Robert Wernick, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
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Montaillou: Clerical Sin Sex and Heresy in the Fourteenth Century

Montaillou is a tiny quiet village in the roughest and most inaccessible part of the backward out-of-the-way Ariège department in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The village has existed since at least the time of Charlemagne, but it has never played any part in history, never been on any beaten track, never had a famous son, and its contribution to the national economy has always been close to zero. "The end of the earth," one of its older inhabitants calls it, with a certain affection.

Then one day in the 1970's it awakened to find itself famous. Curious tourists began to make long detours on wretched winding roads to see with their own eyes what they had read about in a best-selling book which had provided more complete and intimate details about daily life in Montaillou than any other book had provided about any other similar community anywhere.

Not the daily life of Montaillou today. The daily life of Montaillous in the fourteenth century.

When Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, professor at the Collège de France, presented the publishing house of Gallimard with a 628-page manuscript they were impressed by his learning and his sprightly style, but they were sure that most readers would be frightened by its formidable apparatus of footnotes, bibliography, cross-references to works of sociology and cultural anthropology and would prefer to buy the book on which Gallimard was expending almost the totality of its advertising budget, Je Suis le plus Grand, the translation of the memoirs of Mohammad Ali. They were wrong. Bookstore shelves remained laden with Ali, while they were swept bare of the much more expensive Montaillou. 150,000 copies had to be printed to keep up with the demand in the first years of publication.

The secret of its success, beside the author's wit and learning, was the fact that one of its principal themes is the richly detailed scandalous omnivorous sexual behavior of the parish priest of Montaillou in the early 1300s.

People in Montaillou are just as interested in sex and scandal as any one else, but with centuries of mountain-folk crafty caution behind them, they prefer not to talk about it in front of strangers. "I haven't had time to read it yet," is what they generally say; :"my mother-in-law has the copy right now, but I expect I'll get around to it when she is through."



How is that so much is known of the secrets of a poor illiterate village of almost eight centuries ago? The answer lies in the character of the man who made Le Roy Laurie's book possible, in fact provided him with virtually all his source material. This was Jacques Fournier, a man of very humble origins - he had cousins who tilled the soil around Montaillou itself - who after taking holy orders began a dazzling rise in the church hierarchy. He became Bishop of Pamiers, a diocese in which Montaillou formed an outlying parish, and went on to become Pope under the name of Benedict XII. He began the conscruction of the great Palace of the Popes at Avignon, and is said to have added the third crown to the papal tiara. The poet Petrarch who knew him well describes him as a thick-skilled clodhopper who would have left the world better off if he had never taken his hands off his plough. He also had a drinking problem: he is said to have inspired the cry that went up regularly in the taverns of medieval Europe, Bibeamus papaliter, Let's drink like a pope.

But he would in the end earn more fame for what he did as Bishop of Pamiers between 1317 and 1326, and set up a local branch of the Holy Office, the Inquisition, to ferret out heresy in his diocese. Heresy was in those days the crime of crimes, much as treason is today, and Pamiers had a bad reputation in that respect. Many years before it had been one of the centers of the Cathar or Bogomil or Albigensian creed which turned the orthodox Catholic doctrine upside down. It held that the Lord of this world was not God but Satan, and that all material things, including pre-eminently the Holy Roman and Apostolic Catholic Church was the handiwork of Satan.

A human being, born in filth, could escape the filth, free himself from Satan and go straight to heaven if he led a life of utmost purity, without lies, without sex, without eating meat. Such a life was beyond the capacity of all but a handful of devoted ascetic souls, called parfaits or bonshommes whose lives could stand as beacons lighting the way to heaven for ordinary mortals. For these, it sufficed to offer sustenance and protection to bonshommes while living, and, when dying, to receive from one of them a consolamentum or blessing which was a one-way ticket to Paradise. Meanwhile, they could do pretty much as they liked in the filthy world they were born into.

A further advantage of his creed, especially appealing to thrifty mountaineers, was that if offered salvation at no cost, while the Catholic Church insisted - sending the police in if necessary - on taking a portion of the local crops and flocks as tithes. Little wonder that the pious simple souls of Montaillou were converted almost in toto to the heretical faith. So was their parish priest, Father Pierre Clergue, who did not stop hearing their confessions or collecting their tithes for all that.

This was a dangerous and a daring thing to do, for the Inquisition, which had been created by St. Dominic for the express purpose of stamping out the abominations of the Cathars, was always in the background with its dungeons and racks and pits and pendulums and heaps of fagots. But Pierre Clergue was a calculating as well as a daring man, and he calculated that Montaillou was so small and unimportant and so hard to get to over wretched mule tracks that Inquisitors living in luxury in Pamiers or Carcassonne would find it easy to overlook. Besides, the Inquisition's official source of information about what went on in the village was Father Clergue himself, who had ever reason to insure that they would not get accurate information.

One day in 1308, it was true, the Inquisition had swooped down and arrested every soul in Montaillou over the age of 13 and taken them off to Carcassonne for questioning. But the zeal of the inquisitors did not last long, when they got no useful information they let most of the prisoners go, and nothing more was heard of the matter till Jacques Fournier came on the scene in1317 and determined to find out the truth about what was going on in Montaillou and other godforsaken clumps of dwellings in the hollows of the hills..

No matter that these were backward places where there were no wheeled vehicles, where money hardly circulated, where peasants owned scattered handkerrchief-sized plots of land which they worked with tools that had changed little since neolithic days. For eight years the Bishop devoted an extraordinary amount of his precious time, a total of 370 working days, to this task. Hour after hour, month after month, he smoked out evasions, caught up contradictions, compared every line of what one witness said with every line the others said on the same subject. As Inquisitor he had powers to ask questions and get them answered in ways not available to policemen and historians and journalists today. But he preferred not to use torture He depended on his zeal for the truth, his patience and obstinacy, and his complete understanding of the dodges and deceits of the peasant mind, the mind of the people among whom he had grown up. He makes the truth come out of us like lambs from their mothers, said the poor souls who passed through his ceaseless relentless cross-questionings.

Questions were asked and answers given on occitan, the language of what was then the County of Foix and is now part of part of southwestern France. The common people could not understand or speak French in this region till centuries later when universal education and universal military service, and eventually television, taught them the official tongue of Paris. Translated into Latin, the official language of the church, the testimony filled three huge volumes which Jacques Fournier was proud to take with him to Avignon when he was elected pope.

Unrelieved bitterness and torment to the poor villagers, these interrogatories are a source of pure joy to modern historians and readers.

For they come as near as anything can to satisfying the curiosity at the heart of our interest in history: what was life really like in the old days? What did people do all their livelong days, what did they talk about, what did they think about. Bishop Fournier's aim was a narrow one, to find evidence of heretical thoughts and words and deeds. But in the course of his questioning, the track led back and forth through the whole physical, economic, emotional, spiritual life of Montaillou. The Bishop of Pamiers was methodical and thorough. In Le Roy Laurie's phrase, he was a supercop, a 14th-century Inspector Maigret patiently filling in every detail of the background in order to reconstruct the crime. .

As he proceeds in his laborious way, we learn all that a modern economist or sociologists or novelist would want to know about Montaillou. We learn that it contained 250 persons, more or less (they often didn't bother to include infants, especially female ones), grouped into about 40 ostals or households, each one a fiercely independent family domain with its few rude pieces of furniture, its little fractions of land on the hillside terraces, its few chickens and sheep and bony cattle. Some ostals had a second story, though in all of them the people shared their space with their animals. But there was a kind of rough equality among them..There was no class conflict in Montaillou, every one had to work very hard. There was no mistress of an ostal so proud that she didn't walk down to the well with her pitcher on her head, along with all the other house-wives, and they all gossiped together and exchanged useful information on such things as how to avoid unwanted babies and who was the father of the latest baby that came squawling into the world. What conflicts there were, and they were many and fierce, were between rival ostals jockeying for power or scheming to repair ancient wrongs.

The village grew what it basically needed in the way of food, and the flax of its fields and the wool of sheep kept its people clothed. Wool and wood, and fish from the local streams, could be exchanged for salt and rare luxuries like wine and olive oil. What money there was rarely circulated, it was hoarded in the immemorial tradition of the French peasantry for use on special occasions, as when Bernard Clergue the bailiff produced from under his mattress the enormous sum of 14,000 sous in a vain effort to bribe his brother, Father Pierre, out of the dungeons on the Inquisition.

As a result of Bishop Fournier's prying questions, we know how much it cost of buy a sheep, or to hire two professional killers from Catalonia to settle a family feud. We learn how the villagers carefully pared and preserved the toenails and fingernails of the head of a family when he died to ensure that good fortune would not desert his house - a custom still surviving in the mountains of North Africa.

We hear all kinds of secrets. Here is Vuissane Testanière, servant girl in the house of Bernard Belot, when Arnaud Vital, boarding in the same house, tries to rape her: "Are you not ashamed? You forget that I am mistress to your first cousin Bernard Belot, and that I have children by him." It was enough to shut Arnaud up on that occasion.

The same Vuissane suspects one evening that heretics are sleeping in a new room Bernard has built. She slips out into the yard, climbs a dung heap and spies her master's brother conversing with two men, one of them the heretic Guillaume Authié. Suddenly a passerby asks what she is doing in the yard. She explains that she was looking for the pad she wears on her head when she goes to fetch fresh water from the well. When she tells the story thirty years later, Bishop Fourier has his testimony that a bonhomme was being sheltered by Bernard Belot, and we have a clearer picture of life and architecture in old Montaillou

Everyone in the village was relatively poor, but the Clergues were somewhat less poor than the others. And almost all of Father Pierre's waking thoughts were directed toward the enlarging of the House of Clergue. A secret heretic himself, he consolidated his power by protecting his fellow heretics from the Inquisition. At the same time, he was not above abasing the power of rival families by denouncing them to the Inquisition.

He was a small man, ambitious, loquacious, with a lusty appetite for power and a still more lusty one for women. No woman in the village, or in nearby Aix-les-Thermes when he went there for a mineral bath, was exempt from his advances. "I love you more than any woman in the world," he would say right off, and generally that was enough. If it wasn't, he would say, "I'll put you in the leeks" (a modern Frenchman would say "the cabbages"), meaning I'll get you in big trouble. This was no idle threat in his mouth: when a woman of the Maurs family accused him, correctly enough, of being a heretic, he had his brother the bailiff cut her tongue out. What with one approach or the other, he generally had his way. The names of twelve of his concubines appear in Jacques Fournier's interrogatories, and there were surely more. The husbands looked the other way because they feared his power, or were grateful to him for having saved them from imprisonment and worse.

Most striking of his mistresses was Beatrice de Planissoles, a noble lady, widow of the chatelain who had managed the castle towering over Montaillou for its absentee owner, the Count of Foix. "I prefer you to any other woman in the world," he said to her in church one day, where she had come to make her confession, and before the summer was out she had yielded to him, and they loved each other tenderly for two years until she went off to find another husband. Neither that husband nor another young priest she took into her bed later would ever make her forget Pierre Clergue.

All the story of their romance is down in the record: how once he had her bed brought into the church so that they could spend the night within its holy walls; how once, when she was delousing him by the fire (a mark of both affection and deference) he explained his unorthodox theories of incest - brothers should marry sisters, he said, in that way the fortunes of the House of Clergue would not have been frittered away providing dowries for its daughters.

There is only one record of failure in the career of this clerical Don Juan. He went to a woman named Alazaïs Fauré one day and said that her young niece

Raymonde was known to unhappy because her husband could not perform his marital duties with her. Bring Raymonde to me, he said, I will deflower her and afterwards everything will go well between her and her husband. "You arrange things for yourself," replied Alazaïs Fauré sharply. "Aren't you already satisfied with having possessed two women in my family, myself and my sister Raymonde?" The younger Raymonde was terrified when she heard of the priest's advances, and ran home to her father.

Raymonde's fears were exceptional. More typical was the reaction of the farm girl Grazide Rives, who was 14 when the priest seduced her on a haystack on a bright summer day, and who prattled with pleasure about it years later to the Bishop."With Pierre Clergue, I liked it. And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin....It does not please me any more... now; if he knew me carnally, I should think it a sin."

At the opposite pole from Pierre Clergue stands the sturdy figure of the shepherd Pierre Maury. He was as devoted to his ostal as the priest was. But unlike Father Clergue, Pierre Maury had no used for worldly riches. He led a dog's life, as his friends often told him, drenched by the autumn rains, and almost freezing as he drove his sheep back and forth over the perilous Pyrenean passes. He could own no more goods than he could carry with him. But he was free in his fashion, he loved the clear air of the mountains, with no obligations but to his sheep and to the wide circle of friends he had picked up on his travels. I would die, he would say, if I had to spend all summer in the lowlands. Wiry, tireless and fearless, he was always ready to face risk and discomfort to do what had to be done, whether it was rescuing his sister from a brutal husband, or bringing supplies by night to a fugitive bonhomme in the trackless mountains.

Trying to avoid the Inquisition and its agents, Pierre Maury went to live for a while with another refugee down in Catalonia, a parfait named Guillaume Bélibaste to whom he became strongly attached. Also living with Bélibaste was a woman named Raymonde - chastely, the parfait said. Unfortunately for Bélibaste's reputation, the Bishop collected the testimony of one Blanche Marty, who said that she had come in the house unexpectedly one day and "found them in bed, in bed, Guillaume with his knees bent as if he was about to know Raymond carnally...When Guillaume noticed me, he cried, 'You bastard, you just interrupted an act of the Holy Church.'"

Pierre Maury had always avoided marriage, but one find day Bélibaste cajoled and bullied him into marrying Raymonde. Shortly afterward, he persuaded him to divorce her. And shortly after that, Raymonde gave birth to a child, obviously Bélibaste's, but Pierre Maury could not believe evil of his holy mentor, and went on living in his house under his spiritual guidance.

Relations between Bélibaste and Raymonde were ambiguous to begin with, The parfait had to get into bed with her, he told his disciples, so that people would think he was a good husband. But as a good Cathar, with no lust in his heart or anywhere else, he made a point, unlike his contemporaries, who slept nude, of going to bed in his underclothes.

Along with dramatic figures likes these, the registry of Jacques Fournier brings to life a whole gallery of village people. There is Bernard Clergue the bailiff, who cries, "Dead is my god, dead is my ruler," when he hears of his brother's death in prison. There is Pierre Azema, a distant relative of Bishop Fourier, trying to use the episcopal connection to arrange an advantageous marriage for his daughter. There is all the interlocking network of families - Belots, Benets, Maurys, Rives - jockeying for position, struggling to keep alive, feeding heretic preachers on the sly, quarreling, dying. Some like Guillaume Bélibaste were burned at the stake. Some like Pierre Clergue and his brother the bailiff were shut up in irons in the dungeons of the Inquisition and died of ill treatment there. Others were allowed to return home, but their possessions were confiscated, and for the rest of their lives they had to wear yellow crosses on their clothes, a mark of infamy as the yellow star was for the Jews.

Despite all the punishments, the burning of homes and burning of heretics, Montaillou would not die. Its population dropped by half in the 14th century as a result of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, but the tough old peasant stock held on its fields. Centuries came and went, and nothing much changed. At the end of the first World War, in the memory of people still living, it was what it had been since Charlemagne, an isolated inbred practically self-sufficient village. It raised its own food, its sons married village girls or found brides at the yearly fairs in nearby towns. "Backward?": says one of the older inhabitants. "We were so backward we didn't have a single alcoholic." "Oh no," adds his wife, "Wine was expensive. We only had wine on three holidays. It was like apples - they were brought in by donkey and had to be hidden from the children."

The outer world was beating at the door, however. In the old days the mountains shut in Montaillou. Children who did not inherit land had no choice but to go work as shepherds or servant girls for those who did. In the nineteenth century enterprising young men in Montaillou discovered that they could get jobs in the African colonies. They came back with their savings when they retired, and the walls of their houses are still decorated with photographs of mustached men with pith helmets and rifles, proudly posed by the corpses of leopards.

Up until the day before yesterday, nothing much ever changed in Montaillou. There were about as many inhabitants at the dawn of the twentieth century as there were at the dawn of the fourteenth, still grouped into the tight-knit families we find in the records of Bishop Fourier, still living the life they had lived since their ancestors, the pioneers of the Neolithic Revolution, brought the new-fangled arts of farming and animal raising into Europe six or so thousand years ago. They survived Bishop Fourier as they were to survive the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, occasional revolutions, occasional famines, unending poverty. It took the shock of modern life, with its easy ways and easy money, to change everything.

With city life and city jobs suddenly at their doorstep, the young people of Montaillou found nothing to hold them there. The work was too hard, the distractions too few, you couldn't make enough money to but an automobile or a refrigerator by hacking away at the crazy-quilt of old family hillside plots. Off they went, and Montaillou has become, like so many villages in France and the world today, a community of the old. By the 1970's, the population had shrunk to 25 year-round residents, two of them under 55 years of age.

One of them was a young man named Alain Layette, a native of Brittany and therefore considered a foreigner. He began raising cows on modern principles, under the unfriendly eyes of the old-timers. "It's the Wild West," he told me when I visited Montaillou withe Le Roy Ladurie to see if anything had changed there since the days of Father Clergue and Bishop Fournier, "I thought they were going to lynch me when I put up barbed-wire fences around the fields I rent. For centuries, men had been going out and leaning on sticks to watch the cows, and they didn't see why I had to come and change the old ways."

One by one I found the old ways shriveled away. Madame Durand,, the wife of the mayor, obstinately rings the church bells three times a day -- morning Angelus, noon-time, evening Angelus - because a village without bells would be wholly dead. The church itself is locked up except for rare occasions like funerals, and there is no more a parish priest in Montaillou. Neither is there a school - closed for lack of pupils in 1959 - nor a café, not even a grocery store: a truck with provisions drives into the village square a couple of times a week.

Augustin Bécabeil, the blacksmith, had just about closed down his forge, though from time to time he might shoe a cow for one of his neighbors, the little family plots planted in oats or potatoes still being plowed by cows.

Oldest of the old fashions in Montaillou was the veillée or evening visit, when people would drop in on their neighbor's kitchen to gossip and have some soup and reminisce about the games and songs and courtships of old veillées. It was at such get-together in the long winter evenings, it was during endless buzz of talk that that young people got to meet their future spouses, that each generation passed on to the next the old sayings and maxims, the stories of the old feuds. The veillées came to an end once every one had a TV set.

The Clergue family, after more than 650 years, was still the leading family in Montaillou. Another Pierre Clergue, who was mayor for many years, was the first inhabitant to instal color television in his home. He also owned the last horse in town, and his grandchildren used to look forward to riding it when they came for their vacations in August. But a buyer turned up one July day, and Pierre Clergue, a horse dealer before he was mayor, could not let the opportunity pass.



Just as in the fourteenth century, the natives of Montaillou speak occitan among themselves. The sons and daughters went off to the universities or the jobs in the big cities have chosen to forget it. But the grandchildren are feeling the stirring of pride in their roots. "Grandma," they say when they arrive for their school vacations, "how do you say cow in patois?

There are no more heretics in Montaillou, unless you count another foreigner, a Parisian psychoanalyst who is rumored to be both a Cathar and a Buddhist and who has built a villa just below the ruins of Beatrice de Panissole's castle. But the spirit of independence and the distrust of distant authority which helped turn the villagers into rebels against the church centuries ago are very much alive. Everyone today says he or she is a Socialist, There are no revolutionary connotations to the word, in fact there is no interest in politics whatever except at election time when the old family rivalries prove to be just as deep and as sharp as ever.

When the present generation has cashed its last old-age pension check, it is likely that the village will be no ore that a collection of secondary houses. Shut up through the long snowy winters unless some one starts a ski resort here as they done in the neighboring village of Camrac. The homes, however, will remain and they are most likely to remain in the possession of the same old families. If they ever build a ski lift at Montaillou, the opening ceremonies will probably be conducted by one more Mayor Pierre Clergue.

©1978 Robert Wernick

Smithsonian Magazine March 1978


Robert Wernick
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
info@robertwernick.com