Small subjects make great books. Didn’t the great French poet write a superb text on “Lice-Hunters”? And doesn’t Boileau’s Lutrin, one of the best comic epyllions in the French language, spoof some of the scuffles in a Parisian church over the position of a podium from which sacred texts were read? I write these lines to forestall the objections of my American readers who might well be skeptical when confronted by the notion that a work of mine might be of interest to a limited public, even one with a population of three hundred million souls.
It can be argued that a drop of water, among an infinity of apparently similar drops, offers no particular interest. But if such a drop is regarded through a microscope, it may reveal, being sufficiently impure, an entire collection of enthralling microbes, bacteria, and viruses. A drop of water and a microscope? Or perhaps a village and the Inquisition: Montaillou’s misfortune was, in fact, to be examined, shaken up, forced to confess, to “spit out the truth” by the implacable inquisitors. One of them revealed an extraordinary talent for interrogation: Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamier was head of a local Inquisition “Service” and, further, was quite familiar with the dialect ( d’oc) of the village he administered. The merits of this exalted bishop, equivocal as they might have been, were later rewarded by his election to the papacy. In 1334, Jacques Fournier became the illustrious sovereign pontiff known as Benedict XII, a specialist in theological discourse about the Christian soul’s survival after death. Thus, through Fournier, the obscure village of Montaillou, long forgotten in the remote Pyrenees, became connected to the highest office of the Roman Catholic Church.
I did not invent or even discover Fournier’s inquisitorial documents. Produced, no doubt, in cruel collaboration with the villagers of Montaillou. These old parchments were discovered by the German Catholic priest and theologian Johan Dollinger, who would elsewhere reveal himself during his long and energetic crusade against papal infallibility. But his most inspired action was to publish parts of the inquisitorial records of Benedict XII. Later, Monseigneur Vidal, a connoisseur of the Montaillou dossiers, published his work on the village. (Vidal also served as a priest in Moscow during the Russian Revolution of 1917. He offers accounts of his harrowing experience in various publications.) Lastly, Jean Duvernoy, a jurist and advocate for Electricite de France, provided a 20th century Latin edition of Jacques Fournier’s original text about Montaillou. The works of Dollinger, Vidal, and Duvernoy have inspired me to enter the arena myself and to produce, I hope, an original and valuable work.
Starting with the initial document, I have sought to reveal all the factors that gave form and figure to the life of the “Montalionais” community at the beginning of the fourteenth century. I noted, first of all, the major and minor powers present: agents of the King of France, a “national” monarch if we mat use the word “nation;” and the representatives of the Count de Foix, who was, in fact, the authentic regional ruler.
Secondly, I have tried to discover and reveal the basic entity at the heart of village life, the peasant family, or, more precisely, the agricultural and rural family-household, not very different at Montaillou from other villages in the Pyrenees. This family household is called domus by the Latin scribes or ushers of the Inquisition. It is called ostal in the southern French, Occitan, dialect spoken byy the peasants of this region. The “domus-ostal” dictates relations between men and women, parents and children, and the domestic employees that comprise the household; at the same time the “domus-ostal” controls the relationships of villagers to agricultural and grazing lands in mountains or on the plains. Within this domiciliary context, I have envisioned one dominant family, the Clergues, who were in a position to influence decisively, and sometimes oppressively, village community life and regulate its contacts with the outside world.
More than twenty years ago, I had the honor of discussing this Clergue family with President Francois Mitterand, then leader of the opposition to Valery Giscard d’Estaing. At that time, Monsieur Mitterand had approvingly read my book about Montaillou. We quite agreed that the Cure Clergue, an avowed fornicator, self-assured and overbearing, was the typical type of the collaborateur. Certainly we had known this sort of man in France during World War II, but the people of Montaillou had already encountered his like in the early fourteenth century.
What was required of Cure Pierre Clergue, a member of a powerful local familia, was to serve his French masters, who occupied the surrounding Languedoc. They controlled the territory of the Count de Foix, who had become a satellite of Capetian power, and ran the Inquisition of Carcasonne, which terrorized the villagers. Additionally, the collaborator Pierre Clergue was responsible for protecting the interests of his local subordinates as well as his parishioners at Montaillou, who were threatened and oppressed by the French occupants of the surrounding region. Hence, Clergue had to hold fast to both ends of the chain, preserving the link with France while protecting the indigenous population.
The local community was not isolated; it had potentially dangerous links with the outside world. But Montaillou also sustained other relations, relations more exalted, more enriching, and dangerous in their way. The Montaillou sheep grazed on the lowland plains in winter; but they climbed higher during the summers, where the melting snow freed the grazing grounds. This made shepherding work easier in mountainous areas and allowed shepherds to have contact with remote areas such as Catalonia to the south, far from the lands of Count de Foix. In other words, the shepherds of Montaillou, for example, could break the yoke of limiting and even stifling provincialism.
Montaillou was also a passionate and romantic community: high amorous passions, or sometimes even ordinary ones, could break forth and have free reign, a fact clearly expressed by Inquisition scribes always eager to get their teeth into gauloiseries. The theories of Denis de Rougemont and Philippe Aries – according to which love-as-passion and the sentiment attached to childhood were of recent invention – were challenged by Inquisition dossiers (bias and implacable, true, yet objective in their own way). Death, of course, was interpreted in Montaillou according to Christian tenets, hardly tarnished or contested by the Catharist heresy. As a rule, one believed in new life of body or soul after death, in Paradise or in Hell, or even in Purgatory, according to one’s behavior while alive. It is a fact, however, that other points of view were known in Montaillou. For example, adherents of the Catharist or Albigensian doctrines believed not so much in Paradise or in Hell as in the possibility of reincarnation. One sees in Fournier’s dossier that, fairly widespread in Montaillou was the belief in transmigration of the souls of the dead into the living. This belief in reincarnation derives not from China, perhaps from India, but in any case from the East. Indeed the old folkloric notions about ghosts and phantoms appearing after death strike us as inherited from paganism, even from prehistoric times, yet these notions concerning revenants were still alive in Montaillou.
One might say that the “ways of believing” of this community were pluralistic, formed by the amalgamation of ideas dating from several ancient periods. Think of those great sedimentary “blending bowls” constituted of superimposed geological strata: the Aquitain Basin, the Parisian Basin . . . or think of the Grand Canyon of Colorado, similarly stratified all along the lengths of its cliffs. In relation to these great structures, some geographical, other conceptual, Montaillou, violently illuminated by the raw and sometimes suspect lights of the Inquisition, serves as a searchlight or a powerful reflector, shining its luminous beams into the consciousness and even the very existence of our brothers who lived long ago.