Sunday, January 4, 2015

2013 Domaine Laroque, from the land of the Cathars

Enclosed please find a tasty French bargain, a southern Rhône-type blend. Looks more daunting than it is. We love the romantic sounding appellation, Cité de Carcassonne. Although, really, Cité de Carcassonne is not an appellation, it is legally a lower-tier Indication Géographique Protégée. This means the wine's sourcing and making has proceeded under less stringent controls than an AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) wine. You may remember that today's AOP wines are the AOCs (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) of yesteryear. Go here for a neat summary of "recent changes to French wine law," and for a sensible assessment of Why They Did It. Declining sales seems to sum it up. We know a little about that




We say the IGP of Cité de Carcassonne sounds romantic, but we don't know the half of it. Carcassonne is a medieval walled city in the south of France, "painstakingly restored" as TripAdvisor tells us, not too far from the Mediterranean to the east and the Spanish border to the south. To look at tourist photos of the site, to look at course upon course of jagged gray stone battlements capped by small conical towers (that's the painstakingly restored part, apparently none too authentic), all surrounded by greenery and all gleaming in the summer sun, is to transport oneself back eight hundred years or more. We are peasants tramping this road by the apple trees below the walls. We are tending the grapevines in a July or August heat. We are standing on the narrow high ramparts -- or we are worried about our sons manning those ramparts -- gazing anxiously across the tumbled green rocky landscape towards some fresh army, commanded by some besieging Raymond VI or Roger IV. Romantic, yes maybe, but a ghost from that time might like to come forward and smack us full in the face for saying so, because it is also romantic in the way Iraq ruled by the Islamic State today is romantic. In other words, not at all. 

Eight hundred years ago, it seems Carcassonne and its neighbor towns, Toulouse, Béziers, Albi, were the centers not only of the part of modern France called variously the Midi, Occitania, Aquitaine, or the Languedoc, but of a strange, thriving half-Christian religion, Catharism, which the French monarchy and the Catholic church required almost the whole of the 13th century to put down. This war, done in two phases lasting nine years (1209-1218) and then forty-six years (1225-1271), is called the Albigensian Crusade. Its pretext had been the assassination of a papal legate in the south; for a generation before that, worried church General Councils had failed to cope with the heresy, the Cathars ignoring even the powerhouse preaching of Dominic Guzman, St. Dominic himself. The wars' worst moment came in the year 1244, when the Cathar stronghold of Montségur fell to thousands-strong royal and papal armies, and several hundred defeated men, women, and children were dragged down the mountain and thrown alive into one pyre. Think ISIS.

I am not the one to tease out all the right details of a terrible story. What interests me more, since the poor souls in question have been at rest for eight centuries, is the way modern people tell and re-tell it, even inhabit it, now. Today's Catholic Encyclopedia online shows us a scholarly article from 1907 going into calm detail about the Cathars' doctrinal links to other neo-Manichean sects, but saying little about any violence except to acknowledge that the death penalty was "inflicted on them too readily." In his survey The Divine Order, Henry Bamford Parkes (1969) chronicles ghastly European centuries in which European feudalism itself takes the blame: even though the arrangement of society into small fiefs worked by peasants and ruled by armed men made sense when that was the only answer to the Mad Max-ian chaos of barbarian invasion, that same arrangement fed upon itself when Goths and Vikings were gone. Bad enough that younger sons had no way to get land but to conquer it from their fathers' neighbor over the hill or beyond. Add the Church's assurance that looters could also earn forgiveness of sin and centuries exempt from Purgatory by killing heretics (Parkes claims), and you have a workable recipe for another army at the gates of Carcassonne -- or Béziers or Albi -- decade after decade after decade. "The sacking of a city," he says, "was an orgiastic performance, the most pleasurable available to medieval man, offering a release from all moral inhibitions that was quite as complete as the most savage of primitive fertility rituals and much more bloody and destructive." Think ISIS.

This is where other voices re-telling the story, even inhabiting it, come in. The Cathars had a bizarre and grim faith, but in some ways it was very much after our soft modern hearts. They believed that the universe was subject to two divinities, one good and one evil, and that everything in the visible world had been created by the evil one. Therefore the body, food, animals, sex, procreation -- essentially all life was bad. The soul, created by the good principle, longed only for escape and reunion with heavenly good. Suicide was thus commendable, preferably by starvation (endura), and concubinage outranked marriage because it was less permanent. Homosexuality was better than sex between man and wife, precisely because it did not lead to the evil of more children. They also believed that Jesus, "very perfect" but a mere creature, had not lived on earth as a man -- since as the Redeemer and the epitome of good he could not take on flesh -- but had only appeared to do so. We begin to see why the Cathars caught the attention of the still struggling-to-grow Church.

Where their beliefs most please our soft modern hearts is in their pacifism, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, and their rejection (poignantly enough) of capital punishment. We hear also that they were tolerant, wealthy, cultured -- the troubadour songs, the medical school in Toulouse -- leisured, democratic, but nobly defiant of the medieval Church's blowhard corruption, and so on. Although they had rules of their own, too. "The necessity of absolute fidelity to the sect was strongly inculcated."

We love this. It's easy to get romantic about a sunny land that seems to have been populated with sunny people, especially if we moderns in our reading and research strike gold in that sunny word, tolerance. Surf the net and you will find modern people who want to inhabit this story. They fancy themselves Cathars, guided by spirits from the thirteenth century and signing their PDF reports, deliciously, by the title Parfaite. The Cathars' egalitarian priestly hierarchy -- celibate, mind you -- were called this, men being parfaits and women parfaites. Modern people also can be bewitched, it seems to me, simply by the musical names of the old Occitan language: there are martyred heroes called Belisenne and Caraman, heroines called Esclaramonde and Aude, there are beautiful place names like Pamiers, Fanjeaux, Foix and Pereilha. Go here for a long and impossibly tender tale of the orphaned young female knight/sorceress/animal whisperer, another Esclaramonde, illegitimate daughter of the ravishing and tender fallen abbess Na Ermengarda, who had returned to her lands in Telho to give birth when her position in the convent became impossible. I should say so. We don't hear what sort of convent it was, Catholic or Cathar. 

I love this. I am always interested in modern people who try to bring, not just the spiritual but the supernatural into their lives in at least a somewhat serious way, and I am interested in the effort of imagination it takes to believe you are a part of a past group. I was a convert myself but at least I joined a present group. If you wish to inhabit this particular, dreamy story, there's no risk in being "a Cathar," but also no real comfort. No northern baron, no Sir Boeuf will drag you down from Montségur and throw you into a fire -- although if you are a Christian in Iraq, ISIS will -- nor can any fellow worshiper give you the Consolamentum, or stand tenderly impressed if you choose to die by the endura. Owing to both these facts, the stresses on one's true, religious enthusiasm must be immense and also ridiculous. What then is the appeal? I can only think it's really the enjoyment of a rich fantasy life, combined with a feeling of safe, retroactive superiority to Christianity and maybe the West in general, as deservedly defanged institutions. This is why I take the glowing information about the Cathars with a large grain of salt. It's not that the Catholic church's and the French state's violence against them was not horrific; it's just that when a group of people are so very congenial to the most fashionable modern attitudes that we begin to see them as tender knight/sorceress/animal whisperers, as people possessed of a perfect worldview ("paratge,") lost to human understanding forever, I begin to wonder. Were they not also human beings? With flaws and pettinesses? What did they do to you if you questioned them? "Fidelity to the sect strictly inculcated." Again, we consult the Catholic Encyclopedia. 
Moreover these sects were in the highest degree aggressive, hostile to Christianity itself, to the Mass, the sacraments, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and organization; hostile also to feudal government by their attitude towards oaths, which they declared under no circumstances allowable. Nor were their views less fatal to the continuance of human society, for on the one hand they forbade marriage and the propagation of the human race, and on the other hand they made a duty of suicide through the institution of the Endura (see CATHARI). It has been said that more perished through the Endura (the Catharist suicide code) than through the Inquisition.
Admittedly this is a "hostile" source, but as far as I can see the hostile sources also tell us of the Cathars' sophistication, leisure, vegetarianism, and tolerance. In the middle ages they "poured all over Western Europe," the Encyclopedia says. This is startling. Invaders pour. We have visions not of Joan Sutherland as Esclaramonde in white veils, but of the garbage-strewn rape camps and the well-to-do, chanting, young, malicious ignoramus-protesters of Occupy Wall Street. We forget how much of Europe then was young, young, painfully and stupidly and ferociously young. Thirty Cathars had already reached England in the 1160s. Henry II had them branded on their foreheads with hot irons, whipped, and then turned out ... to starve. (It was forbidden to aid them.) Why? Again it's not that we are looking for ways to "blame the victim," or that we don't acknowledge completely innocent suffering. Have you ever known people who kept a copy of Mein Kampf in their homes, because "they wanted to find out Hitler's side of the story"? Sometimes when it comes to innocent suffering there isn't another side to the story. There is only suffering. The troubadours fleeing Montségur wrote bitter songs on the triumph of evil.

No, anyway it's just to look for the truth about an old, unhappy, far off thing. And to note that today's morning-dew "Cathars" or even their sympathizers would fit perfectly into Mapp and Lucia, or some other mid-1920s English social-comedy novel stuffed with harmless lorgnette-carrying London eccentrics. Perhaps that's very lucky for us, I mean the harmless part. As to the wine, the Cité de Carcassonne IGP which we opened ages ago -- remember? -- the wine which the parfaits would have considered just a part of this evil world; it retails for about $10. Enjoy it.      

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