Twelfth-century Provence was the land of troubadours and their songs of courtly love, and one of the few areas of Europe in which women could own estates. It was also the land of the Albigensians, a loosely associated religious group whose dualistic beliefs and acceptance of the ministry of women made their version of Christianity heretical. In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade upon these heretics – and one reward of taking up the cross, besides a passport to heaven, was the acquisition of the extensive, fertile estates of the heretics. Landless knights from all over northern France eagerly attended the crusade. The slaughter that followed for the next 20 years was appalling, and it effectively ended Provencal culture by making Provence subject to the French king.
The main action of “The Passion of Dolssa” occurs in 1241, when the worst fighting is over, but the horrors of the crusade still linger in Provencal memory. The book’s Provencal heroine, 18-year-old Dolssa, is not an Albigensian but a female mystic whose relationship with Christ is personal: she believes he guards her and gives her miraculous power to heal the sick. People flock to her – a fact that instantly brands her, in the eyes of the church, as a heretic. She and her mother are arrested, both condemned to be burned at the stake. But as Dolssa’s mother perishes, somebody cuts Dolssa’s bonds and urges her to run. She does – but as a town-bred daughter of a noble family, she has little idea how to survive during her flight into the countryside as she is pursued by Friar Lucien, the Dominican friar who is sent to track her down.
Dolssa is found, exhausted and nearly starved, by 17-year-old Botille, one of three sisters who keep a tavern in the tiny seaport of Bajas. Botille, the town matchmaker, is open and generous, and takes Dolssa in, even though she and her sisters know Dolssa is wanted by the church. They can hide Dolssa, but not her miraculous healing power, and soon all of Bajas is deeply honored by her presence. And that, in the wake of the Albigensian Crusade, is a death-knell, not only to Dolssa, but to the whole village. For to the Catholic establishment, to have listened to a heretic is to be one, and to shelter one is to be condemned to the stake. This meticulously researched novel portrays the food, drink, and living conditions of 13th century Provence, while making the reader hope breathlessly for the escape of Dolssa and Bajas’s citizens. It’s a wonderful book. Julie Berry is one of the very few contemporary historical novelists whose research and literary powers equal those of Ruta Sepetys, whose “Salt to the Sea” was reviewed in these pages last June.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.