French historians, drawing on their subject’s traditional close links with geography, got increasingly interested in the middle years of the twentieth century in how historical events related to their physical context. One of the leading exponents of this approach was Fernand Braudel, who produced a monumental study of the Mediterranean world in the reign of Philip II of Spain, looking at the interplay between the geography of the region and the power struggle between Spain and the Ottoman Turks that raged across it. This school of history became known as the Annales school after the journal in which many of these historians published their research. A particularly good example of Annales history appeared with the publication in 1980 of the English translation of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou.
Montaillou was a small medieval village in south western France which at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries got caught up in the events surrounding the spread of a particular form of religious heresy known as Catharism, also known as Albigensianism after the town of Albi, which became its centre. Heresy is essentially orthodox doctrine that has been carried through in a way that deviates from the original beliefs. It was regarded with particular horror by the authorities in both church and state, not least because it was feared it would mislead many of the faithful and cause them to go to Hell, and a crusade was declared to wipe the Cathars out. This ‘Albigensian Crusade’ was fought out in the mountaintop villages of the foothills of the Pyrenees where the Cathars had their strongholds. After a series of sieges and brutal massacres the Cathars were crushed and an Inquisition was sent to the region to investigate just how far the heresy had extended. One of the places it visited was Montaillou.
Contrary to popular lurid versions of history, the Inquisition was not a group of bloodthirsty characters gleefully torturing their victims; it was a legal department of the Church, staffed by lawyers, examining evidence carefully and carrying out detailed investigations into the causes behind outbreaks of heresy. Lawyers keep very full records and the Inquisition which visited Montailou in 1308 was no exception. The villagers were questioned in considerable detail, especially since it seemed to the Inquisition that the whole village was involved with Catharism. The result was a mass of documentation revealing, a host of details about even the most intimate aspects of the lives of the villagers. It was the Inquisition’s reports that Ladurie used to reconstruct the daily life of a medieval village in southern France.