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by John Q McDonald --- 29 May 2002

The Perfect Heresy

The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars

by Stephen O'Shea

The Inquisition was one of the darker episodes of organized religious repression in global history. This book argues that its main reason for coming into being was the existence of the Languedoc Cathar movement in the 12th and 13th centuries. These holy people, who called themselves only "good Christians", held to an austere interpretation of the Bible that predicated a dualistic nature of the world and goodness. Everything material was essentially evil. All materialistic goals were to be shunned, and only the purest lifestyle could attain the good. As a result, the Cathars considered as evil the trappings and rituals of orthodox Christianity. They held no opinion on the right and wrong of anything material, except that it was all evil. Therefore, marriage and sexual morés were inconsequential. One strived to be a Perfect, pure and removed from all worldly concerns, and to escape the cycle of reincarnation into this evil existence. There were numerous implications of this movement, all of which branded them heretical in the eyes of the church. The Cathars didn't see it that way, of course, and, like many cultish movements, believed themselves to be interpreting the Bible in its one true way. Their opposition to worldly goods also endeared them to a populace and nobility in Languedoc that was tired of severe taxation by the church. Pope Innocent III therefore, launched a crusade against the Cathars in Southern France (and elsewhere, one presumes).

This entertaining and dark book is the story of that crusade and the political and religious fallout of the times. It is an elaborate story, with numerous players (all of whom share only about five possible names, so the story is often confusing). The nation-building French royalty and other nobility used the Cathars as an excuse to go to war upon the Occitans and divide up their lands. Much of Southern French history was defined in the 13th century Albigensian Crusade, and much of church history was formed by the Inquisition that resulted. This book is also a fine example of the aphorism that teaches that history is written by the victors. The sources O'Shea consults are most often the registers and testimony taken during the Inquisition trials. The main sources for battles and the beliefs of the Cathars are three stories written by people sympathetic to the Church. So, this history is deeply skewed. O'Shea, to his credit, is sympathetic to the opressed Cathars, and tries to weed out potential truth from a thin record. This is a fascinating story, and makes medieval history very lively. O'Shea doesn't go far toward describing everyday medieval life, of regular folk or the Cathars. This is a bit of a drawback, as the story feels somewhat at arm's-length much of the time. O'Shea does stay focused on the pivotal events, though. For such a short book, he succeeds in packing in a lot of story. His tone is chatty, and perhaps a little casual, but it is snappy and fast. There is a lot more to learn about this episode in history. This book is a good starting point.

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