Monday, October 03, 2011

The Friar of Carcassonne by Stephen O'Shea

In May, after our son's wedding, we travelled for a short while through Languedoc, past signs proclaiming we were now in Cathar country, to the stunningly preserved medieval city of Carcassonne. I came across the Cathars again in my research on the silk road (they were reputedly the descendants of an early Christian sect called the Manicheans which was dominant on the Silk Road) and read how they were persecuted, and have wondered how and why.

Stephen O'Shea's The Friar of Carcassonne is about the end of the Cathars. History is never more interesting than when it is concentrating on the personal stories of historical figures, especially exceptional heroic ones like Bernard Délicieux. Even his name is enticing. But it is the writing of The Friar of Caracassonne that makes the period and the man come alive. Without straying from the facts, Stephen O'Shea manages to portray both man and city so vividly I felt I knew them a little - rather like the main character and setting of a novel.

France in the fourteenth century was just establishing itself as the country it is today. The pope had just finished dealing with the German emperor Frederick II, and this had proved to be so distracting to the pope that France had been able to quietly undergo an expansion. Now the German had died, France was again under scrutiny. The king of France was consequently having to tread a careful path keeping Rome at bay (and appeasing the inhabitants with their own religions) without going so far as to risk total excommunication from the Vatican.

Carcassonne was a city on France's borders that was proving difficult to control. There had been unrest and then an appeasement which involved a secret list of Cathar sympathisers, some of whom had been thrown into a notorious jail called the Wall. Enter Friar Bernard, a liberal Franciscan monk, and a charismatic speaker who objected to the injustices meted out to his countrymen. For the French King Philip the Fair (named thus for looks rather character) things were about to become even more difficult.

After giving a comprehensive and fascinating account of the background to the Friar's life and times, the main part of the book gives a year by year account of the Friar's career. It is exciting and unexpected, and I learnt a lot about medieval France, the general geography of the southwest France. Of course it comes to an end, but even that holds surprises. It then goes on to consider the implications of Bernard's life and what it reveals about Bernard as a human being.

Stephen O'Shea's book is based on contemporary chronicles and recently translated transcripts of Bernard's trial, and forms a companion volume to his best selling The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars - which I is another one for the wishlist. It makes me want to revisit Carcassonne because I think I shall see the whole of Languedoc now with great new insight.

Thanks to Profile Books for the review copy.


Blogger Jud said...

I will have to get a copy of this work. I have ready "The Perfect Heresy" and found it quite fascinating, indeed.

Tue Oct 04, 04:32:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And I have to get 'The Perfect Heresy'- like you I want to read more!

Tue Oct 04, 04:38:00 pm  

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