09.03.20, Marvin, The Occitan War

Main Article Content

Chris Jones

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.020


Marvin, Laurence W.. The Occitan War: A Military and Political History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1218. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xxvi, 328. ISBN: 978-0-521-87240-9.

Reviewed by:
Chris Jones
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Laurence W. Marvin's The Occitan War consciously sets out to pursue a rather different agenda to that followed by many of the scholarly works that have considered the Albigensian crusade to date. Marvin is not particularly interested in why the Albigensian crusade took place; his focus is on how the crusade was fought. Readers who turn to this book for a discussion of the origins of Catharism or, for example, answers to perennial questions such as the extent to which heretical ideas were embraced by the populace of the Languedoc will find themselves sorely disappointed. Those with an interest in the tactics and logistics involved in the prosecution of military campaigns in the early thirteenth century, and particularly in one fought with limited resources over a sustained period in the face of incredible obstacles, will, on the other hand, doubtless find Marvin's book a breath of fresh air.

It is not Marvin's intention to replace the works of Roquebert, Wakefield, Strayer, Sumption, Costen and Barber, works which he himself states "remain pivotal to understanding the time, era, and historiography of the Albigensian crusade" (xiii-xiv). [1] Rather Marvin offers an alternative perspective, one that avoids the "long view and broad brush" (xiv) of many of these accounts and thereby avoids two perceived pitfalls: that of making the war itself "appear as a sideshow to two main events: the birth, development, and description of Catharism, and the Inquisition which eventually destroyed it" and that of oversimplifying a series of military campaigns that are "not as easy to understand as some would have us believe" (xiv). The Occitan War is, Marvin suggests, conceived in the same spirit as works that have dealt with individual crusades to the Near East and, as such, is intended to offer an assessment that avoids "compressing the information and losing nuance" (xiii). It is a laudable goal although it could be argued that "nuance", particularly in its portrayal of crusader motivations, is something that this account lacks at times.

The Occitan War is divided into ten chapters and a short epilogue preceded by ten informative maps. It is worth pausing first to consider the latter. Marvin's prose is lucid, evocative and a model of historical writing, but the eight maps depicting cities besieged in the crusade remain invaluable tools for clarifying the more ambiguous aspects of siege warfare (the remaining two maps depict the region in terms of its towns and divided into zones of noble influence). It would, however, have been useful if Marvin had distinguished between features whose exact locations remain conjectural and those about which there is greater certainty. One such case is the man-made ditch at Casseneuil (figure 8, xxiv) whose very existence, as Marvin makes clear, appears difficult to verify (208 n.61).

The first chapter offers a series of short overviews: an account of the political situation in southern France on the eve of the crusade (4-11), the current state of scholarship concerning medieval warfare (11-22), a summary of the author's view that medieval logistics have not yet received sufficient scholarly attention (22-24) and a review of the key narrative sources employed in the book (24-27). The following nine chapters form a chronological account of the war in the south and the diplomatic dealings associated with it between 1 March 1209, the date on which Marvin suggests "real preparations for a crusade against the lands of the Count of Toulouse began" with the appointment of the papal legate Milo (28), and 25 July 1218, the day on which the crusaders abandoned the second siege of Toulouse following the death of Simon de Montfort. The epilogue then offers a short account of the crusade's subsequent fate through until mid-1219 (297-301) and a very brief summary of the remaining history of the region in the thirteenth century (301-03), before concluding by summing up the fate of some of the key players (303-05) and considering the "political legacy" for the south of France (305-10).

There is much of value in Marvin's account of the crusade. Some of his assessments will not overly surprise scholars of the period: he concludes, for example, that Simon de Montfort was a capable general and that the Count of Toulouse, Raimon VI de Saint-Gilles, was an ineffectual bungler whose simple presence at an engagement nearly guaranteed defeat for the southerners. Marvin does much, however, to add weight to these appraisals. On the other hand, his highly detailed approach highlights important points that have remained blurred in accounts that have preferred to view the Albigensian crusade through a wide angle lens rather than a microscope. One example is the important repercussions of Pope Innocent III's decision in 1213 to suspend recruitment for the southern venture and cancel the crusading indulgence, actions that were not reversed until the Fourth Lateran Council effectively "reinstituted" the crusade (235). Marvin also provides valuable discussion of the introduction of a forty days service requirement for those wishing to obtain a crusade indulgence and the impact this had upon Simon de Montfort's ability to mount effective operations. His detailed analysis also allows him to assert, against the common modern view, that "on a medieval scale of brutality the Occitan War does not stand out as particularly barbarous compared to warfare elsewhere in western Europe of the time" (22). He goes some way towards proving this convincingly or, at the very least, giving us pause to reconsider the traditional narrative. In the case of Béziers, for example, where the massacre left such a strong impression on contemporary chroniclers, Marvin argues that the very swiftness with which the city fell "was extremely unusual in medieval warfare and this makes what happened there seem worse for some reason. In other words, had the crusaders blockaded Béziers for weeks, then stormed the city, one might chalk up what happened after it fell as the result of pent-up frustration" (45). [2]

One of the more distinctive features of the The Occitan War is the use Marvin makes of his acquaintance with--and deep knowledge of--many of the sites discussed in the book. Personal observation, for example, allows him to suggest, convincingly, that one of the reasons why Simon de Montfort targeted the otherwise insignificant fortress of Hautpol was because the site had great strategic value: as Marvin notes, one can see fifteen kilometres or more to the north from its walls (136). The book abounds with such worthwhile comments. Marvin, for example, confirms from personal observation of the church of La Madeleine in Béziers that Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay's claim that 7000 people were massacred within the building is somewhat improbable: "the church is simply not large enough to accommodate that many people, even terror-stricken people packed like cordwood" (44). This is one of several useful discussions of the numbers involved on both sides of the crusade that appear throughout the book. While the majority of Marvin's comments from personal observation are useful and demonstrate ample caution there are a few remarks relating to rivers where it might have been useful to reassure the reader that these have not changed their courses in the intervening centuries (for example: 41 n. 68, 140 n. 28).

For all the use Marvin is able to make of his first-hand knowledge of the Languedoc, the book is inevitably very dependant on three key sources which provide the bulk of our information relating to the Albigensian crusade before 1220: the Latin prose histories of Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay and Guillaume de Puylaurens and the vernacular La Chanson de la Croisade Albigeoise begun by Guillaume de Tudela and continued from 1213 by an anonymous author. While Marvin frequently notes that his sources are written with a particular bias, his general analysis of all three is limited to a very basic summary of traditional views relating to their authorship (24-27). With such weight placed upon this material Marvin might have followed Elaine Graham-Leigh's example and offered a much more rigorous source analysis. Had he done so he might have taken account, in particular, of Graham-Leighs convincing re-assessment of the political affiliation of the anonymous continuator of Guillaume de Tudela's work. [3] This affiliation may in fact account, to some extent at least, for the very positive portrait of the Count of Foix's military skills that emerges in The Occitan War. Marvin might even have considered, given the limited source base, examining the manuscript tradition of these chronicles (in fact no unpublished material is cited in the book). Such an examination may have helped to situate these sources more firmly within a broader cultural context, thereby enabling a clearer assessment of their authors' perspectives. That establishing these is vital is clear from Marvin's own analysis of the Fourth Lateran Council (228-37). In this case, where considerable "official" papal and conciliar documentation is available for comparison, Marvin makes clear that the anonymous continuator's account of the Council is somewhat misleading. Given that this is the case, a slightly different military and political history may have emerged if Marvin had done more to analyse his sources' particular perspectives rather than simply subscribing to loosely established traditional views of their individual "biases".

As The Occitan War is not intended to be a biography of Simon de Montfort, and although his death could be seen to mark the end of a particular "phase" in the war (xiv), it is not entirely clear why the book draws to a rather sudden conclusion with the end of the second siege of Toulouse. [4] This is, in part, because two of Marvin's three key sources conclude before 1220, but a more "natural" conclusion might have been the 1229 treaty of Paris-Meaux that firmly established a Capetian ascendancy in the south. Sources certainly exist that would have enabled considerably greater analysis of the siege of Avignon, in particular, than the one- sentence summary presented here (301). It is to be hoped that one day Marvin will offer us a similarly detailed account of the second "phase" of the war.

The starting point for The Occitan War might also be questioned. Innocent III's reputation is, to say the least, not enhanced by this book. In fact Marvin considers him responsible for most of the crusade's problems. "From the beginning of the Occitan War Innocent not only failed to solve a single problem but caused far more" (236), is one of several examples of his unambiguous view of the pope's role. And yet there is an important topic that is never explored in any depth in this book but which might give us pause to reconsider. Marvin discusses papal policy in only the most general of terms: "Innocent III had authorized the use of military force over a religious issue against a Christian land" (4). By choosing to begin his account in March 1209, he opts not to offer a detailed analysis of the diplomatic build-up that preceded the launch of the Albigensian crusade. Thus, he deprives the reader of an analysis of the Pope's policies and objectives. If Innocent launched the crusade with the aim not of displacing the southern lords but of simply forcing them to co-operate with him in the destruction of heresy, many of his subsequent actions, and in particular his reluctance to sanction their disinheritance, make a great deal more sense. While Marvin provides a good account of how the war was fought once it began he does not offer nearly as clear an assessment of the wider strategy that lay behind it.

While The Occitan War frequently reminds us that Innocent's legates made important decisions about the conduct of the war with no reference to the pope, their motivations and roles in determining the direction of the crusade are further topics that are not analysed as clearly as they might be. It should not be forgotten, for example, that Arnaud-Amaury, abbot of Cteaux, played an important part both in sustaining the crusade even after its initial target, Raimon VI, switched sides, and in the decision to confirm Simon de Montfort, a land-hungry minor nobleman, as the venture's leader. As archbishop of Narbonne, as Marvin makes clear, his attempts to establish his right to the title "duke of Narbonne" later made him a constant thorn in Simon's side (239). If Innocent III is to be criticised perhaps it should be primarily for making the mistake of allowing a man as vindictive and short-sighted as Arnaud-Amaury to seize control of the crusade.

Marvin also displays a tendency to simplify the motivations of those who fought the war. As The Occitan War progresses the date at which the war became, in Marvin's view, a predominantly secular affair is increasingly brought forward. In the preface this is said to occur after 1218 (xiv), in chapter 5 we are told that by 1212 rooting out heresy was a secondary issue (132), and by the epilogue we are informed: "Before the end of 1209 the war had largely ceased to be about exterminating a heresy and was more about who would have political control over central Occitania" (305). It may well be the case that Simon de Montfort was keen to acquire lands in the south but Marvin's conscious decision to downplay the role of religious motivations--at its most striking in his decision to prefer the label "Occitan war" to the more common "Albigensian crusade"--may obscure the reasons why the crusaders chose to target certain areas and why they chose to conduct the war in the way they did. The reason why Simon chose to butcher Giralda de Laurac by throwing her down a well might be, as Marvin suggests, because she "exercised lordship and perhaps actively commanded during the siege" of a town that had refused to surrender (104), but it might equally-and perhaps more probably-be because he was convinced she sympathised with heretics.

The Occitan War contains very few typos and errors of fact: Louis IX's brother Alphonse was count of Poitiers, not Artois (302) and at one point in the book there is a peculiar tendency to refer to the "counsels" of Toulouse rather than the "consuls" (286). It is a useful, highly readable and informative study that will no doubt find an important place on the bookshelves of scholars of the Albigensian crusade and provoke further debate about the use of sources in the study of the conflict.

------------- Notes:

1. Michel Roquebert, L'Epopée cathare, 3 vols. (Toulouse: Privat, 1970-86); Walter L. Wakefield, Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Southern France 1100-1250 (London: Allen 8 Unwin, 1974); Joseph R. Strayer, The Albigensian Crusades, new edition with an epilogue by Carol Lansing (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992); Jonathan Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (London: Faber 8 Faber, 1978); Michael Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997); Malcolm Barber, The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages (Harlow: Pearson, 2000). One might add to this list Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), referenced elsewhere in the book.

2. The following article is, given its analysis of the account of the massacre in one of Marvin's key sources, oddly absent from the bibliography: Francesco Zambon, "La prise et le sac de Béziers dans la Chanson de la Croisade albigeoise de Guillaume de Tudèle," in Guerres, voyages et quêtes au Moyen Age. Mélanges offerts à Jean-Claude Faucon, eds. Alain Labbe, Daniel W. Lacroix and Danielle Queruel (Paris: Champion, 2000), 449-63. 3. Elaine Graham-Leigh, The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005), chapter 2. Marvin is certainly aware of this work and cites it on multiple occasions.

4. It is, as Marvin notes, a pity that Michel Roquebert's biography, Simon de Montfort. Bourreau et martyr (Toulouse: Perrin, 2005), appeared too late for its conclusions to be incorporated into this study.

Article Details

Author Biography

Chris Jones

University of Canterbury, New Zealand