It is late evening. The soft orange glow of candlelight illuminates the otherwise dreary lodgings, the hewn rock of fortified walls, a poor defense against the bitter night's cold. From this room, Bishop Folquet de Marselha had been waging a war letter against the heretics of the South. For him, this war was not for land or wealth but for the very purity of faith and for his flock's souls. He had recently sent out harsh condemnations criticizing the knights of Languedoc, his loyal allies, for their failure at persecuting the heretics on what was nominally their own soil.
In these late hours, a letter arrives. A travel-worn messenger hands over the correspondence to the eager bishop and makes his leave. As Folquet reads through the response, his blood runs cold as his nails bite into the fragile parchment. The letter reads as follows:
“We cannot. We have been reared in their midst. We have relatives among them and we see them living lives of perfection.” (O'Shea, 2000)
In shock he stares emptily, his eyes glaring aimlessly at the candles giving light to his despair. He knew the Cathars grew strong in the south but he was not aware that their influence ran so deep amongst the gentry of the Languedoc. Beholding the waxing flame, a dawning sense that more final measures must be taken slowly coalesces in his mind.
History and Origins of the Cathars:
While the scenario above is a narrative fabrication, the main events portrayed correspond to reality. Folquet, the bishop of Toulouse, was a key figure in the Albigensian Crusade, which eliminated Catharism in Languedoc, and the subsequent persecution of the Cathars. A letter containing those exact words was sent in response to his chastisement by the Languedoc knights. Yet, who were these mysterious figures who threatened the Catholic Church´s orthodoxy to the point that a military incursion was called to snuff them out?
The origin of the Cathars remains a scholarly point of contention to this day. The lack of direct written sources that could trace its religious genealogy makes it hard to concretely establish a clear lineage. This being said, a number of details such as theological and scriptural similarities with other religious movements; such as the Bogomils of Bulgaria, who were dualists or neo-gnostic, and the presence of trade routes with the Byzantine Empire; allow some educated guesses as to their inspiration. The fact that the Albigensians were also referred to as Bougres (“Bulgarians”) further established a connection with the Eastern Mediterranean. What is definitely known is that the sect grew in strength in the French region of the Occitaine, known historically as the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées.
As noted previously, they were sometimes referred to as the Albigensians after the city of Albi, which most agree, served as their point of origin in France. By the 1140s, the Cathars had organized into a significant religious force in the South with a council held in 1167 at Saint-Félix-Lauragais; being seen by historians as a landmark event in the establishment of a coherent Cathar identity. Interestingly, the council was presided over by a Bogomil bishop named Nicetas which may further reinforce this kinship between the two movements. Following the council, more bishoprics would be established until they would total 11 with 5 in France and a further 6 in Italy. While they would be referred to as Cathars, or Albigensians by outsiders, adherents within the sect would refer to each other alternatively as Good Men (Bons Hommes), Good Women (Bonnes Femmes), or Good Christians (Bons Chrétiens).
The Beliefs of the Cathars:
With the foundation of their origins established, we may now move on to their beliefs and the theology that would inform their worldview. Like the Bogomils and other gnostic movements, Cathar metaphysics was heavily dictated by a sense of dualism with the spiritual being good and the physical being evil.
For the Cathars, the material reality was nothing but a prison for the pure essence of individuals, their immortal souls. Therefore, every Cathar aimed to sever the shackles that bound their soul to the Earth to be able to return to Paradise. The architect of the physical world was not the benevolent God of the Bible but rather Satan, who was referred to in Cathar texts as the Rex Mundi (“King of the World.”) In another break with Catholic orthodoxy, the God of the Old Testament was seen as the Rex Mundi in disguise whereas the God of the New Testament was seen as the true God of light and good.
The scholar Malcolm Barber noted that:
“They believed that the devil was the author of the Old Testament except these books: Job, the Psalms, the books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon], The Book of Jesus son of Sirach [better known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus], of Isaiah, Ezekiel, David, and of the twelve prophets.”
Moreover, the only books from the New Testament they would recognize as legitimate were the gospels.
They also had their own religious text referred to as the Book of Two Principles which, amongst other subjects, would state the Cathar perspective on faith, the duality of existence, and the story of how the immortal souls of mankind were entrapped into sinful flesh. They also believed that the soul would reincarnate into a new body until the chains of attachment to this flawed reality were finally severed through the rite of Consolamentum, a ritual that would form a cornerstone of the Cathar practice.
This narrative would come to further distance the rites of the Cathars from their Catholic counterparts with Albigensians abhorring procreation due to the argument that bringing children into a fundamentally flawed reality was cruelty in its own right. The Cathars also followed a strict pescatarian diet, avoiding dairy and meat since they were the products of procreation and were the carriers of reincarnated souls. Interestingly enough, fish would not fall under this category as they believed that fish were the product of spontaneous generation. The point-blank refusal of the eucharist was also an extremely contentious point between them and the Catholics. The Inquisitor Bernard Gui chronicled that
“they [Cathars] attack and vituperate, in turn, all the sacraments of the Church, especially the sacrament of the eucharist, saying that it cannot contain the body of Christ, for had this been as great as the largest mountain Christians would have entirely consumed it before this. They assert that the host comes from straw, that it passes through the tails of horses, to wit, when the flour is cleaned by a sieve (of horse hair); that, moreover, it passes through the body and comes to a vile end, which, they say, could not happen if God were in it. Of baptism, they assert that the water is material and corruptible and is therefore the creation of the evil power, and cannot sanctify the spirit, but that the churchmen sell this water out of avarice, just as they sell earth for the burial of the dead, and oil to the sick when they anoint them, and as they sell the confession of sins as made to the priests.”
The three most identifiable deviations from Catholic practice: the Perfecti, the aforementioned Consolamentum, and the rumored rite of Endura. Catharism did not have nor aspire to the organized and centralized hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It instead had three main classes: the Perfecti, the laypeople, and sympathizers; the Perfecti were the leaders of the movement and were roughly analogous to Catholic priests by swearing chastity and poverty, leading the sect's rites, and by going on missions to spread the faith. These Perfecti were the main agents of Cathar success in France and Italy due to the apparent vigor they endeavored in their duties and the recorded devotion to their faith. In their refusal of the Eucharist, the rite of Consolamentum acted as their main ritual and was used either on the initiation of a member into the Perfecti or their imminent death in order to ensure their separation from the corrupt world and their entry into eternity with the true God.
While the exact details of the rite are not known in certainty, what is known is that physical instruments such as water or food were not used due to being the product of the inherent corruption of reality while recitation of holy texts and a “laying of hands” was most probably the main sacred act.
The last but most controversial rite rumored to be part of the practice of the Cathars was that of Endura. This would have been when a moribund Cathar who had just undergone the Consolamentum would seek to hasten his own death or even reverse any progress towards becoming cured or healthier to ensure his entry into the Afterlife. This was said to involve smothering, the refusal of food or drink, or even exposure to the elements such as cold. This being said, there is scant evidence to indicate that this practice was doctrinally enforced or even commonplace.
Another deviation from Catholic orthodoxy was the surprisingly high esteem women had in Cathar's belief. Since the true God was specifically defined as immaterial and sexless, the general movement had a much more egalitarian view of gender relations than their early Medieval counterparts. Women were found amongst the Perfecti class and were able to administer Consolamentum and the role of Mary Magdalene was emphasized much more than in Catholic doctrine.
The Albigensian Crusade:
The growing strength of the Cathars in Southern Europe was meteoric and did not go unnoticed. Pope Innocent III had made moves to counter this spreading influence since the beginning of his installation at the head of the Catholic Church. He sent missionaries to win back the Occitan region and to push local authorities to oppose Cathar encroachment where ever they made themselves known. In January of 1208, the Cistercian monk and theologian Pierre de Castelnau was sent as a Papal legate to attempt to win the support of Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse. Following a fierce argument that allegedly concluded with Raymond threatening Castelnau, the legate excommunicated Raymond for his support to the Cathars and for abetting heresy. Shortly after, Castelnau was found dead on the road to Rome with a knight under the employ of Raymond being the primary suspect. In response to this act of aggression (or perhaps pouncing on the opportunity), Pope Innocent III declared Castelnau a martyr and proclaimed the Albigensian Crusade in 1209. A coalition of barons from the North, spurred on by the fact that they could keep the spoils of their conquest in service to the Church, proceeded to devastate the Languedoc with civilian casualties amongst both the Cathars and the Catholics horrific to behold.
Possibly the most revealing example of the attitude taken during the course of this incursion was the siege of Béziers. Recalled by Caesarius of Heisterbach, before the final assault that would lead to the fall of the settlement, the Cistercian abbot serving as a military commander, Arnaud-Amaury, was asked how the crusaders would differentiate between Cathar heretics and faithful Catholics. The chilling statement that would lay the groundwork for the massacre that would follow was:
“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”
To translate, this instruction would read “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own.” What was left following the slaughter was put to the torch and, to this day, the citizens of modern Béziers refer to the event as “The day of Butchery.” Arnaud would later write to the Pope that “Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”
The Incursion was followed by less intense but more stringent persecution sanctioned by St. Louis IX and his recently inaugurated Inquisition. With the fall of the final great stronghold of Montségur, close to the Pyrenees, the Perfecti had all but been wiped out and the remaining Cathari went underground. Surviving intermittently, no trace of living Cathar activity can be found beyond the early 15th century.
While the movement has been relegated to the pages of history, their memory still dwells in the collective identity of the Occitan region. The term Pays cathare, or “Cathar Country” is used to denote the regions around the fortresses of Montségur and Carcassonne, previous strongholds of the sect and legends of hidden Cathar gold, whisked away by the Perfecti before the fall of Montségur to deny greedy crusaders their prize continues to be retold to this day. Perhaps one could even say that, in denial of their survival in the modern-day, the Cathars have managed to acquire more subtle immortality in the identity of the Languedoc and the soul of Southern France.
• Barber, M. The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. Routledge, 2000.
• Bryson, M and Movsesian, A. Love and its Critics: From the Song of Solomon to Shakespeare and Milton's Eden. Open Book Publishers, 2017.
• Cantor, N. F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. Harper Perennial, 1994.
• Erbstosser, M. Heretics in the Middle Ages. Edition Leipzig Publishers, 1984.
• Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
• Lindahl, C. et. al. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford University Press, 2002.
• Loyn, H. R. The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia. Thames & Hudson, 1991.
• Nigg, W. The Heretics. Dorset Publishers, 2019.
• Oldenbourg, Z. Massacre at Montsegur. Marboro Books, 1988.
• O'Shea, S. The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars. Walker & Company, 2000.
• Staines, D. The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes. Indiana University Press - Indiana University Press, 1991.