Cathar | Christopher Bland | 2016, Pb 2017 | Head of Zeus | 339p | Review copy | Buy the book
François de Beaufort is a knight without land, his inheritance stolen from him by mercenaries and neighbours. François is a Cathar, a heretic in Catholic eyes, and in these brutal days of the 13th century the Pope has turned his crusaders from the east towards the west and the Cathar strongholds of southern France. In the beginning, François and his fellow young knights lived more traditional lives, learning the arts of war, winning acclaim, armour and horses in the tournay, and learning the language of courtly love. Blanche de Roqueville, François’ lord’s lady, occupied the pure heart of François’ world. But all that changed when the Crusaders arrived. Nothing could ever be the same for François, or Blanche, again.
Cathar presents the fascinating but absolutely horrendous story of the Church’s brutal campaign to eradicate Catharism from France once and for all in the wake of the Albigensian Crusade of the early 13th century. Years have passed, Cathars – particularly their ‘priests’ or prefects – have learned secrecy, but their beliefs are as strong as ever and not even the threat of death by fire can deter the faithful. It seems that the Crusaders will follow François wherever he goes and though his life we witness siege after siege, monstrosity after monstrosity.
And yet at the heart of this novel is love. During his life François knows the true love of three women and their stories also form a central role in this wonderful, beautifully written and at times heartrending novel. The novel moves between their voices. François’ narrative is the most prominent but we also hear from others, providing more than one perspective of the same event, helping to place François’ experiences in their religious and historical context, while also being equally compelling in their own right. We even, very memorably, read the words of the chief Inquisitor, a man surely evil and yet here humanly flawed.
Christopher Bland skilfully blends history with the engrossing story of François de Beaufort and the women he loves and love him. Infamous historical events, such as the devastating Siege of Montségur, are made vivid once more thanks to the way that the author places our characters in the heart of events. The novel is rich in meticulous historical detail and background but it never interferes with the emotional pull of the story. And at times it is very emotional indeed.
The Cathars themselves receive intriguing treatment. There is something noble and heroic in the way that the most devout put their beliefs above their own safety but ultimately I found these most devout unknowable. One can sense the fear that the Catholics felt. And there are acts of faith here on both sides that are utterly horrifying and it will be a long time before some of the images from this novel, so powerfully painted by Christopher Bland, will fade from my mind.
This is a fascinating period of history, a goldmine for novelists, and Cathar does it every bit of justice, largely due to its stunning writing, its fine characterisation – François is an extraordinary knight hero, atypical in so many ways, just as Blanche also has to confront and upset traditions and expectations – and its thorough grasp of the times in which it is set. With no doubt at all, this is one of the very best historical novels I’ve read this year.