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An Unknown Fighter for Human Rights

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

"Bernard Délicieux was a troublemaker of the first order, in the mold of Martin Luther, John Brown, and Mahatma Gandhi." Stephen O'Shea knows that you know those other guys, but Bernard is known to few, mostly to experts on Medieval France, like O'Shea himself. His book The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars (Walker) intends to make Bernard better known and admired. Bernard lived in a strange time, around 1265 to 1320, a time covered by O'Shea's previous books The Perfect Heresy and Sea of Faith, and O'Shea's broad knowledge of the time helps to make it a little less strange for his readers. What makes Bernard an ideal subject for our time to contemplate is that he challenged his church and he challenged his king at a time when such things just were not done. Nowadays, to paraphrase Monty Python, "No one respects the Spanish Inquisition!", but Bernard operated at a time when the inquisition was forming and was becoming the way of enforcing belief, a way that would be codified about a century later. He had sensible and humane objections to the inquisition (O'Shea uses the uncapitalized word since in Bernard's time it was not yet the dark bureaucracy it was to become), and if he failed in keeping it from becoming a blot on human and religious history, he was still on the right side and his was a heroic failure. 

 

 

 

We have Bernard's story because the inquisition kept it in its archives, when Bernard was finally brought to it for trial and was broken and imprisoned. Bernard was a Franciscan in the convent in Carcassonne, in southern France. The Franciscans of the time were the underdogs to the other mendicant order, the Dominicans who had been founded by a Castillian priest named Dominic. The Dominicans were thought of as "the hounds of God" (from "Domini canes," get it?), and were in charge of the incipient inquisition. This was despite Dominic's seemingly liberal view of his religious opponents. After all, he had invited the heterodox Cathars to debate. The Cathars were a thorn in the side of Catholicism; they preached, for instance, that Catholic sacraments were illegitimate, that Hell was a fabrication, and that the cross was a symbol merely of imperial Roman torture. The Dominican-dominated inquisition held Cathars as a special target, and the Cathars were persecuted by the church in the Albigensian Crusade begun in 1209. The crusade failed to extirpate them from the region of Languedoc, but it ended the region's independence and brought it into France. Those who were tortured and condemned were executed, or if not executed they were confined within "the Wall," the notorious prison in Carcassonne. Their lands and possessions were confiscated.  

 

 

 

Bernard knew unfairness when he saw it. He was to think of the Cathars as fellow Christians who sought salvation as fervently as he and other members of his own church did; he did not consider them diabolical enemies. He believed that there were limits on what society could enforce, and he felt that his church's eager use of the rack and the stake was a betrayal of principles, a betrayal that would have been obvious to Jesus or to Francis of Assisi. Inhumane incarceration, unlawful detention, and the persecutory mindset of the inquisition were to him not part of civilized society. With the Catholic Church overwhelmingly supporting terror, torture, and betrayal (the techniques of which are described here in distressing detail), Barnard's stance was one of principled courage, an example unique in his time. He knew his village was being torn apart by the inquisition, and he determined to make things different. 

 

 

 

Bernard was a natural leader, with a gift for oratory. He was able to rally the townspeople to storm the prison. He objected that citizens were being left to rot in the Wall, and that years of merciless persecution had rendered his townsmen fractious and distrustful. He actually nailed these objections to the door of the stronghold of the inquisitors, a foretaste of Luther's similar action. He was able to appeal directly to King Philip the Fair, with the sensible objection that the inquisitors were ruining civic life and trust and thus endangering their devotion to the kingdom. King Philip was won over because he feared unrest in the region. As of 1301, the Dominicans were powerless to arrest those they suspected of heresy, unless the arrests were cleared beforehand by the local hierarchy, including Bernard. It is notable that Bernard did not argue, at least in his presentation to the king, against torture, because torture was simply a legal way of efficiently getting confessions, and a confession was regarded as the "queen of proofs." It is also notable that Philip did not abolish the office of inquisitor. He wanted it harmless, and indeed it was made harmless for a time.  

 

 

 

Bernard had effectively harnessed the power of the state to overcome the power of the church. For himself, he set himself up as a champion of poverty and simplicity, opposed to a church of authoritarian torture and terror. "To a culture of increasing persecution, of a developing Christianity of fear, of a renewed intolerance of Jews, of a nascent fear of witchcraft and sorcery - ultimately, to a culture intent on demonizing dissent and difference - the man who pried open the Wall had said no. Brother Bernard saw violent persecution as incompatible with his religion." It was a superb moment of advancement of human rights. Unfortunately, it was but a moment. Philip tired of squabbling with the church, and needed its cooperation in his other ventures. It is amazing that Bernard was able to remain free and influential for as long as he did, but he lost his royal supporter, and other allies died off as the years went on. As you can imagine, he was very good at making enemies, and by 1317 they took action against him. He was captured by the papacy of Pope John XXII, who happened to be a Dominican and an enthusiastic supporter of inquisition. There was a show trial (the records of which are the foundation of O'Shea's recreation of these dramatic events), after which Bernard was defrocked, tortured, and clapped into the same Wall he had fought against on behalf of others. 

 

 

 

Bernard was not a civil libertarian, but he saw the church doing wrong and set about to correct it. He was no saint; O'Shea shows that at his trial he was duplicitous and even demagogic. He did, however, see that the inquisitors' campaigns of prosecution and punishment were not the most effective antidote to heresy. A gentler system of beliefs, including impatience with the church's gross imperfections, was much more likely to be persuasive. O'Shea says that reading the trial transcript, he realized that Bernard had been fighting against torture, secret trials, and unlawful detention seven hundred years ago. O'Shea merely hints at the lesson for our times, but the truth is that Bernard's battle is still not won.

 

 

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