In Search of the Cathars in Languedoc/Occitanie

These days, I’m curious as I embark on my travels around Languedoc Occitanie in search of the Cathars. The Cathar religion is a cult that once thrived in the southern regions of France.

The more I  research, I find myself increasingly drawn to the intriguing stories surrounding the Cathars, their unique beliefs, the persecution they endured, and their lasting impact on the regions stretching from Marseille to the Pyranees.

Unveiling Medieval Heresy and Cathar History

The Cathars, also known as Albigensians, were a group of believers who flourished during the Middle Ages. Believed to have originated from Persia and the Byzantine Empire, they found a prominent presence in the southern French region known as “Languedoc” or “Occitania,” encompassing the areas bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees, and the Garonne, Tarn, and Rhône rivers. Notably, Languedoc is home to numerous Cathar castles, serving as powerful remnants of their history.

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 Le Plus Beaux Village de France. 

Exploring Cathar Beliefs and Persecution

The Cathars religion included beliefs such as equality of the sexes, reincarnation, celibacy, and dualism — one good, “heavenly,” and one evil, “of earth.” They renounced the birth and life of Christ, the holy sacraments, and 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. To understand their prevalence in the region, it is important to know that Languedoc was not part of France in the Middle Ages. Instead, the area 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 Cathar beliefs 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, Pope Innocent III launched a war of terror against the “heretical” Cathars soon after the Crusades in the Holy Land. 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 inquisition period, an estimated half-million Languedoc men, women, and children were massacred, Catholics and Cathars. 

Minervecathar cathars cathar relics cathar castles medieval castles

Avenue of Martyrs in Minerve


In Search of Cathar Traces: Unveiling the Legacy in Languedoc/Occitanie

Perhaps one of the Church’s most notable attacks on the Cathar religion 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.”

BezierLanguedoc Occitanis Cathar Cathars Albegensian Crusade


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.

catharcathars languedoc occitanie albegesian crusade


Reflecting on the Cathar Legacy: Understanding Catharism’s End

The last Crusades, led by King Louis VIII in 1226, wiped out most Cathars. Many believers went deep underground. Some towns surrendered without a fight, and some resisted the Crusaders. The persecution 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:


7 Days in Dordogne: Step-by-Step

7 Days in Dordogne: Albi to Cahors


“The Golden Girls” Loving France: Day 7-8 Sete, Beziers and Bousique


All Aboard for Carcassonne

A Visit to Carcassonne Through the Eyes of a Child

Cathars in the south of France… stay tuned.

11 replies »

  1. What an excellent post, Deb. Thank you for all of this information … a great introduction to this intriguing history.

  2. Fascinating history ! Thank you for your research and pictures. Religions that kill non-believers like ISIS now and Catholics then are why people question and hate religions. Real Christians are taught to “turn the other cheek” and not hate but love even those who persecute them. Interesting that St. Louis the only King to be given sainthood by the Catholic Church was given that title for the Crusades he lead from Aiges- Mortes to the Mideast killing Muslims and capturing Jerusalem in the name of Christianity.

    • Learning about the history of Europe that I studied so long ago is one of my favorite parts of travel. Knowing all the insanity that civilization has lived through helps me believe we still have a chance. The story of the Cathars is but one of those horrific pages in time.

  3. Déborah, I loved your history lesson. It was simple to digest and understand. I know a lot more than when I visited Albi (2 times) and the region where I live. Many mercis.

  4. This was so interesting, Deborah. I have spent a lot of time in this area and been to quite a few of these Villages. Your details about the Cathars helped me to understand what was happening at that time much better. Thank you.

    • I will look forward to hearing from you again as I travel. I’d love any suggestions and travel hints…

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