138. The Secret Dictionary

Part 6 of the 'Perfectionism' series. (Starts here.) Part 3 of the 'Tunnel' series. (Starts here.)

ONE OF THE MOST intriguing mysteries in the history of dictionaries has come to be known as the Secret Dictionary of the Cathars, whose very existence is a matter of considerable debate. In January of 1952, Professor Jean-Daniel Mirabeau, an historian at the University of Montpellier, received a letter from Savage & Co, a London solicitor’s firm that has since been dissolved, purporting to represent an anonymous Argentinian benefactor. This benefactor, the letter continued, wanted to commission a dictionary and grammar of medieval Occitan, “in order to further the study of the poetry of the troubadours”, for which he would be handsomely recompensed. Mirabeau replied favourably to the letter and within months had received permission from the university to take a year’s leave in order to complete the commission. Unlike dictionaries of medieval Occitan published before and since, Mirabeau's dictionary benefited from the author being granted full and unprecedented access to the Vatican Secret Archives, which are rumoured to house the only surviving religious texts of the Cathars, also known as Albigensians or Bogomils. His Dictionnaire de l'occitan medieval was completed, in manuscript form, in 1954, and upon its completion the professor was paid twenty million francs, enough at the time to allow him to retire in comfort, which he subsequently did, moving with his wife to an unknown location in the CĂ©vennes. From one day to the next, he ceased all correspondence with his former colleagues. The professor had been known to be politically conservative and had long complained that the French university system had been hijacked by Marxists, so when he disappeared so suddenly, the news was met with a mixture of relief and apathy. However, only three years later, in 1957, a glowing obituary of Professeur Mirabeau appeared in the Catholic newspaper La Croix. The cause of death was poisoning, and although authorities deemed his death a suicide, the professor was given a Catholic burial usually denied to suicides in a cemetery in suburban Toulouse. Thereafter, reports of the existence of the dictionary were widely dismissed as rumour, at least until the letter from the London solicitor to the professor was discovered among the personal effects of the professor's widow in 1987. It was found by Loic Duhamel, a young French police detective based in Perpignan whose interest in the matter was extra-curricular. In an unpublished report written at that time, Duhamel wrote that the widow had given him the letter from the solicitor, which she had kept, she said, against her husband’s will, as a memento of their happiest days. The letter indicates that the commission was made on the condition that, upon submission of the dictionary,the professor would destroy all of his notes, and furthermore undertake to abstain from any and all future research in this field. The Cathar dictionary passed into the hands of the benefactor and has not been seen or heard of since. However, in the course of his 1987 investigation, Inspecteur Duhamel discovered that one of the London solicitor’s principal clients at the time of the commission was the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, otherwise known as the Vatican Bank, which had been set up only the previous decade, in 1942. While Duhamel found no conclusive proof that the two discoveries were related, he believed it possible that the dictionary had been all along intended to end up in the Vatican Secret Archives. Cardinal Alfons Stickler, the Vatican librarian at the time of Duhamel's investigation, has since dismissed the theory as baseless speculation. Whatever the case, if the secret dictionary does indeed exist, it has since been superseded, notably by the 1996 dictionary compiled by Helmut Stimm and Wolf-Dieter Stempel, as well as the 2009 Philippe Olivier dictionary of Auvergnat Occitan.

(Next 'Perfectionism' story.)
(Next 'Tunnel' story.)