Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Cathars and the Start of the Inquisition


For many of us the Inquisition brings up frightening images of black robed men questioning terrified prisoners, torturing them and then having them burned at the stake. Most of us also associate the Inquisition with the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries, which was set up to guarantee the orthodoxy of people who had converted to Catholicism from Islam and Judaism. So you may be surprised to learn that the Inquisition had actually been set up much earlier in the 13th century by the Papacy, in response to a heresy that had swept the Languedoc region of south west France. This heresy that so alarmed the Church, was Catharism, a dualist sect that believed that the material world was intrinsically evil and ruled by a dark deity that was sometimes called Rex Mundi or King of the World and that the god of light and goodness, whom they worshipped, existed entirely in the spiritual realms. The Catholic Church dominated most of Europe during the Middle Ages, and this Church, headed by the Pope in Rome, demanded that the beliefs and rituals that they espoused were adhered to rigidly and uniformly across the continent. Even powerful rulers could not escape the controlling hand of the Church, as the Pope routinely punished Kings who stepped out of line by excommunicating them or putting their lands under interdict, which punished the whole populace by closing churches and not allowing sacraments such as marriage, baptism or anointing of the sick to take place.

Cathars Being Expelled From Carcassone 1209


Although many heretical sects sprung up during the Middle Ages, it was the Cathars who seemed to be especially loathed by the Church of Rome. The Languedoc in medieval times was a vibrant, prosperous region that was culturally diverse and unusually tolerant of other religions. The Catholic Church also enjoyed an incredibly bad reputation in the region, as the local clergy were regarded as lazy, ignorant, grasping and dissolute. They were so venal and corrupt that they had become figures of fun, and increasingly the local populace was failing to pay their tithes and even laughed off the excommunications that the hapless clergy handed out as punishments. Practise what you preach certainly was not one of their mottoes and even Pope Innocent III scathingly referred to the clergy of Narbonne as ‘dumb dogs who can no longer bark’. In sharp contrast, the Cathar holy men and women, who were known as Perfect, led stringently ascetic lives of prayer, self denial, fasting and preaching.  Not only that, the Cathar Perfect were also supremely indifferent to what their followers, known as credentes, did in their material lives, as everything concerned with matter was tainted by evil. So activities that horrified the Catholic Church, such as not paying taxes, not attending church services, drinking too much, or having sex before marriage were not judged, and until a soul chose to follow the hard path of a Perfect and free themselves from the endless cycle of reincarnation, regarded as irrelevant. The Cathar Perfect preached a litany of peace, light and tolerance and even believed in the spiritual and material equality of women, much to the horror of the medieval Catholic Church.




At first the Papacy tried to stem the tide of heresy by debate and persuasion. Pope Innocent III sent three papal legates, Arnold Amaury, Peter of Castelnau and Brother Raoul into the Languedoc to bring the heretics back into the fold of the true faith. Although Innocent III’s instincts would have been to toss the Cathars straight onto the nearest bonfire, they had powerful protectors in the local nobility. These nobles, men such as Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, Count Raymond Roger of Foix and Viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel, were themselves in the main Cathar sympathisers, who had relatives and friends who were Cathar Perfect. These local noblemen provided the venues for these debates, which attracted huge crowds of spectators, between the papal legates and the Cathars, and provided security for the heretics. These intense, theological debates could last as long as a week, with the Cathars airing their extensive knowledge of the New Testament and using the example of their blameless and holy lives against the Catholic’s arguments of orthodoxy and submission to an all powerful Church.  The three papal legates travelled the length of the Languedoc, trying to cajole and argue the heretics back to orthodoxy, in great style, with a large retinue and all the pomp due to the Pope’s representatives. However, they were rarely welcomed in a town or village and were treated with derision and even death threats. By 1206 the three papal legates were exhausted and admitting defeat in Montpellier, when they were approached by two Spanish friars, one of whom was the future St Dominic and founder of the Dominican order. The two Spaniards suggested a different approach and persuaded the weary legates to resume their journeying, but this time to travel on foot, begging alms and living the simple, ascetic lives of their Cathar Perfect opponents. So they took to the road again, accompanied by two Spaniards, but their level of conversions back to the ‘truth faith’ was still pitiful.




Innocent III’s patience was beginning to wear thin and in 1200 he issued a decree that allowed for the property of a convicted heretic to be seized by their persecutor, and also ensure that their family was disinherited.  Moreover, the decree stated that any Catholic who refused to ferret out and hunt down heretics was also liable to lose all their property and possessions. A major thorn in the flesh of the Pope, was Raymond VI of Toulouse, who had made a career out of being excommunicated, and would routinely promise to hunt down the heretic Cathars and then never quite get around to it. As the debates were not producing converts in any great numbers, Innocent III had come to the conclusion that a military campaign would have to be undertaken against the Languedoc to bring it back into submission to the Church. He tried to interest the rulers and nobility of Europe in this undertaking, but unfortunately for him Raymond VI of Toulouse was in theory a vassal of King Philippe Auguste of France, and these feudal loyalties kept the French ruler from the fray. However, in 1208 the spark that Innocent III needed to fuel his war plans was ignited, when one of the papal legates, Peter of Castelnau, was murdered on the road, after having spent time negotiating with Raymond VI on the subject of his latest excommunication and set of punishments. Raymond, who had been heard threatening Peter of Castelnau, was the prime suspect and voluntarily submitted himself to the humiliation of a public scourging before fleeing north to join the Crusade that was now massing against the Languedoc.

For the next few decades the Languedoc was torn apart by invading armies, who besieged towns, destroyed crops, and held mass burnings of any Cathars and their sympathisers that they could get their hands on.  The Cathar Perfect themselves did not fight or take part in any of the violence, but their credentes and many of the local Catholics fought valiantly to defend them. One of the most famous quotes of the conflict reputedly uttered by Arnold Amaury just before the massacre at Béziers in 1209 was ‘Kill them all, God will know his own’, showing that the Crusaders were at least equal opportunity killers. However, for the Catholic Church, even after all the bloody years of warfare, they still had not totally eradicated the Cathars and their followers.  They needed a new way to mop up the remnants of the heresy and to ensure that it could never flourish again. The bishops had always had the option of calling a diocesan court to interrogate and condemn heretics, before they were ‘relaxed to the secular arm’ for a swift and fatal trip to the bonfire. However, many bishops did not show the rigour and enthusiasm for pursuing heretics that the papacy would have liked, and so when Gregory IX ascended the papal throne in 1227 he appointed special papal legates, gave them wide sweeping prosecutorial powers and sent them into the Languedoc to deal with the Cathars once and for all. These papal attack dogs offered cash bounties to anyone who was willing to denounce a Cathar, with the added bonus that the heretic’s property would also be seized and split between the informer, the Church and the Crown.  But even with these cash incentives, the local population showed no real enthusiasm for betraying their neighbours, and the numbers of Cathars betrayed remained small.  So in 1233 the Pope put together a task force, recruited from the Dominicans, dedicated to the total suppression of Catharism and installed these papal inquisitors in Albi, Toulouse and Carcassonne.

St Dominic Presiding Over a Cathar Burning by Pedro Berruguete


These inquisitors were experts in breeding an atmosphere of terror and suspicion, were excellent administrators and record keepers, and were not prone to showing any mercy. They were, unsurprisingly, despised by the Cathars and their sympathisers, and also by the local clergy, as they were backed directly by the Pope, so could ride roughshod with impunity over the local religious administration. The way it worked was that the inquisitor would arrive in a town or village with his clerks and armed guard and set up shop. After a swift consultation with the local churchmen, the inquisitor would then summon all men over the age of fourteen and women over the age of 12 to make a profession of orthodox faith. Any person who did not comply was put first in the queue for questioning. Any Cathar Perfect caught up in the proceedings would always the first to be winkled out, as the swearing of oaths was against their beliefs. The rest of the population was then read a sermon that exhorted them to examine their lives for any potentially heretical activities and gave them a seven day period of grace in which to denounce themselves or their neighbours. The inquisitors had a wide range of offenses in their armoury to prosecute people with, including being a Cathar Perfect, an offence which always attracted the death penalty, protecting a Perfect, giving the melioramentum when meeting a Perfect, being a witness the Cathar ritual of the consolamentum, or simply not being prepared to grass on your friends. The only way to prove decisively to the Inquisition that you had forsaken your heretical activities and associates was to name names, the more names the better, as the Inquisition was putting together an exhaustive register of all the Cathars and their sympathisers who had managed to survive in the Languedoc.

If you were unlucky enough to have been interrogated by the Inquisition you would have been subjected to hours of repetitive questioning that was designed to unsettle you, and make you wonder who exactly it was that denounced you and what they had told the inquisition about you and your family. You probably would have not been told what the charges were against you, as that would have given you the right to know who had accused you. If you wanted a lawyer to speak for you, the unfortunate lawyer would swiftly find themselves condemned also for supporting heresy.  Appeals were not allowed, and like modern referees in sport, the inquisitors’ decision was final. Over the years, the inquisitors began to introduce torture, and by 1252 the use of torture had been officially sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV in his papal bull ad extirpanda.  Supposedly, only one session of torture was allowed in order to obtain a confession, but the resourceful inquisitors found many ways to get around this inconvenient ruling, as well as other rulings such as not torturing underage children, not shedding blood or killing prisoners under torture.  However, technically the inquisitor could not even get the ball rolling unless people were prepared to denounce their neighbours or even their own family members, as to secure a conviction the inquisitor had to get two witnesses.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, there were always people who were ready to take this opportunity to rid themselves of a few enemies, and then as the list of names grew larger, the net of the inquisition was able to be cast ever wider throughout the community. The craftier locals when they were called for questioning gave out the names of members of the community who were already dead. The inquisition called their bluff in a manner that horrified the locals, as they then went to the local cemetery, disinterred the corpses of the accused deceased, marched the rotting corpses through the streets and then flung them into the flames of a hastily lit bonfire. The inquisitor would then move on to the surviving family members of the deceased heretics, seizing their property, imposing tough penances on them, throwing them in prison or making them wear garments that had a yellow crosses sewn on them to mark them out as being associated with heresy.

Not surprisingly, the Dominican inquisitors were hugely unpopular and feared throughout the Languedoc, and there were incidents where the inquisitors were abused, thrown down wells or severely beaten. By 1243 the Catholic authorities were seriously unamused at this harassment of their chosen representatives, which had been exacerbated by the massacre of two inquisitors and their retinue at Avignonet in 1242. The decision was taken that the last Cathar refuge, the fortress at Montségur, would be besieged and the Cathar Perfect and credentes sheltering behind its walls would be wiped out. After months of siege Montségur fell and around 200 Cathars were burned, although, in a rare fit of clemency, the garrison of the fortress were free to go if they abjured their support for heresy. The back of the Cathar heresy had been broken, but the Inquisition machine was implacable and relentless in its need to destroy every last trace of the heresy that so revolted them, and so they continued to terrorise the Languedoc for a hundred years after the end of the Albigensian Crusade, until the very last Cathar Perfect, Guillaume Bélibaste was burned at the stake in 1321.

Unfortunately, the inquisition would go on to grow and develop for the next six hundred years and bring terror and suspicion to many countries in Europe and Latin America, and thousands of innocent souls would lose their lives so that the Catholic Church could maintain its iron grip on the hearts and minds of Christendom. The Languedoc before the ravages of the Albigensian Crusade and the ensuing persecutions of the Inquisition had been a vibrant, tolerant, prosperous land, full of culture, learning and joy, but by the time that the inquisitors had left, the region was a ravaged, empty shell. The Languedoc was now just a poor, backwater region that had been assimilated into the kingdom of France and even these days it could be said that it has not fully recovered economically from these tragic events.

Cathar image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
St Dominic Presiding Over a Cathar Burning by Pedro Berruguete Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain





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