Defeat always leaves scars
And even the triumphalist victors are not immune from pain, for theirs is a legacy of ghosts and – for the minority of these possessing a conscience – of a heavy, enduring burden of guilt. History may be written by the winners and wars unite people in the sense that nearly everybody has someone or something to mourn, but all the scars remain for the rest of time. Even if the cause may be regarded as just, as was the fight against Nazi Germany.
The Albigensian Crusade took place in southern France in the early 13th century. The northern military leader, later killed during the seige of Toulouse, was the infamously brutal father and namesake of the same Simon de Montfort who was to become Earl of Leicester and leader of the rebellion against the inept governance of Henry III of England which ended in his defeat at the battle of Evesham in 1265. Thus, as so often in history, becomes apparent a strange symmetry in the pattern linking countries and their fates.
By all accounts the campaign was brutal and ruthless. Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux and legate appointed by the Pope to the northern army, famously preached a sermon at the seige of Béziers ordering the soldiers to kill everybody inside the city, whether Cathar or Catholic it wouldn’t matter. Why not? God, he explained, would sort out the heretic from the faithful – He’d “know his own.” The celebrated Oxford historian, R W Southern, devoted his life to the study of the middle ages. When asked why, the distinguished professor smiled his gentle smile and replied that it was “because I am interested in God.” I doubt somehow that he meant the same God as that of the vengeful Cistercian abbot, and sometimes fancifully speculate that Southern might have found some of the Cathar doctrines rather appealing – not least their refusal to countenance hell and purgatory (an invention of the 12th century papacy).
The carnage in Béziers was replicated all over the south as the northern invasion more-or-less wiped out the Cathars. And with it the Cathar influence, which must have been inordinately powerful as it spread from its origins in the Balkans to Central Europe and Italy and all over southern France.
But in time the result of the war was even more destructive for the south as time passed. Because the north (where the langue d’oil was spoken) emerged strengthened, having formed a grand vision of unity. This led inevitably to its eventual takeover of the south, where the langue d’oc – l’occitan and its variants – was the tongue of peasants and poets, of troubadours and lords alike. In one of those strange anomalies that litter the pages of the past, l’occitan was a language of identity and solidarity in that age of localised, strict hierarchies.
All the same, the north never completely stamped out the language of southern France, let alone the rebellious spirit; but the scars of conquest and standardisation – the devastation to the land and eroded identity and autonomy among the inhabitants – remain, as may be seen to anyone wishing to visit the ruined Cathar strongholds standing alone and lonely on the heights of the Aude and the Ariege, symbolising so much else that has been inflicted on the south – and continues to be inflicted on the south in this global age.
Nothing’s ever quite forgotten; severe wounds never entirely heal. And those of us who are sane and humane all wonder at times what on earth is the point of conflict. I think this song by Francis Cabrel (himself a southerner passionately committed to his pays) expresses that perfectly. We should, all of us, tread softly as Yeats suggested – God knows upon what or whose dreams we tread.
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