Saint Joan, Montsegur and being burned alive
Put on a play, and you never know what springs into the audience's heads. Everything is filtered through individual experience.
I watched the excellent production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the National theatre on Friday night, and thought about my mother.
Some years ago she chanced upon a book by Arthur Guirdham, We Are One Another. It told the tale of the last adherents of the Cathar religion, who were burned at the stake after the siege ofthe castle of Montsegur in the 13th century. Guirdham's is a tale of group reincarnation - those who died at the stake found themselves reborn in the UK in the 20th century, and coming into contact with each other.
For years my mother had doodled while on the phone, her pad filling with intricate patterns. She saw these patterns duplicated in the book, associated with the Cathar religion. My mother felt a real kinship with these reincarnated folk.
Year later she came to visit us in our French home in the Pyrenees, in the middle of Cathar country. We headed out to Montsegur. The castle is still pretty extant, a medieval pile crowning a hilltop. Our family party began to climb, but my mother had to give up on a flat area near the base. She was breathless. She returned to the car while the rest of us continued our excursion to the summit.
Back in the car, we found her near collapse. She had never felt worse in her life and had thought she was going to die. It had become impossible for her to breathe for a while, her lungs choking.
We had paused on the way down to examine the information signs. From these we had learned that the plain where my mother had been forced to turn around was the spot where the martyrs had all been burned. It was as though, in coming to the site, she had returned to that experience of the flames.
Watching Saint Joan be consumed by the bonfire on the stage of the National, I travelled into something of the experience of those martyrs. Whether or not my mother had lived through that life, the family tale added some intensity to my perspective.