Although most of the events related in The Friar of Carcassonne take place in the fourteenth century, their roots stretch back into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the explosion of heresies in the Languedoc, an area of southern France. Stephen O’Shea has written about the origins of Catharism in the region in a separate book, The Perfect Heresy, and The Friar of Carcassonne is the story of a Franciscan who played an important role during its end.
Brother Bernard Délicieux, a Franciscan, took on the inquisition (very definitely lower case at that time) when no one else dared. There had been obvious abuses by the Dominican inquisitors in Carcassonne, a town in Languedoc, at the end of the thirteenth century. Some of the inquisitors, it turned out later, received financial benefits from identifying certain wealthy people as supporters of the heretics. Very little ‘evidence’ was required to condemn someone and many men spent decades incarcerated in terrible conditions, eventually dying in prison for supporting people they’d never heard of. This was the main incentive for Bernard to take on the inquisition.
O’Shea goes back in time at the beginning of the book in order to set the scene. By the end of the thirteenth century Catharism had begun to die out, but there was renewed persecution in the last two decades of the century. This resulted in unrest in a region that had only recently become part of the kingdom of France. Eventually what was going on there caused concern both to the pope and to the king of France.
Brother Bernard is presented as charismatic, intelligent and persuasive. O’Shea shows how he managed to gain the support of both highly-placed churchmen and counsellors of Philippe IV, king of France. He also shows how easily Bernard made enemies in equally high places, including kings and popes. Bernard, it turns out, could also be a bit of a rabble-rouser when he wanted and he wasn’t above lying to further his cause or to save his life.
Unusually for something that happened in a remote corner of the world to someone who wasn’t terribly important beyond that corner, the events are well-documented. The reasons for this become very clear as the tale progresses. O’Shea makes good use of these records in his presentation of the friar and his activities.
I enjoyed the book, but found it quite disjointed. Of necessity, O’Shea has to explain a lot of background before he can write about what Bernard did in a particular situation and why it was significant, and that breaks up the narrative, since it’s necessary in almost every chapter. There are also copious notes at the end of the book, citing sources for those who want to find out more. If you’re interested in the heresies that erupted in the twelfth century, you will probably want to read this book.