These days I’m curious to continue traveling around Languedoc/Occitanie in search of the Cathars– the religious cult that at once lived in the south of France.
The more I research, the more I am drawn in by stories of the Cathars, their beliefs, their persecution, and their current-day imprint on the regions from Marseille to the Pyranees.
In Search of the Cathars
Cathars were a group of believers that lived throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Most theories agree they came from Persia and the Byzantine Empire, mainly by the trade route. They flourished in the southern French region known as “Languedoc,” or “Occitania,” broadly bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees, and the Garonne, Tarn, and Rhône rivers. The sect was known as Cathars, Infidels, Heretics, Perfects, and Albigensians — named after the city of Albi where many of them originated.
The hard-working Cathar people led simple lives, primarily craftsmen and artisans. They were protected by local Lords because they brought peace and prosperity to the region.
A visit to the village of Minerve is an essential stop for its Cathar history and for its designation as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
The religious beliefs of Cathars included equality of the sexes, reincarnation, celibacy, and dual deities — one good, “heavenly,” and one evil, “of earth.” They renounced the birth and life of Christ, the holy sacraments, as well as the opulence and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. They disavowed material possessions. In fact, “Cathar” literally means “purity” (as in catharsis). Worldly goods were “of the devil.”
The Cathars, who called themselves “Christians,” were good neighbors to villagers, yet the Church called them “heretics.”
Some Cathars and sympathizers included men of the clergy and royalty — Eleanor of Aquitaine, for one. To understand the attraction of Cathars to the region, it is important to know that Languedoc was not part of France in the Middle Ages. Instead, the region was made up of a group of “city states” with their own rulers. These local rulers could assert their differences and independence from the great European powers– including, the Church — by declaring themselves “Cathars.”
Pope Innocent’s Albigensian Crusade
By the late twelfth century, the popularity and acceptance of the Cathar religion in the Languedoc — known for its high culture, tolerance, and liberalism — gained more and more followers. By the early thirteenth century, Catharism was probably the major religion in the region. Indeed, the Church in Rome feared it might replace Catholicism. So in 1209, soon after the Crusades in the Holy Land, Pope Innocent III launched a war of terror against the “heretical” Cathars. The Albigensian Crusade enlisted the help of the French crown and nobles, promising them great riches.
For twenty years, Cathars were hunted and murdered or forced to convert to Catholicism. During this period, an estimated half-million Languedoc men, women, and children were massacred, Catholics and Cathars.
In Search of the Cathars: Béziers
Perhaps one of the most notable attacks on Cathars by the Church took place in Béziers. Arnaud, Chief Abbot of the Cistercian monastic order, was the military leader of the seige responsible for the mass burning alive of “many heretics and many fair women.”
Arnaud’s troops tortured and killed an estimated 9,000 to 20,000 men, women, and children of Béziers who refused to surrender their Cathar citizens.
“Kill them all. God will know his own,” Arnaud said, reportedly.
Papal legate Arnaud was also responsible for the Cathar capture and surrender at Carcassonne.
Last Days of the Cathars
The last Crusades, led by King Louis VIII in 1226, wiped out a majority of the Cathars. Many believers went deep underground. Some towns surrendered without a fight and some resisted the Crusaders. The struggle continued through 1229 when the Inquisition established itself in Toulouse. Crusaders captured and destroyed the Cathar stronghold of Montségur in the Pyrenees in 1244. By the end of the 14th century, Catharism supposedly no longer existed.
Raphael Lemkin, the 20th-century originator of the word “genocide,” referred to the Albigensian Crusade as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history.”
For more stories about:
Cathars in the south of France… stay tuned.