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The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars    by Stephen O'Shea order for
Perfect Heresy
by Stephen O'Shea
Order:  USA  Can
Profile Books, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I traveled in southern France this spring, taking a canal barge trip that ended in Carcassone, and learned that I was in Cathar country, so wanted to learn more about it. I knew just a little from reading Sergeanne Golon's Angélique series of historical novels in my youth.

So I picked up Stephen O'Shea's The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars, and found it both informative and entertaining reading, despite its grim subject matter. Allan Massie of the Daily Telegraph rightly calls this work 'popular history at its best'.

But the subject is shocking. Who knew that the first (Albigensensian) Crusade actually took place in southern France rather than in Palestine? Or that the Spanish Inquisition had its dry run there, torturing and burning heretics as well as carrying out a massacre of innocents, including their own Catholic priests? The monk who led the Crusade is said to have ordered, 'Kill them all, God will know his own' when asked how to distinguish believer from heretic.

The Cathar heresy was 'a pacifist brand of Christianity embracing tolerance and poverty'. It 'thrived in regions farthest along the road from the Dark Ages', and especially in Languedoc, which had strong ties to the kingdom of Aragon and Barcelona south of the Pyrenees. Women were equal to men, something unusual in that era. Then came the crusade and a land grab by northern nobility (often second or third sons).

Stephen O'Shea guides us through this lovely part of the world, describing the atrocities that took place there. He also addresses the mythical version of their story created by Napoléon Peyrat, and the spiritual seekers (including 60s hippies) who flocked to Cathar country in its wake ... 'The Cathars, in short, became groovy.' O'Shea believes this will continue 'on the Internet, a matter-free medium made to be an echo chamber of esoteric thought.'

If you have any interest in this shocking episode in European history, or plan a trip to southern France (one of the loveliest places I've journeyed in), then The Perfect Heresy is a must read, highly recommended.

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