The Devil's Work
THE DREADFUL PAGEANT that seems to haunt Novelist-Historian Zoe Oldenbourg began on a hot, still day in 1209, when a French army took the city of Béziers, a bastion of one of history's most romantic territories. The region covered all of present-day southern France. Its palaces were rich in art and dominated by the codes of courtly love. Its tongue was a strange and musical dialect that had given the region a flourishing literature of poetry and was to give it a name—Languedoc (for langue d'oc, literally, the language of yes).
In God's Name. French kings longed to possess Languedoc. Innocent III loathed it as the center of the strange Cathar religion, the last great Christian heresy (before the Reformation) to shake the power of Rome. Laying siege to Béziers, the French came in God's name, seeking heretics. But once inside, they slaughtered until the red crosses on their white tunics were lost in blood; in 51 hours, they put to death the city's entire population of 20,000.
The melancholy rape of Languedoc, which, under the name of the Albigensian crusade, took place during 35 years of unparalleled human savagery following the slaughter at Béziers, has now preoccupied Zoë Oldenbourg through one remarkable volume of history (Massacre at Montségur) and two less remarkable historical novels.
But the trouble with Cities of the Flesh, the second novel, is not, as might be thought, that Author Oldenbourg has now begun to meet herself coming and going. It is rather that the real history is so compelling that the histrionics of her characters sometimes seem frivolous and shoddy intrusions. It is hard, really, to care much about the courtly romance between Roger de Montbrun (Catholic knight of Toulouse) and Lady Gentian d'Aspremont (Cathar heretic), which takes up one-third of the book, at a time when, for example, human heads were actually being used as gun stones, and the brave Count of Toulouse, in order to save his people and make peace with the church, allowed himself to be publicly lashed in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Who Made the World? The church, as everyone knows, and as the count should have expected, remained implacable. Instead of forgiveness, it created the Dominican Order, and set in motion the Inquisition just to cope with heretics. Under the horrifying impact of burning and torturing that ensued, even so uncomplicated and generous a Catholic as De Montbrun (parted from his love), like thousands of others, refuses to accept the sacraments and is burned as a despised heretic.
Frequently diffuse and cryptic, Miss Oldenbourg's account nevertheless rises on occasion to a passionate eloquence which perceives (and persuades) that physical cruelty is a pure manifestation of evil. As a temporarily absolved prisoner, De Montbrun is forced to watch the Inquisition's heretic burnings in Toulouse. Through the swirling clouds of smoke, De Montbrun sees "the bloody contorted bodies writhing like snakes on poles—the raw heads, the faces blistered and bursting, and still screaming. It was ugly; never had human faces been so ugly."
Historian Oldenbourg has nothing but compassion for the plight of Languedoc. Whether correct or not, her judgment and her book are illuminated by an enormous moral irony that was to haunt the Catholic Church for centuries. The heresy of the gentle, patient, charitable Cathars (an offshoot of early Manichaeism) was their conviction that the world, charged as it was by cruelty and evil, must be the creation not of God but of the Devil. Trying to assert the contrary, the avenging forces of Rome did such savage work in Languedoc that not even the Devil was likely to claim it for his own.