Authors: Kate Mosse
Table of Contents
In March 1208, Pope Innocent III preached a Crusade against a sect of Christians in the Languedoc. They are now usually known as Cathars.
They called themselves
; Bernard of Clairvaux called them Albigensians and the Inquisitional Registers refer to them as
Pope Innocent aimed to drive the Cathars from the Midi and restore the religious authority of the Catholic Church. The northern French barons who joined his Crusade saw an opportunity to acquire land, wealth and trading advantage by subjugating the fiercely independent southern nobility.
Although the principle of crusading had been an important fixture of medieval Christian life since the late eleventh century - and during the Fourth Crusade at the siege of Zara in 1204 Crusaders had turned on fellow Christians - this was the first time a Holy War had been preached against Christians and on European soil. The persecution of the Cathars led directly to the founding of the Inquisition in 1233 under the auspices of the Dominicans, the Black Friars.
Whatever the religious motivations of the Catholic Church and some of the Crusade’s temporal leaders - such as Simon de Montfort - the Albigensian Crusade was ultimately a war of occupation and marked a turning point in the history of what is now France. It signified the end of the independence of the South and the destruction of many of its traditions, ideals and way of life.
Like the term “
‘, the word ”
’ was not used in medieval documents. The army was referred to as “the Host‘ - or l’Ost in Oc. However, since both terms are now in common usage, I’ve sometimes borrowed them for ease of reference.
Note on Language
In the medieval period, the
- from which the region of Languedoc takes its name - was the language of the Midi from Provence to Aquitaine. It was also the language of Christian Jerusalem and the lands occupied by the Crusaders from 1099, and spoken in some parts of northern Spain and northern Italy. It is closely related to Provencal and Catalan.
In the thirteenth century, the
— the forerunner of modern day French - was spoken in the northern parts of what is now France.
During the course of the invasions of the south by the north, which began in 1209, the French barons imposed their language on the region they conquered. From the middle of the twentieth century, there has been an Occitan language revival, led by authors, poets and historians such as Rene Nelli, Jean Duvernoy, Deodat Roche, Michel Roquebert, Anne Brenon, Claude Marti and others. At the time of writing, there is a bilingual Oc/French school in La Cite in the heart of the medieval citadel of Carcassonne and the Occitan spellings of towns and regions appear alongside the French spellings on road signs.
, to distinguish between the inhabitants of the Pays d’Oc and the French invaders, I have used Occitan or French accordingly. As a result, certain names and places appear in both French and Oc - for example, Carcassonne and Carcassona, Toulouse and Tolosa, Beziers and Besiers.
Extracts of poetry and sayings are taken from
Proverbes & Dictons de la langue d’Oc
collected by Abbe Pierre Trinquier and from
33 Chants Populaires du Languedoc
Inevitably there are differences between medieval Occitan spellings and contemporary usage. For the sake of consistency, I have for the most part used
by Andre Lagarde - an Occitan-French dictionary - as my guide.
Pic de Soularac
Monday 4 July 2005
A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.
At first, Alice thinks it’s just a fly and takes no notice. Insects are an occupational hazard at a dig, and for some reason there are more flies higher up the mountain where she is working than at the main excavation site lower down. Then a drop of blood splashes on to her bare leg, exploding like a firework in the sky on Guy Fawkes night.
This time she does look and sees that the cut on the inside of her elbow has opened again. It’s a deep wound, which doesn’t want to heal. She sighs and pushes the plaster and lint dressing tighter against her skin. Then, since there’s no one around to see, she licks the red smear from her wrist.
Strands of hair, the colour of soft brown sugar, have come loose from under her cap. She tucks them behind her ears and wipes her forehead with her handkerchief, before twisting her ponytail back into a tight knot at the nape of her neck.
Her concentration broken, Alice stands up and stretches her slim legs, lightly tanned by the sun. Dressed in cut-off denim shorts, a tight white sleeveless T-shirt and cap, she looks little more than a teenager. She used to mind. Now, as she gets older, she sees the advantage of looking younger than her years. The only touches of glamour are her delicate silver earrings, in the shape of stars, which glint like sequins.
Alice unscrews the top of her water bottle. It’s warm, but she’s too thirsty to care and drinks it down in great gulps. Below, the heat haze shimmers above the dented tarmac of the road. Above her, the sky is an endless blue. The cicadas keep up their unrelenting chorus, hidden in the shade of the dry grass.
It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the Sabarthe`s Mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the land into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.
In the main camp on the lower slopes, Alice can see her colleagues standing under the big canvas awning. She can just pick out Shelagh in her trademark black outfit. She’s surprised they’ve stopped already. It’s early in the day to be taking a break, but then the whole team is a bit demoralised.
It’s painstaking and monotonous work for the most part, the digging and scraping, the cataloguing and recording, and so far they’ve turned up little of significance to justify their efforts. They’ve come across a few fragments of early medieval pots and bowls, and a couple of late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century arrowheads, but certainly no evidence of the Palaeolithic settlement which is the focus of the excavation.
Alice is tempted to go down and join her friends and colleagues and get her dressing sorted out. The cut smarts and her calves are already aching from squatting. The muscles in her shoulders are tense. But she knows that if she stops now, she’ll lose her momentum.
Hopefully, her luck’s about to change. Earlier, she’d noticed something glinting beneath a large boulder, propped against the side of the mountain, neat and tidy, almost as if it had been placed there by a giant hand. Although she can’t make out what the object is, even how big it is, she’s been digging all morning and she doesn’t think it will be much longer before she can reach it.
She knows she should fetch someone. Or at least tell Shelagh, her best friend, who is the deputy on the dig. Alice is not a trained archaeologist, just a volunteer spending some of her summer holiday doing something worthwhile. But it’s her last full day on site and she wants to prove herself. If she goes back down to the main camp now and admits she’s on to something, everybody will want to be involved, and it will no longer be her discovery.
In the days and weeks to come, Alice will look back to this moment. She will remember the quality of the light, the metallic taste of blood and dust in her mouth, and wonder at how different things might have been had she made the choice to go and not to stay. If she had played by the rules.
She drains the last drop of water from the bottle and tosses it into her rucksack. For the next hour or so, as the sun climbs higher in the sky and the temperature rises, Alice carries on working. The only sounds are the scrape of metal on rock, the whine of insects and the occasional buzz of a light aircraft in the distance. She can feel beads of sweat on her upper lip and between her breasts, but she keeps going until, finally, the gap underneath the boulder is big enough for her to slide in her hand.
Alice kneels down on the ground and leans her cheek and shoulder against the rock for support. Then, with a flutter of excitement, she pushes her fingers deep into the dark, blind earth. Straight away, she knows her instincts are right and that she’s got something worth finding. It is smooth and slimy to the touch, metal not stone. Grasping it firmly and telling herself not to expect too much, slowly, slowly she eases the object out into the light. The earth seems to shudder, reluctant to give up its treasure.
The rich, cloying smell of wet soil fills her nose and throat, although she barely notices. She is already lost in the past, captivated by the piece of history she cradles in the palms of her hands. It is a heavy, round buckle, speckled black and green with age and from its long burial. Alice rubs at it with her fingers and smiles as the silver and copper detail starts to reveal itself underneath the dirt. At first glance, it looks to be medieval too, the sort of buckle used to fasten a cloak or robe. She’s seen something like it before.
She knows the danger of jumping to conclusions or of being seduced by first impressions, yet she can’t resist imagining its owner, long dead now, who might have walked these paths. A stranger whose story she has yet to learn.
The connection is so strong and Alice is so absorbed that she doesn’t notice the boulder shifting on its base. Then something, some sixth sense, makes her look up. For a split second, the world seems to hang suspended, out of space, out of time. She is mesmerised by the ancient slab of stone as it sways and tilts, and then gracefully begins to fall towards her.
At the very last moment, the light fractures. The spell is broken. Alice throws herself out of the way, half tumbling, half slithering sideways, just in time to avoid being crushed. The boulder hits the ground with a dull thud, sending up a cloud of pale brown dust, then rolls over and over, as if in slow motion, until it comes to rest further down the mountain.
Alice clutches desperately at the bushes and scrub to stop herself slipping any further. For a moment she lies sprawled in the dirt, dizzy and disorientated. As it sinks in how very close she came to being crushed, she turns cold. Too close for comfort, she thinks. She takes a deep breath. Waits for the world to stop spinning.
Gradually, the pounding in her head dies away. The sickness in her stomach settles and everything starts to return to normal, enough for her to sit up and take stock. Her knees are grazed and streaked with blood and she’s knocked her wrist where she landed awkwardly, still clutching the buckle in her hand to protect it, but basically she’s escaped with no more than a few cuts and bruises. I’m not hurt.
She gets to her feet and dusts herself down, feeling a total idiot. She can’t believe she made such a basic mistake as not securing the boulder. Now Alice looks down to the main campsite below. She’s amazed – and relieved – that nobody in the camp seems to have seen or heard anything. She raises her hand, is about to call out to attract someone’s attention when she notices that there’s a narrow opening visible in the side of the mountain where the boulder had been standing. Like a doorway cut into the rock.
It’s said these mountains are riddled with hidden passages and caves, so she’s not surprised. And yet, Alice thinks, somehow, she knew the doorway was there, although there’s no way of telling from the outside. She knew. Guessed, more like, she tells herself.
She hesitates. Alice knows she should get somebody to come with her. It is stupid, possibly even dangerous, to go in on her own without any sort of back-up. She knows all the things that can go wrong. But she shouldn’t have been up here working on her own anyway. Shelagh doesn’t know. And besides, something is drawing her in. It feels personal. It’s her discovery.
Alice tells herself there’s no sense disturbing them all, getting their hopes up, for no reason. If there is anything worth investigating, she’ll tell someone then. She won’t do anything. She just wants to look.
I’ll only be a minute.
She climbs back up. There is a deep depression in the ground at the mouth of the cave, where the stone had stood guard. The damp earth is alive with the frantic writhing of worms and beetles exposed suddenly to the light and heat after so long. Her cap lies on the ground where it fell. Her trowel is there too, just where she left it.
Alice peers into the darkness. The opening is no more than five feet high and about three feet wide and the edges are irregular and rough. It seems to be natural rather than man-made, although when she runs her fingers up and down the rock, she finds curiously smooth patches where the boulder rested.
Slowly, her eyes become accustomed to the gloom. Velvet black gives way to charcoal grey and she sees that she is looking into a long, narrow tunnel. She feels the short hairs rise on the back of her neck, as if to warn her that there is something lurking in the darkness that would be better left undisturbed. But that’s just a childish superstition and she brushes the feeling away. Alice doesn’t believe in ghosts or premonitions.
Squeezing the buckle tightly in her hand, like a talisman, she takes a deep breath and steps forward into the passageway. Straight away, the smell of long-hidden, subterranean air envelops her, filling her mouth and throat and lungs. It’s cool and damp, not the dry, poisonous gases of a sealed cave she’s been warned about, so she guesses there must be some source of fresh air. But, just in case, she rummages in the pockets of her cut-offs until she finds her lighter. She flicks it open and holds it up to the dark, double-checking that there is oxygen. The flame gutters in a breath of wind, but it does not go out.
Feeling nervous and slightly guilty, Alice wraps the buckle in a handkerchief and pushes it into her pocket, then cautiously steps forward. The light from the flame is weak, but it illuminates the path immediately in front of her, throwing shadows on the jagged grey walls.
As she moves further in, she feels the chill air curl around her bare legs and arms like a cat. She is walking downhill. She can feel the ground sloping away beneath her feet, uneven and gritty. The scrunch of the stones and gravel is loud in the confined, hushed space. She is aware of the daylight getting fainter and fainter at her back, the further and deeper she goes.
Abruptly, she does not want to go on. She does not want to be here at all. Yet there is something inevitable about it, something that is drawing her deeper into the belly of the mountain.
After another ten metres the tunnel comes to an end. Alice finds herself standing at the threshold of a cavernous enclosed chamber. She is standing on a natural stone platform. A couple of shallow, wide steps directly in front of her lead to the main area where the ground has been levelled flat and smooth. The cavern is about ten metres long and perhaps five metres wide, clearly fashioned by the hands of men rather than by nature alone. The roof is low and vaulted, like the ceiling of a crypt.
Alice stares, holding the flickering single flame higher and bothered by a curious prickling familiarity that she cannot account for. She is about to descend the steps when she notices there are letters inscribed in the stone at the top. She bends down and tries to read what is written.
Only the first three words and the last letter – N or H maybe – are legible. The others have been eroded or chipped away. Alice rubs at the dirt with her fingers and says the letters out loud. The echo of her voice sounds somehow hostile and threatening in the silence.
“P-A-S A P-A-S… Pas a pas.”
Step by step? Step by step what? A faint memory ripples across the surface of her unconscious mind, like a song long forgotten. Then it is gone.
“Pas a pas,
” she whispers this time, but it means nothing. A prayer? A warning? Without knowing what follows, it makes no sense.
Nervous now, she straightens up and descends the steps, one by one. Curiosity fights with premonition and she feels the goosebumps on her slim bare arms, from unease or the chill of the cave, she cannot say.
Alice holds the flame high to light her way, careful not to slip or dislodge anything. At the lower level, she pauses. She takes a deep breath and then takes a step into the ebony darkness. She can just make out the back wall of the chamber.
It’s hard to be sure at this distance that it isn’t just a trick of the light or a shadow cast by the flame, but it looks as if there is a large circular pattern of lines and semi-circles painted or carved into the rock. On the floor in front of it there is a stone table, about four feet high, like an altar.
Fixing her eyes on the symbol on the wall to keep her bearings, Alice edges forward. Now she can see the pattern more clearly. It looks like some sort of labyrinth, although memory tells her that there is something not quite right about it. It’s not a true labyrinth. The lines do not lead to the centre, as they should. The pattern is wrong. Alice can’t account for why she’s so sure about this, only that she is right.
Keeping her eyes trained on the labyrinth, she moves closer, closer. Her foot knocks something hard on the ground. There is a faint, hollow thump and the sound of something rolling, as if an object has shifted out of position.