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Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature.

Karen Sullivan. Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 281 pp.

In her second book, Karen Sullivan undertakes a study of the figure of the heretic in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries. Sullivan shows that when depicted within a literary text this figure has a positive valence, while outside literature the figure (or flesh-and-blood human being, as it were) was condemned. In the introduction Sullivan emphasizes that she is using the term "heretic" as an interpretive category, not limited in reference to concrete, historical beings, and that she will trace this figure through literature written around the time of the persecution of these heresies. In the first chapter, subtitled Beatris de Planissoles and the Heretics of Montaillou, Sullivan rereads the testimony of suspected heretics, especially Beatris, found in Le Registre d'Inquisition de Jacques Fournier to show that it is in fact ambiguity, secrecy, and the occupation of liminal or concealed spaces that serve to define and thus condemn a heretic. Chapter two explores the secrecy of the Cathars and their eleventh-century dualistic predecessors through the writings of Ademar de Chabannes and Paul de Saint-Pere de Chartres. Using patristic sources, Sullivan concludes that "secretiveness and heresy became so linked in the clerical imagination ... that those who were judged to be secretive ... could be judged to be heretics on that basis" (p. 63). Sullivan also examines Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons, in which he conceives of heretics as foxes who hid in corners, darkness, and underground houses, underscoring their physical, verbal, and moral secrecy.

In chapter three, Sullivan applies her conclusions to troubadour lyric, suggesting that troubadours are responding to the anxiety about secretiveness evident in the prosecutions of heretics around them (113). She asserts that while the secrecy associated with heretics is threatening, the secrecy and ambiguity associated with poetry is marked positively. Like the heretic, the poet benefits from secrecy--he wants to access the secret parts of a woman's body, makes use of secret places to do so, and must keep his love a secret. Sullivan points out that the troubadours of the closed style, or "trobar clus," are interested in secrecy as well; especially in esoteric knowledge. These poets conceive of themselves, like the Cathar heretics, as an elite in possession of an exclusive knowledge, separate from the masses.

In the next section of her book, Sullivan deals with noble heretics: "While Cathars, in general, were thought to escape prosecution on account of their reclusiveness, the noblemen and noblewomen among them eluded such a fate on account of their prominence." Chapter four contrasts a Latin chronicle, the Historia Albigensis, which depicts Raimon VI as a Cathar believer, and an Occitan chanson de geste, the Canso de la Crozada, which does not depict nobles as heretics. The Historia Albigensis couples Raimon's heterodoxy with his use of mercenaries, his indifference to oaths, his disrespect for the institution of marriage, and his alleged incest. The Occitan text, while condemning the heretical masses, describes Aimeric de Montreal and his sister Guirauda de Lavaur positively and treats their executions as misdeeds. Noble exception spares Aimeric and Guirauda condemnation in one discourse, but Raimon is not spared in the other. Chapter five applies these insights to the Romance of Tristan, where typical logic would also condemn Tristan and Iseut's adulterous behavior. Sullivan compares their subversiveness to that of heretics--they hide in the woods and are associated with lepers; Iseut is even condemned to be burnt at the stake.

The final section revisits the concept of duplicity, focusing on the duplicity of the Waldensians, who subvert ecclesiastical authority by reading scripture in translation. Sullivan expertly examines how Waldensians deploy language evasively, using equivocations, interrogative and conditional forms, as well as sophistries and fallaciae. Applying these devices to Le Roman de Renard and the fabliaux Richeut and Trubert, Sullivan shows that the trickster protagonists who subvert the social order thanks to their duplicity, especially as expressed in language, function as heretics.

Sullivan's reading of Tristan and the Fabliaux is suggestive, and her idea to use "the heretic" as an interpretive category is brilliant; however, she does not completely succeed in the execution. Certainly, the term is hard to pin down, especially given the inherent danger of self-designation as a "heretic." Anyone familiar with Old French has seen the word heretic used much more broadly than to indicate a religious deviant--it is a common put-down--and knows that there are multiple meanings associated with the word, but this is not discussed until page 234, and Sullivan never traces the evolution of the term. She shows that inquisitors depicted heretics as secretive and duplicitous to condemn them, and that heretics are depicted thus in literature, but these characteristics remain vague and the reader is left wondering what the implications are. Sullivan also shows that non-heretics deploy secrecy and ambiguity, but these techniques are available to anyone who wants to avoid detection--are all secretive characters heretics? Sullivan's selection of texts consistently indicates that the term figures not only religious deviants, but also threats that are sexual and political in nature, but these aspects, while the most promising, are not synthesized into a usable interpretive category.

Nicole Leapley

Saint Anselm College
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Author:Leapley, Nicole
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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