The Serpent Within
The Cathar heresy flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries in a region of Southern France distinguished by its highly refined culture, customs and language. Home to the Cathari, Languedoc was also the land of the troubadours, a school of poetry whose influence runs like a golden thread in the literature of the West.
The Cathars (from the Greek, kathar, meaning spotless) were Christians in the Manichean mold and believed the material world to be intrinsically evil. Their elders were ascetics, leading lives of “Apostolic poverty,” and claimed a kinship with the early Christian communities. They despised the Roman clergy of the day whose self-indulgence did more than anything to bring converts to their austere faith. For them, the Catholic church was the “Church of Satan.” In a sense, they were the first Protestants and like the Protestant movement to come, they found strong support among the local nobility.
The Cathars had formed a church with its own hierarchy and rituals. Its elders were known as the Perfected (perfecti), the congregation at large as Believers (the credentes or imperfecti). Believers could, under exceptional circumstances, become perfecti by means of a purification ritual known as the “consolamentum.” To the Cathars, Jesus Christ was not the God-Man (Theanthropos) of Catholic doctrine; he was all spirit, an angel in human clothes. The Cathars spared Jesus a human birth as well as the agony of the cross; he was a spectator at his Crucifixion. They did not believe in a Resurrection and found the concept distasteful.
In the eyes of Catholics, this mystical Gnostic view of the suffering Jesus, attractive then as it is today, was a dangerous departure. Preachers were sent by Rome to persuade leading heretics in Languedoc, Northern Italy and other parts of Europe to return to the true faith. Among these preachers was the Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairveaux.* The Dominican and Franciscan orders were established by the Church for this purpose and, in response to widespread priestly corruption, with a reforming zeal. If the Church wished to compete with the Cathars and the Poor Men of Lyons, on their own ground, it could not have found a better representative than the doctrinally sound, charismatic and charming Francis of Assisi, one who had declared himself wedded to Lady Poverty and wrote of her, like a troubadour, in the language of courtly love. **
The preaching missions, however, failed. A Papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau (another Cistercian) was assassinated. In 1209, Pope Innocent III called for a crusade, the first on European soil, to drive out the heresy by force. The Albigensian Crusade (after the town of Albi) was a bitter and protracted war carried out by the barons and bishops of the North and an assortment of Norman and German knights, soldiers of fortune and other plunderers, against the cities of the South—wherever the Cathars and their protectors could be found.
The war began with the destruction of Béziers and the wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants and ended twenty years later with the public flogging in Paris of Count Raimon VII of Toulouse.
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It was in Languedoc that the Inquisition began, well over a century before its notorious resurgence in Spain under Isabel and Ferdinand; known to scholars as the Medieval Inquisition, its tribunals were set up to complete the work of the Albigensian Crusade.
Surviving Cathars were expected to give up their heretical faith (few did) or face execution by fire, and to inform on each other. When pressed for names, some would give those of friends and relatives who had passed away and, duly, those bodies were exhumed and burned at the stake just as if they were alive. When it became clear that local clergy could not be trusted to do this work efficiently, the Dominicans were given Inquisitional powers to carry it out.
In 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued a Papal bull legalizing torture for the purpose of eliciting information and confessions from accused heretics. A wide range of tortures from the Rack to water-boarding would continue to be used, with impunity.
A grim postscript to the military campaign against the South was the long siege and destruction of Montségur. Cathars from all over had retreated to this fortress town, a bastide, in the lower Pyrenees, 50 miles southwest of Carcasonne. Before a final assault by superior French forces, the few who renounced their faith were allowed to leave. Two hundred perfecti chose to die and were joined by 21 credentes (and volunteer soldiers) who received the consolamentum in the last hours. All were burned in fires lit at the foot of the mountain, an area known to visitors who gather there today (beneath a later but still impressive ruin) as the Field of the Cremated.
The heresy was crushed and the French monarchy established its primacy over a stubbornly independent region. Raimon VII had no sons and gave his daughter away in marriage to the brother of King Louis IX, Alphonse de Poitiers— a symbolic knot to bind the ancient province of Languedoc to the kingdom of France.
* Bernard, frustrated in his efforts to convert the Cathars, was ambivalent with respect to their faith. He once conceded, “No sermons are more thoroughly Christian than theirs and their morals are pure.”
** Francis traveled as widely as poor health (and his wretched, self-imposed diet) would permit, even to Egypt and Syria, where sultans and emirs, impervious to his teachings, received him courteously. He was appalled by the Crusaders he encountered in Arab lands. Although Saint Francis was born in France of a French mother and was known as “the Frenchman”— Francesco—he had never lived there as an adult. He died in Assisi a slow painful death from barbaric medical attempts to treat the wounds of the Stigmata.
*** A ferocious figure in the Albigensian Crusade was Simon de Montforte, the 5th Earl of Leicester, a latter-day Viking whose methods shocked even the Holy See. His atrocities were ingenious. The slaughter under his command was indiscriminate. At Béziers, when thousands, heretics and Catholics, had sought sanctuary inside the cathedrals, the famous cry went out, “Tuez les tous, Dieu reconnaitra les siens!” (“Kill them all, God will recognize his own.”) All were incinerated. It is estimated that 20,000 men, women and children perished in the assault on Béziers. De Monteforte rampaged from city to city, burning, butchering and pillaging, all the while increasing his power and his lands. At one point, he ruled over an area larger than that controlled by the French king. In 1215, he died, fittingly, of a huge stone thrown by a catapult (a mangonel) from the walls of Toulouse. It was gleefully reported, in Occitan, that the catapult had been operated by “donas e tozas e mulhers.”
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Further reading :
A literary interpretation of the Cathar story is offered in Denis de Rougement’s magnificent, idiosyncratic work “L’Amour et l’Occident” (1940). There is an English translation by Montgomery Belgion, “Love in the Western World.” (Princeton University Press, 1983)
“Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” by Karen Armstrong (Anchor Books, Revised edition 2001)
“Barbarian in the Garden” by Zbigniew Herbert includes an excellent essay entitled “Albigensians, Inquisitors and Troubadours,” translated from the Polish. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985)