For the Franciscan is indeed damning himself. His listeners are his judges, who have accused him of interfering with the inquisition in its quest to extirpate “heretical depravity” in the south of France. Yet in the painting it is they who are the accused: the brave friar has his right arm stretched out in front of him, pointing an unwavering index finger directly at his judges. A great, broadening shaft of a sunbeam streams through a barred window high up in a corner of the room, but its light illuminates neither the accuser nor the accused. It spills on the floor uselessly. The people portrayed remain in the murk of the Middle Ages.
The painting, executed in 1887, is entitled L’Agitateur du Languedoc. Its creator, Jean-Paul Laurens, was in his day a renowned master of the grand genre, or history painting. This academic tradition, popular in the nineteenth century, had ardent partisans in Toulouse, a city of pink brick that seems an unlikely setting for a past of uncommon truculence. As historians of Laurens’s time unearthed episodes from that turbulent local past, the demand for paintings in the grand genre, many of them celebrations of the region’s cantankerous relations with king in Paris and pope in Rome, became a clamor. Laurens, a native son of Languedoc, obliged, and his work now hangs in many places in the city and its hinterland. Those who commissioned him sought to bolster local pride and regional identity, and to instruct and edify.
Laurens painted other tableaux concerning the inquisition — a long-vanished nightmare in Languedoc by his time, but a nightmare nonetheless. Liberals like him were then battling a reactionary Catholic Church, at the same time as they were resisting the centralizing bulldozer of the French Third Republic. With the Agitateur, an episode of history plucked from obscurity in 1877 by a historian of talent,1 the painter tapped into this dual struggle. For there had, indeed, been a great agitator in Languedoc, a figure who fought a powerful Church at home and a pitiless king in Paris — and who had paid for that fight with his life. That man was Brother Bernard Délicieux.
In Laurens’ time, the remarkable career of Bernard Délicieux was five-and-a-half centuries in the past; it is now seven centuries’ distant. Why we of the present day should remember his story, even those of us who live far from Languedoc, will become apparent.
Bernard Délicieux was a trouble-maker of the first order, in the mold of Martin Luther, John Brown and Mahatma Gandhi. A man of the Church, he challenged the Church; a subject of the king of France, he plotted against France. From his rise out of obscurity in 1299 to his death from the exactions of torture and imprisonment some twenty years later, Délicieux attracted supporters of all stripes and collected a formidable array of enemies. He opposed the misuse of power, the seduction of wealth, and the recourse to violent coercion. He attacked the inquisition head on, effectively shutting it down for several years in Languedoc. He enlisted royal support in his campaign — from one of the most dangerous kings ever to sit on the French throne — and did not shrink from fomenting revolt when that support was withheld.
Aside from the likeness sprung whole from the imagination of Laurens, no image of him has come down to us. We can assume that he must have possessed a strong voice capable of conveying the force of his arguments. It may have even been mellifluous, given his repeated success in persuasion. Even his many enemies recognized his outstanding gifts in oratory. No doubt he had a commanding physical stature, to stand before not only king and bishop, but also before crowds of townsmen whose anger at the inquisition he so effectively channelled into action.
Details of his early life are precious, but few. Born between 1260 and 1270 into the petty nobility of Montpellier, Bernard entered the Franciscan brotherhood in 1284. His abundant talents were quickly recognized, and he rose through the ranks, representing the head of the Franciscan Order in dealing with royal authorities in Paris and becoming the prior of the Franciscan convent in Carcassonne just before the turn of the century. His interests were varied, from politics to apocalyptic speculations, and his circle of friendship impressive. He knew some of the great minds of his time. Ramon Llull, the polygot Majorcan poet, philosopher and tireless champion of the conversion of the Muslims, counted Bernard as one of his friends. An independent scholar whose prodigious output and fearless travels to the lands of Islam make him something of a patron saint of intrepid freelancers, Llull seems to have respected Délicieux, having given the Franciscan one of his volumes as a gift. Llull is also credited with publishing the first major works in the Catalan language, in which the friar would have been versed. Holding Bernard in similarly high esteem was another Catalan, Arnaud de Vilanova, physician to popes, astrologer to kings and prominent alchemist. This friendship extended into a shared interest in necromancy and the dark arts, a mark of Bernard’s restless intellect. Another admirer, just as unconventional as Llull and Vilanova, was Angelo Clareno, an Italian leader of an exalted faction of the Franciscan brotherhood, who saw in Délicieux a champion of the virtues of poverty and simplicity.
These acquaintances suggest a man of curiosity and, perhaps, inwardness, satisfied with the life of an interesting mind. Yet those facets of his personality did not earn him his place in history. He was also a man of the world, adept at the behind-the-scenes maneuvering necessary to further schemes and scuttle opponents. To the circle of friendship that counted individuals of uncommon genius must be added noblemen and cardinals, who would protect him in his time of need, as well as the Franciscan confessor to the queen of France — and indeed the queen herself. He was no stranger to the society of the great, as comfortable in a palace of the powerful as in a cell of a poor friar.
Délicieux’s complex nature has been the subject of scholarly debate. In addition to a raft of articles written by specialists of the period, his three major biographers — Jean-Barthélemy Hauréau in the nineteenth century, Michel de Dmitrewski in the twentieth, Alan Friedlander in the twenty-first — have all held the man up to close scrutiny, in an attempt to divine his motivations. What emerges from these studies is a composite picture of a firebrand, imbued with profound spirituality and possessed of exceptional intelligence, at odds with the persecuting reflex of his time and the cruelty and spiritual corruption of inquisition.
In essence Bernard believed there are some things that a society must not do. He believed that the two guides in the conduct of his life, Francis of Assisi and Jesus of Nazareth, would have condemned many of the activities and certainties of the Church of his day. In condoning the rack and the stake, the Church had betrayed its origins, its principles. This was an extraordinarily brave position in an era when the use of terror and torture had become the norm in dealing with dissidence. In a larger sense, Bernard’s true confraternity is the community of courageous men and women throughout history who have resisted the slide into barbarism. Faced as he was by inquisition, Délicieux’s struggle concerned secret proceedings, unlawful detention and the abuse of power. To him inhumane incarceration and judicial violence were not consonant with civilization.
That he acted on this belief attests to his courage; that he was able to do so, to the particular historical moment in which he lived. If the twelfth century was the one in which the books were opened and the cathedrals begun, the thirteenth may be said to be the one where the books were catalogued and the prisons built. Experimentation gave way to codification. Not only the Church was engaged in this — other, competing structures of power and control had emerged to undertake the same task.
Délicieux, who lived at the dawn of the fourteenth century, looked to Paris, not to Rome, for authority. The invigorated French monarchy, its lawcourts, officers and tax collectors mushrooming throughout the thirteenth century so as to consolidate secular power, stood squarely in the way of the Church by Bernard’s day. It might be just as cruel and oppressive, but it was separate. If he could not fight the Church from within, he felt he could fight it from without. Brother Bernard understood his times — he seized the cudgel of the monarchy to beat back the brutality of the inquisition.
Aided by the king’s men and by a citizenry whipped into a frenzy by his preaching, Bernard put his convictions into practice in a very public way. In Carcassonne at the turn of the century, Bernard comprehensively sabotaged the inquisition, which he believed not only oppressive but also rotten to the core. At the same time, he stymied the powerful bishop of a neighboring town, Albi, who had used the threat of prosecution to extort money from his rich parishioners. Bernard’s greatest triumph came in 1303, when he convinced the royal constabulary to storm the jail of the inquisition in Carcassonne and remove its long-suffering prisoners. Truly a singular moment in the Middle Ages, the freeing of the men from the Wall, as the prison was known, fired once again the imagination of Jean-Paul Laurens, whose rendering of the event now hangs in the city hall of Carcassonne. For these activities, Bernard won the adulation of townsfolk fed up with living in fear — and incurred the white-hot wrath of the Dominicans, the other great brotherhood of friars, whose members staffed the inquisition in Languedoc. In the days of Bernard’s supremacy, these same friars were openly mocked in the streets of Carcassonne, as townspeople smashed in the windows of their church and made the raucous cawing sound of the crow on seeing them approach.
But the French monarchy, for reasons of state, eventually turned against the Franciscan; Bernard lost his cudgel. Amazingly, he attempted to find another one — by engaging in a seditious attempt to detach Languedoc from France and attach it to another kingdom. Miraculously escaping with his life in this unsuccessful venture, he then became a leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, a party of the brotherhood intent on hewing to the dictates of poverty preached by Francis of Assisi — even if that meant disobeying the papacy. The pope, not just the king, became angry with Bernard, and his purist Franciscan allies were declared heretics.
This last twist in his story contains an irony, for against all of Bernard’s high-risk activities looms the ghostly presence of the Cathars, heretics par excellence. A pacific but heteredox Christian credo, Catharism had been mercilessly crushed by the forces of codifying orthodoxy in the thirteenth century, although courageous sympathizers of the creed still trod the byways of Languedoc in Bernard’s day. Indeed, as the flamboyant Franciscan had driven the Dominican inquisitors literally to distraction, the Cathars were able to regroup stealthily in Languedoc for one final flowering of their faith.
A personal itinerary this perilous usually ends badly. The story of Bernard Délicieux is, sadly, no exception. Arrested in Avignon on the pope’s order in 1317, he was tried in Carcassonne two years later. With so many enemies made it is hardly surprising that there were more than one hundred counts listed in the docket of charges brought against him. These can be grouped together in four specific areas: obstructing the inquisition, high treason, adherence to heretical notions of poverty, and the murder of a pope through black magic. Délicieux was interrogated, cross-examined, tortured, broken; dozens of witnesses testified against him; and he was sentenced to a harsh solitary confinement that he did not long survive. The inquisition ground on, untrammeled henceforth by any man of his caliber.
To chronicle the life of Bernard Délicieux poses something of a challenge. The years before and after the period of his anti-inquisitorial activity at the turn of the century remain shrouded in darkness. The brief biographical sketch of his early life given above contains just about all that we know of him from the 1260s through the 1290s. The last part of his life, 1305 – 1320, is not as meager in detail as the first, yet it pales into near-nothingness in comparison to the six-year period at midlife, from 1299 to 1304. Those years streak across the historical record like a Roman candle, incandescent in detail.
The reason for this spotlight is the trial held in 1319, the subject of Laurens’ Agitateur. Scores of witnesses were called and much of their invaluable testimony has come down to us in transcripts of the proceedings. His judges, by no means priestly hacks intent on revenge, labored to make sense of what had happened in Languedoc fifteen years earlier. The trial was a torment for him, a gift for us. In 1996, an American historian undertook the task of collating, transcribing and publishing the charges, depositions, interrogations, cross-examinations and judgments of the trial. Five years after that, Cathar specialist Jean Duvernoy rendered the Latin of the original into a modern vernacular, French, allowing for wider scrutiny of this astonishing collection of documents. They open wide a window onto a campaign for freedom that occurred seven hundred years ago. In them, the voices of the historical actors, the conflicting memories, the evasions and confessions of the accused and the tenacity of the investigating judges mingle with such a wealth of everyday detail that the usual inferences necessary for the writing of narrative history can be kept to a minimum.
However rich this source, it cannot do justice to the dangerous complexity of the era in which Bernard lived — and which must first be understood to make sense of his story. A time riven by dispute between a ruthless king and an imperious pope, enlivened by plots of mass arrest and murder, and rich in discontent, rivalry and riot, the opening of the fourteenth century presents a vivid, almost frightening tapestry against which the revolt led by the Franciscan must be set. Bernard’s world was profligate in incident, interconnected and consequential. The actions of the great on the larger stage of western Europe buffeted his Languedoc, as did, just as importantly, the steady growth of the repressive apparatus in Carcassonne and Toulouse and the resistance to it. When, at last, the storms had abated by the second decade of the century and repression resumed unchallenged, Bernard paid the price. He, along with Catharism and Spiritual Franciscanism, met a violent end, the gentler Christianities represented by both the friars and the heretics crushed by a vengeful orthodoxy. Only the memory of Brother Bernard Délicieux — and his example — remained.