In this thoughtful book, Chris Sparks merges two recent but distinct trends in medieval scholarship: the movement away from an overly intellectualist approach to the study of heresy and an interest in the lifecycle model as an interpretive tool. Rather than focus on the teachings of the good men and their theology, Sparks seeks to understand the lived religious experience of everyday people of the Languedoc from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century. Using the lifecycle model to accomplish this, Sparks divides his book into four chapters focusing on distinct phases of human life (childhood, youth, marriage, and death) and examines inquisition records compiled from the mid thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries to discover the specific practices associated with each of those phases. As a result, Sparks provides a somewhat schematized but detailed account of the religious lives of the people of Languedoc, religious lives that do not fall into the neat division of "heretic" and "Catholic" but that reflect the complexity that characterizes human life.
Before engaging with the main subject matter of his study, Sparks provides a lengthy introduction that examines a series of historiographical, methodological, and documentary issues. Justifying his subject matter, Sparks observes that, with few exceptions, scholars have not focused on the everyday religious experience of the Cathars (he recognizes this term is problematic but also contends that dispensing with it would be even more problematic). He also briefly addresses the broader question of the use of the term and the very existence of a "Cathar church," which he rightly suggests did exist and most likely taught some form of Christian dualism, even though this might have been of little concern to the average believer whose influence, Sparks asserts, on the leaders of that church was substantial and is too often neglected by scholars. After explaining his interest in the lifecycle model, Sparks provides a detailed account of the inquisitors' records used in his study, which includes Toulouse ms. 609, the Doat collection, and registers of Bernard Gui and Jacques Fournier. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is Sparks' use of such an extensive collection of sources, which allows him to develop a more complete picture of everyday religious practices in the Languedoc.
The first and longest chapter addresses the experience of childhood, and Sparks begins, as he does each chapter, with a brief vignette drawn from the inquisition records and then addresses the issues of religious practice associated with the particular stage of the life cycle under consideration. Sparks develops two important themes in this chapter that he will return to in subsequent chapters on later periods in the life cycle. He notes that the onset of the persecution of heresy, first in the Albigensian Crusade and then with the arrival of inquisitors, led to significant changes in the daily religious life of people of the Languedoc. Prior to persecution, children had frequent social contacts with the good men, who offered them treats and other favors and, in some instances, consoled them and brought them into the Cathar elite. After crusade and inquisition, social contacts were much less frequent and the relationship between children and the good men was clearly a religious one. Contact with the good men, especially after persecution, was mediated by family, and children's early experience with heresy did not always survive into adulthood. This raises the other major theme, the complexity of religious life in the Languedoc. The people of the Languedoc, Sparks explains, drew from both Cathar and Catholic traditions throughout their lives. Most in the Languedoc baptized their children, in part because there was no similar Cathar rite for introduction for infants, and some parents had their children consoled in a form of Cathar child oblation. Some Cathar good men paid little attention to children, while other good men welcomed them and preached to them. Children were taught religious practice by their parents; some children preserved their affection for the good men and others did not.
In his second and shortest chapter, Sparks examines the experience of youth in the Languedoc. Before considering this experience in detail, Sparks discusses the category of youth or adolescence, noting the difficulty of clearly defining this stage of life. He also argues that the reality of this phase of life was defined more by other social categories than by age alone, and so spends much of the chapter examining social categories such as apprentices and squires. As with childhood, though, the religious experience of youth was generally defined by adults, either their parents or the masters or knights they served. Once again, the experience of youth was not always conveyed into adulthood.
In chapter three, Sparks discusses the practice of marriage in the Languedoc and the attitudes of Catholics and Cathars to marriage. Much of the first half of the chapter, in fact, focuses on Catholic attitudes toward marriage and the expansion of church authority over the marriage rite in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He then turns to the often contradictory practices of the Cathars, which included the formal denunciation of marriage by the good men who proclaimed that none who married would obtain salvation. Despite the position of the good men, many Cathars married, and Sparks describes the challenges faced by Cathars who married and how those challenges changed as a result of increasing persecution. One notable change is that the good men themselves came to encourage marriage among their followers by the late thirteenth century as a means of self-preservation as of mutual support between the married couple.
The final chapter of the book as of life concerns death, the various rituals associated with it and how these rituals evolved throughout the thirteenth century. As Sparks notes, death was an important social moment in the Languedoc for both Catholics and Cathars as friends and family stood vigil by dying person's deathbed. According to both Catholic and Cathar teaching death was in important moment of transition toward salvation. It was at the time of death that most Cathars received the consolamentum, the rite Cathars believed essential to obtaining salvation. Sparks offers important discuss of the practice of performing the rite and the implications for those Cathars who recovered after receiving the sacrament. He also notes how again family concerns shaped attitudes toward consolamentum as even Catholic children felt obliged to ensure their Cathar parents were consoled. Sparks also again demonstrates how increased persecution affected Cathar rituals of death and how essential family and social networks and maintaining secrecy had become as a result of persecution. Good men were often led under cover of night and at the very end of the life of the dying person to perform the rite rather than staying by the believer's side for days because the rise of persecution made public exposure dangerous.
Although a slender volume, Heresy, Inquisition and Life Cycle in Medieval Languedoc offers a wide-ranging survey of religious practices in the Languedoc from the late twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. At times perhaps a bit too wide-ranging as Sparks seems to lose focus on the Cathars in his long digressions on the lifecycle and Catholic belief and practice--useful and important discussions but a bit lengthy in a short book. Despite that minor reservation, Sparks' book provides a valuable survey of religious practice in the Languedoc, clearly demonstrating the impact that crusade and inquisition had on religious life and illustrating religious life in the Languedoc in all its messy complexity.