27 The Long Confession

Ximene Trencavel-25 March 1355

Ximene took her place in the line, standing almost to attention, as the Comte surveyed the church party.

He applied the church rules with great diligence. The men’s and particularly the lady’s clothing had to be dull both in colour and design. The men’s faces and hands were allowed to show but other than that no flesh must be visible. Women required a mantilla or a hat and veil as they were required to keep both hair and face concealed. Ritual demanded men wear hats on their journey to Mass, then remove them at the church door as a symbolic gesture of humility.

Gaston walked up and down the line, ensuring that everyone complied.

‘Thank you; that is perhaps the best compliance with the dress code I have ever seen. We will now proceed via the northern ramp in procession. Proceed demurely and remember you must join in all the responses and hymns!’


The body of the Church of St Volusieu was almost entirely in darkness, but punctuated with a thousand tiny points of candlelight. The dark and sombre structural granite reflected none of the light from the candles, and could only be seen as variations in the intensity of shadow. The canopy above the altar, coated with gold leaf, glimmered in the light.

The whole of the combined household of the Chateau de Foix, arrived at the church nearly an hour before the service commenced. Everyone was expected to receive communion and therefore attendance of confession before the service was compulsory.


As usual, Ximene squirmed with resentment at having to take part in this weekly charade.

Her mind reeled at the implications of the ceremony she now attended.

She remembered her grandmother’s description.

‘During mass, unleavened bread and wine are supposedly changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who in turn is supposed to be the Son of God. Which God? The Good God presumably, although that is far from certain! The change it was emphasises is not a symbolic change but a real change. Therefore, in the eyes of the Roman Church, those receiving a fragment of the bread and sip of the wine are eating human flesh and band drinking human blood. Has to be human! Because Gods don’t have flesh and blood.

Cannibalism! Incredible! In order to prepare for this phenomenon it is necessary to be free from sin. In order to make this possible the Roman Priests have assumed the ability to forgive sin, hence attendance at confession where the forgiveness occurs. This is supposed to make the bodies of those who receive communion a receptacle for God, which in fact is not God but human flesh! Bizarre!’

Ximene also remembered what she had been encouraged to say in the confessional.

‘Confess that you have been guilty of stealing from your friends, confess you have been envious of your friends’ possessions and particularly confess that you have been guilty of self-abuse and have obtained pleasure from sexual contact with a man, better still with a woman. These are the sins that Roman priests expect to hear. Such a confession is instantly credible. They will often pursue the circumstances of the sexual pleasure.’

Ximene had the impression that they really enjoyed listening to a detailed description, so she always obliged. Today was no different.

‘Bless me, father, for I have sinned.’

A deliberate silence.

‘Yes my child?’

Ximene wondered whether it was her imagination. To her it seemed that there was yearning in the voice of the priest as he waited for her confession. She always changed the circumstances to avoid being boring.

‘ I have committed a sin of impurity.’

‘Yes my child?’

‘I met a young man who laid great store by his piety and innocence so I decided to seduce him.’

‘Yes my child?’

‘It was not difficult, I had carnal knowledge of him.’

‘To decide your penance I must have more detail. What exactly did you do?’

‘I told a story about someone watching me bathe and described in great detail how I go about washing myself. I could see the passion rise, almost immediately.’

‘And?’

‘I told him I always get pleasure from washing my nipples and suggested he should caress by breasts as I also enjoy that.’

‘And he did?’

‘Yes father, he did everything I suggested to him.’

‘And you do not love this young man?’

‘No, I did it just because I wanted to.’

At the end of her dramatic performance she promised not to commit the sin again, and listened patiently to the absolution. She emerged from the confessional to the questioning gaze of other penitents, clearly wondering why she had been in the confessional so long.

She went to kneel in one of the front pews in the church, which were traditionally occupied by the Comte’s family. To inexperienced observers she looked like any other penitent, head bent saying the prayers the priest had specified, ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers. This was a relatively harsh penalty, so she must have concocted a particularly good story! Instead of saying her penance, she entertained herself thinking up the story she was going to tell the following week.

Pipa came to kneel alongside her. ‘Dominic has been in there a long time,’ she muttered.

Without raising her head, Ximene glanced around just in time to see Dominic emerge from the confessional. She was surprised. He had gone into the confessional before her and she herself had not been quick. What on earth had he been confessing?

Choosing triumph as an inspiration, the choir burst into song. Ximene knew that this usually coincided with the entrance of the priests, but today the first hymn was followed by another and yet another and still there were no priests. As the fourth hymn began, the doors at the far right of the church swung open and a heavy smell of incense filled the air. The procession of priests and deacons emerged from the sacristy; thurifiers walked in front of the principle priests, dressed in long black cassocks covered by a thigh length dazzlingly white chemise. They swung the censors from side to side, forcing the charcoal to an incandescent glow and thus encouraged the incense to vaporise. In the dim light the swirling, incense-laden smoke created a mysterious and sensuous atmosphere, precisely as it was meant to do.

The intention was to ensure that every sense of every person in the congregation was fully stimulated, thus making them more receptive to the messages which would be delivered before communion. The vestments of the priests were covered by the outer garments, the chasuble and the stole. Both garments were made of white silk embroidered in gold thread and encrusted with precious stones. The leading priest carried a gold crook to emphasise his seniority. A dozen altar boys, almost invisible, trailed at the back of the procession.

The procession now entered the railed altar area. Gold candelabras on the altar were magically lit as the priest approached. The procession split in two, so that both sides of the altar could be lined, leaving the principle priest isolated on the centre stage. The altar was now ablaze with light. The golden candlesticks and the central gold tabernacle formed a glittering backdrop.

The mass started immediately, with the priest chanting the simple prayers in Latin to which the congregation responded.

‘Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.’

‘Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.’

Some prayers the priest muttered to himself and then proclaimed aloud.

‘Introibo ad altare Dei.’

‘Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.’

These prayers never varied and Ximene found it the most boring performance.

Then came readings from the books of the Roman church. The priest ascended to the pulpit nearly twenty feet above the congregation, and read a passage from the gospel. After completion of the gospel, the priest always gave a sermon, usually about the need to avoid sin; particularly ‘sins of the flesh’, and occasionally about some special needs of the church, often an appeal for donations.

On this day as the priest started to speak, the mass ceased to be boring.

‘My Children, there are sinners amongst us! Not merely sinners but brazen heretics, heretics who practice vile immorality.’

There was a mutter from his audience. Conditioned by the need to make responses, they repeated the last words.

Vile Immorality.’

A silence then fell on the congregation. A silence so intense it seemed to have sound of its own. The congregation strained to hear the Priest’s next words.

‘The sinners know who they are, as do the heretics.’

Heretics.’

Heads turned in the expectation that sinners and heretics would in some way identify themselves, which of course they didn’t.

‘The Holy Church is most considerate in its treatment of sinners and heretics. All we require is that you confess the error of your ways and you will be forgiven.’

Forgiven.

‘However, those who have been baptized and educated in the true faith or have been once forgiven and then turn again to heresy should know that they are a special case. We, the Church and its ministers are responsible for your salvation. We will be compelled to save your souls and to prevent them infecting others with your heresy. We will resort to torture and execution.’

Pipa whispered to Ximene, ‘Some of this lot would welcome the spectacle.’

Ximene put her finger to her lips. Now was not the time for one of Pipa’s outbursts.

‘Because we are dealing with heresy, none of you are exempt from these extreme measures. You must inform us of any unusual activities on the part of your friends, neighbours and families.’

Friends, neighbours and family.’

A rumble of whispered conversation rippled through the church.

A sudden wail came from a member of the congregation overcome at this thought.

The priest seized on the opportunity. ‘Yes, yes it is only right that you are afraid! The church has offered a road to salvation but if this road is rejected then the Holy Inquisition will pursue you and inflict the most terrible punishment on you.’

 

For the first time in her life, Ximene felt real fear.


Once they had returned to the Chateau and were taking solace in the privacy of their own rooms, Lady Eleanor turned to her granddaughter.

‘You realise that was a direct threat against you? The road to salvation is your marriage to the Prince; the rejection would be your refusal to marry the Prince and possibly our plans for you to escape. But how could he possibly know about this?’

Ximene thought carefully. ‘I have no idea.’

Lady Eleanor also thought for several seconds. ‘It is possible, I have seen all this many times before. It is the technique of the Inquisition. They make accusations against an individual, whether or not they are well founded. They then take the individual into custody and promise forgiveness if they can give information on someone else’s faults.’

‘And people then give information?’ Ximene hesitated, ‘under torture?’

‘They do not resort to torture in the first instance. Torture is reserved for those who are particularly strong in their faith.’

‘So what makes people co-operate if they are not tortured?’

‘Without a doubt, the chief tool of the Inquisition is terror; fear of the unknown.’

‘Informers believe that if they do not co-operate, they will be tortured or burned at the stake?’

‘Yes, desperate to escape the clutches of the Inquisition, they inform on friends and neighbours. Often they make up or embellish stories.’

‘So if the stories are false, what good is that to the Inquisition?’

‘Each of those they give information about then becomes a source of further information. Those who are informed upon make counter accusations. The Inquisition then cross-references the stories in search of discrepancies. They have had a hundred years to perfect their techniques and have no need for haste as they have been given permission to incarcerate people without trial. They use a small army of the very worst in society: thieves, murderers, and rapists serve the inquisition to get reparation for their sins, and likely enjoy every minute of it!’

‘So you think the Inquisition is here in Foix.’

‘Not in strength or we would know about it, but possibly in an advisory capacity.’

‘What are they trying to do?’

‘Remind us that marriage to the Prince is not an option but compulsory. It changes nothing. You will either choose to marry the Prince or choose to escape and be beyond their reach.’

‘Grandmother, I have already chosen.’

The most dangerous woman in the world