Reviewed by: Sean McGlynn
Author: Stephen O’Shea
Price (RRP): £17.99
In his latest book O’Shea tells the story, little-known outside of academic circles, of the dramatic events in Carcassonne at the turn of the 14th century.
Set against the backdrop of Inquisition against the Cathar heretics, he revealingly captures the suspicions and resentments of the Languedoc area of southern France at this time. Vividly describing this wonderfully sleazy and corrupt world, O’Shea introduces us to the Franciscan friar Bernard Délicieux, his (flawed) hero of events.
Bernard reacted indignantly and bravely to the persecutions of the Inquisition, speaking out against the inhumane and excessive practices of the Dominican inquisitors; memories still revolted at such tales as the old lady on her deathbed, tricked into admitting her heretical beliefs and then “hauled through the town and thrown on a bonfire”. The symbol of religious oppression was the Wall, the Inquisition’s notorious prison in Carcassonne.
Noting the parallels with the Bastille, O’Shea narrates Bernard’s spirited – and often violent – resistance, culminating in rallying the townspeople to storm the prison and release its prisoners (but only temporarily, alas).
Already marked as a troublemaker, Bernard thereby placed himself at the very centre of religious and political intrigue in the region. He cleverly exploited the turmoil of the times to win over, for a while at least, the French king Philip the Fair.
Bernard appeared at the royal court, decrying the falsified registers of the inquisitors as “a mountain of lies” and revealing how the Dominicans abused their powers to unlawfully appropriate the properties and wealth of innocent victims. He warned that such was the anger of the people that revolt was in the air.
Philip listened, as Bernard knew he would. Just a year previously the French had suffered a humiliating defeat at Courtrai at the hands of Flemish rebels and Philip could not afford another revolt at the other end of his kingdom. But political tides turned and Bernard overplayed his hand, alienating his powerful supporter, and as others died away he was left exposed to retribution.
In 1317 he was captured by the papacy, tortured by his own Franciscan brothers and, with sad irony, immured in the Wall where he soon ended his days.
O’Shea is a popular historian. This can show in some oversimplified views of medieval society and some may find the literary embroidery of his novelistic style a little jarring (“Pope Boniface looked out over the multitudes with satisfaction”).
One could harp on sniffily about the book’s academic shortcomings, but this would be to miss the point. This is a great story, full of fascinating and odious characters corrupted by power, and O’Shea tells it well with a real sense of excitement that makes it a pleasure to read.
Sean McGlynn is author of Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England, 1216 (The History Press, 2011)