(Peasant) Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: The Heresy of Grazida Lizier
Heresy-wise, it’s hard to beat the early thirteenth century. In Northern Italy, Southern France, and throughout Germany, thousands of individuals rose, as much disgusted by the Catholic Church’s excesses as inspired by its attempt at self-reform, and crafted local theologies that were part ancient tradition, part Christianity, and entirely revolutionary. For a century the Cathars and Waldensians, Passagians and Arnoldists organized a threat to Catholicism so great in appearance (if not in fact) that the Church saw no way out but to let loose the Dominicans and the dread force of Inquisition.
In the midst of this battle for scriptural orthodoxy were the common people, hungry for a way out of the spiritual impasse of worldly Catholicism. Lone humans, making what sense they could of the conflicting authority around them, were often guided more by their innate moral instincts than by a fundamental need to preserve some dogmatic core of belief. None speak more eloquently to this trend than Grazida Lizier, a commoner from the South of France whose entire record of existence consists of a few scant pages of testimony taken down by Cathar-hunter extraordinaire Jacques Fournier in 1320. In those lines, a humble mind sets forth what she understood of the universe and its workings, and in a few devastating lines unmakes the cocksure dominance of Catholic orthodoxy.
But to understand why she was being questioned in the first place, we have to talk about Cathars. Which is just as well, because they are lusciously fascinating. They were dualists, which is to say that, faced with the problem of the overwhelming evil present in a world constructed by a supposedly good God, they split the cosmos in two, declaring that everything material was actually constructed by Satan, who peopled his world by imprisoning the souls of God’s angels in flesh, while God dwelt in an ethereal, entirely other realm.
Now, the Old Testament is rather clear about Jehovah making the physical Earth, which meant that Cathars variously believed that (1) the Old Testament ought to be thrown out entirely, or (2) that it is correct, but that the Jehovah of that book was actually Satan.
Personally, I think that option two explains a lot about the Old Testament’s unilaterally horrendous moral sense, but the Catholic Church understandably didn’t see it that way, nor did it particularly like the Cathar claim that Jesus could not possibly have been a real man, but rather was an essence made to appear as a man. Their new spin on an old problem, combined with their vows of complete austerity (it was common Cathar practice to, after receiving their final baptism, starve themselves to death to avoid pollution of the things of the world) made the movement wildly popular in both Southern France and the Italian realms still under the influence of Arnold of Brescia’s revolution against Church authority.
The problem was that the Church didn’t really have a firm grasp on what heresy was, or how it was to be dealt with when the Cathars and Waldensians started flowering in the late twelfth century. There wasn’t a standardized set of questions to ask, or a routine procedure to follow when trying to determine if a thought was heretical or merely eccentric. Catholicism was caught thoroughly flat-footed as the Cathars and other heretical sects lurched past them in the hearts and minds of a Europe growing weary of the Pope’s fumbling half-measures towards basic decency.
Jacques Fournier, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XII, was a man determined to bring order to the hunt for heresy as he wandered through Southern France, interrogating the Cathars that his ring of informants had identified.
In 1320 Fournier met Grazida Lizier, a peasant from Montaillou. He questioned her, incarcerated her for two months, and then questioned her again. This was all of a piece with the rest of Grazida’s storm-tossed life. She was born around 1298, and at age fourteen her virginity was taken by the local rector, Pierre Clergue, with the full knowledge of her mother. He continued using her for sex until marrying her off, at the age of fifteen, to a pliable man who looked the other way whenever Clergue came to sexually appropriate his wife. Grazida’s husband threw her out of the house when she was nineteen, not because of her adultery, but because she wouldn’t join his religious sect. So, she was forced to make a living as a barkeep, at least until age twenty-one when she was arrested by Fournier as an adulteress and possible heretic.
Clergue was a Cathar, and in between sexual encounters, he imparted to Grazida some of the tenets of his religion. And then Grazida did something altogether remarkable for an adolescent in any age—she held up each of those Cathar beliefs, weighed them against her own internal moral compass, and crafted a new, wholly individual accounting of how the universe worked. It’s worth quoting at some length from the original inquisitorial document:
Asked if she believed whether a man sins who has sex with a woman not related to him by blood, a virgin or not, in marriage or out of it, only because it is pleasing to both, she responded that, although all carnal unions of men and women are displeasing to God, however she did not believe that those performing such acts—so long as both derived pleasure from them—commit a sin.
Asked if she believed that those who act well and live sanctified lives go to Paradise after death, while sinners enter Hell, and if she believed there to be a Paradise and Hell, she responded that she didn’t know, but she heard it said, that there is a Paradise, and she believes it; she also heard that there is a Hell, but this, she said, she neither believed nor disbelieved … since it is an evil place. Asked in the same manner about resurrection, she said she neither believed nor disbelieved, although she frequently heard it said that we shall rise again.
Let’s stop for a moment to appreciate the inventive boldness of Grazida here. On one hand were the Catholics, insisting absolutely in the existence of heaven, hell, the resurrection, and the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage. On the other are the Cathars, dismally opposed to all sexual unions, hell, resurrection, and anything of the Earth. And in between those massive boulders of absolutist dogma is this peasant girl who asserts, in the very face of a Catholic inquisitioner, that sex is sex, and though it might displease God, it’s certainly no sin as long as everybody is enjoying themselves; that heaven is probably real, but hell is kinda shaky, as she can’t conceive of why a good God would have made such an evil place; and that our bodily resurrection seems like a longshot.
And, while Grazida’s testimony is among the most frank in its assessment of current theology, it is by no means unique. Fournier’s records include accounts of women who believe in the general salvation of all men, those who completely deny any afterlife at all, and those who experienced moments of total disbelief in God himself. Indeed, Fournier’s reports were on the tail end of a troubling wave of information, starting from the early thirteenth century, documenting a surge of heretical sects throughout France, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Something needed to be done, some organization empowered to draw up regulations for the identification and prosecution of heresy.
In 1252, the pope granted the Dominicans the right to use torture in weeding out heresy and after that it was off to the races. With the help of obliging monarchs in France, Aragon, and Germany, and the creation of a standard inquisitorial processes, the Cathars and Waldensians were driven underground such that, by 1320, when Grazida was being held for questioning by Fournier, the movements were shattered husk of their former selves.
And yet, in spite of the organization of the Inquisition, the viciousness of its techniques, and the alliance between Rome and monarch in the prosecution of heretics, the strands of heterodox doubt were still vibrant enough to produce Grazida Lizier, and a host of others like her. As a brave rebel princess once remarked to an imperial officer, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems slip through your fingers.”
Though the Cathars couldn’t organize effectively any longer, the circumstances that created the Cathar heresy were still very much present and indeed worsening thanks to the Dominicans’ exuberance for torture. The worse a place they made the world to live in, the more plausible did dualistic theology become, and the stronger dualism became, the more doubt there was about the validity of theological posturing generally. Grazida was created in that space between orthodoxy and its combatants, a bold testament to how the lunge towards hegemony leaves a million scrambling microscopic heterodoxies in its wake, if you take the time to look.
The translation of Grazida’s testimony above is my own. The original Latin text (along with that of several other women collected by Fournier) is available in the appendix of Peter Dronke’s wonderful Women Writers of the Middle Ages. For those interested in medieval heresy, a great sourcebook is Walter Wakefield and Austin Evans’s Heresies of the High Middle Ages, which contains 640 pages of original documents in English translation relating to the Cathars, Waldenseans, and everybody in between. There is also a novel about Grazida and the persecution of the Cathars, The Good Men, by Charmaine Craig, which I admit to owning but never having read. Cover’s nice, though.