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There are very few history books written about the ordinary person and their lives. Occasionally they appear en masse as a disgruntled mob or are mentioned in passing in the context of other, more famous lives. Sometimes one comes to our attention for a great deed or misdeed; for rising above the forgotten unknowns who live, love and die unremembered and without making even a scratch on the historical record. But also sometimes we get lucky and something survives which can shed some light on how the vast majority of the human population lived at a particular time period; in this case it Inquisition records dealing with a tiny French village on the border with Spain. The Inquisitors conducted many interviews with the local population and recorded them in detail, offering an amazing and very rare insight into the daily life of French peasants from 1294 to 1324.
The village (the eponymous Montaillou) attracted the attention of the Inquisitors for the fact that the local area was a hotbed of heretical belief, a form of Albigensianism called Catharism which offered a challenge to the native and established Catholicism. The Cathars had already been heavily persecuted in this area of France, (Languedoc and further south towards the Pyrenees) in the Abigensian Crusades at the beginning of the 13th century, but this heresy was still strong in the higher and more isolated mountain areas. Shepherds took their flocks over the Pyrenees between France and Spain, allowing for ease of movement and many places of safety for the 'parfait' or true believers. The village priest, bayle (a form of bailiff) and some of the richer families also helped protect the heretics, meaning they became a major focus for Jacques Fournier, Bishop and later Pope of Avignon. He led the Inquisition's activities in the village and his attention to detail meant that everything was meticulously recorded and most of this material survived to the present day. It was these sources that Ladurie drew from to write this book. Monsieur Ladurie is a leading French historian and Professor of the History of Modern Civilisation at the College de France; thankfully this book has been translated into English!
First I should say that although written in a more popular and easy to access style than most academic history books there is a lot of scope for confusion, especially if you are not familiar with French historical and social organisation of this period. The text is littered with French terms and the way society was set up is so different to our modern model that it can be hard to follow exactly what is happening and to whom. This is made more difficult by the fact that we are dealing with several generations of family members, only about ten family names and around twenty first names. I found this very hard to get my head around, despite the helpful index of families and their connections at the back. The families were heavily connected with each other through marriage, friendship, religious beliefs and rivalries and after the fourth Bernard or Pierre I gave up and just read the book without quite following the names. The fact that I didnt feel that my experience was too tainted is testament to the uniqueness and interest of the sources.
The first part of the book 'The ecology of Montaillou' was by far the hardest and driest for me, dealing with the religious background, geography, economy, social organisation and the various powers that exerted influence over the village- from the Count to the church to the richer families etc. Whilst necessary to provide context for the other half of the book (which deals with the more personal aspects of Montaillou life such as sex, death, childhood and magic) I really had to push myself to read on, even though I do have a degree in a closely related subject. My perseverance did pay off but I could imagine this section putting many casual readers off before they get to the 'good bit' at the end-perhaps this is the modern day version of the Medieval pilgrimage? It was amazing how much detail had been preserved, it seems that conversations have been recorded verbatim and even things which we would dismiss as irrelevant had been preserved by the meticulous recorders of the Inquisition-all good for us in giving us snapshots of the past-not so good for the poor souls who had to listen to and record all of this information.
The second part is the real gem in my opinion and is packed full of the sort of eye-opening detail that makes you reconsider your ideas about the past. The village Catholic priest is a regular casanova, with mistresses all over the place and a blind eye is turned. He seduces young girls, persuades others to sleep with him to get family members out of punishments and actually supports and sympathises with the heretics in his own way. Lower status women have illegitimate children who are accepted reluctantly into the community, albeit without the status of legitimate siblings. Men were the controlling force but women could survive without the support of a husband, son or father and scratch a living in the village. Despite the high mortality rate amongst infants and children, they were adored and tenderly cared for, loved and often totally spoiled. For a community riven by divisions over religion, the role of magic is surprisingly important although frowned upon by the established church.
As well as these surprises there is a mass of material taken directly from the sources and analysed by Ladurie to offer a general insight into Montaillou life. Everyday conversations and activities recorded because of the individual or group connection to Catharism are heavily quoted throughout the book which slows the down the first half, but speeds up the second immeasurably. I loved reading the words spoken by a French peasant over 700 years ago as they come across as completely and utterly human, rather than the pedestalled famous who feature so strongly in history books. They moan, complain, love, talk about food, plead and ask each other for favours. Guillaume Ascou calls his wife a 'sow' and 'went to bed and covered his head, uttering threats against his wife. Hearing these, the said spouse left the house by a bedroom door and went away' (p193). More prosaically they talk about the weather, daily domestic activities and the rounds of gentle daily social interaction such as borrowing ingredients or utensils from neighbours. Most of the village is represented in some way because of the nature of the source gathering and the unusual situation of the village as a hub of heretical activity. Religion and religious belief recurs throughout and I was surprised by how much debate illiterate shepherds, housewives and tradesmen had in their day to day life. Heretics and 'the faithful' lived shoulder to shoulder for years, not always harmoniously but certainly not ripping each other apart; wary tolerance seems to describe it. The 'parfait' or 'goodmen' who were the elite of Catharism pass through and hide in the village regularly- in the case of Prades Tavernier generally behind a barrel!
Although 'Montaillou' can be hard going in places I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in social history, the common people, religious history or Medieval history. I found this book totally absorbing and certainly not as dry as a 'normal' academic history text. It is thorough, well researched and a definite must for the professional and amateur historian.
Price: Paperback is £10.99 but is £6.86 on Amazon.