I got back from holiday last night. We took the train to Avignon with some friends and stayed in a tiny village in the foothills of the Luberon in Provence. We visited the wine regions of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, played a lot of cards, and I read some fiction for a change – Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, and “The Steep Approach to Garbadale’ by Iain Banks.
Avignon was, for a brief 70 years, home to the papacy, which Clement V relocated out of Rome to avoid civil unrest in 1309. The city is therefore home to the incredible Palais des Papes, an enormous gothic palace/fortress built and rebuilt according to the whims of each succeeding pontif. Wandering around the vast halls and dining rooms of the castle, the enormous wealth and prestige of the Catholic Church is impressive, and also disturbing – such pomp and ceremony is a million miles from the dusty Nazarene origins of the Christian faith.
As an interesting counterpoint to this oppulence, we were staying in the village of Cabrieres D’Avignon, the site of a famous massacre. In 1644 the entire village was brutally slaughtered, by order of the catholic church. The villagers were heretics, part of a sect known as the Waldensians. This breakaway movement had renounced the wealth of the church and pursued generosity and social justice, led by a subversive Lyons merchant who had given away all his possessions and embraced life of poverty.
Obviously, believers who preached poverty and justice were deeply subversive to the medieval hierarchies, and the church excommunicated their leaders and killed their followers.
Reading about the local history, and of common people killed for standing up to the rich powers of the time, I couldn’t help think of the Ogoni people and Shell, the Colombian trade unionists assassinated in Coca Cola bottling plants, or the Amazonian people resisting the mining companies’ exploration in Peru. The powers may have changed, but it’s still heresy to stand in the way of the wealthy.