Thursday, September 3, 2009


Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error is one of those books that, if you are seriously interested in medieval history, looms as A Text To Get Around To Sometime.

And yes, you should. As far as I am aware, it is the only anthropological study of a medieval village. LeRoy Ladurie realised that, since the Inquisition asked much the same questions an anthropologist would (though for different reasons), a complete enough set of records from the Inquisition about a parish would provide the material for an anthropological study of medieval village. Which is what Montaillou is.

That would make it valuable in itself. What makes it a treasure is being done by a lucidly perceptive and highly knowledgeable medieval historian.
He starts by giving a brief history of Catharism, introducing us to the severe and efficient Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers from 1318 to 1325 and then Pope Benedict XII--thanks to whom the Inquisition was so diligent and the records so comprehensively preserved in the Vatican archives--before outlining the local geography.

Then we move into Part One The ecology of Montaillou: the house and the shepherd which sets the scene. The book’s chapter headings are very anthropological: (Environment and authority; the domus; A dominant house: the Clergue family; the shepherds; the great migrations; the life of the shepherds in the Pyrenees; the shepherd’s mental outlook).

Part Two of the book (An archaeology of Montailou: from body language to myth) takes us through life patterns and beliefs. From, as the chapter headings say, Body language and sex to Magic and the other world.

Montaillou was a mountain village, somewhat out of the way. It had limited law-and-order and protection issues. Apart from the village bayle (bailiff), who represents manorial authority, and the local chatelain, the nobility is peripheral to the day-to-day life of the village. They were free peasants rather than serfs.

Since the village is divided between Catholics and Cathars, the main thing folk need protection from is the Church, with its tithes (being more vigorously enforced) and its Inquisition. Throughout the book , the presence of the Inquisition, and the fear and danger of its informers, is palpable. Anyone familiar with writings on and from modern police states will recognise the patterns immediately. But, then, the medieval Church pioneered so many of the techniques of modern totalitarianism: enforced ideological conformity, show trials, censorship, propaganda, agitprop. The destructive effect of informers is just part of the package.

But it is also a slower process, one rather less pervasively brutal than later efforts. Some of the individuals we meet end up burned at the stake, but only a few. Prison, penance, wearing of yellow crosses are much more common punishments.

The local priest belonged to the dominant family (his brother was the village bayle). They had connections, particularly to the court of the Count of Foix. The priest was also an inveterate womaniser and a Cathar. (The Inquisition got both of them in the end, they died in prison.) As the twin pressures of tithes and Inquisition squeeze, their local regime eventually cracked and fell.

The sources are very forthcoming about sexual habits and outlooks of the village. One is struck by how “modern” so much of their sexual behaviour and outlook is. Such as the peasant woman who opined about sex with the priest
I liked it. And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin (p.159).
Which seemed to express the peasant consensus—if it was consenting and not a sin (and not incest), it was fine. Folk formed temporary unions. Marriages failed (though ending via separation rather than divorce).

There were even homosexual networks in the urban areas (p.144), who mostly do not get bothered (apart from the occasional burning at the stake, that is). Though the discussion is somewhat marred by Ladurie apparently having a “recruitment” model of homosexuality in his head.

The Church was not very successful at inculcating its sexual taboos in popular attitudes. Not helped by priests often being particularly sexually active (in both the womanising and the homosexual networks) and having a reputation for being sexually active. But then priestly celibacy was about stopping priestly marriage. Concubinage seems to have been largely ignored.

This is not to say the populace was not interested in matters religious. They were often deeply interested. Ladurie notes the pervasive concern for salvation—which does not seem to have been merely a product of the obsession of the examining clerics. The peasants of Montaillou concerned themselves with salvation much as contemporary folk do about happiness. And there were peasant freethinkers, who denied Church doctrines comprehensively.

The Church was faced with genuine religious competition. The Cathar parfaits or goodmen had significant local influence, and often provided a higher moral tone than local priests. The Inquisition broke Catharism in the end, but it took decades.

Ladurie also makes it quite clear that folk wandered back and forth between Catholicism and Catharism, with certain amount of “mixing and matching”. It was a fight as much within as between people. The point also made in Duffy’s excellent study of a Reformation parish in England, The Voices of Morebath; in John Zaller’s work on mass opinion and by Alan Wolfe about what contemporary American attitudes show about the “culture wars”

Such base similarities with modern behaviour and outlooks also come out of another famous study of a parish, Eamon Duffy’s wonderful The Voices of Morebath. What was very different was their limited sense of the outside world, their sense of how the universe worked (different, but surprisingly unmagical) and the social structure they were embedded in. Delousing, for example, was a common social activity. One important for how the gossip networks operated.

It was a society organised around the domus, the household. As Ladurie points out, one did not marry an individual so much as the domus. Love matches occurred, but they were not always possible. And marriage was very much preferred for the raising of children. Though we do meet a single mother who struggled to support her children by wine selling. Alms giving was also important.

It was also, as Ladurie points out, a world where men and women lived in a completely shared cultural matrix. It was later, with the C16h introduction of parish schools, when their cultural experiences became more distinct, part of the pattern of the decline of the status of women in the post-medieval period.

In The Subversive Family, Ferdinand Mount makes the point that relying on Church sources to understanding popular attitudes to love, marriage and other areas of Church doctrine is much like trying to divine Soviet popular attitudes from reading Pravda. Ladurie’s Montaillou lets us hear the voices of the peasants under the questioning of the Inquisitors, and provides a rare light into popular outlooks, as well as the patterns of life, in the medieval period.

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