The Cathars & Reincarnation by Arthur Guirdham (1970)

Book review: The Cathars & Reincarnation by Arthur Guirdham (The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd, 1997 [1970])

This is a factual record of a woman who, through dreams and impressions in waking consciousness, remembers her life in the 13th century. As a story of reincarnation it is unique because in reading it we are not depending on the honesty or suggestibility of a person providing the evidence. What she says can be proved.

The author is a doctor of medicine, a psychiatrist, trained to distinguish between fantasy and reality and endowed with a sceptical nature. In investigating this case he played no active psychiatric role but limited himself to acting as an amateur historian to check the patient’s statements. This he did with great care and consulted authorities of international repute.

The woman was a heretic, a Cathar, in the Midi of France in the 13th century. To the public of today little enough is known of this heresy. Twenty-five years ago our knowledge of Catharism was infinitesmal. Yet at this time, as a schoolgirl, the subject of this book was able to recall in writing items of Catharism as yet unknown to the savants.

She was also able to place accurately in their family and social relationships people who were by no means historical characters, who do not appear in the text books, but who we can ultimately trace by going back to the records of the Inquisition.

The author began his researches knowing only her Christian name. He has now pinpointed the very day, more than seven hundred years ago, when she appeared before the Inquisition. He has also discovered the names of her family and collaborators.

The reader will see how remarkably the author’s findings coincide with what was revealed to his patient.

What happened to a small circle in the Languedoc seven centuries ago was remembered and recorded by an English schoolgirl in her early teens.

Phew, that was a lot to type up! It also covers the basics of what the book is about. It’s an account of a doctor who came across a patient in the 1960s who could recall a life as a Cathar in 13th century France. The patient, “Mrs Smith”, had always been very intuitive, and started remembering her past life during her teens. She wrote the snippets down – and when the doctor started looking into verifying her extremely detailed accounts, finding them to be very, very correct.

This was in a time long before the Internet, and before there was much information about the Cathars anywhere, which makes it all the more remarkable. You basically had to know French and look in obscure magazines and plow through history books.

Realistically, Guirdham is preaching to the crowd here. I don’t really see reincarnation as a matter of faith, but as a fact, so do I find it amazing that someone has past life memories? No. Am I amazed at the accuracy of these memories? Oh hell yes. Mrs Smith has all the intricate knowledge of someone who was actually there at the time – and even an expert on the Cathars said that if Guirdham ever was in doubt about the validity of a claim, to go by what Mrs Smith said. That’s pretty amazing.

I can’t help but wonder if Mrs Smith would’ve been happier about her intuitive gifts if she had been around now, when it’s more in the public eye and less frowned upon in general. Anyway, that’s beside the point.

So, okay, I don’t need to be won over about the whole reincarnation thing. If you do, you should still find this book fascinating. I first heard about it when, a few years ago, there was a programme on TV presented by Tony Robinson, about the “medieval reincarnation”. I promptly got hold of all of Guirdham’s books about the Cathar reincarnations, even though I had previously decided I wasn’t going to look into actual information about the Cathars before having dug through my own mind about them, because I didn’t want to be influenced by cryptomnesia. Problem is, I don’t know when I’ll ever get around to it, and in fact, I still haven’t, so sod it.

Carcassonne (not the board game, obviously)
[Wikipedia]

About the book itself, it could have been so much better than it actually is, which is such a shame. The writing is a bit old-fashioned, but then again, it was written in 1970 by someone who wasn’t exactly a spring chicken at the time. (Guirdham was born in 1905.)

The main problelm, however, is that it’s all over the place. Sometimes it’s difficult to make out if he’s talking about himself or Mrs Smith, and it just lacks structure. He keeps referring to things that he’ll “explain later”, and so on, which hinders the reading. It seems to follow chronologically, from when Mrs Smith first comes to him about a persistent nightmare, and then it’s a journey through letters, historical research, talks with her, journeys to France and what have you.

Because the information Mrs Smith gave, and that he indeed encountered himself (the good doctor had a part in the past life too, you see), was so fragmented, it’s difficult to follow at times, and you don’t get a clear picture, other than Mrs Smith knew things in the 1940s that the history buffs wouldn’t be able to confirm or indeed discover until the 1960s. We get that she could name a group of people and their relations with one another, and the existence of these people can all be verified through inquisitorial records from the time in question. But because all the details are spread out and things are mentioned several times, it’s not easy to follow.

If the structure had not been chronological and “this is what her letter dated 5 March 1967 said”, but instead collected and told a coherent story, it would have been the most amazing read. Now it’s just “well, this is all very interesting, theoretically, but meh?” And this is me saying that! (As in, my reaction to this book should be anything but “meh”!) The historically verifiable facts are there, but they’re not presented in a way that makes for very interesting reading. Such a shame.

Never the less, I’ll get on with the next book in the series, and hope that one day, I’ll see both Carcassonne and Montségur. Again. It has, of course, been quite a while … 😉

3.8 out of 5 Parfaits. It gets docked a point for the incoherent organisation of facts.

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