I’m leaving you because of Simon de Montfort. I realize that this is surprising, particularly after twenty years of marriage, and acknowledge that I have no one to blame but myself. If, twenty years ago, I had done the reading which is incumbent on an academic spouse, this might have been avoided. (In my defence, your hour-long discussion of the thesis you were then writing about ‘de Montfort and theologico-military orthodoxy’ was hardly inviting to a twenty-five year-old dentist, even if it was first-date nerves). But I failed to find out about the man whom you have so often (and so mortifyingly) referred to as the love of your life, just as I failed to consider that academics choose the field which, no matter how abstruse or impersonal, always reflects some part of themselves.
In itself, this is neither a good nor bad thing; our species has greatly benefitted from the scholarly few who have examined their own lives through the language of quarks, leptons, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, split infinitives in Athabascan, and Macrobian encyclopaedism, to name a few of your colleagues’ niche interests. We do not mind if a physicist enacts quantum superposition in his daily life, or a linguist divides his children according to the vagaries of Dinka noun classes, because we believe that these purely intellectual habits have little to no moral loading. Even historians of the pre-twentieth century are released from the suspicion that what they study and endorse scholastically has any relevance to their moral selves. We persist in treating them as sweetly fuddy-duddy souls whose dusty areas of study make them fit only for the Cardigan Club.
Again, I fully acknowledge my own fault here. You had told me, explicitly and repeatedly, that you found Simon de Montfort a paragon of manliness, of military and political effectiveness, of religious and ethical excellence, and of spousal attachment (though I notice that you, unlike Alix de Montmorency, never accompanied me on my campaigns against cavities in the under-5s). I persisted in believing that Simon de Montfort and I only crossed paths during our summer holidays, which you have always (and without consultation) decided to take somewhere relevant to his life. However, I am happy to admit that I have enjoyed many July and August weeks at Muret and Toulouse, Fanjeau and Carcassone, without being troubled by any thought that we visited them to commemorate the life of a murderer.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Biron last week that the real nature of de Montfort’s career struck me, and what that said about you, who have devoted your life to a starry-eyed adoration of his appalling deeds. Don’t mistake me: if I had thought this interest was in any way critical, I would not be leaving this letter on the dresser while you sleep.
We were in the car, if you remember, going towards Biron from Gavaudun in the late afternoon. the sun was setting behind the castle on its hill and you were describing how the Cathars had been briefly beseiged there by de Montfort, before the castle had fallen and he had killed them all. You have, over twenty summer holidays, given me a comprehensive account of the crusade against the Cathars, and the incidental economic and social benefits to men like de Montfort who prosecuted that vicious campaign against them. For the first time, however, I saw in the evening peace of that rosy-coloured castle, all the good things that Simon de Montfort wantonly destroyed, both from avarice and some warped idea of orthodoxy. Biron of the Cathars continues to emanate something of their tranquil and world-denying spirit; a great sense of peace settled on me, and I thought I understood the attraction of what you have always called the ‘Cathar cowards’. At the same time, it became clear, as I struggled to deal with your criticism of my parking outside the pension, that I had unexpectedly arrived at a crossroads and was confronted with a choice (as I wrestled our luggage up the stairs) between a preference for peace and kindness, a certain world-denying spirit of my own, and my legal preference for you, my wife.
In the morning, you went photographing the site where Simon executed Martin Algai, the lord of Biron (with whom I also have no sympathy). I sat on a wall by the castle well and listened for the first time to what you might call (with that awful snort of derision I have heard at so many departmental parties), my heart. I won’t bore you with the dusty and probably neurotic ramblings of a forty-five year-old dentist’s heart, but what I realized was this: that had we both been alive eight hundred years ago, I would have been one of those retiring bonshommes watching you ride to Biron in Simon’s brutal train. I have no inclination to be a Bogomil now, I should say, but had the choice between the church of Rome and the bonschretiennes been available, I feel sure that the brutalism of the former and the gentleness of the later would have decided me.
As I was sitting, like Jacob at the well, that young man with the guitar and dreadlocks whom you told sharply to move along when he offered to play for us last night at dinner, came up and began a song. Happily, my French – even my Occitan – has improved greatly over the course of our twenty academic summers, so I knew what he sang:
We are the poor of Christ, with no fixed home, fleeing from city to city like sheep amid wolves. We live a holy life, straining day and night in hunger, in renunciation, in prayer, in labour because we are not of this world. But you, worldlings, you love this world. By your fruits you shall know them, says Christ.
And so my dear, my crusader-wife, I am leaving you because of the sun behind Biron of the Cathars, because of a song heard at a well, and because the man of your many monographs has your stony heart.