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Representation of the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars. Source: Yelkrokoyade / Public Domain.

The Fall of Spirituality: The Blood-Soaked History of the Cathars

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The history of Christianity has always been filled with struggle. When the Middle Ages brought a rise in devoted, unique Christian teachings, the Church responded by declaring them heretics. And the heretics were hunted down. But one such Christian teaching managed to stay afloat, to resist the pressure and survive - for a while at least.

These were the Cathars, followers of Catharism, the Christian dualistic and Gnostic movement that swept through Europe and gained many followers. Today we are retracing their steps across the continent, exploring their impact on the history of the Middle Ages.

Who were these mysterious zealots who managed to take a stand against the Catholic Church? And what was their impact on the generations that came after? 

The Appearance of the Cathars in France

The early history of Christianity is known for the suffering of its adherents, a prolonged struggle to find its own place among the polytheistic religions that surrounded it. Gradually, Christianity came on top in this struggle, coming to dominate the nations of Europe, becoming closely tied with its politics and expansionist movements of the rulers. And thus, Catholic Christianity dominated Western Europe.

To survive as a dominant religion, it needed wealth - a lot of it. And luckily, wealth was never an issue. The “pious” powerful rulers, desiring the support of the Catholic Church in their wars and conquests, showered it with lavish gifts of gold and tributes. And all was well for the rich.

But what happens when true Christianity comes forward? When true devotees step up and point fingers, when they threaten to take away the sheep of the vast Catholic flock and welcome them to a different sheepfold? When they directly threaten the wealth and income? They get annihilated.

The medieval period saw a lot of such movements, devoted Christians who wanted to spread the message of piety, of humility and love, of good deeds and poverty. But none of these aspects were well liked by the Catholic Church, especially the poverty part.

And thus, movement after movement, devotee after devotee, men and women, all who stood in the path of the Catholic Church were proclaimed as heretics, and violently hunted across Europe, and executed in the worst way possible - by being burnt at the stake. There were hundreds of such movements in the Middle Ages - the Waldensians who preached poverty and spirituality, or the Fraticelli who preached good deeds and poverty, and proclaimed the wealth of the Church as a scandal.

There were the Henricians, the Arians, the teachings of Gundolfo, the Arnoldists who criticized the wealth of the Church, Dulcinians, Beghards, and the Humiliati - just to name a few. All were persecuted. Yet there was one such movement that managed to resist - Catharism.

Catharism was dominant mostly in the region of southern France and northern Italy, but its roots go deeper and far from there. It is commonly agreed that it stems from the Paulician movement, an adoptionist sect that was created in the 7th century in Armenia. Needless to say, the Paulicians were proclaimed as heretics and were persecuted across Europe.

Map showing spread of Paulicianism across Europe, the beginning of the Cathars. (Aldan-2 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Map showing spread of Paulicianism across Europe, the beginning of the Cathars. (Aldan-2 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

As their teachings migrated, they were refined and acquired new forms and new names. From Armenia, this Gnostic teaching traveled to the Balkans, where the movement arose once more in the 10th century, among the Christians of Serbia and Bulgaria. Here they were known as Bogumili (Dear to God) or Babuni (superstitious ones).

They too were persecuted and mostly eradicated from the region. It was these movements that show great similarity with the Catharism and a distinct pathway of the teaching is shown across Europe.

Catharism first appeared in 11th century southern France, in the Languedoc region. This is the first time that the name Cathars was used, but we now know that this was not what they called themselves. Their self-identifying name was simple - good men, good women, or good Christians ( Bons Hommes, Bonnes Femmes, Bons Chretiens ).

As a teaching, Catharism was a dualistic, Gnostic revival movement and their belief was centered on the belief of two gods - one good and the other evil. At its very core, Catharism was an attempt to find answers to some key religious and philosophical questions that were centered around the existence of evil. Their basic teaching greatly differentiated from the regular Catholic Christian doctrines.

The Cathars believed that the God of the New Testament was the good one, and the God of the Old Testament was the evil one, better known as Satan. The good God created the spirit, while the evil one created the material world. Contrary to the regular Christian belief, the Cathars thought of the entire world as evil, and as such it could not have been created by a benevolent god.

Satan, whom the Cathars believed was the God of the Old Testament. (Dencey / Public Domain)

Satan, whom the Cathars believed was the God of the Old Testament. (Dencey / Public Domain )

Here we can see the key aspect of the Cathar doctrines - the emphasizing of asceticism and the rejection of the physical world, as well as a direct response to the growingly scandalous and decadent lives of the Catholic clergymen in France. They also believed that the Evil God, or Satan, was the God of Judaism and they held that the Jewish law was wholly evil.

Their teaching is further characterized by a belief that human spirits were actually those of angels, who were seduced by Satan and forced to spend their lives in the material plane. In order to reach their angelic form or status, the Cathars preached full renouncing of the physical world of sin, and a devotion to the spiritual matters. The final release of their souls from the material world was done through the Cathar consolamentum ceremony.

When Belief Disturbs the Money

Jesus Christ was highly venerated by the Cathars, but in a unique way. They believed that he was one of the angels and rejected his human form, considering it only an appearance. Cathars adhered to the core, good teachings of Christ, and thus called themselves ‘the Good Christians’.

The Resurrection of Jesus was denied, as well as the symbol of the Christian cross - another material thing which was simply a tool for torture and evil. Their adherents also completely avoided any form of killing and would not eat any animal products, or anything that was a form of sexual reproduction.

The Cathar Church was split into several dioceses, each one having its bishop. Those that followed and supported the Cathar doctrines, took the ceremony of consolamentum near the time of their death, similar to the last rites.

They believed that the Catholic Church was a false organization which prostituted itself for power and wealth gained by sinful means. And here we can see the first reason why the Catholic Church considered them as heretics.

With time, the Catharism movement gained serious momentum in the Languedoc region. Their teachings were accepted, spread, and in time four Cathar bishoprics were created - in the fortified city of Carcassonne, in Albi, Toulouse, and Agen. This became the core region of their movement, and these towns had a majority of Cathar adherents.

But one crucial thing made the Cathars different than other denominations that were persecuted before - they had military support. As their teaching spread through southern France, it too gained a touch of political focus.

Many prominent and powerful French nobles supported Catharism and its leaders, partly because they truly believed their religious teaching, but partly because they sought independence from the rule of the French crown. One of these noblemen was Raymond VI of Toulouse, at the time one of the most prominent lords of France. And thus, the Cathar movement had a military supporter.

Seeing their growing independence in Languedoc and a loose obedience to the crown, the new pope - Innocent III, resolved to make attempts at solving the ‘Cathar problem’. This he attempted in a somewhat peaceful manner, by sending delegations that would assess the situation. He also sent preachers, who attempted to convert the Cathars to Catholicism.

This portrays the story of a dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St. Dominic's books were miraculously preserved from the flames. This was believed to symbolize the wrongness of the Cathars' teachings. (Oursana / Public Domain)

This portrays the story of a dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St. Dominic's books were miraculously preserved from the flames. This was believed to symbolize the wrongness of the Cathars' teachings. (Oursana / Public Domain )

They were all under the direction of one Pierre de Castelnau, a senior papal legate. Things escalated in 1208, when Pierre de Castelnau, who was greatly disliked in Languedoc, especially by Raymond of Toulouse, was murdered by one of the latter’s knights. At this point, the pope called for a crusade against the Cathars, with the aim to free the Languedoc region and vanquish the heresy.

He offered the Cathar lands to any lord who was willing to raise arms in the crusade and absolved of all sins any man who joined them. The crusade was greatly supported by the French crown, who sought to place Languedoc under their sphere of influence.

The Cathar Crusades Begin

The Cathar Crusade (also known as the Albigensian Crusade) begun in 1209. A force of around 10,000 crusaders was assembled and soon began their march. The first town in their path was Beziers, which was protected by a prominent noble and a Cathar follower - Raymond Roger Trencavel.

But seeing his situation and being largely unprepared to defend Beziers effectively, Trencavel fled to the mighty fortress of Carcassonne, in order to prepare a suitable defense. Sadly, the city of Beziers was left to the mercy of the crusaders, and mercy was not quite a common term in the crusader vocabulary.

Under the command of the papal legate, a Cistercian abbot by the name of Arnaud Amalric, the crusaders besieged the city and on the following day managed to enter within the city walls. What followed was a shocking massacre of its Cathar inhabitants. The entire city was burnt down and all of its residents murdered.

Interestingly, the city was not only inhabited by Cathars but by Catholics too. Even so, they were all put to the sword together. When the soldiers attempted to distinguish Cathar from Catholic, Amalric reportedly said: “ Kill them all! God will distinguish them.” In a letter to the pope, Arnaud Amalric coolly wrote that around 20,000 people were massacred that day in Beziers.

Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), massacre of the Albigensians by the crusaders (right). (Rolling Bone / Public Domain)

Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), massacre of the Albigensians by the crusaders (right). (Rolling Bone / Public Domain )

Even though it was a powerful stronghold, Carcassonne fell seven days after Beziers, after a short siege. Roger Raymond Trencavel was captured while attempting negotiations and died a few months afterwards. No massacres were conducted this time, and the Cathars and the residents of Carcassonne were exiled.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. In this group, women appear to be nearly as numerous as men. (Poeticbent / Public Domain)

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. In this group, women appear to be nearly as numerous as men. (Poeticbent / Public Domain )

After this crucial defeat, most other Cathar towns surrendered without further bloodshed. They would fall to the crusaders without resistance during the autumn. Those that didn’t surrender were besieged one by one during the winter of 1209.

Lastours fell after a prolonged siege, as did Bram after it. In June of 1210 the city of Minerve was besieged and fell in the following month. Its Cathar residents were given a chance to convert to Catholicism, but none would accept.

In the end 140 Cathars, most of them priests, were burned at the stake. Many of them voluntarily went to their deaths. Several smaller Cathar strongholds fell soon after and in a similar way, with more mass burnings at the stake taking place.

Cathars being burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fé, anachronistically presided over by Saint Dominic. (Soerfm / Public Domain)

Cathars being burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fé, anachronistically presided over by Saint Dominic. (Soerfm / Public Domain )

In 1213, the Cathars, now desperate for assistance, sought the help of Peter II, King of Aragon, and Count of Barcelona. As Peter’s sister was the wife of the leading Cathar noble Raymond VI of Toulouse, he agreed to support the Cathars. But at the same time, he was also a staunch Catholic and on good terms with the pope.

This caused in a major lull in the crusade, as the pope believed that Peter II could solve the heresy problem in a diplomatic way. But soon after, things went sour and the Cathar coalition of Peter and Raymond caused the pope to renew the crusade.

This led to the Battle of Muret in September 1213, in which the crusaders, although outnumbered, crushed the forces of the Cathars and killed Peter II of Aragon. Raymond fled to England, and by 1215, the Cathar movement was largely suppressed.

Course of the Battle of Muret, which led to the defeat of the Cathars. (Macesito / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Course of the Battle of Muret, which led to the defeat of the Cathars. (Macesito / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Raymond VI of Toulouse returned in 1216, after three years of exile, and quickly re-gathered the Cathar forces from Languedoc. They waged a series of sieges and battles and managed to retake Toulouse and a few other strongholds by 1218.

As the crusade subsided and renewed in waves, the Cathars managed to regain some territories, and keep Toulouse through several sieges up to 1221. By 1224 Carcassonne was reclaimed as well.

A new Cathar Crusade was started by the Catholic Church in 1226, this time led by Louis VIII, King of France. By 1229, all Cathar towns were captured and the main supporter of the Cathars, Raymond VII of Toulouse, agreed to abandon his cause in order to regain favor with the king and reclaim his lands.

With this, and the following inquisitions of the Catholic Church, Catharism was almost gone. The last Cathar fortress, Montsegur, fell in 1244, and over 200 Cathar priests were burned at a massive pyre on the spot. After this, Catharism was largely extinguished and those few who remained practiced it in secrecy.

To Stand Against the Tide of Power

The sad story of the Cathars reminds us that the opposition to the powerful institutions of the world is a noble, but in the end, fruitless cause. The Cathars, in their devotion to the true, spiritual world, unwillingly stirred the hornet’s nest and became a thorn in the side of the rich. And such thorns, as we all know, are plucked out with vicious repercussions.

Top image: Representation of the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars. Source: Yelkrokoyade / Public Domain .

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Arnold, J. 2001. Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc . University of Pennsylvania Press.

Barber, M. 2014. The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages . Routledge.

Costen, M. 1997. The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade . Manchester University Press.

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