Fires of Faith – The Cathar Persecutions

They were called ‘The Pure Ones’. They moved about in simple robes and cowls, austere and plain. They were vegetarians, refusing to eat anything the product of sexual reproduction. They had women priests. They had few bishops and little hierarchy. If we are to believe the accounts, they lead holy, devoted lives.

Yet in the 12th and 13th century they were systematically persecuted and murdered, so that by the early 14th century none were left.

This is medieval history that many of those who study the era know well, but one that hasn’t attracted as much pop culture attention, as, say, the First Crusade. Yet the oppression and annihilation of the Cathars in Languedoc are just as worthy of our attention – maybe even more so than the well-trod paths of that first ‘holy war’.

It is a sad story, quite simply, all too relevant to our times.

The origins of the Cathar sect are unclear, but what we do know is that they were influenced by groups as the Bogomiles, Paulicians, and Manicheans, who arose to the east centuries before. These earlier groups believed the world an imperfect creation, fought over by two opposing Gods – one good, one evil. The Cathars, in this respect, were no different. Indeed, there is quite a bit of their theology that could be said to draw from Eastern faiths, such as the belief that you would be reborn again until you had ‘perfected’ yourself.

What is clear that the Cathar church was well established in the Languedoc region of Southern France by the middle of the 12th century, as that is when they started to attract the attention of the Catholic Church. The Cathar’s refutation of traditional sacraments such as the Mass, marriage and the established church hierarchies were, understandably, of immense concern to them.

At first, Papal legates (read, enforcers) and missionaries were sent to convert the population. They had very little success, primarily because by this stage, they had integrated themselves into society in such a way that they were inextricable. When the Bishop of Toulouse asked local nobles why they weren’t having much luck in enforcing conversions, he received this message in return.

We cannot. We have been reared in their midst. We have relatives among them and we see them living lives of perfection.

Things got so serious that St Dominic, then a priest from Castille, was dispatched to debate Cathar leaders in 1203. While he would fail, we’re left with a delightfully silly story. In an attempt to find out who was right, each agreed to burn their holy books – surely God would intervene. We’re told that once cast into the flames, St Dominic’s bible floated above them, unharmed. Whether you believe such an event ever occurred is entirely up to you.

After decades of not getting anywhere, the Papacy had enough. In 1209, using the murder of a Papal legate as a pretext, Pope Innocent III started beating the war drums. He wrote to the French King, Phillip II, asking him to lead a military force against the Cathars. Phillip, otherwise preoccupied, granted permission to some of his barons to join a crusade against the Cathars – a sanction to kill and maim these ‘heretics’ and whoever protected them.

Under the command of Arnaud Almalric, a Papal legate, the Crusader army attacked the town of Beziers in July 1209, home to a large Cathar population. A siege was all set to begin when some townsfolk came out and tried to attack some of the Crusader armies. Quickly overwhelmed, they retreated into the town, followed by hundreds of Crusaders. The fighting was quick, close and bloody and the town fell in under a day. It is this event that gives us one of the grimmest pronouncements of all time. When asked how his troops might be able to tell the Cathars apart from the Catholics who had opted to fight alongside them, Arnaud is supposed to have said,

“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”

Translated, that becomes

“Kill them all. God will know his own.”

So, on his orders, 20,000 inhabitants of the town and refugees were butchered in the streets.

After the massacre at Beziers, the town of Carcassone was next. Simon de Montfort, one of Phillip’s barons led the siege here in early August and after two weeks, it too would fall. The defenders were made to leave all their possessions and de Montfort was granted the land – possibly a reason why the inhabitants were not slaughtered.

After these two events, the army soon found itself as an occupying force, putting down minor insurrections against a population that hated and resented these armies from the northern regions of France. In fact, sporadic fighting would carry on for the next 20 years, at which time the mother of the infant Louis IX, Blanche of Castile sued for peace with Raymond VII, the Count of Toulouse.

The next phase of the Cathar persecutions was arguably more horrific. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX authorized the new Papal Inquisition to root out the Cathars who were slowly starting to establish themselves.

Over the next ten years, representatives of the Pope, accompanied by soldiers, visited Cathar communities and demanded their conversion. To refuse was a death sentence – hanging was preferred as it was quick and cheap. Thousands were murdered and the faith was forced into a quasi-underground status.

The great atrocity of the Cathar oppressions took place in 1244. Beginning in May 1243, the last great Cathar castle stronghold of Montségur was besieged by the army of Hugh des Arcis, the seneschal, or regional governor.  It was a hard task – the castle stood on a stony peak, high above the surrounding ground. The soldiers and civilian refugees inside were well-supplied and had a supply of fresh water that could last months. Over the course of months, full-frontal assaults attempted to take the castle, but each was repelled.

Things changed when a catapult was introduced. There were still refugees that were camped outside the castle and they were soon forced within the walls, straining resources. The attackers were able to move the catapult closer after an act of treachery and soon giant stones and flaming pots were raining down day and night on the castle. Still, the defenders managed

Still, somehow, the defenders managed to hold on until March 1244.

At that point, those ready to renounce their faith were allowed to leave the castle. Over the next two weeks of truce, many of the non-Cathar defenders opted to join their brothers and sisters for what was to come. They took the Consolamentum– the one sacrament of the Cathar Church, and were welcomed into the faith, amongst prayer vigils and fasting.

On the morning of the 16th of March, 1244, around 220 or so Cathars emerged from the castle and made their way down to a place that would become known as the Prats dels Cremats (the field of burning). There, they were tied to stakes and burned as one. It was all over in the space of a few hours.

Some Cathars would survive the Siege of Montsegur and their faith would doggedly persist in secret for a few more decades. However, the Inquisition was always on their heels and the last Cathar priest would be executed in 1321.

Today, tourists flock to the Languedoc to take in the natural beauty and grandeur of the Languedoc, as well as the strikingly beautiful castles crowning hilltops. However, as we have just seen, those same rich medieval remains stand witness to a much darker chapter.

Sometimes, when I think back to the Cathar oppressions, I am brought to mind of the atrocities carried out in Raqqa and other cities held by Daesh. Certainly, many of the same methods, punishments and tortures are dished out by those monstrous zealots.

However, I’m just as much reminded of the hysteria and suspicion around Islam present in the West, and the strident calls for war, expulsions, and persecution. It seems all too easy for us to fall into the same horrific cycle of persecution and annihilations as the medieval French.

It seems trite to exhort the lessons of history as worth our consideration. but I can’t help but think of the ordinary men and women who walked down from Montsegur amongst the footage of any number of 21st horrors.

It seems some lessons just can’t be learned.


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A ring, some coins & a journey across the world.

As far as rings pulled out of the ground go, it didn’t look all that flash. Made from a dark, tarnished metal and set with what was thought to be an amethyst, it seemed to distinguish the Norse woman it was buried with as well-off, little more.

Indeed, the ring, unearthed during digs at Birka, on the Swedish island of Björkö, in the nineteenth century, spent over a hundred years in relative obscurity, before it underwent analysis with an electron microscope in 2015.

Continue reading “A ring, some coins & a journey across the world.”

A Response To ‘PrisonPlanet’

You might have seen lately that I got into a little stoush with ‘PrisonPlanet’, aka Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent ‘Alt-Right’ (he hates it when I say that) social commentator and vlogger, over a video the BBC put out for kids about Roman Britain. I’m not going to go through the whole sorry ordeal, but you can read about it here.

In response, Paul threw a spectacular wobbly and after some back and forth, he promised that he was going to ‘roast’ me, refuting my arguments and showing me up as the ignorant, Leftist, globalist, Islam-loving, goldfish-bothering hypocrite I am.

Imagine my shock and true to his word, he did. You can watch it here if you’re so inclined.

Paul’s refutation seems to hinge on one piece of information that he picked up from a right-wing think-tank site called ‘MigrantWatch✓’ – that out of a population of 4.5 million, there were at most only 125,000 Romans all up – that’s including troops, auxiliaries & dependents. That supposedly amounts to 3% migrants. The site takes draws info from ‘Roman Britain’ by David Shotter (Routledge, 1998) & ‘The Origin of the Anglo-Saxons’ by Don Henson (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006).

(By the way, I can tell he used MigrantWatch because he’s replicated transcription errors.)

Thing is, we still don’t have anywhere near complete consensus on population figures. S. S. Frere goes as low as 2 million around 200CE* to 6 million in the 4th century**, given by Dr Michael Reed. Considering bouts of plague, local revolts & varying harvests, I can’t see how Paul can be so sure of his figures when even academic historians can’t agree – a population increase of up to 4,000,000 in two centuries at this time just doesn’t seem viable. In addition, the records that we have, particularly towards the end of the Roman period in Britain just aren’t that helpful. You can use statistics to ‘prove’ anything, it’s said, and this is no different.

Paul claims I really only had one source – the wealthy lady with black African features found in York•, This is not true – I also cited the studies by the Museum of London of four skeletons that showed various backgrounds, including possible Asian heritage••^. I would also take this opportunity to highlight research on skeletons in a Gloucester mass grave, that showed a range of ethnic backgrounds amongst plague victims^^.I would also encourage Paul to read up on the Black presence at Hadrian’s wall in the form of legions from modern-day Syria and Algeria#¢, and the documentary traces they left behind.

That’s three major Roman British urban centres, each with multiple skeletal remains showing origins outside Britannia – that entirely ignores the numerous grave goods and household remains uncovered in Britain from across the Empire, including cooking pots made by North African soldiers and potters, as well as beautiful ‘head pots‘.

In short we can tell that Roman Britain, despite its relative isolation in relation to the rest of the Empire, was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, mostcertainly around major population centres. You cannot dismiss the multiple peer-reviewed studies based on physical evidence unearthed in archaeological digs across England, just because it doesn’t fit your narrative of racial or ethnic homogeneity.

In short, facts are the new punk rock, you fuzzy little fascist goblin. 

As for the rest of the video, Paul seems to think that throwing up a few pictorial representations of Roman Britain from the BBC is enough to demolish my case. To that, I’d say that we are constantly revising our depictions of the past based on new evidence. None of the images presented looked relatively recent and using them as a major pillar of his argument is spurious at best. If one of my students came to me with an essay citing them, I’d send them back with an instruction to hit the library.

In summary, if that was a ‘roast’, I’m spectacularly unimpressed.

Oh yeah, he said something about me being a retard, potato head and (gasp) a supply teacher. Whatevs.

Paul’s oeuvre is cheap shock and inflammatory rabble-rousing. He’s made a nice little cottage industry out of it. Most of the time I can let it slide. However, at a point in our history when anybody with a webcam & broadband can establish themselves as a social or political commentator, with a perceived degree of credibility, it’s absolutely vital that the facts – documented, scrutinized and verified – aren’t lost in the noise.

I have deep concerns about the very real number of users on social media, most of who seem to follow Paul, who appropriate historical imagery from the Roman Empire, in addition to Templar Knights and medieval Christian art, to lend an air of ‘respectability’ to what are regressive and incredibly harmful ideas. Paul’s complaining about the BBC cartoon gives strength to their narrative.

The past is incredibly complex. Rather than diametrically opposing forces locked in constant struggle, there are far more instances of racial or ethnic groups interacting peacefully than we could ever imagine. If we forget or misrepresent that fact, we only foster the overarching narrative than cooperation is impossible. That’s a hopelessly depressing prospect.

Paul is a young man with a large audience. Despite my titanic distaste for his outlook and ideas, he’s obviously an engaging and persuasive figure. I’d urge him in future, however, to stick to child labour camps on Mars, or Illuminati symbols in pop music, rather than commentate on areas he could do some damage, rather than misrepresent history and, uh, repeating discredited Nazi-era ideas…



. √ –

* – Frere, S. S, ‘Britain: A History of Roman Britain’, Pimlico, 1991 ** – Reed,

** – Reed, Dr Michael A, ‘The Landscape of Britain: From the Beginnings to 1914’. Rowan & Littlefield, 1990.

• – Leach, S, Eckardt, H, Chenery, C, Muldner, G. and Lewis, M. ‘A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain’, Antiquity, 2010.

•• – Eaton, K, Duggan, A, Devault, T & Polner H, ‘ Museum of London Report on the DNA Analyses of Four Roman Individuals – Supplementary Information’, McMaster University, 2015.

^ – Redfern, R, Grocke, D, Millard, A, Ridgeway, V, Johnson, L, Hefner, J, ‘Going south of the river: A multidisciplinary analysis of ancestry, mobility and diet in a population from Roman Southwark, London’, Journal of Archaeological Sciences, 2016

^^ – Chenery, C, Müldner, G, Evans, Eckhart, H, Lewis M, ‘Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK’, Journal of Archaeological Sciences, 2010.

# – Benjamin, R, ‘Whose Wall: Roman Wall, Barrier or Bond’, British Archaeology Magazine, 2004

¢ – Anthony R. Birley, The African Emperor: Septimius Severus (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.,1988);


Pub Review: The Live & Let Live, Pegsdon, Herts

There’s a cute story about the name of this one. Turns out, two hundred years ago the surrounding Hertfordshire countryside was utterly plagued by poachers, drawn by the abundant game over at Hexton Manor (now a very popular wedding venue).

Irate at having their pheasants and partridges being nicked, local gentry called in the services of the fledgling Bow Street Runners to put a stop to it. Soon enough, these early detectives had rooted out those responsible and had them surrounded in the pub. We’re not quite sure what happened next, but we’re assured that the situation was resolved and everyone went their separate ways – hence, the ‘Live & Let Live’.

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What I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Before I Left Teaching)

As far as nervous breakdowns go, mine was fairly public.

A regular contributor to TES, I found myself in the unique position of writing about crashing and burning as a teacher, as my world was falling apart. In a way, I found that it gave me a strange sort of perspective – for an hour or so, every so often I could sit in a little, pressurized cabin, peering down into the maelstrom.

Continue reading “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Before I Left Teaching)”