The Passion of Dolssa
By: Julie Berry
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
Dolssa is a young gentlewoman with uncanny gifts, on the run from an obsessed friar determined to burn her as a heretic for the passion she refuses to tame.
Botille is a wily and charismatic peasant, a matchmaker running a tavern with her two sisters in a tiny seaside town.
The year is 1241; the place, Provensa, what we now call Provence, France—a land still reeling from the bloody crusades waged there by the Catholic Church and its northern French armies.
When the matchmaker finds the mystic near death by a riverside, Botille takes Dolssa in and discovers the girl’s extraordinary healing power. But as the vengeful Friar Lucien hunts down his heretic, the two girls find themselves putting an entire village at the mercy of murderers.
I’ll be honest, my interest in this was sparked entirely by a friend’s instagram post and a sudden spur of jealousy. But good things arose from it, ie that I got this book from the library. And now I get to share this with you, lovely readers.
I picked this up thinking it was about the Spanish Inquisition, but I had a surprise: it was actually about Provence, France, which might be best-known for lavender and lovely weather. But it turns out that it was also a well-known hive of ‘heretics’, as defined by the Catholic Church, in the early part of the last millennium. There was even a crusade, the Albigensian Crusade, aimed at eradicating heretics in Provence, which ended in what we would today call numerous human rights abuses and genocide. But The Passion of Dolssa is set a generation or so after all of this, where Catharism is a forbidden, dying sect, but where the strong arm of the Catholic Church is still very much in force.
Dolssa is not a Cathar, but rather a mystic, in the tradition of St Teresa of Avila (yes, I’m a Catholic). She has numerous conversations with Christ, is compelled to preach on his love, and even describes him as her ‘beloved’. She is persecuted, subjected to inquisition and sentenced to be burned at the stake–but she manages to escape. In the meanwhile, the peasant Botille, partial tavern owner and matchmaker for her town, has been sent to retrieve the newly-designated heirs to a vineyard. She finds Dolssa and, along with her two sisters, takes her in and tries to protect her. The narrative bounces between Dolssa and Botille, with a few other voices adding to the picture.
I know multiple narrators is something that people feel strongly about, but I liked the difference between Dolssa and Botille. Dolssa is very naive, a gentlewoman who has never been subjected to much of anything difficult in her life (before her inquisition, that is). Botille, on the other hand, is clever and wily, a worldly figure who is focused on survival. As much as Dolssa is changed by her time with Botille (and her sisters Placenza and Sazia), Botille is changed by Dolssa. Dolssa becomes more aware of the everyday suffering that goes on and the ways that she can contribute, not just by preaching, but by healing. Botille, in reaction, becomes less focused on survival of her and hers, and becomes more compassionate and willing to put herself on the line.
Of course, this isn’t happening in a vacuum, but in a small town on the border between France and Spain. Botille and her sisters are self-acknowledged outsiders, the children of a courtesan who, after a life wandering around with their stepfather, have settled in Bajas. They have made themselves an integral part of the community, but it is still clear that they are still seen as other. Adding to this, Placenza is the most beautiful woman in the town, Sazia can read palms/futures, and Botille has her own potentially magical powers of observation. Their hints of ‘witchcraft’ are not notable for the time, and not subject to inquisition, but it does serve to further set them apart from the villagers, and tie their story with Dolssa’s.
I liked how the culture and village felt realistic. It wasn’t what we would now see as French–in fact, it was shown as very much being a foreign country. The people spoke Oc, not French. The words used could sometimes be connected to things that I knew (Fogata and Foccacia), but sometimes seemed to be their own thing. The inquisitors behaved as I might expect them to behave, following the same procedures I would have understood them to. And the brief interactions with the Cathars piqued my interest as well. It was clear the author had done her research on the era, which impressed me and made the book stand out.
And, interestingly enough, the stories of the inquisitors are also a part of the narrative. It serves as a weirdly humanizing perspective, although also somewhat difficult to process, and at times uncomfortable. The friar’s obsession with Dolssa, for example, stems partially from his view of her as a sex object/temptress. The greater societal issues–like how the Inquisition was also used as a method of getting revenge or wealth–were also touched on. And there was a bit of what seems to be a typical witch hunt trope, where the town goes from worshipping Dolssa as a savior to calling for her death.
So, for a number of reasons, this book caught my attention and held it–from the compelling characters, to the well-researched scenery, and the dark, yet oddly hopeful, look at humanity that it presented. If you’re in the mood to read about the Inquisition, the Passion of Dolssa is a good one to read.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.