The south of modern day France in the early 13th century and the Albigensian Cruade that occurred there and then is something I had only tangential knowledge of (Simon de Montfort, the identically named son of the Crusade’s primary leader, featured heavily in Prince Edward’s (later Edward I) pre-throne life). But it sounded quite interesting, and I’ve been wanting to read another book by Sean McGlynn since the hugely enjoyable By Sword and Fire (reviewed here) which I read quite a while ago.
Crusade naturally conjures up thoughts of Jerusalem, with Christian armies on one side and Muslim armies on the other. But crusades also occurred in the 15th century against the pagans of the Baltic, in the 13th against the Muslims in modern day Spain, and against the Christian city of Constantinople.
The Church was annoyed by the rising popularity of the Cathar heresy/religion in Languedoc, and when a papal representative was murdered this prompted Innocent III to call a crusade. Shortly after the instigation, leadership fell to Simon de Montfort, who had fought in the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople. Opposing him were an assortment of Raymonds, including the Counts of Toulouse, Foix, and Comminges.
I really like the author’s writing style, providing comparable examples of actions (to back up his general stance that recorded atrocities may have really happened rather than being hyperbole) and, without condoning what happened, explaining that military advantage could be derived from horrific actions (such as massacres or ill-treatment of prisoners, including the particularly undeserved and horrible death of the Lady of Lavaur).
Overtly, the crusade was about bringing to heel a heresy and restoring Christianity as the established religion in the region, but the holy war aspect was, to a large extent, a veneer. There was an intermingling of religious and ambitious motives for the war’s start, continuation, and conclusion. The religious angle was genuine but also spun to make it seem more than it was. For a lot of people, including Montfort, the war was about gaining land and title.
Although Montfort looms large, this is not a biography of him but a history of events around a specific war (in that way, it’s somewhat similar to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, although the Albigensian Crusade was naturally on a smaller scale). It’s a mixture of prolonged grinding attrition punctuated by brief periods of sweeping success for one side or another.
There are a number of battles, some of significant size, and a great many sieges which are told in a compelling fashion, with intriguing details that make it easy to imagine being there. It’s also interesting to learn of how the war (to varying degrees) was influenced by nearby greater powers, such as Aragon, France, and England.
I liked this a lot, but there are a few small niggles. A proofread would’ve eliminated most of the (almost entirely minor) errors. One time a name was spelt different ways on succeeding pages (Peter de Sissy/Peter de Cissy). Also, although there were siege and area maps interspersed, I was mildly surprised there wasn’t one over-arching map of the whole region at the start.