The Cathars were a gnostic religious group with rather mysterious origins that appeared in Europe in the eleventh century. Some scholars believe the roots of the movement came from the Paulican movement in the Byzantine Empire and the Bogomils of the Bulgarian Empire. The ideas of these two movements traveled up from the Balkans to Northern Italy and Southern France. The movement had its highest popularity in the Languedoc region in southern France. There it was widely endorsed by the locals and was looked on as an alternative to the Catholic Church.
Catharism was a dualistic Christian movement, which meant they believed in a divine source of good and a divine source of evil, in essence two Gods. This was in opposition to the orthodoxy preached by the Catholic Church that there was one God. They believed the “good God” was the god of all immaterial things, such as light and souls. The “bad God” was the god of all material things, including the world and everything in it. The “bad God” contrived to trap the divine spark that was the soul in “tunics of flesh” through conception. Therefore, any procreation of children was a sin as it was trapping another divine spark. Consolamentum, or spiritual baptism described in the New Testament, was the only sacrament they Cathar’s recognized as opposed to the seven the Catholic Church offered.
If a person was a member of the the Elect and had experienced the Consolamentum he or she would return to the realm of the “good God”. If they were not, the soul would be trapped into the cycle of rebirth. These elect became known as parfaits in later times. Women found Catharism appealing because it offered them an equal role to men in the church. Female parfaits were held to a strict lifestyle, but they were allowed to maintain their own homes and a measure of autonomy not heard of in the Catholic Church. However, the Cathar’s views of sex and procreation did hold an element of misogyny as well as the view of some that a woman must be reborn as a man to “break the cycle” before moving on to the realm of the “good God”.
In the late 12th century, the Count of Toulouse and several other lords invited the parfaits to hold the first Cathar Synod to set up a parallel church to the Catholic church. The Synod was held in St. Felix-de-Caraman, near Toulouse. Between 1167 and 1176, local notables, Cathar bishops and representatives from the Bogomil church in Bulgaria met to divide southern France into diocese for the new church. The Catholic church did not take kindly to interlopers dividing up its territory for a new religion. Catharism was denounced as early as 1179, however, Raymond V, the Count of Toulouse, was still a supporter and protected the Cathars in his region. By 1208, Pope Innocent III was done with diplomacy. A papal legate named Pierre de Castelnau had been murdered, supposedly on the orders of the Count of Toulouse. Pierre de Castelnau had excommunicated the Count and he had threatened violence, however, some historians believe the murder was a frame up to gather support for a crusade. If so, it worked. The Catholic Church declared holy war on the Cathars.
The crusade went on for twenty years and was a bloody and violent affair. The Catholic Church requested aid from the French king, Philip Augustus, and he sent some of his most violent warlords to help, including Simon de Montfort. His son of the same name would become famous in the Baron’s War in England. An estimated 200,000 to one million people died in the campaign. An example of the carnage was at the first town attacked, Béziers. There were 222 people suspected of being Cathars in the town. The town refused to hand them over so the Papal forces attacked. One of the crusaders asked his commander, Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, how to find the 222 in the town of other faithful Catholics. Amaury answered cavalierly, “Kill them all. God will recognise his own!” I’m not a Biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure Jesus would not have been onboard with that. Between 7,000 and 20,000 people in Béziers alone were killed. After that, any town the Papal forces rolled up to capitulated immediately.
The crusade achieved a political aim in breaking the power of the southern lords and handing the Languedoc region to King Philip Augustus and his northern allies. However, the Cathars were not gone yet. The inquisition was set up in Toulouse in 1229 to make sure no heresy reared its ugly head. Cathars were burned on a case by case basis, instead of in a large scale battles. However, the effect was still chilling.
The crusade was said to be officially over after the fall of Castel de Montségur in 1244. This mountain fort was call the “Vatican of the Cathars” and many Parfaits escaped there to avoid the Inquisition. Countess Esclarmonde de Foix, a prominent parfait, was supposed to have hidden an important treasure at Montségur. No one knows what this was supposed to be, only that it was supposed to have been secretly spirited away by four men before the castle fell. There are wild theories that this was the Holy Grail. Whatever it was, it must have been small as the mountainside is quite steep. We will follow this up with a separate article…..
Some say the pall of the carnage that took place in Languedoc can still be felt, and in the peaceful landscape is a feeling of foreboding. Kate Mosse tapped into this with her hugely popular fiction “Labyrinth”, set in the Medieval City of Cascassonne. Using the backdrop of the re-built city, as the setting, she weaves an exciting tale of intrigue set in two separate but simultaneous periods, the present and the seige of Carcassonne during the 13th Century, interspering the tale of violence and religious persecution with a little supernatural intrigue, including some of the characters who took part in the real deal. More on Carcassonne at a later date……
Sources available on request