Thursday, November 12, 2009

Light and smoke

Some of you may know of medieval heresies in the south of France from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou, a widely-read, groundbreaking reconstruction of village life in 14th-century Europe. Ladurie based his book on exhaustive records kept by Jacques Fournier, bishop/inquisitor, during his efforts to cleanse the village of Montaillou of the Cathar heresy. Fournier later became Pope Benedict XII and moved the records to the Vatican Library.

The Cathars, I suppose, were heretics in the true sense of the word, holding theological doctrines firmly in conflict with Roman orthodoxy. No doubt Fournier sincerely believed he was doing God's work in sending Cathar villagers to the stake or to prison.

The Beguins of southern France were a somewhat different kettle of fish. They espoused the radical poverty of Saint Francis of Assisi, believing they should possess nothing individually or in common except what was utterly essential to life. In this they thought to emulate more exactly the life of Christ. They were avid followers of Peter Olivi, a charismatic 13th-century Franciscan, who they identified with the Angel of the Sixth Seal in Revelations. And, as you might expect, they believed the Final Days were at hand.

Apparently, Beguin poverty was not looked upon kindly by those prelates and abbots who lived the high life on the backs of the poor. Louisa Burnham recounts the persecution of the sect in her scholarly book, So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke. The smoke in her title refers to the inquisitional flames that consumed so many Beguins.

The Beguins, in their turn, believed the pope was the Antichrist of Revelations, and that their immolated brethren were holy martyrs to a pure and uncorrupted faith. As Burnham reminds us, "Heresy is in the eye of the beholder."

The Church no longer burns heretics, but, as the current brouhaha regarding American nuns confirms, it still nurtures an inquisitional streak. But lest we think tolerance of diversity is slow in coming, remember that my most recent book, which would surely have earned me "so great a smoke" in the 14th century, was published in the 21st century by one of America's finest Catholic presses.