Douglas & McIntyre

Interview Details

Stephen  O'Shea

Stephen O'Shea

June 2011

The D&M marketing team sat down with renowned author Stephen O'Shea to chat with him about his latest book - and particularly the fascinating character at the centre of it - The Friar of Carcassonne, and what its current relevance is. Here's what he had to say.

Why should we be interested in The Friar of Carcassonne?

Anyone interested in the fight for freedom should get to know Bernard Délicieux. His campaign against the Inquisition is the story of a lone man standing up to the powerful persecuting forces of his age, like the fellow before the tanks at Tiananmen Square. His story is inspirational and instructive.

Who was Bernard Délicieux?

He was a Franciscan friar in the south of France at the dawn of the fourteenth century. He was an orator, rabble-rouser and politician – he was convinced that the Church had trashed its principles by authorizing torture and burning in the pursuit of ideological purity. His enemies were the Dominican friars, the men who staffed the Inquisition and preached a gospel of fear. He shut them down.

This sounds obscure, a matter for history buffs…

Remember, they teach Thucydides at West Point. And Délicieux could hardly be more timely. Every lawyer, policy maker and person of conscience should know about him. He pointed out that the accumulation of power leads to abuse, that the recourse to secret trials and torture is corrosive and that identifying an enemy does not justify rewriting rules and aban¬doning values. If you don’t see how this is relevant to the past ten years, then you haven’t been paying attention.

So who was the enemy?

Heresy. Anyone who deviated from Catholic orthodoxy.

But we’re beyond all that, we have freedom of religion nowadays.

That’s not the point. Every age picks its enemies. Peasants, immigrants, anarchists, Jews, communists, Muslims… A threat is identified, a threat that supposedly endangers the status quo, and the overzealous rewrite the rules to go after that threat. The unscrupulous then use the resulting climate of fear to get away with all sorts of horrors. It’s a fairly depressing constant of history. In fact, we may be living a golden age of fear-mongering.

So Bernard Délicieux was a civil libertarian, fighting Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib?

No, he was a man of his time. His motives stemmed from spiritual belief, from the teachings of Jesus and Francis of Assisi. But what he was up against was a timeless tendency to twist an understanding of the past for some present-day agenda.

In your opinion, then, the Dominican inquisitors were just political operatives? Or maybe activist judges?

No, they were religious men. But, interestingly, they left a long paper trail of how they talked themselves into the necessity for torture and cruelty. Christ became a persecutor in their eyes. They came to believe their founder, St. Dominic, had been an inquisitor – even though the Inquisition was founded years after his death!

That sounds like the usual rewriting of history by cynical political hacks.

They were entirely sincere. I said before that lawyers should know the story of Délicieux… that’s because the Dominicans erected a whole edifice of inquisitorial law to justify themselves. The inquisitorial mindset is a fascinating mix of sabotag¬ing one’s core beliefs while at the same time paying scrupulous attention to legalistic detail. If the law professors behind the “torture memos” of the Bush Administration had been born seven hundred years ago, they would have been Domini¬can inquisitors. The same identification of an unprecedented threat, the same notion that the old rules do not apply, the same crafting of new ones and the same authoritarian impulse.

If, as you say, the inquisitors were sincere, religious men, respectful of a form of law, then where was the abuse of power?

At Bernard Délicieux’s particular historical moment, it seems the Inquisition was corrupt, as well. Its targets were almost invariably the wealthiest citizens of a town, whose vast estates the Dominicans confiscated. Historians have tried to explain away this coincidence, but I think their position stems from the usual tory view of the past, whereby you seek excuses for the powerful, for the winner, for the institution, for the sources of the historical record. But even the Church of Bernard’s day ended up agreeing him – the interrogations conducted by the Inquisition at Carcassonne were tissues of lies. Bernard said the inquisitors just made things up, and he appears to have been right. This fact, combined with his loathing of a persecuting version of Christianity, contributed to his insane bravery in taking on the Church hierarchy.

But weren’t there heretics still around? The Inquisition wasn’t just chasing ghosts.

Sure, the remnants of the Great Heresy – Catharism – were still standing. There was even a reflowering of the Cathar faith in Bernard’s time. One hundred years earlier, the Church had tried winning back the Cathars through debates. That got nowhere. Then they enlisted the armies of France and declared a crusade against Languedoc. The deal was that if the French killed all the heretics then Languedoc would be handed over to the French king. So Languedoc lost its independence, but the heresy survived. That’s why the Inquisition was born. The Church first tried the word, then switched to the sword, then finally to police work and the law.

Why was Catharism so attractive? And why in the Languedoc?

Something had to explain the existence of evil in the world. The Church was not doing its job – in fact, the medieval Church was aloof from the religious awakening that accompanied the development of towns and trade. If I make money, the merchant asked, am I damned to hell? The Cathars came from a long strain of Christianity known as dualism, where there was a good God, in charge of souls, and an evil God, in charge of matter. Their message appealed to the new circumstances in Languedoc. Besides, there must have been something in the water there – at precisely the same time that Catharism flourished among the Christians of Languedoc, Kabbalism grew among its Jews. And, later, a certain mystical form of Christianity, known as Spiritual Franciscanism, took root there as well. Bernard Délicieux was a Spiritual.

So Bernard’s story is principally about Languedoc and its particular culture.

No, his stage was European. And here is where I got lucky as a storyteller, for the Europe of the first decade of the fourteenth century was incredibly tumultuous and colorful. Not with wars, but with intrigue, rebellion and great power struggles. Bernard had to deal with a French king, Philip the Fair, who was the most ruthless of his line, a king who robbed, crushed and killed the Knights Templar and engaged in a titanic clash with Pope Boniface VIII. That pope, the most imperious of the Middle Ages, ended up being assassinated by the French. Huge scandal. His successors moved the papacy to Avignon, where they breathed down the neck of Délicieux as he led his revolt in Languedoc.

Your research then was in the Inquisition archives and various chronicles?

Luck played a big role again. Délicieux had made many powerful enemies and they eventually got to him. He was put on trial in 1319, on charges of murder, black magic, treason and heresy. Dozens of witnesses were called, and Délicieux was relentlessly cross-examined and tortured. Miraculously, the transcripts of that trial have survived – and they were only recently translated out of medieval Latin. So we have a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the revolt, right down to what people actually said and did. We even have Délicieux’s game-changing sermon, where he compares himself to Christ and Carcassonne to Jerusalem. The transcripts are truly unparalleled in their richness for a portrait of the Middle Ages. So as I said, it’s a matter of luck: bad luck for Délicieux, but extremely good luck for us.

Was he found guilty?

Of course. Then they threw him in harsh solitary confinement, where he died quickly.

Could you recommend other books that could be read in conjunction with The Friar of Carcassonne?

It will come as no surprise that I suggest my other book on the Cathars, The Perfect Heresy. It tells the story of the Cathars in Languedoc from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the whole, sad saga. It provides a backdrop for the story of Délicieux. As for present-day echoes of historical events, you could do no better than read Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, by Louis Begley.

D&M Marketing, Jun 30, 2011
Read more about Stephen O'Shea >>