One of the greatest books never written was Lord Acton’s “History of Freedom.” He assembled a research library of 60,000 volumes for the project but failed to produce a single page. If Acton had ever written his magnum opus, one hopes that he might have found room for Bernard Délicieux, the delightfully named Franciscan friar who is the hero, albeit a flawed hero, of this book. A native of Montpellier, Délicieux entered the province of Provence of the Friars Minors in 1284. At considerable cost to himself, he combated the excesses of the papal Inquisi-tion in its campaign against the Cathars, a dissident movement in southern France. Stephen O’Shea, the author of an earlier work on the Cathars, has rescued Délicieux from relative obscurity by tracing his efforts to defend the innocent victims of the ecclesiastical repression of heresy.
The special object of Délicieux’s ire was the Friars Preachers, or Dominicans, who were mainly responsible for implementing the Inquisition. He accused them of using tainted and unreliable evidence in their judicial proceedings. One of the most notorious buildings in the city of Carcassonne, where Délicieux was a popular preacher, was the Wall, the popular name for the prison where the Dominicans incarcerated suspected heretics. Not even the dead escaped the attention of the methodical friar-bureaucrats who staffed the Inquisition. There were instances where they exhumed the bodies of deceased suspects and consigned them to the flames.
O’Shea is a gifted storyteller who seems unencumbered by the occupational addiction of some historians to whisper to one another about esoterica in the footnotes. He has a good story to tell and he tells it well. Initially the intrepid Délicieux received strong support from his Franciscan confreres, not only in Carcassonne and Albi, but also elsewhere in Languedoc, the area of southern France that had only recently come under the control of the Capetian kings in Paris. Délicieux was a multitalented character who could rouse the local populace with demagogic sermons in their native langue d’oc, and deliver a polished appeal for royal intervention against the Inquisition to King Philip the Fair in the langue d’oïl of northern France. He could charm cardinals as they wandered through southern France with the peripatetic papal court, win the favor of Pope Clement V and elude the clutches of the vindictive Dominican pope Benedict XI, whose aversion to him Délicieux more than reciprocated. When Délicieux’s prediction of the impending death of Benedict XI came true, some hailed him as a prophet, while others accused him of making the prophecy come true by poisoning the pope.
One of Délicieux’s closest brushes with authority came in 1304. Disappointed with the failure of King Philip the Fair to take stronger measures against the Inquisition, Délicieux risked his neck by dabbling in high treason. He orchestrated a plot to hand over Languedoc to one of the younger sons of the king of Majorca, who was a vassal of the French king. The plotters were hunted down and executed, with the exception of Délicieux, who suffered no harsher penalty than a period of rather pleasant house arrest (at a friary where one of his tablemates was Duns Scotus). One historian speculated that the reason for Délicieux’s lenient treatment was that the ruthless French monarch, who was busy destroying the Templars at the time, actually had a grudging respect for the feisty friar from Carcassonne. If true, it is all the more surprising, since O’Shea reminds us that the king’s nickname was a reference to his complexion, not his character.
Ironically, after navigating successfully through treacherous shoals on numerous occasions with Talleyrand-like finesse, Délicieux was ultimately done in by his fellow Franciscan friars. His downfall began when he took the side of the Spirituals in their intramural conflict with the Conventuals, although it is not clear to what extent he embraced the apocalypticism and extreme views on poverty of the most radical Spirituals. Délicieux emerged from relative obscurity in May 1317 to lead a contingent of some 60 Spirituals to the papal palace at Avignon, where he made a passionate defense of them before Pope John XXII.
An implacable foe of the Spirituals, the pope ordered Déliceux’s arrest on the spot. After two years of incarceration and torture, Délicieux was tried before an ecclesiastical court in Carcassonne. The principal charge against him was that he had not only criticized the corrupt practices of the Inquisition in Languedoc, but that he had criticized the Inquisition itself, a capital offense. The senior prosecutor (who also doubled as the senior judge) was Bishop Jacques Fournier of Pamiers, the future Benedict XII, one of the better Avignon popes.
Broken by two months of torture and harsh cross-examination, Délicieux abandoned his defense, pleaded guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Fournier sentenced him to life imprisonment; but, in view of Délicieux’s infirmities, he cancelled the additional penalties that would have kept him manacled in solitary confinement and condemned to a diet of bread and water. When John XXII heard the news, he countermanded Fournier’s humane decision and ordered that the sentence should be imposed with full rigor. At that point Délicieux may already have been dead. The friar of Carcassonne perished at an unknown date in the Wall of Carcassonne.
On second thought, Acton might not have considered Délicieux an appropriate candidate for inclusion in his “History of Freedom.” As O’Shea points out, neither Délicieux nor any of his contemporaries would pass muster as 19th-century liberals committed to religious tolerance and freedom of conscience, although that did not prevent French anticlericals under the Third Republic from trying to co-opt him as a kindred spirit and partisan of the peculiarly French form of sectarian secularism known as laïcité. “Bernard was a follower of Francis, not an imitator,” says O’Shea, but even that was no mean achievement in the brutal and turbulent world of 14th-century Languedoc. If it is an anachronism to hail him as a forerunner of the dawn of religious freedom, he deserves credit and respect as a champion of justice and fairness in an intolerant age. No one will mistake this book for hagiography. O’Shea presents Délicieux with the warts fully visible, which makes his portrait all the more convincing and makes the wily friar “with feet of clay” all the more human and sympathetic.