Review of ‘The Friar of Carcassonne – Revolt against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars’ by Stephen O’Shea

{45C61ECA-F3B7-4152-B479-B9834C29DD78}Img100I have been an interested follower of Stephen O’Shea ever since he published “The Perfect Heresy” eleven years ago. A historian whose pen has been erudite rather than prolific, he is able to bring dry historical scholarship to his public in a manner that is both enthusiastic and accessible. So it is with “The Friar of Carcassonne”, a text a scant two hundred pages long with a further fifty of Notes, that serves to bring a forgotten champion of the Cathar cause back to the conscious memory of History that he deserves. A Franciscan friar who sought to correct the terrible wrongs he found in the actions of the Dominican inquisition during the turn of the fourteenth century, Bernard Delicieux is no “civil libertarian” but a man who “saw a grievous wrong and summoned up the courage to try and redress it. In this he was a man for all seasons-but still just a man.” (pg204)
The story of Bernard Delicieux is the story of the final struggles of Languedoc to retain autonomy in the face of French pressures; the story of tumultuous times for the Papacy; yet, ultimately, it is the story of one man’s failure. A personal failure that represents a tale of heresy which, around the time of his death, led to the fall of the Templars and a huge schism in the Medieval Church as spiritual grace sought to consolidate secular power against the Kings of France.
O’Shea’s text is divided into three parts. The first sixty pages are concerning the world of Bernard Delicieux. Told in a manner that successfully attempts to set the tones of anger and resentment that cut the undercurrents both of the world of Franciscan and Dominican friar, and of the Cathar Good Men and Women and the Inquisition. O’Shea is able to succinctly draw the key concerns, both political and spiritual, of the Papacy and its feuding with Philip the Fair of France. In the struggle for power over men’s souls and wealth, both sought to shape Western Intellectual tradition. The Friar Preachers and Friar Minors competed for land and wealth whilst Pope Boniface sought to prevent the French King impounding or taxing his wealth. Into this mix came men of power such as Guillame de Nogaret who sought the downfall of Boniface, and Bernard Saisset whose own conflagatory nature set the ground for the rise of Friar Bernard Delicieux. In contrast, the Pope prepared to exercise the greatest weapon in his arsenal: namely that of excommunicating the King of France. In this time of revolt, that culminated in the Outrage of Anagni, Bernard Delicieux saw a chance to press for Languedoc’s freedom from the intransigent ideology of the Dominicans. The rise of the inquisition – a lowercase spelling that O’Shea is painstaking to point out – was the inevitable culmination of the previous two centuries of a Church that moved every closer to a doctrine of fear with which to control the laity. The Hounds of the Lord gave the chance for ungodly men such as Bishop Bernard de Castanet to persecute hundreds simply for personal gain, hiding behind the unforgiving skirts of a Papacy that had become focused purely on self-preservation through the proclamation of heresy. In the late 1280s lawyers from Carcassonne who had loudly argued against the depravations of the inquisition in Languedoc and the Church’s “disruptive role in civil society” (pg56), were now given a totem in the hated “Wall” prison newly built in the town. It is no wonder that the tinder box of revolution only needed a charismatic leader to lead it. A leader it found in Bernard Delicieux when a secret Accord listing men that the inquisition wanted to interrogate provoked a riot during the Papal Jubilee of 1300. It is during an attempt to secure the men that we first learn of Bernard: a fiery, gifted rhetorician with a sense of moral outrage that found a groundswell of support. So began the enmity between the Dominician Bernard Gui and the Franciscan Bernard Delicieux.
The second part deals with the years of revolution, from 1299 to 1304. Drawing suport for Carcassonne with the men of Albi, Delicieux found himself – sponsored by Jean de Picquigny – able to directly petition the King at Senlis in a brilliant example of coercive oratory. By securing the King’s favour he was able to blunt the determined press of the Dominicians in late 1301 but never quite able to remove it entirely. Delicieux’s fammous sermon in 1303 is given full exploration by O’Shea; equally the counter by Geoffroy d’Ablis. The building pressures forced Philip’s hand later in the year and he came to Toulouse with his Queen. It is here Delicieux made his mistake by overtly threatening rebellion against the King if he did not act against the inquistion. References to the raw recent secession of Flanders was too fresh in Philip’s mind and, whilst it did not set him against the Franciscan, it meant further support would no longer be forthcoming. Delicieux’s subsequent attempt to coerce the Prince of the Kingdom of Majorcan to open rebellion failed before it started and Delicieux found himself removed from the political scene. Spending the next decade of his life he rose to prominence within Languedoc, though the historical record becomes rather more thin, emerging at the end as man whom the Dominician-led Papacy finally sought their revenge by bringing him to trial.
The final part deals with 1305 to Bernard’s trial and death in 1317. His trip to Avignon to defend the Spirituals of Languedoc became the chance his enemies needed to arrest him and his trial began in Carcassone on October 2, 1317. Led by Bishop Fournier of Palmiers, months of alternating torture and questioning wore down Bernard over time until he finally confessed to whatever his enemies wanted. Consigned to incareration for the remainder of his life, he died at an unknown time whilst the secular powers under the new Philip V of France sought to have his execution carried out.
O’Shea is immensely readable. This reader knows little of this period, but the focused nature of the biography – especially the five key years of Delicieux’s life – provokes curiosity to read more about the Inquisition, the Cathars, Languedoc, and Philip the Fair of France. It is this that makes the book successful. The notes show a huge amount of research, the scholarship is presented in a manner that keeps the pages turning. A faint whiff of excitement laces the end of each chapter, encouraging the reader to start the next. By the end, we are left wanting to know more about Bernard Delicieux, the man, the person, the leader of a moral protest against the Church that inspired only fear in the world it sought to control. We learn about the struggle of spiritual and secular power through the slant of one man; but that, in itself, is useful. Of course, we should look to understand the Dominician viewpoint in order to gain a balanced view. The key is that O’Shea has resurrected the memory of a man who deserves to be remembered, of a time that deserves greater consideration, and piques an interest in the twenty-first century reader that proves the success of what he has written.

Categories: Book Reviews, Stephen O'Shea

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