Elena Maria Vidal's new novel, The Night's Dark Shade: A Novel of the Cathars (Mayapple Press, 2009) dramatizes the conflict between the Good Christians (otherwise known as the Albigensians or Cathars) and the Roman Catholic Church that roiled southern France throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Raphaëlle de Miramande, a young heiress whose father and fiancé both die in the crusade against the Cathars, travels to the château de Mirambel to wed her cousin, Raymond de Tourmalet. Raphaëlle discovers only after she arrives that her intended and his family are themselves Good Christians--in fact, Raymond's mother, Esclarmonde, is a Perfecta, an ascetic spiritual leader who instructs the faithful and leads the sect's rituals. In accordance with Cathar beliefs (which considered material reality evil and procreation undesirable because it trapped spirits in physical bodies), the situation at Mirambel is irregular, to say the least. Esclarmonde, given over to fasts and conquering her body, shuns her husband, who lives in an open physical relationship with a serving woman; Esclarmonde's son, Raymond, is a sexual deviant given to violent outbursts and bullying; tenants cohabitate without the blessing of marriage and rid themselves of unwanted children both before and after birth. Horrified by what she witnesses and unwilling to repudiate her Catholic faith, Raphaëlle refuses to marry Raymond, forcing her uncle, who desires to gain control of her lands, to imprison her until she agrees to wed his son.
Romantic feelings for Martin de Revel-Seissec, a knight of St. John pledged to celibacy but renowned for breaking hearts, complicate Raphaëlle's plight. Rescued for a time from her uncle's castle, Raphaëlle weds a different man, but her penchant for Martin prevents her from making a sincere effort to fulfill her marriage vows. Raphaëlle struggles with reconciling the notion of romantic love, promoted by the troubadours, with the self-giving and faithfulness that undergird a sacramental marriage. Like the Cathars, whose efforts to transcend the body reduced sexual relations to physical functions devoid of unifying sacredness, Raphaëlle's obsession with the unattainable Martin endangers her emotional connection with her husband and threatens to destroy the marriage she has vowed to uphold.
Ms. Vidal creates a cast of vivid characters caught in a quick-moving, well-constructed plot. Her novel paints an intriguing picture of Cathar beliefs and practices set in direct contrast to Catholic theology. As the perspective belongs solely to young Raphaëlle, a devout Catholic, value judgments are hardly equivocal. Yet even Raphaëlle recognizes how Cathar beliefs sprang from distorted Christian teaching. The novel illustrates how easily and insidiously the abhorrent becomes desirable, the selfish honorable when individuals seek nothing beyond the fulfillment of their own desires, a message perhaps even more relevant today than it was centuries ago.