The Friar of Carcassonne

Bernard Délicieux was a troublemaker, a Franciscan troublemaker at a time—the turn of the fourteenth century—when to be a Franciscan was trouble enough. His fellow friars in the mendicant community, the Dominicans, were top dogs, “the hounds of the Lord,” ever busy extirpating heretical depravity wherever they could find or invent it. For Délicieux, the inquisition against dissidents was the pox on the Languedoc landscape, not the beliefs of gentler Christianities: Cathars and Waldenses and the Poor Men of Lyon. Délicieux was the right man in the right place at the right time, exploiting the rift between Church and state to stymie the persecutorial progress that was “tearing village life apart, the customary friction of antipathy and affinity within a living community giving way to a deadening, dread-filled atmosphere of revenge and betrayal.”

 Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne fashions the big picture that occasioned both the acceleration of the inquisition—that lowercase i, O’Shea explains, is because the Inquisition proper had yet to achieve critical bureaucratic mass—and the heart-gladdening comeuppance administered by Délicieux. It is an enormously entertaining piece of narrative history along the lines of David Hackett Fischer and Jill Lepore, nimble and learned in the same breath. O’Shea draws with clarity the world of southern France in all the dangerous complexity of the late 1200s: ruthless king, imperious pope, mass murders and incarcerations, rich in discontent, rivalry, and riot.

It comes as little surprise that Pope Boniface VIII’s Church and King Philip the Fair’s state would find discord between themselves, what with Philip tucking into the Church’s coffers to finance his expensive reign, which gave Boniface the fantods and prompted thoughts of excommunication. But what is so stunning, and so ably delineated by O’Shea, is the medieval free-for-all over jurisdiction—with bishops, barons, and burghers scrambling for ascendancy—in a new world of an increasingly educated, disenchanted laity and a striving merchant class.

Into the mix waded Délicieux, who was no saint but was certainly a righteous character. He would be opportunistic, duplicitous, even treasonous, all in the course of thwarting the vicious inquisitors. And for a short period he was given oversight of the inquisition’s acts by Philip, which effectively shut them down. He took on a cruel and spiritually corrupt Church by championing the virtues of poverty and simplicity; he “offered…access to a humane spirituality denied by an authoritarian, sometimes terrifying church hierarchy.”

Then Philip had a change of heart. He didn’t need any more squabbles with the Church. He had other fish to fry. Délicieux lost his protector, then his freedom, then his life to a vengeful orthodoxy in a rotten display of business as usual. But for one candent moment, he stilled the rack and cooled the stake. O’Shea gives him every little bit his due in this utterly involving history, as he charts the backsliding course from an exercise in elemental decency to re-emergent barbarism.