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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Another Da Vinci Code in France’s Cathar Country?

A few years ago, while guiding a hiking group through the land of the Cathars in southwestern France, I stepped inside St. Volusien’s Church in Foix, a city known for its atmospheric castle and heretical heritage. I had previously visited that medieval church (much of which was destroyed and rebuilt) to research my historical novel, The Fire and the Light, set during the brutal 13th-century Albigensian Crusade.

But on this second stroll through the church, I noticed a remarkable frieze under an altar bordering the right aisle. When I looked closer, I found a depiction of the Last Supper–with a woman seated next to Jesus. I called my fellow hikers over to share my discovery. They, too, were intrigued.

Foix Altar Frieze

Altar Frieze (Photo credit: Bram Moerland)

I was struck by several odd features on the altar. First, there seem to be only eleven Apostles shown, including the woman. Where is the twelfth Apostle? Has Judas already departed? And if the woman to Christ’s left is Mary Magdalene, which of the other traditional Apostles was left off?

Closeup of Frieze (Photo credit: Bram Moerland)

Closeup of Frieze (Photo credit: Bram Moerland)

Do you see the man seated in front of the table, third from the right? If you zoom in, he appears to have something cloaked hovering on his back. Are those legs and feet dangling behind him? There also appear to be two arms emerging from near the same left shoulder. If this was meant to be another Apostle, why is his face obscured? There is plenty of space between the second and third Apostles for another head. And would an Apostle really be depicted sitting on the table? That seems inappropriate, given the gravity of the occasion.

Foix Altar Zoom copy

Under the chin of the second Apostle from the right, is that a furtive face turning away from Christ? Or merely a play of shadows?

What message is being conveyed by this scene? Is the Apostle with the draped body on his back preparing to carry it away? Is there some sort of conspiracy afoot here, even a switch of identities perhaps? I began thinking about some of the apocryphal traditions that claimed a substitute was made for Jesus before the Crucifixion.

Maybe the artist simply decided to cut corners by hiding one Apostle’s head behind another’s. Or, perhaps I need my eyeglasses checked and my imagination curbed.

One of our hikers was an elderly Catholic priest from Mexico, a wonderful man who endured with grace my commentary about the horrors inflicted by the papal armies and the Dominicans on the Occitans and Cathars. I led him to the altar frieze and, with an arched brow and sly grin, asked, “Well, Father? How do you explain this in a consecrated church?”

He studied the frieze for a moment. Then, he suggested, “Maybe it’s not the Last Supper.”

“Come on, Father,” I said in a good-natured taunt. “Do you really expect us to believe that somebody went to all the trouble and expense to create this beautiful tableau of a gathering that was merely similar to the Last Supper?”

He shrugged, and we agreed to attribute the strangeness of the altar to the mystery of God’s ways. Yet at the end of our journey, he had seen so many unorthodox symbols in Occitan churches that I suspect he went back to Mexico at least a little perplexed.

The Church of St. Volusien in Foix, France

The Church of St. Volusien in Foix, France

I returned to the States and tried to learn more about this altar, but its origins proved elusive and seemed lost to the mists of history. I had reluctantly abandoned my quest until this week, when Anneke Koremans, a travel guide who researches and writes books about Occitan mysteries, posted online the photograph below of a painting that hangs in the 13th century Eglise Saint-Vincent in Carcassonne, another city with a bloody heretical past. Bram Moerland, a Dutch author who writes and lectures about the Cathars and Gnosticism, followed up her post with a link to his photographs of the Foix frieze.

Mary Magdalene in St. Vincent's Carcassonne

Eglise Saint-Vincent (Photo credit: Anneke Koremans)

This painting in Eglise Saint-Vincent is subtler, but notice the unusually red lips and feminine hair on St. John? Maybe I’m just seeing things again, or was this artist also trying to convey a hidden message? There is a tradition in southern France that Mary Magdalene spent the last years of her life there. Koremans shares my suspicions about the altar frieze in Foix, but she said no one, to her knowledge, has ever identified the artist or the origins of the sculpture. And if someone so versed in Occitan esoterica is stumped, the significance of these features may well remain a mystery.

“Often, these friezes, statues and paintings—as soon as they contain some hidden clues—are donated to the church without revealing the artist’s name,” Koremans said.

One lesson I learned from my sojourns through Cathar Country: Nothing there is ever what it appears on the surface. While meandering one afternoon through the old basilica of Sainte-Nazaire in Carcassonne, I saw a sign announcing the church had been home to the “Roman Catholic Cult” since 1096. Was this a clumsy English translation, or did some unbowed Occitan docent—as perhaps did those unknown artists of the frieze in Foix and the painting in Carcassonne—insist on having the last word?

You can read more about Foix, St. Volusien’s Church, and the Albigensian Crusade in my historical novel, The Fire and the Light.


(Thanks to Bram Moerland and www.gnostiek.nl for the use of the St. Volusien frieze photographs, and to Anneke Koremans ( www.jeannedaout.com and www.panoccitania.com/annekeguide) for the Eglise St. Vincent photograph. More photographs can be seen at www.gnostiek.nl/MariaMagdalena/MMFoix)

For those interested in walking the ancient paths of Cathar Country, I assist Judy Colaneri and Spanish Steps with guided hiking tours of the region.

Quarterdeck Magazine Praises THE VIRGIN OF THE WIND ROSE as a “Highly Recommended Historical Thriller in the Manner of Dan Brown.”

The world’s flagship magazine for all things nautical has signaled flank speed for Glen Craney’s dual-period thriller about Christopher Columbus, calling it “an exciting journey across time, with more twists and turns than a strawberry Twizzler.”

“Craney has produced a page-turning adventure, with crisp, clean and measured prose, a reflection on his past work as a screenwriter, journalist and lawyer,” writes reviewer Joseph Henderson in the Fall 2015 issue of Quarterdeck magazine. “The research behind the stories is massive, lending credence to the cast of characters and authenticity to the historic periods. This is a highly recommended historical thriller in the manner of Dan Brown.”

Quarterdeck Virgin Review

In the novel, while investigating the murder of an American missionary in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with decoding an ancient Latin palindrome embedded with a cryptographic time bomb. Separated by half a millennium, two global conspiracies dovetail in the breakneck thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to launch the End of Days.


Craney is a screenwriter, novelist, journalist, and lawyer. After graduating with honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he joined the Washington, D.C. press corps and covered national politics and the Iran-contra scandal for Congressional Quarterly magazine. His feature screenplay, Whisper the Wind, about the Navajo codetalkers of World War II, was awarded the Nicholl Fellowship prize by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences for best new screenwriting. His debut novel, The Fire and the Light, received several honors, including being named Best New Fiction by the National Indie Excellence Awards and a Finalist/Honorable Mention Winner by Foreword Magazine for its Book of the Year in Historical Fiction. Earlier this year, he was named a double Finalist by Foreword Reviews for its BOYTA.

The full print Quarterdeck review can be read here.

The Virgin of the Wind Rose: A Christopher Columbus Mystery-Thriller is available for purchase in bookstores and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Itunes.


Following in the Footsteps of Heretics and Saints

In France’s Cathar country, hikers track a lost medieval faith
along castle ruins where the Inquisition’s fires once raged.    

Solvitur ambulando, St. Augustine advised the perplexed. It is solved by walking.

Maybe, but the saint’s confidence in the strolling cure surely would have been tested had he blistered his soles on the chalky causses and shrouded peaks of southwestern France. In the alluring region once known as Occitania, ramblers who love stepping back into time are finding a rewarding alternative to Spain’s popular Camino to Santiago de Compostela. Yet many return from their treks across this romantic land of troubadours and the Holy Grail still troubled by the question that drew them in the first place: Why, in the 13th century, did the Roman Catholic Church wage a war of extermination there against a sect of pacifist Christians?

Hoping to benefit from the modern revival of medieval pilgrimages, French tourism officials now encourage hikers to come quest for the answers to this question and the many others that swirl around a vanished group of ascetic vegetarians called Cathars, or the Pure Ones. Condemned as heretics, the Cathars rejected the authority of Rome and believed in reincarnation instead of Hell. They saw the world as a battleground between a benevolent God of Light and an evil Demiurge who conspired with the papacy to imprison souls in flesh.

Termes Castle (Credit: Spanish Steps)

When the Counts of Toulouse and other Occitan nobles tried to protect these religious dissidents from annihilation, the Church and the kings of France hammered them with a brutal war of terror and stole their domains during the infamous Albigensian Crusade. Today, the fiercely independent descendents of these Occitan martyrs remain proud of their rebellious heritage. Some even keep the memory of the persecution alive by reading on New Year’s Eve from the papal bull that condemned their forefathers to be hunted like wolves.

Backpackers who now hoof it up in increasing numbers to the vertiginous Cathar ruins should be grateful at least that they don’t have to skulk through dangerous forests at night as did starving fugitives eight hundred years ago. Instead, they can enjoy the well-marked Cathar Sentier (“Way”), a maintained artery of trails that stretches 150 miles from the Mediterranean coast to the castle-crowned city of Foix.

A couple of years ago, legendary Camino guide Judy Colaneri invited me to help lead incursions into the land of heresy for her hiking-tour company, Spanish Steps. I had last traveled to Occitania over a decade earlier to research my historical novel about Esclarmonde de Foix, the Cathar Joan of Arc. I approached the homecoming with excitement and not a little trepidation, worried–needlessly, as it turned out–that I’d find the Pays Cathare (Cathar Country) changed for the worse by the passage of time and the increase in tourism.

Our twelve-day walking itinerary combined historical sites with the most scenic of the Sentier trails (marked on stones and trees by red and blue stripes) and the more ubiquitous GR (“grande randonnée”) trails. Many hikers avoid straying from the Sentier to take advantage of the gites and pubs that have sprung up along the way. Colaneri, however, lodges her clients for two or three nights at a time in stunning villages off the beaten path, then transports them by van to the start of the next day’s hike to avoid the constant hassle of repacking. And rather than be hamstrung by unyielding French restaurants hours, Colaneri, an accomplished chef in Aspen during the hiking off-season, serves up delicious picnic lunches on the trails with produce purchased fresh from local markets.

Our group of veteran hikers included three American couples, a lady from Toronto, and a Catholic priest stationed in Mexico. We met up near the Mediterranean coast in Béziers, a city that witnessed the start of the Cathar wars with one of Christianity’s darkest hours. In 1209, a papal army from the north demanded that the local Catholics surrender their heretic neighbors, but the tolerance-loving Biterrois refused. Enraged, the invaders stormed the walls in an orgy of slaughter that historian Stephen O’Shea called “the Guernica of the Middle Ages,” a comparison to the German Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town in 1937. Ordered to burn the city’s cathedral with its thousands of refugees, even the bloodthirsty Crusaders hesitated, aware that more Catholic than heretic residents cowered inside. Unmoved, the papal legate reportedly insisted, “Kill them all. God will know His own.”

Today, a few stones from the original foundations that witnessed these horrors can be seen in the reconstructed cathedral of Sainte Nazaire. Modern Béziers remains a bit scruffy and singed on the edges, giving the impression of having never fully recovered from Rome’s treachery. So, anxious to get into the countryside, we strapped on our trekking poles and headed west, where the trail of the Crusaders became even more scorched.

Old Occitania is dotted with villages ravaged by Simon de Montfort, the Catholic knight most devoted to killing in God’s honor. Modern inhabitants of the Languedoc still curse the memory of this ruthless commander who gouged out the eyes of prisoners and threw women into wells. A fellow novelist told me she once made the mistake of remarking to a taxi driver in Carcassonne that her favorite historical character was the son of Montfort, Simon IV, who became a champion of England’s Parliament. The driver was so indignant that he braked to a stop and ordered the woman to get out.


Tiny Minerve in the Hérault region suffered Montfort’s wrath with particular severity. Its population now dwindled to just over a hundred, this sleepy cluster of sun-baked houses is now recognized by Les Plus Beaux Villages de France as one of the country’s most beautiful locales. Hikers can approach it from a surrounding gorge and stare up at what remains of the tower that held out against the Crusaders for six weeks. A modern monument carved with a dove, a Cathar symbol, overlooks the spot where 140 heretics were burned.

Sobered by Minerve’s fate, we headed south to the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide, which served as headquarters for the monastic campaign against the heretics. Both St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Dominic preached in the vineyard-laced plains that surround this 12th century enclave of ochre sandstone. Now privately owned and installed with a winery, Fontfroide held a surprise for us that afternoon: a French television company was filming a documentary about the Inquisition, and the cloisters were filled with tonsured monks and menacing soldiers in bowl-shaped helmets. During shooting breaks, the actors lit cigarettes and mingled with ogling tourists. One of my most jarring memories is of a beady-eyed Inquisitor strolling past me while puffing rings of smoke from his death stick.

The next morning, we ventured out past a looming turret that overlooks the spot where the last known Cathar holy man was sent to the stake. Eight miles later, at the castle of Termes, we emerged from a mud-slicked forest into a sunny pasture guarded by sheep dogs more vicious than Crusader mastiffs. Each segment of the Sentier has its own quirks and character; depending on the weather and the condition of one’s feet, a day’s worth of ground covered can cast one into a state of bliss, or bring understanding why the Cathars deemed the world to be a vale of suffering.

Farther west up the trail, a cylinder of stone called Queribus reaches for the heavens like a space capsule about to be launched. Across the valley stands its sister castle, Peyrepetruse, which tests the visitor with an ascent of slippery footstones diabolically slanted to cast intruders into the abyss. Those tired of craning their necks skyward can find relief a few miles south in the Galamus Gorge, a plummeting gash once inhabited by Christian hermits. A single car lane through the rocks with its hairpin turns instructs even the most ardent of atheist car drivers on the purpose of prayer.

As the days of walking hurried by too quickly, each with its own fascinating tale of medieval woe and mystery, we veered northeast to spend two nights shadowed by the tallest peak in the area. Bugarach has long been associated with UFO sightings and underground colonies; the science-fiction writer Jules Verne was said to have based Journey to the Center of the Earth on his experiences here. The village at the foot of the heights has even become a haven for those convinced that the world will end in 2012.

Foix Castle

There must be something in the water of the many underground streams around Bugarach. Another local village, a mere eight-mile jaunt through grazing cattle and kissing gates, is not about to relinquish its title as conspiracy capital of the world. Rennes le Chateau became a tourist magnet with the exploding popularity of The Da Vinci Code. When a local 19th century parish priest began throwing large sums of money around, the Church attributed his sudden wealth to the unlawful sale of masses. But others suspect the priest found something of incalculable value—perhaps the Ark of the Covenant, a Cathar treasure, buried Visigoth gold, or even the remains of Mary Magdalene.

A wet June snow reminded us that we were gaining altitude as we trudged northwest toward Tarascon-sur-Ariege and the white peaks of the Pyrenees. Our next destination was Niaux cave of prehistoric fame, one of the many natural underground cathedrals in the Ariege that gave refuge to heretics. Local historians have claimed that ancient hermetic teachings, hinted at in the Holy Grail legends, were preserved by the Cathars in these haunting caverns.

“From the dawn of time, early humans were drawn to Occitania for its powerful natural energies,” explained popular guide and author, Anneke Koremans. “The entire region is sacred.”

With our journey nearing its end, we circled back down the Ariege valley toward the ruins of Montsegur castle, the ultimate goal for many pilgrims to Occitania. On this fortified peak that became the Cathar Masada, the heretics maintained a seminary and doled out blessings and what donations of food could be spared. Hundreds of believers came here to die, carried to the top by mules at the night to avoid capture. Only a few skeletons have been found on the mount, leading some to speculate that an undiscovered necropolis may lie deep within its bowels.


A heavy rain on the evening we arrived had turned the switchback path up the mount into a treacherous stream of mud. My fellow hikers decided to postpone their climb until the next morning, but I slogged on up the western face alone. A half-hour later, I stood three thousand feet above the valley and leaned against Montsegur’s ancient wall to catch my breath. The sun broke through dark clouds to welcome me with a hug of warmth. Maybe, I thought, the legends about mystical occurrences here were not so far-fetched.

Thousands come to Montsegur each year to remember the 220 Cathars—including a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter—who were burned here in 1244 after a brutal nine-month siege. Terraces excavated on its slope reveal where the malnourished refugees huddled in huts while praying for a good death. Surrendering Occitan soldiers were allowed to avoid execution by offering their allegiance to Rome, but several chose to die in the fires with those whose courage they had come to admire. Legend has it that on the night before the burnings, four defenders escaped down the mount with a mysterious treasure.

On our last morning in Occitania, we walked into the reconstructed medieval city of Carcassonne, once heralded as the Paris of the South. I meandered through the old basilica of Sainte-Nazaire and was greeted by a sign announcing that the church had been home to the “Roman Catholic Cult” since 1096. Was this a clumsy English translation, I wondered, or had some unbowed Occitan docent insisted on having the last word?

On a wall of the nave, I found the famous slab that had once been part of Simon de Montfort’s tomb there, before his remains were removed north to more hospitable surroundings. No epitaph marks the spot, so I whispered one of my own, a line from Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale that best summed up my feelings about this magical land seared by tragedy: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it.”


If You Go: Southwestern France can be reached from Paris, London, or Barcelona. From Charles de Gaulle Airport, take the TGV train to Toulouse or Avignon and transfer to Béziers or Carcassonne. From London, Ryanair has direct flights to Carcassonne. Those preferring a southern approach can take the train up the coast from Barcelona to Perpigan or Beziers.

Spanish Steps (www.spanishsteps.com) and Camino guide Judy Colaneri offer an escorted “Cathars, Castles and Cassoulet” hiking tour with small groups. Support vans, lodging and most meals are included.

Barinka Travel (www.barinca.fr). Local guide and author Anneke Koremans provides a variety of services to English-speaking travelers in old Occitania.

Glen Craney is the author of The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars.