cover image The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars

The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars

Stephen O'Shea. Walker & Company, $25 (333pp) ISBN 978-0-8027-1350-6

Although its title and subject confound such a prospect, this broadly researched, well-crafted and extensive treatment of an extinct Christian heresy would make excellent beach reading. Investing his story with the pace and excitement of a novel, journalist and translator O'Shea skillfully brings to life the tale of the medieval Cathars. A group of Christian heretics living, predominantly, in southern France, the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians, claimed to be the true Christians. Members of a church that was characterized by a poor, ascetic clergy (known as the Perfect), they stood against the power, wealth and luxury of the clerics who owed their allegiance to the bishop of Rome. They adhered to a doctrine remarkably similar to that of the Christian Gnostics and challenged the authority of the Church, claiming Catholicism was a false religion; in return, they were exterminated by the Church in the first half of the 13th century in ""a ferocious campaign of siege, battle, and bonfire."" O'Shea (Back to the Front) suggests that the harsh reprisal against this alternative sect both enabled the expansion of the French monarchy into the formerly independent region of Languedoc and created the first modern police state--the Inquisition. Cogently, provocatively and precisely argued, this volume is a sound and engaging exposition of a pivotal episode in European history. 15 b&w illus. (Aug.)