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So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke

The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc

Louisa A. Burnham

Publication Year: 2008

In So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke, Louisa A. Burnham takes us inside the world of a little-known heretical group in the south of France in the early fourteenth century. The Beguins were a small sect of priests and lay people allied to (and sharing many of the convictions of) the Spiritual Franciscans. They stressed poverty in their pursuit of a Franciscan evangelical ideal and believed themselves to be living in the Last Days. By the late thirteenth century, the leaders of the order and the popes themselves had begun to discipline the Spirituals, and by 1317 they had been deemed a heresy. The Beguins refused to accept this situation and began to evade and confront the inquisitorial machine.

Burnham follows the lives of nine Beguins as they conceal themselves in cities, construct an "underground railroad," solicit clandestine donations in order to bribe inquisitors, escape from prison, and venerate the burned bones of their martyred fellows as the relics of saints. Their actions brought the Beguins the apocalypse they had long imagined, as the Church's inquisitors pursued them along with the Spirituals and began to arrest them and burn them at the stake. Reconstructing this dramatic history using inquisitorial depositions, notarial records, and the previously unknown Beguin martyrology, Burnham vividly recreates the world in which the Beguins lived and died for their beliefs.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. vii-vii

List of Maps

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p. viii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

I am very grateful for the financial support I have received for the research and writing of this book. A year of archival research in Paris and Montpellier was sponsored by a Fulbright grant, and several months of idyllic research and writing in Cassis were supported by a residential fellowship from the Camargo Foundation. The Northwestern Alumnae Association ...


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p. xii-xii

Note on Beguin Names

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. 1-6

When you drive across the Midi, you are swiftly made to understand that the important heretics of Languedoc are the Cathars. The département of the Aude calls itself the “Pays Cathare,” as it is home to Carcassonne, Fanjeaux, and several of the exceedingly popular “Châteaux Cathares.” While the ...

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Chapter One. Poverty and Apocalypse

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pp. 7-50

In April of the year 1313, Angelo Clareno, an Italian Franciscan friar of radical tendencies, was in Avignon, having just returned from a midwinter voyage to Majorca.1 When he wrote a letter to some of his equally radical confrères, he told them about a celebration he had attended in Narbonne only three weeks before: the feast of a locally venerated ...

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Chapter Two. The Weapons of the Truly Weak

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pp. 51-94

As the Beguins themselves became the targets of the inquisitors, the initial shock and dismay was transformed swiftly into action. A network of safe houses grew up around the region, and sympathizers assisted fugitives with considerable ingenuity. Though opposition to the inquisitors was rarely overt and never ...

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Chapter Three. An Urban Underground

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pp. 95-133

Once the Beguin networks in places like Cintegabelle, Clermont l’Hérault, Lodève, and Narbonne had been cracked by the inquisitors of Languedoc, the resistance moved to Montpellier. Montpellier must have seemed like the perfect place to hide, because it was one of the last cities any inquisitor would have expected ...

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Chapter Four. Heretics, Heresiarchs, and Leaders

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pp. 134-177

Heresy is in the eye of the beholder. When Esclarmonda Durban withstood her death at the stake so patiently, she did so because she did not think of herself as a heretic, but as a faithful Christian who died to protect and preserve the true faith of Christ. Many Beguins told inquisitors that they believed the inquisitors ...

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pp. 179-188

Though the plight of the Beguins of Languedoc has not been of great interest to historians until now, the larger context of the poverty controversy within the Franciscan Order within which we have found ourselves is well enough known that it has even provided the ingenious setting for two modern novels. The best known, of course, is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set ...

Appendix: Burnings of Beguins in Languedoc and Provence, 1318-1330

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pp. 189-193


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pp. 195-212


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pp. 213-217

E-ISBN-13: 9780801458415
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801441318

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1