It was after this I noticed my father wore his tunic with the large yellow crosses sewn onto it, front and back, when we went to church…I thought they were a sign that the wearer was more religious than other people.
In this dramatic historical tapestry, English writer Susan Kaberry has interwoven fact with creative conception. Her story centers on the narrator: Beatrice de Planisolles, a woman whose life is a matter of record. Beatrice lived in the French Pyrenees in the 14th
century, daughter of a noble family. However, her father’s unconventional beliefs, marked by the garments overlaid with distinctive yellow crosses that he was compelled to wear by the church establishment, bought negative attention to the entire family. He was a member of the Cathar (or “pure”) faith, an offshoot of Christianity that came to be seen by the Roman Catholic Church as a dangerous heresy and eventually fell under the scrutiny of the Inquisition.
Kaberry tells Beatrice’s story in two timeframes. In the opening sequence, she is going to meet her Inquisitor, the much feared Bishop Fournier, another real character. It is because of the Bishop’s assiduous record-keeping that much of Beatrice’s story has been preserved. Flashbacks to her younger years show a girl naively accepting what she is told of the world by her parents and priests, but balking when asked to marry a much older man to shore up her family’s respectability and take attention away from her father’s reputation as a religious rogue. By marriage, Beatrice becomes the Chatelaine (lady of the manor), but after being widowed she begins to question both the religion and the morality of her youth and has an affair with a priest, Pierre Clergue, a sincere Cathar believer. Married again, widowed again, Beatrice becomes embroiled with Pierre and others in the intrigue surrounding the preservation of the Cathar faith which, among other beliefs, accepts women as spiritual equals to men.
We see Beatrice gradually turning towards a life of independence and self-awareness, contrasted with scenes of her captivity and harsh treatment by the notorious Bishop. Fournier is sure that she is evil because of the sins of her father and does all he can to get her to prove herself a witch.
The Cathar view--of life, personal conduct, rituals for the dying, and the afterlife, with its connection to Eastern beliefs in reincarnation--has attracted many modern thinkers. Some who read this book will get a thorough first grounding in its tenets, while others already versed in this philosophy will enjoy the fine attention to historical detail presented by an intelligent author/researcher. Kaberry has provided a brief prologue explaining the Cathar movement and an epilogue detailing what happened to the main, real-life players in her tale.
But more than anything, this is a well-told story full of romance and danger, focusing on a woman who proved herself far ahead of her times. As understood and presented by Kaberry, Beatrice survived physical punishment and mental torment by dint of her strong inner character more than by any external influence.