Review: PBS Secret Files of the Inquisition, Episode One: The Land of Error

(2006, PBS)

I am a big fan of PBS in general. So when a documentary series covering the history of the Inquisition and some of the major heretical movements in medieval Europe showed up on my Netflix recommendations list, I was cautiously optimistic. (I say cautiously because so far, in my experience, history documentaries tend to be dismal in terms of you know, actual history, having instead an alarming and overwhelming tendency to favor sensationalism over fact every time.) But being PBS, I thought the chances of some actual history leaking in were good. Ah, hope springs eternal! Sadly, I was disappointed.

After a predictably dramatic (and sensationalized introduction – almost de rigeuer for this sort of production), the series begins with the Cathar heresy. However, it glosses over the heyday of Catharism in Europe in the first ten minutes (badly, needless to say) and instead jumps right into the supposed account of the small town of Montaillou in the French Pyrenees. Now this in itself is odd for several reasons. One, the Inquisition (initially a body created for investigation, not murder and mayhem, as this series luridly suggests) was founded directly in response to what even the Vatican considered a disaster – the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southern France. Montaillou was a small remote town and didn’t fall under the eye of the Church until some time after the Inquisition was founded.

The series also claims to be “Based on previously unreleased secret documents from European Archives including the Vatican,” but I saw no reference to such documents or indication of what they might be. The Vatican does indeed have vast stores of documents, many of which have doubtless not seen the light of day for centuries. This does not make them ‘secret,’ or even particularly interesting.  But even worse, however, are the “experts” who appear on screen to give credence to the dramatized action (complete with overly dramatic voiceover). 

The title of the first episode is swiped directly from the subtitle of the single most complete work on the town of Montaillou, the ethnography of the same name by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. (1997, Vintage Books), “The Promised Land of Error.” Having read Ladurie’s work, however, I see little influence here. Rather, for this episode, the main authority is a novelist, who, according to the website for her novel, read a French account of Montaillou (likely Ladurie’s) while studying French literature during her undergraduate years. From this, apparently entranced by the romanticism of it, she wrote the novel whose title appears with her name on-screen. (The book is not noted as a novel in the PBS production, leaving the viewer to assume it is a volume of history rather than fiction.) 

This is pretty much typical of the series. Part one, at least, contains a small handful of facts, picked seemingly at random, pasted together with a patois of drama and pseudo-history. I did look at the list of sources listed on the PBS site, but found little to convince me that later installments would be of any higher quality. The series lists among its bibliography James Carroll (of “Contantine’s Sword” fame),  Mark Pegg (author of “The Most Holy War,”), and Michael Baigent, the fellow behind the Holy Grail, bloodline of Christ business that formed the basis for the DaVinci Code. All of these men are known for ‘scholarship’ (where that term can even be applied) on the medieval church which is spotty at best. Clearly, PBS was not particularly rigorous in its selection of ‘experts.’ Yes, they did list a few more authoritative sources, among them Malcolm Barber and Edward Peters, two of the most respected historians on the subject of medieval heresy and the Episcopal Inquisition, but I saw little evidence of their work (much of which I have read) and far more of the influence of the former.

The series also seems happy to present events from a single (and somewhat myopic) viewpoint. For example, in presenting the Albigensian Crusade, it is suggested that the devastation of the Languedoc was the intent of the Church. Not only do they fail to mention the murder of the papal legate sent to the court of Raymond of Toulouse, which was the last in a long string of provocations from the Cather side, but they also utterly ignore the machinations of the French nobility, only too eager to sweep in and reclaim lands long under the control of English. It was this desire to recapture any territory possible that accounts for the awful brutality of the Albigensian Crusades at least as much (I would argue more), than any sentiment of the Church itself.

Another point that concerned me was their showing the Inquisitors accompanied by Templar knights. The Templars operated largely in the Levant in connection with the Crusades. While they had representatives in many major cities in Europe (which Montaillou was not by a long stretch), they would have been there on the business of the Order. The Templars never served as ‘enforcers’ for the Inquisition or had any involvement with it at all. Or they didn’t until they found themselves on the wrong end of it two hundred years later, and then only by virtue of being offered up as sacrificial fodder to placate the King of France and protect the name of Pope Boniface VIII. I suspect the Templar presence is inspired by Baigent and his ilk; I’m surprised they didn’t try to claim the Grail was being hidden in Montaillou, too.

It is just this convenient ignorance of the context of events, together with a seeming reliance on the same old sensationalism surrounding the Inquisition, which is itself a product of protestant and later romantic literary and historic traditions that makes this series no better than anything the History Channel puts out (which may be damning with faint praise, or is that praising with faint damnation?). All in all, if you like hijinks and mayhem in the Middle Ages, enjoy this for entertainment value, but don’t look to this series for anything resembling actual history.

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