- The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246
William Blake had no use for a vision that was general and not focused on the particular, or, as he put it, on "Minute Particulars." Among the many fine qualities of Mark Pegg's book is its clear focus on the concrete particulars of culture in the thirteenth-century Lauragais. This clarity of focus shows first in the definition of subject matter. The book centers on the record of one inquisitorial campaign, in 1245–46, in which 5,471 men and women were summoned to Toulouse for interrogation. Apart from a brisk, necessary chapter on the "Albigensian Crusade," Pegg devotes his attention with fair consistency to the records of this inquisition. Occasional asides make clear that he knows the broader picture, but it does not distract him from his sustained exploration of this sustained event. On a deeper level, the interest in concrete particulars extends to Pegg's conception of both the object and the exercise of history. In a more conventional history, his subjects would be known as Cathars and would be defined chiefly by a set of dualistic dogmas. On Pegg's account, they are known chiefly as bons omes, bonas femnas, and crezens—particular kinds of individual, those who radiate perfection and those who absorb it through the conventions of contact and homage that punctuated village life. Pegg's task is not to distill his subjects' beliefs so much as to unfold the fabric of life in which those beliefs were implicated. He does so superbly.
The subtitle might lead one to expect a book dealing mainly with the inquisitors, Bernart de Caux and Jean de Saint-Pierre. It does not. This is not a study in the manner of James Given, who has devoted his attention largely to the workings of inquisitors and their agents. Pegg does explain how the inquisitors worked, and he appropriately warns that they and their thirteen assistants did not represent "a fully functioning self-perpetuating institutional 'Inquisition.'" Clearly the inquisitors are crucial agents in the story, but the narrative in which they act is mainly that of the villagers, whose habits of life are disrupted and overturned by their inquisition. Before the Crusade, the bons omes and bonas femnas had circulated openly, but afterward their movements were clandestine, and the inquisition of 1245–46 sealed the transformation, creating a world in which, as the inquisitors insisted, every movement [End Page 142] and encounter could be fraught with significance, a world in which people were always looking over their shoulders. Another book might be written about changes among the inquisitors; this is one about profound change among their subjects.
I happen to have read Pegg's book on a return flight from Europe, during which a stranger seated near me did his best to impress me with William Manchester's vision of a tediously changeless medieval world. When I demurred, my companion demanded to know my qualifications. As quickly as possible I buried my nose in Pegg's book, and immediately my eyes fell on his fine critique of the "surprisingly common" view of the medieval countryside and its beliefs as unchanging. On the next page I read his quotation from W. H. Auden, suggesting that conversation with strangers may well be stifled with the words "Medieval Historian." That didn't quite work. Still, carrying Pegg's book on a trans-Atlantic flight or elsewhere could always provide an excellent corrective to anyone's image of a stagnant medieval peasant culture.