Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature

Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature

by Karen Sullivan

In the Middle Ages, the heretic, more than any other social or religious deviant, was experienced as an imaginary construct. Everyone believed heretics existed, but no one believed himself or herself to be a heretic, even if condemned as such by representatives of the Catholic Church. Those accused of heresy, meanwhile, maintained that they were the good Christians


In the Middle Ages, the heretic, more than any other social or religious deviant, was experienced as an imaginary construct. Everyone believed heretics existed, but no one believed himself or herself to be a heretic, even if condemned as such by representatives of the Catholic Church. Those accused of heresy, meanwhile, maintained that they were the good Christians and their accusers were the false ones.

Exploring the figure of the heretic in Catholic writings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as well as the heretic's characterological counterpart in troubadour lyrics, Arthurian romance, and comic tales, Truth and the Heretic seeks to understand why French literature of the period celebrated the very characters who were so persecuted in society at large. Karen Sullivan proposes that such literature allowed medieval culture a means by which to express truths about heretics and the epistemological anxieties they aroused. 
The first book-length study of the figure of the heretic in medieval French literature, Truth and the Heretic explores the relation between orthodoxy and deviance, authority and innovation, and will fascinate historians of ideas and literature as well as scholars of religion, critical theory, and philosophy.

Editorial Reviews


"Sullivan examines both didactic and literary authors, asserting that the heretic in medieval Europe was an imaginary construct. No one ever considered him- or herself a heretic, but orthodoxy felt the need to protect itself against those whose beliefs suggested that sacred texts could propose multiple meanings....Superbly documented, this book proposes a fascinating way of revealing the medieval mind. For didacticliterature to acknowledge any merit in heretics was unthinkable, but in literary characters the secretiveness and trickery often associated with heretics were delightful....Highly recommended."—Choice
Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies

"Fascinating, insightful, and highly provocative. . . . Literary analysis sheds important light on fundamental epistemological questions, whether we consider hereticism as the basis upon which these texts were built, or whether we simply accept the criticism voiced in them at face value."—Albrecht Classen, Mediaevistik

— Albrecht Classen


"An intelligent, provocative, and well-written book. It comes as an answer to the challenge to historiography . . . what if history is shaped primarily by the things that cannot be spoken of?"—Sarah Kay, Speculum

— Sarah Kay

Mediaevistik - Albrecht Classen
"Fascinating, insightful, and highly provocative. . . . Literary analysis sheds important light on fundamental epistemological questions, whether we consider hereticism as the basis upon which these texts were built, or whether we simply accept the criticism voiced in them at face value."
Speculum - Sarah Kay
"An intelligent, provocative, and well-written book. It comes as an answer to the challenge to historiography . . . what if history is shaped primarily by the things that cannot be spoken of?"

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ISBN: 978-0-226-78169-3


Béatris de Planissoles and the Heretics of Montaillou

Between 1300 and 1318, three-quarters of a century after the defeat of Occitania in the Albigensian Crusade and half a century after the fall of the Cathar citadel of Montségur, the dualist heresy witnessed a resurgence in the Sarbathès, the mountainous region of the county of Foix that includes the villages of Montaillou and Prades. According to one witness's version of the events, Peire Autier, a notary in nearby Ax-les-Thermes, was reading a book one day when he discovered a passage in it which struck him so much that he showed it to his brother Guilhem, another clerk. "Now what, my brother?" Peire asked. "It seems to me that we have lost our souls," Guilhem replied. "Let us leave, then, brother, and go seek the salvation of our souls," Peire concluded. Though the two men each had a wife, children, and a prosperous household, they abandoned all that they had and traveled to Lombardy, where a Cathar hierarchy was still in existence, and there they became "perfected" heretics under these surviving ministers' hands. Whatever the reasons for the Autier brothers' departure from the Occitan region and consecration in the heretical faith-and tongues wagged that they were fleeing debts as much as they were pursuing sanctity-the two men returned to their homeland before long and began to preach to their compatriots with remarkable effectiveness. The Benet, Belot, and Rives families welcomed the brothers to the village and into their houses, which soon became the chief meetingplaces for the heretics and their believers, while the Clergue household added the authority of the priest Peire and the bayle (or bailiff) Bernart to the renascent faith. In addition to these four important clans, the Guilhaberts, the Martys, the Maurs, and the Maurys also joined the sect. So thoroughly did the inhabitants of Montaillou shift to the heretical camp that when Geoffroy d'Ablis, the inquisitor of Carcassonne, arrived in this village in 1308, he found it necessary to arrest its entire adult population, and even after the Autier brothers were executed in the following months, the belief they had kindled persisted. 8 Between 1319 and 1324, when Jacques Fournier, the bishop of Pamiers, took over the responsibility of pursuing heretics in his see, twenty-eight of the cases he examined, or over a fourth of the total number, were from these two villages. As a result of the work of the inquisitor and, even more, that of the bishop, three heretics, namely, Prades Tavernier, Pons Sicre, and Felip d'Alaryac, and a few resolute believers, including Sebèlia Baille and Guilhem Fort, followed the Autiers to the flames, while scores of repentant believers spent years in prison only to find, when they emerged, their houses razed, their property confiscated, and their livelihoods destroyed. Refugees from this troubled region trekked across the Pyrenees and founded a community in Spain, but after Arnaut Sicre, son of Sebèlia Baille, had lured Guilhem Bélibaste, the last-known heretic, back onto the lands of the county of Foix in 1321 so that he might redeem his forfeited heritage with perfected blood, there appear to have been no more heretics and eventually no more believers either. The Cathar faith, as far as we know, had finally been extinguished in the southern lands.

The inquisitorial records of Jacques Fournier have long been recognized as some of the richest documents concerning medieval heretics, unique in the information they provide about the day-to-day lives of some of the last Cathars. Among the principal families of Montaillou and Prades, several of the most active figures in the revival of heresy during this period had already died by the time these registers were compiled, yet twenty-seven others, including seventeen women and ten men, gave lengthy and detailed confessions. The records of these avowals cannot, obviously, be taken at face value. The villagers spoke only because they had been summoned to respond in matters of faith or even, on occasion, because they had been arrested and forcibly brought to court. If the bishop was persuaded that they had confessed all that they and their acquaintances had done in matters of heresy, he forgave them and subjected them to the normal series of penances for their sins, including pilgrimages, incarcerations, and the wearing of double crosses; yet if he had reason to suspect that they had not acknowledged all that they or others had done, he kept them in prison until they were more forthcoming. Even if we can assume that the bishop persuaded the villagers to speak fully about their participation in the heterodox cult, the notaries transformed their words, transcribing their oral utterances into written confessions, translating the original Occitan of these dialogues into Latin, and condensing answers to multiple questions into one single response. Given the multiple levels of mediation which separate us from the villagers' original words, let alone their original thoughts, we might reasonably expect that the statements attributed to them reflect more clerical preconceptions about heresy than popular experience. Nonetheless, the villagers' confessions contain such vivid, almost novelistic accounts of their lives, replete with information helpful, harmful, or indifferent to their cases, that they clearly reflect far more than the projections of a Catholic prelate's prejudices against Cathars. For the many scholars who have exploited these registers, it is in this text, more than in any other medieval source, that we can gain some sense of the lived experience of heretics during those years.

Considering the exceptional value of the villagers' confessions in Fournier's records, the elusiveness of the heretic in these pages is all the more striking. Is a heretic someone, referred to as a "heretic" in these registers, who has become a perfected member of the sect and thus devotes himself to preaching its creed and administering its sacraments, despite the threat of punishment that forces him to live underground? Is a heretic someone, referred to not as a heretic but as a "believer" in these volumes but no less charged with heresy, who gives credence to the doctrines she has learned from the perfected members of the cult but does not adopt their radical lifestyle? Is a heretic someone, occasionally defined as "suspected" of heresy, who listens to the sermons of the perfected members of the sect, who retains their lessons in his or her memory, and who repeats them to other people, without, perhaps, giving credence to these beliefs? Is a heretic someone, at times described as a "receiver" or a "favorer" of heretics, who supports perfected members of the sect by offering them shelter, by providing them escort in their travels, or by sending them gifts, but is not otherwise committed to this cult? Perhaps because of the coercive circumstances in which these confessions were recorded, the heretic surfaces in this text either as an earlier, heterodox member of the community, now dead or disappeared, or as an earlier, heterodox version of the speaker, now replaced by the current, orthodox self. The heretic dominates these pages, but as the empty center around which both the accused and the accusing parties situate themselves.


If we are to believe her confession, Fournier's most celebrated defendant, Béatris de Planissoles, never met the Autier brothers, once they had become perfected, or any other heretics of their rank, despite repeated inducements to do so. In 1294, well before the Autiers began to preach in the Sarbathès, Béatris was châtelaine of Montaillou, living near the castle with her husband, when she found herself importuned by Raimon Roussel of Prades, the manager and steward of her house, to depart with him for the "Good Men" of Lombardy. A fellow noblewoman from the area, Estevena de Châteauverdun, had already fled across the Alps with Prades Tavernier to join the Italian heretics, who were said to be able to practice their faith in greater security, and Raimon encouraged Béatris to follow her example. He praised the heretics' sermons enthusiastically, informing Béatris that "after a man heard them speak a single time, he could not do without them, and if she heard them a single time, she would adhere to them forever." If the heretics could not be found in the Sarbathès, Raimon explained, it was because "they dared not live here, because the wolves and dogs persecuted them"; these "wolves and dogs," he explained, were "the bishops and Friars Preachers who persecuted the Good Christians and hunted them from these parts." Though seemingly tempted by Raimon's proposal, Béatris decided to stay in Montaillou when she discovered the steward's intentions toward her to be less spiritual than carnal in nature, and Raimon soon abandoned his position and returned to his hometown. A few years later, after her husband had died, Béatris became the mistress of the priest Peire Clergue, from whom she heard praises of the heterodox sect and lessons about their doctrine. At this time the heretics had begun to visit the Benet, Belot, and Rives families, and Béatris received invitations to meet them at the Rives' house. She tells how Azalaïs Rives one day tried to entice her to come to where she lived, at first claiming that she needed to borrow some vinegar, then alleging that her daughter Guillelma Clergue needed to see her, and finally admitting that "her brother Prades Tavernier was in her house and wanted to speak with her" because he had a message from the fugitive Estevena. Another companion, Raimonda de Luzenac, urged her to accept such invitations to meet the heretics, insisting that "if she had seen and heard them a single time, she would never want to hear anything else." Even after 1301, when Béatris descended from these mountainous regions to Dalou to marry her second husband, opportunities to encounter the heretics did not end. Bernart Belot arrived at her house and told her that, although the heretics generally did not like to visit these lands because of the dangers that awaited them there, "the Good Christians, if they dared, would ask her to see them, because, as it was said, no one could be firm in their faith without having seen them and heard them speak." Once again, however, she alleges that she refused Bernart's offer. Béatris does not explain why she declined to meet the heretics time and again, but if she is speaking the truth in claiming to have kept her distance from these sectaries, her wariness of such encounters most likely lies in a hope of avoiding prosecution for heresy. Whatever the reasons for her failure to meet Prades or his confrères, the heretics as she depicts them functioned as an abstraction in her spiritual life, idealized missionaries who, once heard, would confirm her in their faith but who remained an image rather than a memory in her mind.

While Béatris's neighbors in the Sarbathès admit to having met the heretics, they too emphasize the mysteriousness of their covert ways, recalling how the heretics hid themselves inside the houses and outbuildings of their believers. It happened that the heretics concealed themselves so effectively that they were not actually seen but only ascertained through circumstantial evidence to have been present. The servant Raimonda Testanière noticed an ornate bed with a silk-worked cushion in the solier (or upstairs) of the Belot household. The registers relate, "Seeing this bed, she was amazed because she had not seen a bed or such a cushion anywhere else in the solier, and she thought suddenly, on account of the words she had heard from Arnaut Vidal, that heretics had slept in this bed the night before." Later, Raimonda observed wine and honey being slipped into this bedroom, as another servant espied wine, bread, and other items being brought there. More often the heretics were seen, but they were seen as people intended to go unseen. Seven of the women villagers describe stopping by a neighbor's house, most often that of the Benets, the Belots, or the Rives, to borrow an item, only to discover a heretic, or a man they suspected of being a heretic, on the property. Hidden within these buildings, the heretics were, on occasion, hidden behind special barriers, most often locked doors through which their low voices could be heard, but also blankets, as in the Benets' solier, or wine casks, as in Guillelma Maury's cellar. When apprehended in these internal or doubly internal spaces, the heretics often attempted to flee their interlopers' sight, thus underscoring their covert status. At the Benets' house, Azalaïs Azéma entered the foganha (or kitchen) one night to find Guilhem Autier sitting on a bench near the fire with a few other men, all of whom rose abruptly when they saw her. Gauzia Clergue ventured into this same abode to find an old man in a long coat, known as a balandrun, in a room near the foganha, leaning against a chest with his feet propped up on a bed and quoting Saint Paul to the family's father and son. "Seeing her, he sank into the bed in such a way, she said, that she could not see his face fully, but she saw only that he had white hair above his forehead." At the Belots', Guillelma Clergue, née Rives, detected two men dressed in green in the solier and returned to investigate who they might be; she reports, "Seeing her come back, the two men, receding, hid inside the bedroom." At the Rives', Guillelma penetrated the family's foganha despite her brother Pons's effort to bar her way and discovered Prades Tavernier seated on a bench by the fire. "Seeing her, Prades rose and entered the bedroom." At another time, in this compound's straw loft she found the same heretic reading a small book in the sunlight. "Seeing her, Prades rose, troubled, as if he wanted to hide." Heretics are described as men not seen but only suspected of being there or as seen only briefly as they hastily withdrew.

The heretics were perceived as hiding no less outdoors than indoors. They were said to emerge at dusk. Raimonda Arsen observed Guilhem Autier conversing with Guilhem Belot outside the Belots' farm at twilight, and Guillelma Clergue noticed Prades Tavernier talking with her brother Pons outside the Rives' house at this hour. So nocturnal in their habits that they impressed observers with their pallor, the heretics were said to travel from one house to another almost exclusively after sunset. Guillelma Benet and Sebèlia Peyre recall their arriving after the hour when most people had gone to bed and not leaving until the following evening. Peire Maury is said to have guided Felip d'Alayrac to Cubières, "although the night was dark to the point where one could hardly see." Raimon Azéma once led Guilhem Autier to nearby Luzenac, where a man "whom he did not recognize on account of the darkness of the night" met them and took the heretic away with him. Cathar believers were expected to become heretics on their deathbed so as to ensure their salvation, and those who are asked to testify about heretications of invalids often recall the darkness of the hour at which the ministers arrived to perform this ceremony. Faurèsa Rives, who had been nursing the young Azalaïs Benet, was sent away from the house during the night; as she was departing, she witnessed two men, "whom she did not recognize because the hour was dark," emerging from the cellar. When Guilhem Guilhabert's two brothers-in-law were waiting outdoors for a heretic to arrive to console their sick relative, they at first failed to recognize him because of the obscurity. Shielded by the darkness as they traveled, the heretics were also shielded by felt hats, hoods, and balandruns. One of Guilhem Guilhabert's brothers-in-law mentions that it was only when the heretic uncovered his head at the foot of the invalid's bed that he recognized him as Prades Tavernier. Raimonda Belot recalls heretics' wearing hoods that covered almost all of their faces; another villager remembers their lowering these hoods over their eyes to ensure that they would not be identified. When the heretics were obliged to undertake a journey by day, they not only concealed but disguised themselves. Azalaïs Faure explains that Prades Tavernier was able to travel in the sunlight to hereticate a certain invalid because he carried a skin and staff over his shoulder and a skein of spun wool in his hands, so that he might seem to be a merchant to those he passed. On the day that the inquisitor's men came to search for heretics in Montaillou, Joan Pelessier saw Arnaut Vidal pass by the field, leading into the woods two men wearing brown balandruns and carrying axes. Joan's companion, not fooled by their costume, joked, "Are they from Lavanalet, these two woodcutters? They look like it!" When not hiding in a believer's compound, heretics are said to appear only at night and under cover.


Excerpted from TRUTH AND THE HERETIC by KAREN SULLIVAN Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Karen Sullivan is associate professor of literature in the Division of Languages and Literature at Bard College and the author of The Interrogation of Joan of Arc.

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