Friday, June 15, 2007

The Albigensian Crusade

I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Sumption’s The Albigensian Crusade. It is a good bit of popular history, told at a cracking pace from the original sources, in the tradition of Steven Runciman and John Julius Norwich. Sumption is an interesting character because he manages to combine his role as historian with being one of the highest paid QCs (a senior barrister) on the London legal scene. He is currently working his way through the Hundred Years War (two volumes out at the rate of about one a decade). When the last volume came out he admitted he never saw his children as he was either in court or in his private library. Despite his wealth and reputation, I felt rather sorry for him.

Still, The Albigensian Crusade is excellent. I mentioned the Cathars a couple of weeks ago and had always believed that the crusade had been what wiped them out. Apparently not. The crusade was defeated and when its leader, Simon de Montford, was killed at Toulouse in 1218, it fell apart. His son, to whom leadership had passed, had to return to Northern France. Eventually, it was the French monarchy who gained the County of Toulouse, not by conquest but by an advantageous marriage. The Cathars were destroyed after the crusade when Raymond, Count of Toulouse, allowed papal inquisitors to operate in his territory. They went after the Cathars lay protectors and slowly, over the next century, managed to dismantle the whole edifice. The last remaining remnants of Catharism were the villagers of Montaillou captured in 1326.

What was odd about the Albigensian Crusade was how little it seemed to differ from the internecine conflict that had characterised life in Languedoc before the crusaders even turned up. The region was a patchwork of petty lords and nobles who spent most of their time and energy fighting each other. You can romanticise that kind of manly culture, but it must have been a hellish place to live. The crusaders were simply another army added to the mix. The region did not finally know peace until it was absorbed by the French. The result was a century of unprecedented wealth and growth before the Black Death and the Hundred Years War devastated the entire region in the fourteenth century.

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