Friday, 9 May 2014

The Perfect Heresy

The Perfect Heresy. The Cathars of Languedoc in the 13th Century. Stephen O’Shea. Second edition published in 2001. Read on Kindle in January 2013.

This review was written on February 12th 2013

In the 11th, 12th and earlier 13th Centuries the Cathars, otherwise known as the Albigensian, had become a significant minority of the population of Languedoc in the South of France and in Northern Spain in Aragon and Catalonia. Languedoc was at that time independent of the Kings of France. It was annexed to the Kingdom of France shortly after the campaign against the Cathars had culminated when the King of France and the French armies had an important if later and less brutal role in eliminating the heresy.

I first visited Languedoc in the late summer of 1976 when I was staying with my friend Jacqueline at her sister Michelle’s house close to Manosque by the Durance tributary of the Rhone. After a few weeks with Michelle, where I was to write my book Beat Heart Disease, Jacqueline and I toured the Languedoc region starting from Avignon and going by Montpellier, Carcassonne and the many other towns of the region extending almost as far as Toulouse It was a beautiful and evocative part of France and its peaceful ambience was far removed from that part of the world where such cruelties, massacres and pogroms took place in the earlier years of the 13th century.

The Cathars are described by the author as the members of the most notorious and subservient creed of all times. The book deals with the policies of the Church and Rome, and the Catholic clergy and laity, to extirpate the large and increasing numbers of Cathars who were heretics threatening the tenets of Rome. The brief, violent and largely successful campaign of about 16 years resolutely sought the extirpation of the Cathars and of other heresies in the South of France and in Spain. At times the killings were indiscriminate; the citizens of whole towns and villages were massacred, a policy evocative  of the earlier massacres which occurred on behalf of Christianity during the first Crusade. The massacre of the Cathars occurred during the times of Innocent III and Gregory IX and with their connivance and that of their successors. The Inquisition was established in the South of France and in Spain shortly after the Cathar campaign and was to extend and torment Catholics of Europe and Latin America for centuries to come. And it was the Dominican Order which led the clergy in its campaign to destroy the Cathars and which was responsible for the initiation and the continuation of the subsequent Inquisition.  

The Cathar symbol of the dove
The Cathars deplored the cupidity and worldliness of Rome and its clergy. Their communion was apparently directly with Jesus and God and they denied the role of the sacraments and the outer secular and political manifestations of the Church. They could only reach perfection or completeness by living lives of poverty, simplicity and self-denial. It was up to the individual man or woman to decide whether he or she was willing to renounce the material world and to adopt a life of tolerance and self-denial.

They did not care if you treated others, including Jews and Muslims, as a friend or got into bed before marriage, giving rise to the comment among their critics that ‘’They could not commit sin below the waist’’. If they failed to reach perfection in this life, they were destined to be reborn to the human form to await the perfection of total self-denial. The God deserving of Cathar worship was a God of light who ruled the invisible, the ethereal, the spiritual domain

The philosophy of the Cathars is best described in the first chapter of the book. Just as some of the tenets of the Catholic Church seem unreal and without logic to me to-day, it seems that the tenets of the Cathars must have seemed unreal to the fervent believers of Rome eight centuries ago.

Montségur - the last stonghold of the Cathars.
Despite a distance of eight centuries, there is quite an extensive literature about the Cathars and their Perfect Heresy The title owes its description to their philosophy aimed at achieving perfection in this life and only thus could they reach Godliness in the next world. This book provides a good review of this so-called Perfect Heresy and I am left most vividly with the paradox that great masses of people can be moved by such irrational but apparently harmless beliefs and that others can be equally irrational in callously destroying them for equally irrational and not very different beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church had in the past a lot to learn about Christianity. Perhaps to-day’s announcement of the Pope retiring may be symptomatic of a greater humility and tolerance among its clergy. Certainly Innocent lll and Gregory lX of the 13th century showed little humility towards their brethren in Languedoc.

I read this book on Kindle. The text of the book extended to two thirds of its length. The last third is largely made up of the references of which there are 260. For the reader to access these references requires more of a problem on Kindle than on a book in the hand. Most of these references are quite extensive, up to ten lines or more, and are important to the reader in understanding the main text. I would advise the reader to check the excerpt of The Perfect Heresy on Kindle before buying the book. It gives a very clear summary of what the book is about.

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