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.
FURTHER READING & LISTENING
- Cathars & Cathar Beliefs in the Languedoc
- Cathar Primary Sources @ the Internet History Sourcebook
- In Our Time – Catharism
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