Montaillou and Memory

Arguably one of the greatest achievements of 20th century historical scholarship, Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is a tremendously comprehensive study of peasant society in the comté de Foix in the Middle Ages. Both the region and the book are unique – the former because it stood almost alone in the 14th century as a home and haven for the Albigensian heresy, and the latter because it benefits from an effectively singular source: the Fournier Register, which comprises records kept by a particularly enterprising bishop – Jacques Fournier – that detail the progress of his prosecution of the Inquisition in Languedoc.

The book contains many worthwhile elements, but one of the most profound aspects of the work is the way in which it gives a voice, a meaning – even a character – to those whose names would otherwise have been lost to history. The people of Montaillou were not all peasants, but most of them were small-time farmers and they inhabited a minute and unimportant village, one which was many miles away from any centre of learning, culture, political dynamism or even population. But they are preserved within its pages, and their thoughts articulated and memorialised within the Register. One of the truly fascinating aspects of this situation is the preservation of folk memories and rustic traditions within the official documentation of the clergy; Montaillou may not have mattered to many in the Middle Ages, but those who dwelt within its houses, contained within its mountainous and near-Pyrenean environment, knew very well its stories, traditions and morality. Luckily for generations of future scholars, and thanks largely to the work of Le Roy Ladurie, those of us alive in the present day have access the memories of Montaillou, to this intellectual and emotional inheritance. It is a truly compelling one.

For a world of few certainties, where fewer than one in ten ‘rustics’ could read, the importance of religion cannot be overstated. It provided certainty, stability, genuine hope, and a focal point around which local communities could interact and coalesce and grow tighter. But this apparent positivity could very easily fracture; and great divisions or schisms grew within religions, often incubated within small communities, where they were more difficult to find and eradicate. Catharism – a form of dualist heresy – found in Montaillou a fertile breeding ground. The village was so overrun with this heresy that at the beginning of the 14th century the religious authorities had virtually every inhabitant over the age of twelve arrested and interrogated – and those found to have held within themselves a heretical religious belief often ended up burnt at the stake. (And those who did not have their lives ended by the Inquisition had to wear yellow crosses on their clothes, which served to symbolise their theological transgressions.)

The heresy was spread in various ways, but one of the strongest and most persistent was through conversation and oration; though some of the most revered figures of the local Cathar population could read (many of these kept heretical books in their modest libraries) – and some had even studied abroad, in Lombardy – the overwhelming majority of Montaillou’s inhabitants were completely unable to read and write. That is not to say that they did not have customs, cultural practices and collective beliefs which were well-developed and which enjoyed great prominence, however. The great challenge in this age was meeting the need for demotic, oral communication of important and complex ideas. A part of this culture drew from the troubadour tradition, which combined traditional elements of travelling poetics with the particular idiom and vernacular of the Occitan language (though Le Roy Ladurie is at pains to point out that their influence can be exaggerated in studies of his era and region). It is within this frame of reference that the oral nature of religious communication must be understood; and it is this in particular in which the Cathars excelled.

Preachers – some of them parfaits, Cathar holy men who would follow a stricter and more intellectual variant of the faith – would specialise in converting peasants to heresy or bolstering the belief of existing heretics. They did so mainly through speeches and pointed conversations, which took place in a variety of places. Many parfaits made a skill of giving speeches after a communal dinner, often those held in honour of their being present, with the Authié brothers especially highly regarded for their silver tongues; others would attempt to convert the wily shepherds who guided them through the mountain passes which led from Catalonia – a convenient refuge from the French Inquisition – to the more dangerous but theologically fruitful county of Foix.

These conversions were not driven by books or writing of any kind, although parfaits were often men of learning; indeed, such was the rarity of reading matter and its apparent connection to heresy that when one Montaillou inhabitant saw men consulting a book by moonlight he immediately assumed them to be heretics.

All of this has tremendous significance for the subject of memory, and the ways in which it was cultivated and appreciated in this particular historic society. The very fact of illiteracy helped, of course; that people could not read and write meant they had to hold information solely in their own memories – and furthermore, it instilled within them a slightly awed reverence for the written word. (In discussions of heretical matters in Montaillou, the Register states that arguments could be won or lost simply by stating that a point of fact was contained within a book.)

In vein the memories of Montaillou were very strong indeed; and they served to reinforce tradition and the ways of doing things that were unique to the village. Some of the customs – for example preserving the hair and nails of dead relatives to maintain the integrity of the house, or domus (ostal in the local dialect) – seem pre-Christian in their origins. And others – such as the entrenched sense of family loyalty, manifested largely in the form of the domus – seem almost so elemental as to transcend history itself. It is therefore no surprise that Montaillou served as such as hotbed of heresy; and the Cathar faith served to supplement many of those traditions, especially by pitting Catholic household against Cathar household, effectively condemning one to damnation and ensuring the prospect of Paradise for the other.

These traditions were in turn entrenched and given impetus by the nature of rural society, which lacked much of the sophistication of more urban life. The fact that there was only one priest in Montaillou in the time surveyed by Le Roy Ladurie (and that he was a secret Cathar sympathiser and small-time political power-broker who conducted numerous affairs with the women of the village) meant that the heretical leanings of much of his flock went largely without challenge; the fact that there were no competing sects to challenge the Albigensian heresy aided its continued survival; the fact that the power of both Church and King were largely absent aided large-scale deviation from the official religious line; and the fact of illiteracy meant that there were few equipped to wrestle with scripture to prove the Cathar line wrong.

One of the most effective ways of guaranteeing the continuation of tradition is maintaining constant contact between the old and the young. In Montaillou in particular, encouraged by the idea of the static and eternal domus, older relatives often remained in the same house when their children married and taught their young children. Grandmothers in particular – and there appear to have been a lot of them – attracted particular respect and esteem from the community at large. As Le Roy Ladurie notes, the fact that everyone was equally uneducated meant that there was little male chauvinism on intellectual grounds; the conversations of the women, though they likely dealt with different things to those of the men, were no less ‘sensible’. Thus the older women were often held in uncommonly high regard, and though they were not afforded the same status in religious terms in the Cathar tradition – women sat separately from men when a ‘goodman’ or heretic came to dinner, and a parfait had to abstain from ‘meat and women’ to be considered spiritually pure – this regard often persisted until their deaths.

In a way the old women served as the gatekeepers of tradition, of memory; it was they, after all, who lived the longest and whose experience was the richest. They could remember the periods of hardship – although Montaillou did not experience serious famine in the period covered in the book, there were times of shortage and privation – and it was they who could recall occasions when a passing parfait paid the village a visit. All of this strengthened and deepened the sense of communal memory which one appreciates when reading Montaillou, a sense of something beyond history, potentially beyond time. That great rural tradition is alluded to even in the Register – with Occitan proverbs to that effect in wide circulation – and this all served to reinforce certain obscure or unique or heretical customs, especially in the remotest areas.

This state of affairs was undoubtedly aided by the custom of women marrying young. Men, on the other hand, were usually expected to have established themselves in some way before becoming worth of incurring the burdens and blessings of marriage and the bringing up of children; the Register and Le Roy Ladurie tell of men marrying at the age of 25 or even older, a deliberate and apparently (or at least on a superficial level) counterintuitive tradition. Some of the shepherds whose lives are chronicled in Montaillou never marry, for though they are not impoverished, they lack the accumulated possessions deemed necessary to begin a family. (Indeed, some of them – perhaps in particular the shepherd Pierre Maury, who is in some ways a kind of protagonist within Le Roy Ladurie’s narrative – seemed to relish the freedom such circumstances offered.)

In sum, a culture in which the average bride was aged under 20 years old and the average bridegroom appears to have been around 30 meant that there were a lot of widows in Montaillou. Dead men left the way clear for the creation of an entire generation of widowed old women, who were apparently often well-respected, especially by their daughters. Some of these women became fearsome matriarchs, serving as the head of the household in the absence of a son or son-in-law.

The influence of women aided the preservation of tradition and the continuation of a sense of collective memory in other ways, for example in the education of young children, though they would be sent out to work at a young age – and it must be remembered that there was very little formal education in Montaillou (and even the priest, Pierre Clergue, sent the boy he was meant to be teaching out to deliver messages which would help the holy man arrange his many affairs). But it is important for the sake of perspective to remember, as Le Roy Ladurie is at pains to remind the reader, that the parents of Montaillou did not love their children any less – at least in general terms – than parents today; and the centrality of the ostal may have meant that they spent a great deal of time together, often discussing heresy and other perennial topics of conversation.

More recent times have seen the fundamental destruction of this largely rural tradition of folk memory. Families are now more fractured than they were in the Middle Ages; and they are certainly less of an emotional and intellectual fetish-object, one to be protected and strengthened at all costs. Gone too are the familial roots of heresy, which could be incubated and championed in spite of illiteracy and against the wishes of established religion. These are not necessarily bad things – and indeed it must be seen that much of this change has taken the form of an essential progression. But Montaillou is so thorough, so transporting a work of history that it can make one – only occasionally, it is true – wish otherwise. Its stories no longer survive solely through the persistence of memory; now they are part of our history, and a remarkably compelling part at that.


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