Devil worship

The Yellow Cross: the story of the last Cathars 1290-1329

Rene Weis<em> Viking, 453pp, £20</em>

The story of the Vatican's suppression of the Albigensian heresy is one of the darkest pages in the history of the Catholic Church and has often been recognised as such. Drawing their inspiration from the New Testament and the Law of Love, rather than from the Old Testament (incidentally, the very "contradiction" that Dostoevsky points to in the Grand Inquisitor sequence of The Brothers Karamazov), the Albigensians, also called Cathars, believed in a Manichean dualism. For them, the body and the physical world were manifestations of the devil, and only the soul, spirit and mind were godly. Influenced by the Gnostics, the Essenes and the "non- synoptic" Gospel of St John, they preached a Jain-like creed of non- violence and ate a special diet of fish, avoiding meat and animal fats.

The Albigensians were clustered around the Franco-Spanish border, in the Ariege region of south-west France. They flourished briefly at the end of the 12th century, but repression from the Church was swift and savage. Pope Innocent III unleashed a "crusade" against the Cathars, which led to 40 years of horrific bloodshed. When the last Cathar fortresses of Montsegur and Queribus fell in the mid-13th century, the persecuted heretics went underground. There was a late revival of Catharism at the beginning of the 14th century, but this, too, was ruthlessly suppressed by the Papal Inquisition under the Dominican Geoffroy d'Ablis and the Cistercian bishop of Pamiers, Jacques Fournier.

The story of the last Cathars is black, poignant and depressing, combining horror with the labyrinthine complexities of Balzac and Dumas. Double-crosses and triple-crosses abounded, with both the Inquisition and the Cathars having moles in the opposite camp. The saga culminated with the arrest of the entire village of Montaillou in 1308, and the burning at the stake of the Cathar ringleaders. What made the late flowering of Catharism possible was the backing of the wealthy Authie clan and the clandestine support of the powerful Clergue family of Montaillou. Pierre Clergue, the principal villain in this story, was actually the Catholic rector of Montaillou at the same time that he acted as a kind of ideological commissar for the Cathar underground movement. He promoted the old Cathar belief in a ninefold metempsychosis, denied Christ's incarnation through the Virgin birth and amused himself by making love to women behind church altars while lampooning the Pope and the cult of Mary.

As is fairly well known, Fernand Braudel founded the Annales school of history, with its emphasis on micro-studies of communities and cultures to shed light on the mentalities of bygone epochs. Braudel's most brilliant pupil was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie who, in the 1970s, produced the classic work Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French village 1294-1324. Using Bishop Fournier's records of his interrogations of the Cathar heretics, Ladurie painted a vivid portrait of everyday life in the village of Montaillou. In the first part, he established the exact dimensions and physical spaces of the village, so that we knew where everyone lived and how they lived. In the second part, he introduced us to the dramatis personae: not just to Fournier and d'Ablis, but also to the politically conscious shepherd Pierre Maury and the lubricious but much victimised Beatrice de Planissoles, twice married and with a string of lovers, including two priests. One of these was the duplicitous, lying womaniser Father Clergue, a figure straight out of Graham Greene, who escaped the fires of the Inquisition only by dying while in custody.

Rene Weis retells this exact story, but I cannot understand why. Although Ladurie is cited in the bibliography, he appears nowhere in the main text. Weis does not seem to me to have added anything significant to Ladurie's classic, either by new documentation or new interpretations. His labour seems like the process whereby, in Las Vegas, some billionaire entrepreneur blows up a casino only to build something almost identical in its place. Weis gives us a lot of detail about the car trips he makes and his cross-country hikes, but all this did was to make me wonder whether, in the words of the Second World War slogan, his journey was really necessary.

Frank McLynn's most recent book, Villa and Zapata: a biography of the Mexican revolution, is published by Jonathan Cape (£20)