The Good Men

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Author Charmaine Craig was an undergraduate at Harvard University studying medieval history when she came upon the real fourteenth century Inquisition testimony of a Frenchwoman named Grazida Lizier. Grazida’s story captured her imagination, so, after additional research in France, she wrote a novel based on the historical documents.

On its surface, The Good Men is about the Inquisition coming to the small French village of Montaillou to root out heresy. But what it is really about is erotic longing and how to come to terms with it. In this way, and in its main narrative of a priest’s love for a young village girl, the novel is reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The “Good Men” are Cathars, a radical Christian sect who believed that the world was formed by Satan and that human beings are spirits captured in earthly forms because of sin. They eschewed all pleasures of the flesh, including eating meat and fornicating. They are the main target of the Catholic Church in the novel. The secondary target is the priest Pierre Clergue, who is unable to keep his vow of celibacy.

This novel evokes the intense spiritual conflict of the people of medieval France, laypeople and churchmen alike. Should one turn one’s back on a world where death could strike without warning in truly horrific forms, like leprosy, syphilis, and childbirth, and focus on returning to one’s true, spiritual state? Or should one relish what brief joys the world has to offer—the beauty of nature, the pleasure of sex? Is there a middle ground?

These questions still resonate in contemporary society with the child sexual abuse scandals roiling the Catholic Church and its insistence on continuing to make a split between spirit and flesh. In contrast, the priest in The Good Men, his entire life a spiritual crisis, eventually realizes that “he could not distinguish the end of flesh from the beginning of Spirit, the end of Echo [Grazida] from the beginning of God.”