The Friar of Carcassonne, By Stephen O'Shea

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The Independent Culture

The inquisition was set up initially to root out heretics, specifically followers of the Cathar religion in the Languedoc in southern France. In its early years, it was run by Dominican friars who believed they were serving God by imprisoning and torturing men and women before burning them to death. Often the evidence against them was made up by the inquisitors or by other suspects, saving their own skin. Criticising the inquisitors drew dangerous attention to yourself; it suggested that at least you sympathised with the heretics. Yet this is what a Franciscan friar did, year after year, at the start of the 14th century, as this fascinating book explores.

The Friar of Carcassonne was Bernard Délicieux, a superb orator. He was equally at home arguing his case – successfully – with King Philip the Fair of France, and urging the people of Carcassonne to hurl insults (and worse) at the Dominicans.

Bernard's fight was not against the inquisition itself, but corrupt and abusive inquisitors. Confession was the "queen of proofs", and the most efficient way of getting it was through the "queen of torments", the strappado. The hands were bound together behind the back, the rope was passed over a beam, then the unfortunates were hung from their arms.

Often the dead were accused, their bodies dug up and burned and their property was confiscated, leaving their widows and children destitute. It was this callousness in the name of Christ that Bernard railed against.

Stephen O'Shea's The Perfect Heresy was a masterful history of the Cathars and the infamous crusade against them. This was a hugely complex period: his new book usefully begins by setting the religious and political scene of the 13th century after the Albigensian Crusade, before detailing Bernard's brave personal crusade against the cruelty and corruption of the inquisitors. The miracle is that Bernard lasted as long as he did. Eventually, his luck ran out; he was tried, tortured, then died in solitary confinement in 1320. O'Shea writes: "He, along with Catharism and Spiritual Franciscanism, met a violent end, the gentler Christianities represented by both the friars and the heretics crushed by a vengeful orthodoxy."

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