For a medieval saga of heresy, witchcraft or sedition to work really well, it requires the payoff scene where the hero or heroine gets burned at the stake. This is the template that has reaped such a rich harvest with Joan of Arc, John Hus, Thomas Cranmer, the Knights Templar and that old standby, Savonarola. In a pinch – say, in the case of William (Braveheart) Wallace – the tried-and-true technique of hanging, drawing and quartering will do, as will more traditional methods such as flaying, stoning, beheading, impalement and crucifixion.
But if an author gets to the end of his narrative and the shadowy medieval figure he is attempting to rescue from putatively undeserved oblivion fails to be set ablaze, the historian finds that he has backed himself into a real corner. Nobody remembers Custer if he doesn’t wind up dead at the Little Big Horn. Nobody remembers John Wilkes Booth if he doesn’t shoot Lincoln. And in a medieval setting, the formula for achieving immortality is unforgivingly rigid: No flame, no fame.
Stephen O’Shea recognizes that he has given himself a tough nut to crack in The Friar of Carcassonne. The book is largely the saga of Franciscan brother Bernard Délicieux, a courageous civic leader who laboured mightily to lift the yoke imposed on the people of southwestern France by the Inquisition in the late 13th and early 14th century. Délicieux is a heroic figure, to be sure, and his tale is well worth telling, but perhaps not at book length. Since his revolt against the Inquisition, which was led by the remorseless Dominicans, mostly consisted of legal squabbles, audiences with the king of France and ceaseless litigation, this book has a jarringly Jesuitical flavour.
As opposed to the electrifying drama in O’Shea’s earlier book, The Perfect Heresy, an enormously entertaining account of the Albigensian Crusade, where people were getting blinded, incinerated and put to the sword by the thousands, The Friar of Carcassonne suffers from a shortage of high-voltage drama.
The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was one of the major events in European history, the first time Christians waged a purely religious war against other Christians. As has been noted elsewhere, the defeat of the heretics turned Paris’s gaze southward, transforming cold, northern France into a more sensual Mediterranean nation. This completely changed the nation’s temperament: Charlemagne, Clovis and Charles Martel were Germans; Louis XIV sure wasn’t.
Unfortunately, the events that transpire in O’Shea’s new book are largely a postscript to that pivotal event. By the time the book starts, late in the 1200s, the Albigensians – known as Cathars in France – have gone underground, and the church has decided to root them out. This footnote episode – taking place almost a century after the final Cathar defeat at Montségur – is filled with intrigue, perfidy and villainy. But there are no battles, no massacres, no hideous atrocities. Nor does anyone make a pronouncement that will ring down through the ages like the monk presiding over the massacre that kicked off the Albigensian Crusade who, when asked by the French troops how they could distinguish Christians from heretics, tartly remarked: “Kill them all. Let God sort them out.”
The Friar of Carcassonne is thoroughly readable and highly informative (heretics had to pay for their own room and board in prison), but it lacks the epic drama of The Perfect Heresy. Bernard Délicieux – swell name! – does not so much object to the existence of the Inquisition as to its methods. What particularly horrified him was that the Inquisition was transmogrifying sunny, buoyant Carcassonne into a joyless, feudal police state, where people were encouraged – sometimes by torture – to denounce their neighbours. This was thanks to the implacable, sadistic Dominicans – called “the dogs of God” from domini canes, a pun on Dominican – who were maniacal in their hatred of the Cathars. As O’Shea points out, “No one today can behold Albi’s cathedral and not sense the fathomless anger once felt by the Catholic Church toward the Cathars.” The dogs of God were rabid.
O’Shea is a gifted, fluid writer whose only failing is a penchant for conferring upon events that happened a long time ago a relevance to today’s world that they do not, in fact, possess. Here, he is much like those historians who claim that the fallout from the Peloponnesian War is still felt today. No, it isn’t.
My only other criticism of the author is an infelicitous habit of peppering his prose with contemporary lingo that seems out of place in a book about the 13th century. Solecisms like “lawyerly chutzpah,” “good cop,” “collateral damage,” “marquee attraction,” “a collective database” and “wording fit for the card catalogue at the library of Hogwarts” are grating, as are smart-aleck remarks such as: “Much has been imagined about inquisitorial practice as a sort of malevolent and centralized medieval Department of Homeland Security.”
Still, the big problem is that the tale of Bernard Délicieux simply peters out. After several decades of resisting the Inquisition, he is accused of treason – legitimately, as it turns out – tortured into confessing his “crimes” and sentenced to life imprisonment. Had he hung on a few years, he might have fallen into the clutches of the king’s henchmen, who would surely have given him a warm send-off at the stake. Fortunately for Délicieux, but unfortunately for O’Shea, the friar lasted only a few months in stir.
No one knows how he died or where he is buried. His saga ended not with a bang but a whimper. “Had he been burned,” O’Shea writes, “he might have entered legend.” But he wasn’t burned. He simply flamed out.
Joe Queenan’s most recent book is a memoir, Closing Time.