TPH is perhaps one of the best-written works of popular history I've come across - by no means a doorstop, it reads easily and compulsively without losing its usefulness as a detailed historical account with useful academic references.
The narrative deals with the Cathars, a heretical Medieval Christian group, their ascendancy in Languedoc in what is now southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Crusades organised by the Pope to destroy them and, in the process, the region, and the aftermath of their destruction. This episode (now incorporated in works such as Eco's The Name of the Rose, and, lamentably, the mythology of works like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) is fascinating for its exploration of Catharism, something like a mix between Protestantism and Eastern religions. This was a more-or-less dualist belief holding that life on Earth was in fact Hell, and that the material world was a creation of a dark force, identified with the false God of the Old Testament; and that, therefore, the Catholic Church itself, in its materialism and power hungriness, was an extreme manifestation of evil. Reincarnation eventually allowed the person who lived a good life to escape this Hell-as-earth. Cathar 'perfects' could be female as well as male, and renounced the material, including monetary wealth, meat, and sexual relationships; while 'credentes', or believers, were free from the restrictions placed upon individuals by the Church (sex only within marriage, the paying of tithes, the threat of excommunication, and so forth).
Understandably, Catharism (similar believers included the Bogomils in Eastern Europe, from whom the term 'bugger' eventually derives due to Church descriptions of their proclivities) gained a growing following, strongest in the Languedoc area. And this is where the subject begins to shape the present. Successive Popes, (the first, ironically, Innocent III, followed by Gregory IX) organised Crusades from Northern Europe to crush the Cathars and their regional strongholds. This included hideous mass mutilations, burnings, and the mass murder of entire towns. The Cathar wars shaped the states of Europe as we know them today, defining Languedoc as a part of France as it fell under Northern control, rather than, as could otherwise have been, an area incorporating Languedoc and Aragon in Northern Spain. The aftermath of the ultimate victory of the Catholic Church played out in the establishment of the Inquisition, and of both the Franciscan and Dominican orders; and, argue some, instituted the same 'persecuting society' in which we live today.
The senselessness of the wanton destruction and murder, the crushing of a relatively benign and culturally flowering feudal troubadour culture as well as a decentralised system of governance, and the chillingly relentless persecution of a sect which seems, to modern eyes light years ahead of other belief systems at the time, brings one to ask how anyone could believe that this would be what the biblical Jesus wanted, and to meditate on the fact that the content of systems of belief is not particularly important; the nature of human society ensures that they will be used for the same ends, that is the violent establishment of domination. Nonetheless, despite not being much of a Francophile, this book incited in me the desire to visit the landscapes over which the narrative roams; and so, as a reading experience, horror is tempered with romance and fascination. Recommended for anyone interested in the medieval period, in organised religion and dissent, in French or Western European history... or simply for a work which is at the same time edifying, horrifying, and fascinating.
x-posted to talkbooks