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Simon of Montfort and the Statutes of Pamiers

“Kill them. The Lord will know those that are his.” This statement, attributed to a Cistercian abbot at the sack of Béziers in 1209, encapsulates for the modern mind the essence of the Albigensian Crusade (1208-1229). No doubt the bloody reputation of the crusade is well-earned: the conflict had as its object “to abolish heretical perfidy” in those lands deemed to be most afflicted, namely the region of modern France between the Garonne and Hérault rivers. This abolition was to be accomplished by dispossession: “when the heretics have been banished, Catholic inhabitants should be substituted, who may serve in holiness and justice before God according to the discipline of [the crusaders’] orthodox Faith.” This substitution was unlikely—indeed, never intended—to be peaceful: blood would be shed to do the Lord’s work.

However, a view of the Albigensian Crusade that encompasses only its violence will miss a great deal of the movement’s significance. The Catholic elected by the crusader army to inhabit and rule the land conquered in 1209 was Simon of Montfort, a middling French lord and veteran of the Fourth Crusade. He was undoubtedly a man of blood. He sacked and fired villages and towns, burned both unrepentant and—in at least one case—repentant heretics, and massacred captured garrisons. Perhaps his most infamous act was the calculated cruelty of blinding and mutilating one hundred men taken at the fall of Bram. But the investigation that looks no further than Simon’s blood-spattered chainmail ignores the remarkable legislative programme of reform that he introduced under the shadow of his sword. This is not to write an apologetic for the man, but rather to emphasise how the causes of Christian reform and baronial violence in the Albigensian Crusade were linked.

The boldest statement of Simon’s vision can be found in the constitution he issued on 1 December 1212 in order to consolidate his conquests. Known as the Statutes of Pamiers, named after the town to which he called a parliament of bishops, knights, and local burghers to compile the legislation, the document is a remarkable blend of martial law and reform charter. Two and a half years before the first issue of Magna Carta, the Statutes guaranteed the free provision of justice for all. Moreover, “no man shall be sent to prison or kept captive as long as he can give sufficient pledges that he will stand in court.” Others insisted on the importance of the accused “being convicted of or having confessed to” a given crime. Condemnations for heresy were restricted to the judgement of competent clergy. As neither Simon nor, to our knowledge, any of the other member of the parliament had taken a legal education—though he and others had important connections to Parisian theologians—the inclusion of such concerns suggests a practical engagement with good government.

 Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders (right) by Chroniques de Saint-Denis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For example, a series of clauses limit the amount of tallage — a semi-arbitrary tax on tenants — that a lord might exact, permit those subject to tallage to abandon their lord for another in protest of excessive demands, and prevent lords from extorting pledges to force their tenants to stay. This allowed at least a modicum of agency to the peasant in the agricultural labour market at the expense of the very baronial class of which Simon was a member. Those subject to tallage could also take collective action against oppressive lords, in which case Simon would call a parliament in order to investigate their claims and impose and enforce limits.

Of course, the Statutes had more pressing concerns than the free provision of justice and the amelioration of serfdom; on some level these clauses probably served to cajole support for a regime that was exceedingly unpopular among the citizenry of Toulouse and nobility of the surrounding region. More clauses stressed martial measures and the promotion of orthodoxy than enshrined liberties. Enforcement of the latter could also be spotty. Despite the limitations on tallage and mechanisms for its relief, the villagers of Rieux would have to wait almost fifty years until the reign of King Louis IX to find redress for the extortion imposed by one of Simon’s French followers. On the other hand, Simon reversed the unjust dispossession of a Pons Peyre of Bernis upon appeal in 1217, suggesting that an accountable government was working, at least in places. Moreover, the only known execution of heretics after the promulgation of the Statutes and before Simon’s death, the burning of seven Waldensians discovered at Morlhon in 1214, took place after the victims had been examined and refused to recant before the cardinal and papal legate Robert of Courson. Grisly as the final example is, it contrasts with the mass spontaneous burnings of the years before Pamiers noted above. As revealed to us by the limited sources of Simon’s perpetually martial and short-lived regime, the Statutes had indeed been implemented, if not uniformly.

The juxtaposition of the redress of Pons Peyre’s grievance and the burning of the Waldensians is a useful one for understanding not only the implementation, but also the conception of the Statutes of Pamiers. Simon’s anxieties about defence, orthodoxy, and justice were inseparable from each other; they are jumbled without distinction in the document itself. To some extent, the guarantees of due process and restraints on arbitrary power were undeniably attempts to placate a resentful and fractious conquered populace. But they also mirror a wider development of governmental accountability and righteousness among the ruling classes in the thirteenth century. Much of the Statutes of Pamiers anticipates—and probably served as a model for—measures undertaken by the royal administration of Saint Louis of France (r.1226-1270), a man of a similarly violent piety. Simon’s legislation at Pamiers demonstrates that Louis’ famed pursuit of Christian government later in the century was by no means novel; moreover, Simon’s trailblazing suggests that the exceptional baron could have just as much interest in such political projects as that exceptional king.

Featured image credit: Carcassonne castle walls by Philipp Hertzog. CC BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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