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
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
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
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
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
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
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