Medieval Pleasures of the Flesh

Okay, pop quiz. The subject is Theology. Ready? One question, multiple choice.

1. What is the one true view of the world in which we live?

(a) The physical world was created by God and displays his glory. But the pleasures of the world are to be enjoyed in moderation and according to certain guidelines. The lust of the flesh, especially, is to be discouraged; sexual relations are intended by the Creator for reproduction alone and in the context of marriage.

(b) The physical world was created by Satan and is therefore inherently evil. The human body, as a part of the world, is wretched and a burden to the soul, which was created by God. The soul can only be truly free when it has left the shackles of the body. No pleasure should be taken in anything physical whatsoever. Food should be bland and only the minimum amount necessary for survival should be consumed. Any sexual activity, marital or otherwise, is sin.

Time’s up. Pencils down. Frustrated with the choices?

For the French village of Montaillou in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these were the only choices possible. The former was espoused by the Catholic Church; the latter, by a group of heretics now known as the Cathars but often referred to in their own time as “Good Christians” or “Good Men.”

The teachings of the Good Men, option (b), took hold in Montaillou and surrounding towns around the turn of the fourteenth century. The Church, disturbed by this, set up an Inquisition to seek out and remedy the heresy. Betrayed by their own priest, the villagers of Montaillou were discovered, imprisoned and questioned about their beliefs. One young woman who was deposed by the Inquisition was Grazida Lizier.

Six hundred years later, in the mid-1990s, Charmaine Craig ’94 came across Lizier’s testimony while studying medieval history at Harvard. When she entered the creative writing MFA program at the University of California, Berkeley, the document stayed with her.

Craig was astonished by the fact that, in a village torn between the Good Men and the Catholic Church, Lizier had developed her own belief system, quite different from those of the establishment and the heretics. Lizier took pleasure in nature and her own body and found no sin in them. In the same way, through her fictional rendering of the lives of Lizier and the people of Montaillou, Craig marks an emphatic (c), neither of the above, on my Theology quiz.

The Good Men is an ambitious debut novel for Craig. It encompasses more than 50 years of medieval history and dozens of characters spanning three generations. Nearly all the characters correspond—at least in name and allegiance, and often in much more—to real people living in the region at that time.

While Craig admits that the cast of The Good Men may not exactly mirror the actual players in the heresy of Montaillou, this fact does not make them any less real in the world of the novel. Craig’s precise character development allows an intimate look at the psychology of each person. We see the village priest struggle to reconcile his vocation with his lustful desires, complicated by his secret sympathy for the Good Men. We watch as a yearning for the priest grows in both Lizier and her mother, and see the resulting resentment. We witness the struggles of the Inquisitor as he tries to remain firm in his duty to flush out heresy, even in the midst of doubts that what he is doing is right.

The broad scope of The Good Men does not make its characters shallow, nor does it muddle its message. It claims to be “a novel of heresy,” but it is truly a novel of sexuality. It brims with sexual passion and desires, both realized and unfulfilled, in the life of every character, each one wrestling with longings that are forbidden by Church and heretics alike.

As the people of Montaillou choose between the establishment and the rebels, they find themselves sinning against both. Their extramarital affairs, homosexual activities and broken vows of chastity prevent them from attaining whichever holiness they pursue.

In the end, only Lizier appears to be satisfied. All the others have disappointed themselves, but Lizier is unburdened by her actions. Craig seems to identify with Lizier in terms of her beliefs; in the afterword to The Good Men, she notes that her mother’s people, the Karen of Burma, have an animistic belief system which does not include the dualisms of body and soul, heaven and earth, that are so much a part of the Western tradition. It is through Lizier, then, that Craig offers her option (c).

Lizier, like the Karen, makes no distinction between the holy and the physical. Sex is not sin to her, but glory. She feels that she, the birds, the water and the trees “are of life, and so, she senses, everlasting.” Craig’s stunning, engaging first novel ends with a silent suggestion made by the trees above Lizier’s head, urging her, and us, to simply “live, live, bloom, be.”

The Catholic Church of the fourteenth century would not be happy with such a conclusion. Perhaps The Good Men is “a novel of heresy” after all.

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