Before exploring Jean Markaleís Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars, all I knew about the Cathars was that they were a heretic religious sect in the 1200s; that they had been persecuted by the official church, as the wont of heretic religious sects; and that many people believe, or at least would like to believe, that the scattered members of the group had in their keeping the Holy Grail, or some relic of equal importance. When I had clambered through as much of the twisting maze of the book as I could manage (about three quarters, for those interested) I knew almost exactly the same amount.
The problem isnít a lack of detail. Markaleís work is swimming, almost drowning in detail. He talks about his ambivalence toward the Cathar myth, and his reaction to Nazi operatic propaganda. There are tales about the peasantry of the region, minute explorations of the politics surrounding the time of the Cathars, and comparisons with modern political maneuverings. And there are pages of travelogue, detailed study of the landscape that framed the Cathar tragedy.
Whatís lacking is focus. Not until the second third of the book does Markale rein himself in to some degree and begin discussing the history of Cathar belief. Even then, there is no clear direction behind this examination of religious doctrine through the ages. For most of the book, information is thrown out in heaping doses with no unifying theory, no reason to remember it all except that it is there. By the time Markale begins to gather his scattered discussions into a whole, I had forgotten most of it out of protective disinterest.
Itís hard to say how much of this unfocused rambling is an effect of the book being translated into English. Certainly some of the more poetic narrative tendencies can be explained as a different approach to language between English and French speakers. But when the book spends most of a chapter speculating on the origins, motivations, and ultimate fate of an individual only to conclude that he was of no importance to the Cathar story and thus irrelevant to the main focus of the book, thereís something more than simple linguistic differences at work.
It doesnít help that Markale assumes the reader has a knowledge of the period barely less thorough than his own. He state with assurance that ďIn our minds Occitania is Cathar country.Ē Certainly it wasnít established in my mind, and I expect a large number of the semi-casual readers that will pick up the book also have no such notions. Obscure French nobility and religious figures are discussed as though the audience should have at least as much familiarity with them as they would with Caesar.
Markaleís poetic writing is the saving grace of the work. While an impenetrable history, Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars acts as an intriguing travelerís journal. Markaleís lush descriptive scenes and unhurried musings on the motivations of varied and often irrelevant characters give the work a feeling of the fantastic. Itís a feeling that works well with his speculation on the mystery the fleeing perfecti may have taken with them. Couched in such fantastic imagery, a story of a lost grail or holy mysteries seems not only plausible, but downright inevitable. As a history, Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars is compelling poetry. As a source of information on the Cathars, itís a study in frustration.