The Cornerstone

    a novel by Zoé Oldenbourg

    Translated by Edward Hyams

    Pantheon, New York, 1955

I was drawn to this book because of its author, first, and second because it promised to give the “other side” of the story I had just read by Ms. Oldenbourg, called Destiny of Fire.  That book showed how the Cathar heretics, who were to the Catholics the incarnation of evil, were themselves convinced they were the true Christians and that the Catholics were in league with and worshiped the Devil.  This current book was billed by an anonymous reviewer as giving more insight into the Catholic side of this same picture.

It did do this, but in an unexpected way.  It showed how each side of the conflicts of the day based their motivation in their faith: Cathars, Catholics and Muslims.  It showed their ability to be vicious and cruel to each other to be roughly equal, except that the Cathars were painted a bit more sympathetically by Oldenbourg.  Cathars were capable of viciousness and cruelty, but they were not often in a position to mete it out.  

It showed Catholics to be capable of immense cruelty within their own society, as the description on the book jacket warned.  However, I was stunned to have to disagree with the description on that book jacket.  It said in part about the book’s 13th century setting:

The book jacket description then cites a review from the London Times Literary Supplement.  It has this sentence:  

After reading the book I wonder what these two statements are referring to.  Both these reviewers correctly detected that the ‘cornerstone’ was faith.  But what made the book compelling to me was not that Oldebourg meant the Christian faith.  To me she was showing that the cruelty and bloodshed on all three sides of the world-conflict of the time were all soundly anchored by the cornerstone of faith, whether that faith be Cathar, Islamic or Christian.  To me what I drew from this book was a warning: as long as exclusive faiths such as these were uncontrolled and unimpeded, and had the power to deal death as well as the power to grant or withhold salvation, the world would not be safe for any other religion.  Theocracies tend to be intolerant, to put it mildly.  The very existence of another faith challenges its being the true faith unless it can be shown that the competing faith is of the Devil, in which case it is OK to wage war to defend good from evil.

My view is that only a secular state in which there is freedom of, as well as from, can bring peace between religions.  I felt this view confirmed in Oldenbourg’s masterfully told tale.  Hence my astonishment at the London Times review suggesting there was something superior to modern times in having “the ‘Cornerstone’ of Christian faith and chivalry rises foursquare and without a rift.”  Theocracy is apparently that reviewer's ideal.  It is not my ideal.  

And what is this “Christian faith and chivalry” business all about?  Oldenbourg makes it very clear that chivalry is mostly about treating nobles according to some rules, but faithful men are still shown raping and murdering among their own class.  They also do so to the lower classes but feel no remorse over such acts.  Murder, rape and incest are serious within one’s class, and several believing reprobates are followed through their assigned punishments and penances to work off such horrors and assure their salvation.  I fail to see how the noble lives of some few men of faith who renounce the world and themselves redeem “the violence, the vice and the squalor” of those times.  Oldenbourg shows them dealing rather severely with the noble murderers and rapists/adulterers of their time in terms of actually imprisoning them and meting out harsh penalties.  But the final outcome is a “saved” sinner, one who thus gets away with it in this world and has naught to answer for in the next because he has done his prescribed penance.  Oldenbourg masterfully shows that even the worst sinner has an anchor hooked to the ‘cornerstone’ of faith.  

To me, Oldenbourg was not painting a sympathetic picture of the faithful as the book jacket suggests.  I was fascinated by the veiled criticism of the Catholic religious world view in this exchange between a Cathar and several very religious Catholic Benedictine monks who offered him shelter not knowing he was a heretic (pages 159-161).  One of the younger monks disagreed with a declaration that the Devil was on a rampage in the form of Cathari heretics and persecuting the true Church.  His statement was ‘corrected’ –he was lacking vision:

It is here that Oldenbourg inserts the Cathar heretic in disguise who is listening “with malicous joy” and who is thinking:

To appreciate this internal dialogue, it  needs to be informed by this man’s history: his wife became Cathar over his protestations and he finally gave in and went along with her.  His wife and children had been most cruelly tortured and murdered and he has been made to watch.  Then his eyes were gouged out and he was left to die.  If it hadn’t been for some passing pilgrims who took pity on him, he would be dead.  He had given thought to returning to the faith of his birth, so he could have peace, but hearing these two monks confirmed him in the faith his wife had brought him to accept.

This is just one dialogue in this book that suggests to me that Oldenbourg never saw “the ‘Cornerstone’ of Christian faith and chivalry rises foursquare and without a rift.”  Far from it!

I appreciated Oldenbourg’s sympathetic insights into the believers of all three of the warring faiths featured in this book.  All are pious in their own minds and their own ways, and most are capable of cruelty toward their fellow man and of doing other stunningly evil things at the same time.  There seems to be no safety at a societal level that comes with faith, except perhaps within one’s own stratum of society to some limited extent.

The book shows how immoral most of the nobility were, despite their faith.  Adultery and incest, whether by persuasion or force, was an ecclesiastical, not a civil, matter, and could be paid for through penances leading to full forgiveness.  The one place where higher standards of morality seemed to be in play were in the instance of courtly love that was a central theme of the book.  

The book-jacket reviewer places courtly love on the good side of the ledger, which I find interesting since the Church, also placed on the good side of the ledger, was a foe of courtly love, declaring the “Religion of Love” that underlay courtly love a heresy.  It originated in the same time and place as the Cathar heresy, but was not recognized as a problem until it became clear that during the war against the Cathars, their couriers were disguised as traveling love-singers: troubadours.


In a separate review I will write more about Oldenbourg’s treatment of courtly love in this book as well as in another book called Cities of the Flesh (Pantheon, New York, 1963).  Since this will be a thematic review, I will link it (later in this Spring of 2008) to my Thematic Reviews page (linked below).

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