Montaillou – Life in a Medieval Village

I just finished Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  This took me over half a year to finish not because it wasn’t great, but because I have two young boys and thus free time is non-existent.

I learned of this book in a Reddit post and quickly bought it as it is right up my alley.  Montaillou is simply a study of medieval life in a small mountain town (Montaillou) in southern France around the year 1300.  The records are drawn from the Inquisition which was very active in the region trying to put a stamp on the Cathar beliefs which were spreading.  The Inquisitor, Jacques Fournier kept excellent records and thus have given us a peek into the normal, everyday life of the residents of this small village.

What fascinates me about the book is it is not a history book but rather, as Michael Ratcliffee of The Times” puts it, “A classic adventure in eavesdropping across time.”

Here are my favorite entries:

Escaunier of Arques, elaborated as if it were and article of faith his hatred for tithes, mingled with other heretical propositions:  The priests and the clerks, he cried, because they are wicked, extort and receive from the people the first-fruits and the titles of products for which they have not done the smallest stroke of work.

A really rich man was not a wage-earner like himself but a farmer and landowner with enough wealth to be able to use others to work for him.

– It looks like not much has changed in how to become really rich.  Although we’ve moved from an agrarian society to an information/technology one the basics are the same.  You must own the product and have people do the work for you.  However, in this age it is the CEO who must guide the ship to keep the enterprise from smashing on the rocks.

‘With the riches Satan shall give you will never be satisfied, however much you possess.  He who has will always want more.  And you will have neither pause nor end, for this world is not the realm of stability; and all that is of Satan is only passing and doomed to destruction.’

– This is as true today as it was back then and was quoted in Game of Thrones which I’m watching.  People will always want more and never be satisfied.  Should that cease to occur our Capitalist society would no longer function.  We are ‘consumers’ which in this age of greed is like a bacteria which consumes and devours until nothing is left at all, our society cannot stop.  The best solution I’ve found to this comes from Buddhism and meditation.  You have to stop the “grasping mind.”  The mind is always grasping for something else but through meditation one can control it, let those thoughts simply pass through and then you will be at peace.

‘Three times the house of my father and mother were destroyed for heresy; and I myself cannot cure myself of heresy, for I must hold the faith my father held.’

  • This is also very true today:  people will follow the religions of their fathers and that is why we call entire countries either Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish and so on.  If humans were an intelligent species you would imagine these beliefs would change over time but they do not.  Technology and knowledge may increase but the stubborn persistence of religion, of beliefs thousands of years old stay strong.  For me I was raised Catholic and it was only until I left the Church but came for a Mass that I really listened and understood how bizarre it all was.  Here are people living in an age of technology and science yet they believe that bread and wine change into a living God and consume it.  The priest tells God what we know, what to do and when to do it.  “We know, You are, We ask…..”  We don’t know as much as we think we do about the universe, we’re completely lost and have made up religion in order to stomp out that fear of the unknown, of what this reality actually is.

Pierre Maury’s sense of fate was thus not vulgarly magical but loftily philosophical.  In him as in others it is simply a very old peasant idea quite natural in societies where there is no growth and, where people literally have no choice.

Fate, which underlies this phrase as it does so many others, is thus seen as the shepherd’s vocation; and mountain liberty is the happy counterpart of the migrant’s destiny, even if he has to sleep under the trees, to freeze almost to death in winter and be soaked to the skin by autumn showers.

  • Complete freedom, this is a dream for the entire human race.  Here in America we believe we are ‘free,’ yet we are living in a system in which we must get into our cars, drive to an office and work the vast majority of our lives so as not to starve and die.  True freedom would be the ability to live life exactly as you wish.  However, we are programmed from birth to believe in certain ideas, to work within the system, to follow the rules.  This is also portrayed in Game of Thrones by the ‘Wildlings’ who live north of the wall, separate from the various kings in the south who rule over their subjects and make them behave in a certain way.

Behind the commonplace idea that a man is the product of his education lies the more complex notion of a physical link with the bread which built the body, and, through the bread, with the land which produced the grain and to which the man will one day return.  The soul of man is bread. 

– “Man is the product of his education.”  We are not born with inherent knowledge and thus taught what to believe, that is ‘programmed’ to use technological terminology.  I just spoke of this in my previous comment so nothing further to add.  But in this quote I like the relationship between the land, the body and the importance of bread.  Perhaps this is the link in why bread is featured so prominently in the Bible.  Bread gives us life in the physical sense since it provides nourishment and so religion has given it a spiritual link as well since without it we would die in both the literal physical sense as well as in the spiritual sense.

So Maury chose instead to desire few objects, and to transfer his wants to other kinds of wealth, which for him took the place of family:  temporary unions with mistresses in the pastures or the taverns; a full network of human relationships based on both artificial and natural fraternity, on compaternity, on pure friendship or friendship through association  He liked this life-style, based on fate freely accepted – but is this not the very definition of Grace?  His destiny was a destination.  For him, sheep meant liberty.  And he would not trade that liberty for the plate of gritty lentils often held out to him by friends, employers or parasites, offering to marry him, to help him settle down, to have him adopted into a rich family.  But he saw his destiny as travelling over hill and dale, with friends everywhere and temporary sweethearts.  Material wealth would have been literally a burden to him.  Maury had few possessions, but he was not destitute.  And when he lost those few possessions he lost them with a smile, for he knew that by working he could easily get them back again.  Well shod for his long journeys in a pair of good shoes of Spanish leather – the only luxury he allowed himself – detached from the goods of this world, careless of the almost inevitable certainty of being arrested at some time by the Inquisition, leading a life that was both passionate and passionately interesting, Pierre Maury was a happy shepherd.

  • Maury is free and he lives in grace.  To me living in grace is to not ‘try’ or perhaps a better word is ‘fight.’  He glides through life shaping it to his wants and desires all without much effort.  I feel that the same is true for my life:  once I stop fighting and just let life run its course while remaining positive I find that things start to go my way, that I’m successful.  Yes, I do work but instead of always pushing I just find that perfect current that takes me where I want to go.  Should I wish to change the direction of my life I climb out of the river and find a new one that is going where I wish to go.  There is some effort required in changing streams but once it is done life becomes easy again.  The stream of course is a metaphor for my mental state and provided I’m in the right one, life is grand and things in the physical realm begin to go my way.

As late as the eighteenth century, many people considered that to emit an odor of unwashed body was a sign of personal virility, at least in men.

– They still do in Europe!  Here we are, a conscious organic organism which is comprised mostly of bacterial cells!  We perspire, emit odors, excrete waste, shed all while applying chemicals to make us smell and look better.  Aside from the occasional bath isn’t all of this just a fight against our natural state?

Many people were of the opinion that pleasure in itself was without sin, and if it was agreeable to the couples concerned it was not disagreeable to God either.  As for the idea that to pay for one’s pleasure was to be without sin, it was long to remain widespread in this region.  Detailed records of the Inquisition have revealed this attitude unaltered among many Spanish peasants in modern times.

– And then came the Christians which taught that humans are inherently bad through original sin.  We must live a life of misery, abstaining from many of the pleasures of life to atone for this made up ‘sin.’ Through reading this book and the thoughts and ideas of adherents centuries ago we learn that religion has been shaped and transformed through the ideas of men, not necessarily of God.  There are many ways to interpret ancient texts and is the reason we have so many religions and sects today.

Towards a lover ‘patient, complimentary and discreet’, offering both respect and temptation.

  • This quote helps me expound on my previous point; is it a sin to have a lover in our society today?  Of course it is, that is the legacy our puritan fore-bearers have given us.  I think this quote is referring to a mistress instead of a wife since it says ‘discreet.’  You’re in trouble with the law should it be a financial transaction and with religion as well due to their rules on adultery.  To take on other lovers seems to be a normal, human inclination which is suppressed by religious ideas which always make their way into laws of the state.

But in the institution of marriage as it then was, the woman was regarded as an object – an object loved or an object beaten, as the case might be.

Like the troubadours, they regarded real love as something outside legal marriage.

  • Marriage is a societal contract which helps keep things stable.  Our ideas are unlike those of the ‘savages’ which roam in tribes and many of which had no such ideas to stick with one lover throughout their lives. Marriage is mostly a religious idea.

Every married woman could expect a fair amount of beating some time or other.

  • This is unfortunate and I’m glad no longer the case with most relationships and laws against this practice in place.  At least we’ve made some progress as a species.

As Georges Duby has said, the Christ of the Roman age was the hero of the Parousia, ‘Jesus returning on the Last Day, in all his glory, to judge the living and dead.  In the thirteenth century there appeared the more learned figure… of Jesus the wise man.  But the preaching of St. Francis emphasized the Passion, and the theme of suffering developed throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so that the royal crown was replaced by the Crown of Thorns.

– Again, religion is being transformed to the ideas of men who interpret the old texts in their own ways.

Paradoxically, one of the most striking examples of the general respect for the body of Christ is the attitude of Raymond de Laburat, an anti-clerical peasant of Sabarthes.  He said he would be glad to see all the clergy, from the Pope to ordinary priests, go ff to the Crusades to be destroyed by the Saracens.  He would be even more delighted to see the churches razed to the ground.  Then Mass would be celebrated on the land and in the fields, and the peasants who, like him, had been excommunicated and driven out of the churches, would at last have the great happiness of seeing the body of their divine Master in open air.

  • Take religion out of the stone buildings under control of the priests.  Get out into actual creation and appreciate what was created by God, not constructed by man.

Throughout the high Middle Ages, men of the Church, including St. Bernard and S. Dominic, had passionately promoted devotion to the Virgin Mary.  In 1254 the Council of Albi raised the Ave Maria to rank with the major prayers, the Credo and the Lord’s Prayer, which were theoretically taught to everyone over the age of seven.

  • Again more modification of religion by man.

Fertility cults both human and agricultural, which at first sight seem conspicuous by their absence, were unspoken rather than non-existent and, in fact, incorporated in the cult of the Virgin.

– I’ve learned that many of the customs and traditions in Christianity (of which I’m most familiar) have their origins in pagan beliefs and rituals.  These ideas were incorporated by the Church to convert these ‘pagans’ more easily to the Christian belief.

We have already seen the privileges a priest might enjoy with his female parishioners.  It may be that immoral priests were only a minority among the clergy of Sabarthes, but they were numerous enough, and very much in evidence.

  • The liaisons with females might have decreased in our day and age but as the news has shown illicit relationships with young boys has not.  What normal, healthy man would decide to take a vow of celibacy?  At age 41 the priests are now in my age group and I can easily see there is something wrong with them.  They are not the sort I’d associate nor have anything to do with.

The Pope devours the blood and sweat of the poor.  And the bishops and the priests, who are rich and honored and self-indulgent, behave in the same manner…whereas Saint Peter abandoned his wife, his children, his fields, his vineyards and his possessions to follow Christ. 

They call themselves little or ‘minor’, and they are big.  Instead of saving the souls of the dead and sending them to heaven, they gorge themselves at banquets after funerals.  And then they own too many silks.  And do you think that their great houses were built by the labor of their own hands?  No, these friars, they are wicked wolves!  They would like to devour us all, dead or alive.

  • An entry to show that a good majority of these priests are depraved.  Yes, there are some good ones who are truly trying to live a good and spiritual life but that is not the majority of them.

The people of Montaillou were fond of having a nap, of taking it easy, of delousing one another in the sun or by the fire. Whenever they could, they tended to shorten the working day into a half day.

  • This is another natural human inclination.  We should enjoy this creation we find ourselves in but the lords, CEOs, stockholders and so on wish to work us to death in order to increase their own personal wealth.  That is the system we are in.  In a perfect society and through the work of our ancestors in building cities, creating technology life should get easier for all of us.  But even with the clothes, cars and material wealth created we find ourselves with higher rates of mental illness, of drug addiction and overdose and of general discontent.  The system we live in is very bad in consideration of where it could be if love and mutual respect prevailed instead of greed.

Moreover, magic was especially a feminine province, and in the mountain villages of the early fourteenth century the cultural gap between men and women which was introduced by parish schools in the sixteenth century did not exist.  Later, segregation by schooling made some boys literate but left most girls completely ignorant.  They thus became, more than ever, the preservers of natural, non-scholastic culture, and also more and more suspect to the men.  And mistrust of women soon turned into suspicion of witchcraft.

– Excellent point and something I did not consider as to the origins of witchcraft.

So, after a certain time spent in penitential wandering from church to church, the dead prepared for their second death.  This meant their entry into the ‘place of rest’, which was also on earth, in a place which was agreeable but vague or even unknown.  This ‘second death’ took place at All Saints.

  • The Chinese also have this idea and even a kanji for it.  I’ve written about this in the past and will place it here:
  • Not too many people know this, but I think it’s called 聻, an ancient character… Yes in Chinese culture, a ghost can die too, when a ghost dies, the form and spirit disappear 形神俱灭,never comes back to another life 永不超生。Chinese culture believe that after people die, they can become something/someone else in another life 投胎。But a 聻 wont. Of course those could be some kind of superstition 迷信 in the culture, not everyone believes it”

Once they reached the place of rest, they were no longer in contact with the messenger of souls, and thus lost touch with the living.

Man had not only a soul, which most people believed to be immortal, but also a spirit.  When someone was asleep and dreaming, the spirit might escape from his body.

The soul, he told them, remains in the man’s body all the time; but a man’s spirit or mind goes in and out, just like the lizard which went from the sleeper’s mouth to the ass’s head and vice versa. 

in the 1970s there was still a Clergue in the local telephone directory.  Now its people are abandoning the fields up in the mountains, and so threatening the stability of an ancient habitat which neither repression nor contagion was able to destroy.

Not much to say on those last few quotes so I’ll leave them as they are.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book because in learning about the past I can better understand our present circumstances and why things are the way they are.  My main takeaway is that although we’ve progressed in science, economics, technology and many other areas we as human beings remain much unchanged.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/