Monday, May 21, 2007


Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic work of social history, Montaillou, should probably be on every budding historian's reading list. I’ve just finished it and learnt a great deal. Sadly, the English translation is a bit leaden, as is common with academic translations, but it is worth slogging through.

The book is about peasant life in the little Pyrenean village of Montaillou between about 1300 and 1330 as revealed in the Fournier registers. Jacques Fournier was the local bishop and a zealous inquisitor. As Montaillou was a hotbed of heresy, he arrested most of the villagers and exhaustively questioned them. Many were convicted and five of the 114 people interrogated were burnt at the stake. Although they take the form of trial dispositions, historians believe that Fournier’s peasants were largely telling the truth. He didn’t torture them and noted down everything they said whether directly related to heresy or not. The result is a unique glimpse into the lives of illiterate peasants during the Middle Ages. The most revealing thing is that they seem so like us. They work hard but prefer to sit around talking, they have love affairs and gossip about them and they have views on religion from fanatical through to atheist. In some ways, of course, we are very different. Personal hygiene was not a priority (although women deloused each other and their menfolk); violence was normal (if not so common as you might think) and death an everyday occurrence.

The heresy that gripped Montaillou was Catharism. After the Albigensian crusade, the Cathars survived up in the mountains for a few more decades. Their beliefs were a combination of Christianity and Hinduism. The Cathar creation myth told of how the Devil had lured vast numbers of angels out of heaven during the Fall. These angels became trapped in the material world where they were subjected to a cycle of death and rebirth. This metempsychosis meant that you could end up reborn as a rabbit, dog or hopefully a man. Finally, if you died as a believing Cathar your soul could return to heaven. The Cathar priesthood, the parfaits, abstained from meat so as to avoid consuming an animal containing the soul of their late Auntie Mildred. They also said they stayed celibate, although were no more successful at this than Catholic priests. While ordinary Cathars would be sentenced to prison or wearing a yellow cross, a parfait who fell into the inquisitors’ hands would most likely end up tied to the stake. As for Bishop Jacques Fournier, after cleaning the heretics out of the Pyrenees, he got a promotion and eventually became Pope.

Overall, this is a fascinating piece of social history marred only by some turgid prose, for which Le Roy Ladurie can hardly be blamed.

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