By Sophy Burnham
New York: HarperCollins Paperback, 2003
ISBN 0-06-000080-5
274 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2012

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2012

This fascinating novel is set in 13th century France. Author Burnham tells us in an introduction that very little is know of the actual historical facts on which the novel is based. Nonetheless, she decided to take the small amount of historical data that exists and to imagine the story as it might have been. I especially liked the openness and honesty of this admission, and was then gripped by the tale she told.

The story is about an alleged treasure in the fortress of Montsegur in France in the early 13th century. There was a large group of religious people, the Cathers, who had been declared as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and efforts were make to wipe them off the face of the earth. Nonetheless, there was a great interest among the invading Catholic army to not only suppress the Cathers, but to find the alleged “treasure” that was believed to be held in the difficult mountain top fortress of Montsegur. The fortress was seiged in 1229 and was nearly a full year long, one of the longest sieges in European history.

Burnham further tells us that what data she could gather on the Cathers (whom I had only known as Albigensians) was actually in the writings of the inquisitors who ordered the attack, and thus she had to imagine from their reports what the Cathers might actually have held. In general it seemed to be a religion very close to Roman Catholicism, but with a much greater emphasis on a religious life based on how people treated one another, on notions of justice and personal responsibility, kindness and duty. What Burnham chooses to underling was that a part of what especially bothered the Roman Catholic Church was the Cathers’ refusal to acknowledge the authority of Rome, and their refusal to send their tithe to the pope.

We follow the story of Jeanne, a older and destitute woman when we meet her who is on the run from inquisitors who want to put her to death. She is headed back to the mountain to the fortress many years after the siege when soldiers come along and in desperation she takes refuge with a very simple farmer she meets on the road. Over time he both falls in love with her and learns from her what he believes is the story of the legendary “treasure” that the Cathers had hidden before they were taken and all but a few, put to death.

Jeanne is not really in love with the farmer, but willing to live with him as wife since he treats her with love and respect and she feels safe with him. In an irony of his greed and misunderstanding, he is the cause of their own tragic downfall.

Along the way we learn a great deal about the religion of the Cathers as Burnham speculates on it. I had a difficult time accepting her notions of the Cathers since what she imagines from the reverse of the data in the inquisitors charges, the Cathers come out to be very modern and advanced for the times, reminding me much more of modern Quakers than early medieval people.

On the other hand, she does write persuasively and vividly of the material conditions of life in France at that time, and my oh my, does that writing add to the belief of my favorite saying of the past: “There were no ‘good old days.’” Life was just miserable and very short for most folks. It was uncertain, filled with misinformation about nature and life and filled with magical characters which controlled much about everyday life.

I liked the structure which the author used to move back and forth in time. Sometime Jeanne is remembering life of 15-20 year earlier, at other times she is in her final years of life.

The novel is well worth the read

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett