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The Occitan War: A Military and Political History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1218.

The Occitan War: A Military and Political History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1218, by Laurence W. Marvin. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008. xxvi, 328 pp. $122.00 US (cloth), $50.00 US (paper).

This monograph provides a detailed and thorough account of military and political events from the murder of Peter of Castelnau in 1209 up to the second siege of Toulouse and the death of Simon of Montfort in 1218. Marvin justifies such a study on the grounds that to date the campaigns fought during the Albigensian crusades have received relatively cursory attention from scholars preoccupied with providing contextual histories for heresy, inquisition, and crusade. This work takes a short-term approach, focusing on nine key years of the conflict. After 1218, the involvement of the French crown changed the political character of war in the region, and the source material proves comparatively inadequate for such a detailed study.

The introduction sets out a brief outline of Catharism and the response it initiated from the Church, emphasising the key nature of the murder of Peter of Castelnau as a trigger for the crusade. Marvin considers the complexity of aristocratic relationships in southern France, problems in defining "Occitania," and challenges the notion that familial, tenurial, and commercial relationships, common goals or even languages provided unity to the people inhabiting this region, when characterising warfare he emphasizes the importance of siege and chevauchee over pitched battles as decisive encounters during the Occitan War--although the latter encompassed some significant political deaths, only four occurred within the confrees of this study. Marvin explores issues of terminology when deciphering the composition of contemporary armies in terms of knights and mounted sergeants, foot soldiers, and town militias as well as the controversial figure of the "routier." He champions logistics as a new and developing field of medieval expertise, asserting the crucial roles played by strategic military fortifications and chains of supply during these long and often arduous campaigns. On the key issue of brutality, Marvin concedes that the Occitan War was longer and on a larger scale than any seen before in the region because of religious factors and the introduction of external military forces. He agrees that "exceptional" instances of brutality occurred, but challenges certain recent and established scholarship by claiming that "the Occitan War does not stand out as particularly barbarous" in comparison to other contemporary conflicts (p. 22).

The main body of the work comprises a series of nine research chapters charting campaigns on a roughly annual basis. There are positive and negative aspects to such a narrative structure. On the one hand, the reader gains a firm sense of how events unfolded based directly upon the available source material, with particular attention paid to small subsidiary expeditions around the major campaigns. On the other, it seldom allows space for deep interrogative analysis of the source material. Biographical information for key participants, especially Simon of Montfort, was rather limited. However, Marvin's aim is not to produce a holistic study of the crusade and all its participants, but to provide a focused military and political history, which he achieves with considerable assurance.

The research chapters begin with the campaign of 1209, and explore the problems of ascertaining numbers, terms of service, and leadership as well as the selection of an appropriate target. Marvin describes the infamous sack of Beziers and examines the scale and impact of the massacre there; the siege of Carcassonne and submission of Raymond-Roger Trencavel; the subsequent choice of Simon of Montfort to lead the remainder of the crusade and the beginnings of opposition to his rule. The chapter on 1210 charts the immediate political aftermath of this choice before going on to consider Simon's consolidation of power, including the capture of Montlaur and blinding of the garrison at Bram, with detailed accounts of the sieges of Minerve and Termes. The year 1211 is described as "perhaps the most militarily active of the Occitan War" (p. 94), including two field battles (Montgey and Saint-Martin-la-Lande) and the first failed siege of Toulouse. Here, too, Marvin provides an account of the siege of Lavaur, the details of which are often obscured by the shocking "brutality" of its conclusion. 1212 sees Montfort "drawing the noose" and re-establishing control in the run up to the battle of Muret in 1213. In the following chapter Marvin emphasizes its significance in ending Aragonese intervention in the conflict and revises traditional historical approaches to the battle, arguing that it comprised "two distinct conflicts"; one between two mounted forces and the second "an example of total surprise" against an ill-prepared enemy (p. 194). Marvin then turns to the aftermath of Muret, when despite nominal cessation of hostilities, crusaders kept arriving and Montfort continued to pursue strategic targets such as Casseneuil. 1215 saw a lack of significant military activity, but Marvin covers key political events such as the Council of Montpellier and Lateran IV. He gives a thorough account of the latter's ramifications for the future of the Occitan War, asserting its significance in reinstating the crusade and ensuring the continuity of hostilities. The final two chapters chart the decline in fortune and eventual death of the "chief crusader," and analyze the emergence of young Raymond VII of Toulouse as a successful military leader in the Occitan region. A succinct epilogue provides a brief overview of the immediate aftermath of Montfort's death and events in the thirteenth century, charting the subsequent careers of significant individuals. Marvin's final assessment exhorts us to consider the Occitan War as essentially political in character even from its outset in 1209, a conflict over a disunified and divided territory in which several key players might ultimately have been successful.

Accompanied by detailed, useful maps and plans of important strategic sites, The Occitan War is an essential addition to the growing field of scholarship on medieval Occitania and military history during this period. Deliberately drawing the readers' focus away from overtly religious aspects of the conflict, it provides a valuable counterpoint to scholarship whose long-term approach has obscured a wealth of available detail, and demonstrates that the Albigensian crusades have much more to offer a new generation of researchers.

Natasha Hodgson

Nottingham Trent University
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Author:Hodgson, Natasha
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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