If you are lucky as well as small-child free, holidays are a chance to read (among other things). And if your penchant is for reading books that relate to the location in which you find yourself with uncustomary free time, then this is where you can get a head start into potential tomes that will not only while-away the time but assist you in generating valuable insights into you new context.
Relevance must begin closest to home (taking home to be, for a week at least, the
Minervois).A local author, Christopher Hope, has written ‘a non-fiction book’ centred on the fictional Languedoc village of Kissac which the author claims “is a mixture of villages I know and love in Languedoc.” For the reader resident in Caunes, Signs of the Heart: love and death in Languedoc (1999) quickly suggests that the ‘mixture’ is ninety-some percent Caunes. Both people and places in the village slot smoothly into characters and locations in the book, respectively of course.So while enjoying the author’s undoubted mastery of English prose together with a cold beer outside the La Fontaine bar, the reader will not fail to detect an uncanny resemblance to Hope’s Lapin Fou bar in Kissac. And from there the game continues: the book’s Hotel des Cathares with its enigmatic patron, Nicolas, are also easy spots. But the mappings get trickier, and add an unusual twist between fiction and reality.
Eventually relevance stretches perhaps to all of France, and the French way of life.At the thoroughly serious end sit the various guides to the country. Passing over the wealth of more selective commentaries on the peculiarities of this people just off-shore (for Brits), we reach the pure entertainment (and some enlightening insights) of Talk to the Snail (2006) and others by Stephen Clarke.
“Have you ever walked into a half-empty Parisian restaurant, only to be told that it’s ‘complet’? Attempted to say “merci beaucoup” and accidentally complimented someone’s physique? Been overlooked at the boulangerie due to your adherence to the bizarre foreign custom of waiting in line? Well, you’re not alone. The internationally bestselling author of A Year in the Merde and In the Merde for Love has been there too, and he is here to help. In Talk to the Snail, Stephen Clarke distills the fruits of years spent in the French trenches into a truly handy (and hilarious) book of advice. Read this book, and find out how to get good service from the grumpiest waiter; be exquisitely polite and brutally rude at the same time; and employ the language of l’amour and le sexe. Everything you need is here in this funny, informative, and seriously useful guide to getting what you really want from the French.”
More focused on Languedoc and offering a historical perspective on the many ruined fortresses perched defensively on crags as well as the many fortified towns and villages, there is a wealth of books that get to grips with the 13th century heresy of the Cathars — where some books on Cathar history are summarized.
The so-called Albigensian heresy was a languedocian interpretation, in the land of Occitan, of Jesus’ teachings of purity of spirit and humility; a prohibition on killing made vegetarianism a requirement of “The Perfects” with fish it seems classed as a slippery vegetable. Spirit was the Good, and the body the Evil. Pushing on with this offensive against the body: Cathar “Perfects” had to eschew women as well as meat, but their flock was not required to be so abstemious. For although the teaching was that the only sacremental marriage was between ones soul and God, marriages of the flesh (i.e. man and wife stuff), being merely a union for intercourse without shame, was more sinful than extramarital sex. A viewpoint that may go some way towards accounting for the speed of growth of the Cathar resurgence in the early 14th century up in the Pyrenean mountain villages as well as the abundance of illegitimate offspring. We know these details and many more only because of the unique preservation of the records of the Inquisition that was set up to stamp out this new Cathar uprising. A number of authors have set out this fascinating insight into medieval village life:
Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, translated from the French and published by Penguin in 1980.
The Last Cathars by René Weis, published by Penguin in 2001.
One of the Inquisitors to put in an appearance to quash the Cathar resurgence was Bernard Gui who has gained fame in his crossover to fiction as the satanic Inquisitor in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose — a tale of medievil murder, mystery and literary antics in an isolated community of monks.
The first rise of Catharism around the opening of the 13th century was a reversion to a Christian fundamentalism that so irked the papal powers that the Pope invited the northern barons to move in and claim fresh territory for God and France (and thenselves, of course) which they duly did, but not without considerable fighting followed by roasting the losers.
Kate Mosse’s hit novel Labyrinth is set amongst the Cathars. It largely bypases the blood and guts side and focuses on the demise of their first flowering in conjunction with the local myth that the Holy Grail is buried hereabouts. Her newer offering, Sepulchre (Orion, 2007), is also ‘split-time’ tale of murder, mystery and love underpinned by ancient and diabolical rites and practices. It is set in Carcassonne and the Languedocian countryside south of Limoux, the rugged mountainous terrain of smashed Cathar fotresses towards the Pyrenees.