MONTAILLOU (the book)


A few impressions from reading


The Promised Land of Error

by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (translated by Barbara Bray, Vintage Books, New York, 1979).

I knew this book existed, but the way it was described in the sources I read that referred to it, it seemed like it would be just an anthropology book and would describe things in generalized or even statistical terms and not delve into real individuals’ lives in any depth.  An email from someone who had found my website set me straight, said I would really like the book.  So I obtained it from my local university library and devoured it in a week of late evenings.  What a marvelous book!  I loved it!  I was totally wrong in my prejudgment of it.  (Thanks, Julie, for making the strong suggestion that I read it!)

In a way I am glad I was not aware of this book when I was doing my bit of research to write my own version of the story of Beatrice de Planissoles. Ladurie also tells her story, does it very well in fact!  So, had I run across a copy of this book and read it, I might never have written her story as I did, and gone to such lengths to illustrate her story with pictures from places she lived.  

Ladurie’s book might have given me the impression that her tale was already told, letting me just point at his book as I am doing now, and be satisfied.  

I am glad I went to all the trouble and even expense that I did to tell Beatrice's tale.  I learned a lot about myself in the process.  There is a subtle connection between what I learned about me and how Ladurie describes the one real love of Beatrice's life.  Of him he says that “the young vicaire was of weak character, even a coward, unworthy of his mistress.  In the end he left her, partly because she was old, but mostly because he was afraid his involvement with her would get him accused of heresy.” (Page 1767).  OK, don't read too much into this, but there were some character flaws in this person I felt I could identify with to some uncomfortable extent.

Ladurie says the vicaire's finding out she was a Cathar is what drove them back into the Ariege from Spain and led to their separation after they crossed the Pyrenees.   That is not the way I saw it or told the story, and after mulling over what I have read myself, and what Ladurie says here, I believe my version is the more complete on this particular small point because in my version it is not a minor point, in Ladurie's version it is very minor.

The cowardly vicar was aware of her Cathar past long before they went to the Palhars valley (now Spain), just across the pass from Vicdessos (now France).  He knew his having lived with her as man and concubine/wife (made possible in the Palhars because of a local bishop’s rebellion against the celibacy rule) would bring him to trial if this were discovered in France. But, I insist, only because there she was suspected of being a Cathar heretic. Her father was a heretic assigned to wear a double yellow cross to mark him and the whole family to some extent was involved in smuggling Cathars out of the Inquisition's way across the eastern Pyrenees.  

Beatrice's vicar was already under suspicion of cohabiting with this heretic (though they maintained separate homes), that is why (as Ladurie notes) they took separate paths from their respective homes, several days apart, to Vicdessos where they met clandestinely to cross the mountain pass into the Palhars.

At one point before this time he had an affair with someone else, a devout Catholic woman, just to throw suspicion off himself for sleeping with the heretic Beatrice!  (Is that an example of cowardice?  I will have to ponder that one.)  So it was not just the affair and cohabitation that was making it dangerous for him, it was the very strong suspicion that the person he was having the affair with was a heretic, just like her father.

I believe she insisted on coming back to the Ariege region of what is now France because she did not want her daughter, who lived with them, to grow up in the very primitive conditions prevailing in the Palhars at that time.  She wanted her to marry well, into the nobility from whence she, through her mother, came.  This was not in the cards if they stayed in the Palhars.  Where do I get this belief?  It is essentially what she said in her confession recorded by the Inquisition later, if I recall my readings of a few years ago correctly.

Ladurie simply says they (both Beatrice and her 'vicaire') spent a year in prison and were released.  (Page 168) Later in the book (page 270) he does mention that when Bernard Clerque himself went to jail he never ceased pressuring his brother Pierre Clerque’s (also in jail) lovers (those also in jail, like Beatrice) to go back on their testimony against his beloved brother Pierre.  Pierre was the priest who was a Cathar in disguise and seduced many females in his parish as well as one in his own extended family, teaching them a rather extreme interpretation of Catharism: that there is no such thing as one sexual act being more of a sin than another, (page 157 and several other places like p. 171) so sex with a niece or a married woman is no more sinful than sex between a husband and wife (the ideal was no sex, but only the perfecti were expected to be celibate).  Both Clerque brothers died in prison.

But the point I made in my story was that one of the things that made Beatrice fearful for her family while in jail is having Bernard pressure her with threats to them to try to get her to recant her testimony about her long- term affair with his brother.  She did not realize, being in jail, that many of his lovers had already confessed, and her testimony may not even have been all that important!  Page 155 says an incomplete list of twelve mistresses were in the Inquisition’s records!  Most of them said they were taught heresy by the priest and threatened with being turned in to the Inquisition if they did not comply with his wishes.  He was always a nice man if a woman refused his attentions.  But in Beatrice's case he was very nice and she enjoyed her affair with him.

Another reason I liked this book is that it goes into great detail on the sexual morality of the region, both Catholic and Cathar.  When I read the recent book by Thomas Cahill and saw that he assumed the Cathars’ nickname of Buggers reflected their seeking to have sex without producing children, hence their approved sexual outlet was buggery (simply meaning anal sex, but in common usage with a strong hint of homosexuality thrown in), I felt he was very wrong.  Sure, there was local homosexuality, and Ladurie documents it in the Inquisition records from some of the larger cities of the region (pp. 145-149), but there is no evidence in the Inquisition's notes on the villages and countryside of our beloved heretics.

Instead there is an astonishing amount of couples living together without benefit of marriage, and much concubinage among both Catholics and Cathars both, largely for family-economic reasons.  Ladurie has a chapter on temporary unions, and one right after that on marriages, and suggests the Cathars discouraged neither type of sexual union among their non-perfecti believers, but just railed against the Catholic sacrament of marriage.  

Perfecti could simply pronounce their believers married if they really wanted to be.  On page 176 he makes this statement: “Permissiveness, comparatively widespread in Montaillou and productive of bastardy, was still not promiscuity.”  He then tells what the ‘rules’ were, which basically meant taking responsibility for the outcomes of sexual relationships.  (I did not realize that 'bastard' referred to babies of either sex, and Ladurie explains that they were generally well provided for, although many lived on a lower rung of the socio-economic ladder, becoming, perhaps, servants in a parent’s home, but not being prevented from marrying or improving their economic status by other means such as work.)  

Although some married women had affairs, most respected the fact they were married.  It was before, after, and between marriages that there seemed to be no real problem with a woman taking a lover.

So whereas I protested Cahill’s easy dismissal of Cathar sexual morality on grounds of my simply not believing it, because it did not match what I had read, Ladurie gives the facts, Cahill was wrong on this issue.  Children were a regular outcome of both short- and long-term pairings, making it very unlikely that buggery was any more prevalent there and then, than it is here and now.

Ladurie teaches me a few more new things when he compares and contrasts Catholic and Cathar doctrines and practices in his last few chapters and suggests there is also a folk belief aspect that bridges between the two belief systems and changes both a little in this region.  The meant that whether Cathar or Catholic, differences were not enormous in terms of what people did in their daily religious lives or spiritual practices.  The people were superstitious and engaged in some magical thinking, but this was accommodated by both religions and nothing beyond what was ordinary for the times.  Generally, they were remarkably realistic.

Perhaps I had been a bit misled by the idea that Cathars' having women perfecti suggested that they were not misogynistic.  Ladurie says they were just as misogynist as their Catholic brethren but did respect and love their women, and troubadours in their poems and songs taught reverence for women and the ideal of platonic love, according to Ladurie.  Men beating their women was commonplace in both societies, although Ladurie suggested that some perfecti (p. 193) read the Bible and used it to argue for more humane treatment of women.  Cathars were Christians.

Pages 352-353 brought a smile of recognition to my face because the Cathar idea of heaven is so similar to what I was taught about heaven as an active Mormon: . . . “there every soul will have as much wealth and happiness as every other; and all will be as one.  And all the souls will love one another as if they loved the souls of their father or of their children.”  In other words, heaven is the eternal continuation and expansion of the ideal family.

A great difference, on the other hand, is the Cathar belief in "metempsychosis” – souls not receiving their ‘consolamentum’ rite before death would be reborn in the first available creature nearby having an egg fertilized in a womb: whether human, horse or boar!  (Discussed in several places in the book but especially pages 292-293 and also on page 352).  

Another huge difference is that at the end of the world, it will be cleansed of evil-doers and made into a heaven for the righteous who will inherit it in Mormon belief.  This is the exact opposite of the Cathar version where the righteous will be removed and the earth itself will become “a lake of pitch and sulfur: Hell!” (Page 352).

I had never liked the explanation of why Cathars abstained from meat, especially if they were perfecti, but not from fish.  The typical explanation was that Jesus ate fish, and that it was also OK because fish did not reproduce sexually, which is nonsense and suggests the Cathar power of observation of the natural world was lacking.  Ladurie makes it clearer (page 293): souls running from a newly dead body to a new life could only run into the nearest eggs that were already fertilized and attached inside a womb, and fish eggs were not fertilized in a womb!  Eggs are first laid, and then fertilized external to the mother-fish.  It is still sexual reproduction, surely they knew the boy fish did its thing after the girl fish laid its eggs, right?  They knew.

Ladurie makes clear they knew their biology quite well, and when confronted with the fact that Jesus ate fish (there is no record of him eating any other kind of meat!), they saw the distinction: externally versus internally fertilized eggs, sexual outercourse instead of sexual intercourse! Of course a soul freshly without a home would seek the nearest warm womb, not the bottom of a cold stream or pond!  I can relate to that, I think.

Does this have anything to do with the modern French considering frogs such a delicacy?  Their eggs are also externally fertilized.  (Just making fun of French cuisine, not being very serious.)

Now the Cathar logic where fish are concerned makes more sense to me.  

The person suggesting this book to me was right: I did very much enjoy reading it.  I learned much more about the human condition from reading it than I can possibly relate here.  It is a masterfully written book, weaving a complex story with facts from many lives until the resulting tapestry has anthropological merit and human meaning.  

And once again, because of Ladurie, my oft-metempsychosed soul, with relatively recent bunny-, sheep-, boar- and ox-experience still apparent to some observers (other animals have also been named), sighs in its currently human state for its loving Beatrice!  

But I will keep that to myself, since I am not about to also admit that I might still be disconcertingly like her "young 'vicaire'-lover," who was a coward, disloyal, and otherwise unworthy of this wondrously loving being as mistress, as Ladurie rightly suggested.  Ladurie says this flawed person was the one true love of Beatrice's life although she did enjoy several other men's attentions.  I guess if I want that 'one true love' assignation to apply to me now, 700 years later, I have to also assume that these character defects may also still apply.  I'll work on them.

 Read my Beatrice musings from several years ago  and/or see the places where she lived.

 Go to the 2007 Yearbook page.

 Go to the Link-Outline page.

 Go to the Thoughts and Places Home Page.