Wednesday, 20 July 2011

No-one expects the French inquisition

On holiday in the Tarn last week, 29C kept me sitting in the shade from the moment I came in from the morning's baguette-foraging until about 4pm. While the others played by the pool, I kept my pale skin safe and my geeky brain entertained with some local history.

This area of the south-west of France was full of the Cathar heresy during C13 and into C14, people who rejected the Catholic church and opted instead to be 'good Christians'. I really enjoyed The Perfect Heresy, which sets the early C13 sieges and massacres in the context of wider history - the state of the Catholic church and competing popes setting up across Europe; rival powers with claims on the land (including the English King, the local Count of Foix and the tiny kingdom of France) and changes in society and technology. It's a compelling and vivid read, showing us how human the individuals were. And the descriptions of medieval sieges and burnings were truly horrendous.

And then I read Montaillou, which is a classic. Emmanuel La Roy Ladurie drew on the detailed records of the C14 Inquisition's interviews and interrogations of the population of this tiny village. It's a magnificent work of scholarship, with astounding levels of detail about the most minor aspects of life. My gripe is that it's a dated book - it reads like an academic study, taking different aspects of life thematically and marshalling the evidence for each section. I think a more modern history would have invested more focus in the stories of the families - it could still have kept different chapters to focus on different aspects of rural medieval life but would have been more plot and character-driven and so a more engaging read.

Both books came from Daunts - I love the way they arrange history and fiction by country, with the travel books. I'm not into the Dan Brown-type stuff on Cathars etc, and didn't manage to find any 'quality' fiction to read while there, so I'd welcome any other suggestions of books to read - whether about the area or more fiction set in medieval Europe.

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