The Perfect Heresy

The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars


Critical Reaction

The New Yorker (2001):

… O’Shea’s book is the Oliver Stone movie of the Cathar conflict…

The New York Times (2000):

… O’Shea has written an accessible, readable history with lessons, lessons that were not learned by broad humanity until it saw 20th century tyrants applying the goals and methods of the Inquisition on a universal scale… O’Shea, who has mastered the intricacies of medieval social life, religion and religious politics, argues that Catharism was, as he calls it, a perfect heresy because it was ideally suited to the territory in which it flourished.

The Spectator (UK) (2000):

In a new overview, Stephen O’Shea casts a fresh and lively eye on the saga. Aside from a racy, vivid account of the Crusade and the events that followed, he offers an intelligent analysis of the heresy and the conflicting theories surrounding it… All the way O’Shea shows deep knowledge and love of the region. He writes with the enthusiasm and immediacy of a contemporary chronicler, with the occasional, rather startling use of moden slang: at one point Innocent III makes “an historic flip-flop”; Mary Magadalene “was never associated with Lady Luck”. O’Shea even contrives to have some fun, as with his description of the unruly plenary session of the Lateran Council of 1215, with Pope Innocent “in his slippers in front of the altar” shouting for silence as angry prelates set about each other with croziers and the Bishop of Amalfi drops dead of suffocation in the crush. By contrast his accounts of battles, massacres and burnings are starkly moving. The book is unputdownable.”

The Washington Post (2001):

O’Shea is a graceful and passionate writer; he does not hide his indignation at the fate of the Cathars… O’Shea tells the entire story, from the foundations of Catharism in the 12th century through its ultimate destruction in the 14th. The book is engaging and occasionally moving; it has an entertaining final chapter describing the co-opting of Catharism for the last hundred years by New Age loonies, treasure seekers, Nazis and the French tourist industry.

The Times Literary Supplement (UK) (2001):

[O’Shea’s] brisk and lively narrative is unflinching in the rehearsal of the atrocities and unsparing of the ambition, greed, duplicity and fanaticism of those who unleashed them. This is not to say that it is either unscholarly or unbalanced. On the contrary, this is a remarkable, perhaps a unique achievement, a popular account which is well abreast of current scholarship and contains no nonsense.

Philadelphia Inquirer (2001):

Stephen O’Shea’s eloquent history of these dramatic events clutches the reader’s imagination and won’t let go.

Daily Telegraph (UK) (2000):

O’Shea’s history of the suppression of the Cathars is gripping, moving and well-informed. It makes a wonderful, if painful, read. It is an example of popular history at its best.

The Globe and Mail (Canada) (2000):

Stephen O’Shea’s The Perfect Heresy is the most recent of a great many books on the subject of the Cathars and the war of extermination fought against them. It is also one of the very best for those looking for a readable introduction to the topic… O’Shea’s book has the great redeeming merit of historical integrity. And it includes something I have seen nowhere else: an accounting of the provenance of the plethora of myths that have grown up around the Cathars, from tales of the Holy Grail that enraptured Wagner and Hitler’s Nazis, to the similarly fatuous fables of sun worship, swallowed whole by the doomed initiates of the Solar Temple. Turning the last page, I was reminded afresh that the best and most instructive story of the Cathars is the one that actually happened. O’Shea tells it well.

The Independent on Sunday (UK) (2000):

… as Stephen O’Shea shows us in his marvellous, harrowing book, The Perfect Heresy, these innocuous heretics were mere kindling for a bigger bonfire: the destruction and subjugation of the previously independent states of the Languedoc. The book is not so much an entertainment as an emetic, bring home to the modern reader all the horror of that squalid episode with passion and panache… Deftly, O’Shea creates a world of exuberance and terror.

Publishers Weekly (USA) (2000):

… 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, O’Shea skillfully brings to life the tale of the medieval Cathars… Cogently, provocatively and precisely argued, this volume is a sound and engaging exposition of a pivotal episode in European history.

Rocky Mountain News (2000):

O’Shea’s ability to turn a phrase along with his dry wit, penchant for detail and sense of irony combine to make this complex story an easy and enlightening read.

London Review of Books (2001):

The heart of Stephen O’Shea’s book is the story of this Crusade. A non-specialist addressing non-specialists, he writes with a great deal of historical understanding and brio… O’Shea devastatingly exposes the political interests of the Crusaders, the recurrent manifestations of their hypocrisy, the acts of horrific violence perpetrated on fellow Christians as well as on heretics… In contrast to the “science” of sieges, and O’Shea is a real connoisseur of this subject, “pitched battle had all the finesse of a freight train.”

Metroland (USA) (2001):

Violent thought control, the destruction of a kind of multiculturalism, the operations of greed — these alone are enough for a gripping read. And O’Shea accomplishes this part of his job with taste, wit and humor — yes, actual humor. He deftly sets the scene, clarifies doctrine and sorts out the fascinating characters, a larger-than-life cast who wouldn’t pass muster in fiction… The author’s excellent notes and amusingly annotated bibliography nestle discreetly at the back of the book, where they don’t interfere with a swift read, but show that he did his homework. But The Perfect Heresy does one thing more, which truly makes it stand out. O’Shea talks about what we do with history and historical perceptions, how we twist and turn them to fit our current predilections… O’Shea’s little study of historical perception is stunning, and worth the price of the book alone.