Monday, June 4, 2012

Getting a Handle on Religious Belief in the Medieval Mindset

In a secular age it can be difficult to comprehend the extent to which religious belief once informed every aspect of life. Yet it’s a vital consideration when writing about the medieval era. In England and in Europe the Catholic Church was all-powerful. It influenced everything from baptismal names to what food could be eaten when and even the days on which one could and could not have sex. Faith was embedded in the culture and in the daily lives of the people. It was also, largely, unquestioned. Common people were illiterate and superstitious. Indeed, many noblemen could barely write their own names. Heaven and hell were not abstract concepts but real places. What one did in life would be weighed in the balance after death and there would be a reckoning. Sin was everywhere. The Devil set traps for the unwary. Miracles were seen to happen.

To create credible heroes and heroines in medieval romance it’s essential to address this. Otherwise the result is little more than a cast of contemporary characters in fancy dress. Achieving character credibility is easier said than done. We’re hundreds of years away from the truth. Besides which, education and opportunity have changed lives in ways that would have been unimaginable to our medieval counterparts. For the writer, getting into the medieval mindset and understanding the significance of religion on individual motivation is a continual exercise of the imagination, backed up by careful research. Visiting historic sites can offer real insights too.

Carcassonne, Languedoc
One of the most memorable for me came while on a recent trip to France. I was visiting Languedoc to undertake some research for a new series of stories. Quite apart from being scenically stunning the whole region is steeped in history: it was the centre of Catharism, an alternative religious view regarded as a heresy by the Catholic Church. When the Church attempted to quash this idea, the region erupted in open rebellion. This clash of religious ideologies resulted in one the bloodiest and most brutal religious repressions of the age.

In order to start my research I based myself in Carcassonne, truly a medieval novelist’s dream offering numerous insights into the past. It’s also an ideal location from which to travel further afield and visit other Cathar fortresses such as Lastours, Puilaurens, Peyreperteuse, Montségur and Quéribus.  Even by today’s standards they are remote. Existing roads are narrow and winding. Directions are not always of the best. However, when you do eventually arrive it’s hard not be impressed. These places are spectacular, standing like great stone eyries on impossible pinnacles of rock. The ascent is often perilous and requires stamina, a head for heights and considerable determination, but the end is worth the effort involved.
Standing on the ramparts at Quéribus is like standing on the top of the world. The views are stunning. A stronger defensive position would be hard to imagine. The time and effort required to build such a structure is mind-boggling. There were no roads as we know them today so transporting men and materials and supplies overland would have been a logistical nightmare. Even bringing everything round by sea and then by land would have been a massive challenge. Nevertheless, the fortress was built anyway. That begs the question, why? What threat was so great as to require such a degree of protection? Virtually the same problems would have existed for an invader. Who in their right mind would even contemplate attacking such a place? Why would they? How would they? After all, it would take years, cost a fortune and exact a heavy toll in lives.

Answering those questions starts to provide a handle on the strength of religious conviction and the extent of religious intolerance in late 12th and early 13thCentury France. Time, cost and human lives were no obstacle to the Church in its determination to crush the Cathar heresy that challenged its power. The sheer magnitude of the task was no deterrent. Nor was it hard to recruit soldiers to the cause. All across Northern France noblemen and commoners flocked to the papal banner. The thought of loot would undoubtedly have been an added draw for some, but uppermost in mind was the need to defend the true faith and root out the evil of heresy. It was accomplished with ruthless efficiency and a degree of political cynicism that was remarkable even by the standard of the time. Prior to the sack of Béziers in 1209, the Abbot of Citeaux was asked how the soldiers were to distinguish between the innocent Catholic population of the town and the heretic Cathars. The Abbot allegedly replied, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” The population, estimated to have been between 10,000 – 14,000 people, was duly massacred. Few, if any, of those who carried out the deed doubted that they were doing God’s work and would earn a place in heaven.

This is the mindset that the novelist must get to grips with and which must inform the characters’ motivations. It also has to appear natural and effortless. As I said, it’s no easy feat.
Joanna Fulford


  1. Joanna:
    You are so right, and it can be hard to make this understandable and sympathetic to the modern reader. Even as late as the 17th century, people knew without question that God ruled the world (through the church) and actively participated in daily events.

    1. Blythe, I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about making the protagonists understandable and sympathetic to the modern reader. No-one wants to read about a self-righteous hero or heroine. Nor do readers want to be preached at. It's a balancing act. If you have any tips for managing this I'd be glad to know.