Friday 8 February 2013

Albigensian Heresy – Who Were the Cathars?

Some events can change the course of history in a country or region, and the rise of the Cathars in the area known as the Languedoc was one of these important historical flashpoints. Today the Languedoc is a peaceful, largely rural, region in the south west of France, stretching from the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees in the west to the borders of Provence in the east. It is a landscape of sun baked plains planted with grape vines, craggy windswept mountains, ruined medieval castles and ancient traditions. But it is a landscape that is still haunted by the memory of the black-robed holy men, who used to travel the roads and mountain paths between the towns and villages in the Middle Ages, spreading their beliefs and arguing against the established orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, which at that time dominated the religious landscape of Europe.


The beliefs held by these itinerant Cathars, were viewed as so threatening by the Church of Rome that they responded by inciting a Crusade against the Cathars and their supporters, which led to the destruction of towns, mass burnings of believers and ultimately to the founding of that precision instrument of terror known as the Inquisition. Because, make no mistake, the Catholic Church was determined that every last Cathar and any of their supporters had to be destroyed and that their terrible heretical beliefs totally excised from the pages of history forever.

The exact origins of the Cathars are still shrouded in mystery, but their doctrines were probably first introduced into Western Europe by Bogomil missionaries, who were a dualist sect centred in Bulgaria and the Balkans.  Catharism as an individual sect emerged in the mid-12th century and flourished in Lombardy, the Rhineland and some parts of northern France as well as in the Languedoc. But it was in the Languedoc that the Cathars became part of the very fabric of society. It is important to remember that during the 12th century the country that we now know as France did not exist.  The kingdom of France was a fairly small strip of territory surrounding Paris in the north that was flanked by the mighty duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, Brittany and Aquitaine. 

The Languedoc itself was a patchwork of different fiefdoms, the largest and most important of which was the county of Toulouse.  The Languedoc at this time was a wealthy, prosperous region that was rich in culture and learning. It was also a bit of a cultural melting pot, where new ideas and different religious ideas were more readily embraced than in the chillier regions of northern Europe.  The Languedoc was home to a large Jewish community that enjoyed much greater freedoms and prosperity than was usual in Catholic Europe, and it was also the birthplace of the poetical troubadours and the land of courtly love, where knights yearned from afar for their unattainable lady loves.  All in all, the Languedoc was the perfect place in the Middle Ages for a heresy to flourish.

So what did the Cathars believe in that the Church of Rome found so threatening?  The Cathar faith contained both dualist and Gnostic elements. They believed that the world was essentially an evil and corrupt place, ruled by a deity that was sometimes known as Rex Mundi, or the King of the World. The god that the Cathars actually worshipped was a spirit of light and goodness, which dwelt completely outside of the material plane. So essentially, to a Cathar, it was earthly existence that was hell, and they yearned to be free of its shackles and be released into spirit form or heaven. However, to be able to do this they had to lead a life of stringent asceticism and self-denial as a Cathar perfect. There were generally only a fairly small number of true Cathars or Perfect, as most Cathar believers or credentes lived ordinary lives centred on work and family. Becoming a Perfect was a matter of personal conscience, but the credentes were thought to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of reincarnation into this evil world, until that soul decided that they were spiritually capable of choosing the rigours of an ascetic life.

Living as a Perfect involved much self denial, as they had to pray frequently, preach and minister to the credentes, refrain from any sexual intimacy and fast as often as possible. When they did allow themselves to eat they were not allowed to eat any meat, and also had to abstain from eating any of the products of sexual reproduction such as milk, butter, eggs and cheese. They could, however, eat fish, as in the Middle Ages it was thought that fish spontaneously appeared in the water, and they could also drink wine. To achieve the yearned for freedom from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation these strictures had to be rigidly adhered to, as just one mouthful of meat or a passionate kiss, would be enough to lose them the status of a Perfect

As for the credentes, they could live pretty much as those chose, as the Perfects did not believe in temporal laws or any form of temporal power or control. As long as you were not committed to the life of a Perfect, it mattered little if you did not attend the parish church on a Sunday, paid your taxes, had sex before marriage, had Muslim or Jewish friends or even got drunk, as these were all rules imposed by earthly institutions, which were inherently corrupt, and possibly even evil, purely because they were of the material world. The Cathars believed in love, light and peace, and that any form of earthly power was incompatible with these principles. They thought that human souls had been pulled out of the spiritual realms of light at the beginning of time into the dense, corrupt world of matter, but that each soul still retained a spark of divine awareness, which was just waiting to be re-ignited.

The Cathars also believed in the equality of women, and women could choose to become a Perfect, and many noblewomen in the region chose to leave their comfortable, privileged lives to set up Cathar houses in towns, where they taught young women to spin and weave and lived simple, frugal, productive lives. As the Catholic Church was as rooted in the temporal as much as the spiritual, it is easy to see why they were so repulsed by these beliefs. The medieval Church required obedience to an established set of rules, and brooked absolutely no dissent. The earthly power of Rome could be seen in the huge Cathedrals that were lavishly decorated, the acres of church estates, the tithes they collected from the populace and the wealth and pomp of the clergy. The fact that the lives of the Perfect more closely mirrored the life of Jesus than that of the average medieval bishop stung, and that the Cathars encouraged their followers to dismiss the teaching of the Church and even regard them with derision was like a red rag to a bull.

The Cathars were not particularly into written records or even religious texts, although they embraced parts of the New Testament and Jesus’ message of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance of all peoples. One of the things that the Catholic Church found abhorrent was the fact that the Cathars denied that Jesus could possibly have incarnated into this material, corrupt world and still remain the divine son of God. As far as the Cathars were concerned, any being on this planet was bound by it and was removed from the spiritual realms, and so could not be regarded as numinous in any way. Therefore the crucifixion and the symbol of the cross had no importance for them. The Church could not even scare the Cathars witless with the threat of eternal damnation as they did their own faithful, because as far as the Cathars were concerned they were already in hell by being on Earth.

The sacraments of the Church were also disregarded as being of the material world they were inherently evil, and the Cathar faith only had one sacrament or rite, the consolamentum. The consolamentum was the mechanism by which a Perfect was created, and could only be administered by another Perfect. This linked each new Perfect to the Perfect who had given them the rite, and it was thought that these links had been unbroken since the time of Christ and his apostles. The consolamentum consisted of the laying on of hands and repeated admonitions to lead a life of flawless simplicity, poverty and holiness. When a Perfect was approached by a credente, the credente would undertake the melioramentum which consisted of bowing and saying a prayer that asked for a good end to their life.

The word Cathar is thought to be derived from a Greek word Katheroi which means ‘pure ones’. The Cathars themselves simply referred to themselves as ‘good Christians’ or ‘good men’ or ‘good women’. Catharism permeated all levels of Languedoc society, from the castles of the nobles, to the shops of the merchants and the cottages of the peasants. Many a nobleman counted a Perfect as a member of his family, and several of their wives left them to form a Cathar house for women.  Even if someone did not believe in the tenets of Catharism, they often still sympathised with them, as they saw the Cathar Perfect lead simple, holy lives which were often in direct contrast to the corruption and low morals exhibited by their own clergy. 

Many of the senior clergy of the Catholic Church acknowledged that the behaviour of some of their own brethren left much to be desired and that many of the accusations against them were justified, but this was still not reason enough to let the Cathar faith grow and flourish. If a large part of the population of the Languedoc were allowed to pay little attention to the bullying and manipulation of the Church, the Church would lose its grip on the region and, even worse, the rot could spread leading to a loss of power and revenue and abject humiliation.


Initially, Rome instigated peaceful attempts to convert the heretic Cathars back to the true faith, by sending Dominican monks into the region to preach and cajole the populace back into submission. They engaged the Cathar Perfect in wars of words, with long public debates often held in front of large crowds. But they found that the Cathar preachers were skilled orators and debaters, who also had a gift for making the envoys of the Church and their teaching look both ridiculous and hypocritical, without sliding into outright heresy. Events escalated with the murder of the Papal Legate, Pierre de Castelnau, on 15th January 1208, by a knight of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. A crusade was preached against the Languedoc by the Church in Rome and undertaken with a great deal of vigour and enthusiasm by the King of France and the nobility of northern Europe. It is sometimes called the Albigensian Crusade, and the massed armies of the North laid waste to the towns and fertile farmlands of the Languedoc, and everywhere they went they undertook mass burnings and torture of the Cathar Perfect and their sympathisers. 

When the Crusade eventually broke up and the knights with their troops and siege engines returned home, the newly formed Inquisition took over and spent the following decades ferreting out the remnants of the Cathar faith, questioning them, torturing them and finally turning them over to the secular authorities so that their bodies could be burned.  This crusade eventually led to the region being brought under the direct control of the French crown, but the economy and vibrant culture of the Languedoc had been fatally wounded. Even now, hundreds of years later, this is not one of the richer parts of France, and it could be said that Languedoc never really recovered against this brutal assault against its own people.

Montsegur Image Jean-Yves Didier Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Carcassone Image Colocho Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share 2.5 Generic

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