truths you don't want to know: that Languedoc culture was in decline we want it to be in noonday flower when the French came to destroy it; that the Capetian bureaucrats who took over Languedoc after the war nasty colonial governors, we hope ran a better government than their southern predecessors; that the corrupt Catholic priests whom the Cathars so despised were not really scoundrels but mostly poor schmoes.

    In the north, because of primogeniture, smart, ambitious men became priests. They had few other choices. In the south, the Church got every parish's least talented sons, and, in Sumption's words, "most were more demoralized than corrupt. With his ease in handling contraries, Sumption creates unforgettable characters. The best is his portrait of Innocent III, who tried to eradicate the heresy and to be a just man at the same time. Innocent had been a lawyer before he became Pope; Sumption is a lawyer, too.

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    Also marvellous is his study of Simon de Monfort, the foremost French general, oxlike, pious, and fearless— a sort of war machine—who, having been instructed to wipe out the heresy, was then forced to listen endlessly to the Pope's scruples about canon law, feudal law, other law. Therefore he has a problem: he has to fight his way out of Le Roy Ladurie's long shadow.

    The way he copes with this is, first, to dispute a number of Le Roy Ladurie's conclusions without identifying them as such, and, second, to accumulate so much detail that no one can ever claim that there wasn't more to be said on the subject of Montaillou. Add to this what seems a mild obsession with Richard Holmes's "footsteps" theory—that the historian should find the very place where so-and-so ate his lunch or forded the river—and you have a book in which the particulars utterly swamp any general conclusions, not to speak of their effect on storytelling.

    At one point, Weis interrupts a kidnapping conspiracy to tell us that the participants stopped to have dinner, and what they ate, and what pots they cooked it in, and how much it cost, and how that was more than somebody else paid for a comparable meal. By the time he is done, you have forgotten that Guillemette Piquier was being kidnapped. Nor is Weis a gifted translator: "Jeanne scoffed, 'Ha, you old heretical cowherdess, you need a solid squeezing, since you're brimful of heresy! He is also aggressively, anachronistically judgmental. The medieval Church, he tells us, was a "savagely repressive regime.

    This is the medieval Church. Likewise, no historical relativism blunts his indignation when it comes to sexual adventurers. She married when she was sixteen. Their complaisance was unquestionably due to Clergue's power in Montaillou. But, according to Grazide, she liked Clergue, and, as she told Fournier, she did not consider sex to be a sin as long as both parties enjoyed it. So Clergue—or Catharism, or maybe the folkways of fourteenth-century Pyrenean peasants—indoctrinated her pretty well.

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