In the thirteenth-century, a unique civilization flourished in the region that is now Southwestern France. The tolerant rulers of this realm embraced the Cathar faith which kept the simple teachings of the early followers of Christ, and rejected the venality of the Catholic Church.
To destroy the heretical faith, the pope declared a holy war. With the infamous words “Kill them all, God will recognize his own,” the crusade against Christendom began. For two decades, these wars decimated the old regions of the Languedoc and the troubadour culture. But when they still failed to destroy the heretical faith, the papacy gave special powers of inquisition to Dominican monks. Their mission was to root out heretics, compel confessions, and burn the unrepentant at the stake.
Purged by Fire tells the intertwining stories of three people enmeshed in the treachery of the Inquisition. Isarn Benet believes he has survived the wars by accepting the pope’s will and the French rule, until Marsal, the child he once rescued, arrives on his doorstep, forcing him to question every conciliation he has ever made. Marsal has lost everything to the Inquisition. Raised to always turn the other cheek, now she wants back what the Catholic Church has stolen, and she will aid anyone who helps her do so, even outlaws and rebels. Isarn’s son Chrétien can barely remember his life as a soldier and troubadour, the time before he knew and loved Marsal. Condemned and hunted by the Catholic Church, the two escape to the mountain fortress of Montségur.
Here, as the forces of the Inquisition lay siege to their place of refuge, they must make one final choice—between life and love or death and faith!
“The Inquisitor is close at hand.” Chrétien stopped to catch his breath after ducking inside. “He’s walking the streets preaching as he goes.”
We all got ale and filed upstairs.
“The empty streets and shuttered windows remind me of when I was in Paris,” Martin said, as we crowded around the only window in the gallery. “The city was in the grip of illness— the devil’s influence they call it—and everyone stayed locked indoors.”
“Here he is,” cried Chrétien, peering down at the street.
I would never have recognized William Arnald. He was only five years older than I, yet he walked like he was Methuselah, slowly, slightly bent, as if under the burden of our sins. Behind him an acolyte followed ringing a large bell. About five paces further back were three men with papal heraldry on their armbands, swords at their belts, and long shields held straight up at their sides. When Arnald reached the tavern, he stopped. Almost in unison, the four of us drew back from the window.
“He knows we’re here,” said Chrétien mockingly but in a whisper. “The man must be omniscient.”
There was some snickering among us, but really it was too uncanny for comfort. I looked down at the tonsured head and half-expected it to snap back and his eyes to nail us with his gaze.
William had not inherited the Benet height. He was a small man. My scant memories of him did not include anything imposing in either his manner or his speech. So that day, when he began to preach, I was taken aback by the way his voice filled the street, the voice of a giant, a man made larger than us all by authority and conviction.
He told us that there were many sinners among us and everyone must search his soul. If we so much as broke bread with an enemy of the church, then we became like that heretic. He promised light penance to those who came forward and voluntarily confessed their errors. But woe, woe, woe —he said it three times—to those who did not come forward and were then shown, by the accusation of others, to be heretics or fraternizers with heretics. For those, the punishment would be dire and swift.
Reading historical fiction is always such a nice change, being able to be taken back into the past, into a time period that I may or may not know much about. In the case of the Cathars, I knew very little, beyond a vague understanding that they were persecuted for their faith.
I was immediately pulled into the story in the first pages, and it was one I only put down reluctantly (since chores still have to be done). I was intrigued by Isarn Benet’s role in the story, and how he connected to all the others, and then by Marsal, the baby he’d saved. Combined with these interesting characters, the increasing tension (and one might say, doom) with the religious fervour and beliefs encouraging discrimination and cruelty, made for a fantastic read. I wanted to see Marsal succeed and be happy; wanted to see Isarn impart the secrets he needed to; and wanted to find out what happened between Chretien and Marsal.
I felt immersed in the world Ms Bonavist created. I’m hoping that she will write more historical fiction, whether about Cathars or others.