Review by E. Deanne Malpass

The Treasure of Montsegur: A Novel of the Cathars

By Sophy Burnham

Book Cover

The Treasure of Montsegur is an elegantly written and moving novel by Sophy Burnham. Set in the late thirteenth century, the novel tells the story of young aristocratic woman against the background of the Cathar persecutions. Found at the age of two or three, wandering in a meadow and dressed in a fine white dress sewn with seed pearls, Jeanne, who has escaped a massacre of her village, is adopted by a wealthy Cathar Perfecti or holy woman. Brought up in the faith and facing constant persecution, Jeanne is passionate and willful, sensual and unwittingly, and unwillingly, on her way to martyrdom.

After a brief but succinct introduction on Cathar or Albigensian beliefs and the use by the Roman Catholic Church of both the Inquisition and royal authority against them, Burnham leaps into a tale told by an aging mad woman, Jeanne of Beziers. Forty years or so after she was found in that meadow, Jeanne is a fugitive, starving with a wrenching hunger so intense, the readerís mouth goes dry. Stoned and derided as a witch, suspected of being a Cathar, constantly on the move to avoid detection, she is a long way from the silken gowns of her youth, from two comfortably arranged marriages, and from a prolonged adulterous affair.

Burnham manages to illuminate a medieval moment in time which is much disputed by historians today. The Cathars or Albigensians, who often referred to their members as the Friends of God, led austere lives, as pacifists, vegetarians, chaste even to celibacy; they saw human beings as fallen angels enticed by Satan into carnal materialism. They rejected much of traditional Roman Catholic teaching including apparently the death and resurrection of Christ, but accepted and apparently feared possible reincarnation. Their links with Manichaean origins are vague, possibly non existent, but their heresy was clear to medieval church theologians and leaders who eventually launched an army against their cities and villages in the Languedoc. The ten month siege at Montsegur ended in 1244 with the brutal but total triumph of the church. The persecutions would not dwindle, however, until the early fourteenth century when investigations by the inquisitor, and future Pope Benedict XII, into the role of the little village of Montaillou were included in the Registries of the Inquisition.

With such sparse evidence, Burnham weaves a simple story of faith under fire and in conflict not only with the church but with the demands of an all too human heart and body.

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