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The Cathars: the struggle for and of a new Church

The “Cathar heresy” that struck Southern France in the 13th century, and which was viciously persecuted by the Church, remains a pool of interest and intrigue. What really happened, and what did they truly believe?

Philip Coppens


Wars between nations or faiths are commonplace. Sometimes, nations turn against a minority resident within their own borders. But the Albigensian Crusade is unique in history, as the Pope on March 10, 1208 proclaimed a crusade against a heresy that was present inside Catholic Europe itself. “These heretics are worse than the Saracens!” he proclaimed. In retrospect, the crusade was one of the bloodiest episodes in European history. Indeed, the decades-long persecution of ordinary citizens has often been seen as the event that prepared the way for the birth of Protestantism, as it awakened the ordinary European citizen to the realisation that something was not “quite” right within the papal corridors.

Today, these heretics are most commonly known as the Cathars, but historically, they went under a number of guises for, in fact, they were not a uniform organisation at all. These heretics were at the origin of the word “bugger”, derived from Bulgre and Bouggerie – “of Bulgary” – from where the Bogomils – one branch of the heresy – came.
The main focus, however, has always been on the Cathars (from the Greek word meaning “pure”), a name that is normally reserved for the heretics that lived in Southern France and Northern Spain; they were the ones targeted by the Crusade.

Catharism arrived in southern France and northern Italy in the 11th century. It was present in Orléans as early as 1022, when thirteen Perfects – the name for the Cathar priests – were condemned to the stake. At the time, the south of France (the Languedoc) was not yet under the political control of Northern France. In the Languedoc, Catharism was endorsed by the local nobility and became a popular alternative to the Catholic Church. The likes of the Count of Toulouse – one of the most important rulers of Southern France – supported Catharism and he and several other lords invited the Cathar Perfects to organise themselves properly, thus offering to help organise a parallel church to Christianity.
Hence, the first Cathar Synod was held between 1167 and 1176 at St. Felix-de-Caraman, near Toulouse. The event was attended by many local notables and presided over by the Bogomil papa Nicetas of the dualist church of Constantinople, assisted by the Cathar bishop of (Northern) France and a leader of the Cathars of Lombardy. The main item on the agenda was how to divide Southern France into bishoprics, appoint bishops, and guarantee that the area was properly looked after by travelling Perfects, spreading the Cathar message. “After the Balkan, Southern France” is reported to have been their rallying cry.

The Synod marked the start of the real struggle between the Church and Catharism, as the Church now had an organised body to fight. Of course, it meant “the enemy” now had a name, and could thus be more easily fought.
As early as 1178, Louis VII of France asked for a forceful intervention to stamp out the New Church and in 1179, Catharism was denounced. Actions were taken and by 1200, Roger Trencavel II, Viscount of Beziers and Carcassonne, was excommunicated, whereas both the Count of Foix and Toulouse continued to support the Cathar cause. In 1208, Pope Innocent III had repeatedly tried to use diplomacy to stop the spread of Catharism, but in that year, his papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered (allegedly by an agent serving the Count of Toulouse). The event pushed him from diplomacy into military action. Some now consider the death of de Castelnau a false flag operation, engineered so that the crusade would be declared.

Whichever scenario is true, the end conclusion remains the same: an estimated 200,000 to one million people died during the twenty year campaign, which began in earnest in Béziers in July 1209. After assembling the papal troops, these marched to Béziers, where they ordered that 222 people, suspected of being Cathars, were handed over to them by the citizens of the town. When this was refused, the papal troops decided to attack. One of the crusaders asked their leader, the Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, how to distinguish between the 222 heretics and the thousands of faithful Catholics that lived in the city. “Kill them all,” was the abbot’s alleged reply. “God will recognise his own!” The number of dead that day was between 7000 and 20,000, the latter figure being the one quoted when Arnaud-Amaury reported back to the Pope.
With such carnage, it was clear that the other towns (e.g. Narbonne and Carcassonne) offered no resistance and soon, the Southern counts had lost their territories and powers to the King of France and his allies. For these Northern lords, attaining the lands of the Languedoc had always been paramount; their mission had been accomplished.

Though the crusade was over, only the powerbrokers that had supported the spread of Catharism had been removed from power, their lands confiscated. What about the people? It is a known fact that the more one hunts down a group, the more convinced it becomes in its ways. Hence, at the end of the Albigensian Crusade, Catharism wasn’t by any means eradicated.
For this purpose, the Inquisition was established in Toulouse in 1229, to guarantee that any future resurgence of this heresy was nipped in the butt – literally – but also that a new phase of the campaign could commence: individual manhunts, to track down Perfects that were still hiding and preaching within the general population.
In 1233, a campaign began to burn all those Cathars that had relapsed; some dead bodies were even exhumed for burning. One fine example is that of Pierre de Fenouillet, who was dispossessed of his goods as a heretic and then withdrew to the Templar commandery of Mas Deu in the Roussillon. The Knights Templar tried, as much as possible, to remain neutral in this crusade. De Fenouillet was buried at Mas Deu around 1242, but his death did not prevent the Inquisitors from exhuming, re-judging and condemning him once more, posthumously, in 1262. The same fate befell fellow Cathar Pons III de Vernet, who had also withdrawn to Mas Deu. The Dominican Inquisitors exhumed and burned his remains too. It is, of course, obvious that capturing dead men is far easier than living beings; the latter run faster.

Still, from 1233 onwards, hunting down Catharism was no longer done via wide-sweeping crusades, but on an individual basis. This meant that any Cathars caught, were ferociously interrogated about the terrorist network they were part of, their secret hideouts, their clandestine financiers and supporters, etc. Faced with the incredible pains subjected to their bodies, and the Cathar oath not to lie, the Inquisition learned important secrets about the underground network. Despite this, René Weis, author of “The Yellow Cross”, states that “The Cathar movement in the late-thirteenth-century Sabartès was an underground organization, and the Inquisition of Geoffroy d’Ablis never penetrated to its core in spite of the fact that it executed most of their leaders.”
Though that was the case, many Cathar priests realised the lethal dangers they faced and began to take refuge in the fortresses at Fenouillèdes and Montségur, while others were able to incite uprisings, which forced the Inquisition out of Albi, Narbonne and Toulouse. Count Raymond-Roger de Trencavel even led a military campaign in 1240, but was defeated at Carcassonne, surrendered and was exiled to Aragon.
The Church felt that victory was near and that only those Cathars hiding in the castles remained to be eradicated. A siege began of the castle of Montségur, where 300 soldiers and 200 Perfects stood off an army of 10,000. Amongst the Cathars inside Montségur were the Cathar bishop of Toulouse and the Cathar bishop of the Razès, Raymond Aguilher, and thus leading members of the “heresy”.
After a ten month siege, in March 1244, the castle surrendered. Though their life would be spared if they repented, the Cathars preferred to be burnt, rather than reject their faith – a true sign of their conviction, which is one of the key reasons why Catharism today has such a wide appeal with the local Southern French population, who largely see Catharism as the stand of those with democratic principles and wanted “Freedom of Religion” against “Big Brother”. Big Brother, of course, won.

The fall of a small, isolated but very idyllic fort, that of Quéribus, in August 1255, is often seen as the final demise of Catharism, but that is not true. In fact, in the following decades, there was something of a Cathar revival. The much hunted Cathar Perfect Pierre Authié even consoled the Count of Foix, Roger-Bernard III, in March 1302 in the hall of Tarascon castle, even though he was later buried by the Bishop of Carcassonne. It shows how many local lords still remained loyal to the Cathar cause.
The underground survival of Catharism has become symbolised by the events that occurred in and to the small village of Montaillou, near Montségur, as it was the subject of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s pioneering book of the same name. From 1294 to 1324, the daily routines of Montaillou’s 250 inhabitants are known, as they survived in the records of Jacques Fournier, later to be Pope Benedict XII. It was Fournier, then the local bishop, who unleashed the Inquisition at Pamiers against the villagers, even resulting in the arrest of the entire village in 1308. One should, perhaps, be happy they weren’t all killed…
It was Fournier who also caught the last Cathar Perfect to be burnt at the stake: Guillaume Bélibaste, in 1321. Bélibaste’s bailiwick was the area between Rennes-le-Château – known for the mysterious 19th century priest Bérenger Saunière, who is at the core of the mystery of the so-called Priory of Sion and Dan Brown’s bestselling “The Da Vinci Code” – and the coastal city of Perpignan.
Bélibaste was the son of a rich farmer from Cubières. He became a shepherd and a Perfect, the pupil of the Perfects Pierre and Jacques Authié, whom had stayed with Bélibaste’s family in Cubières. As the Inquisition’s stranglehold tightened, Bélibaste settled across the border, in Catalonia, where the political regime did not persecute Cathars, and he was able to make baskets and carding combs, as well as becoming the mentor to a community of local Cathars. He nevertheless decided to return to his homeland, but was caught, tried, and burnt at Villerouge-Termenès.
Bélibaste’s death did signal the end of the official Occitan Cathar Church, which blossomed in the 11th century, got organised in 1167, and died in 1321. But though officially defeated in France, elsewhere, e.g. in Bosnia, Catharism continued to exist into the 15th century, when its adherents converted to Islam. Some, however, argue that Catharism in France may have died as an organised Church in 1321, but that as a religion… it remains alive until today.

Villerouge-Termenes, the town where Bélibaste was burnt

Though it was the Inquisition – the accusers – that wrote down the life of Authié and Bélibaste, there is general consensus that the insights the accounts provide into their lives and beliefs are credible. Indeed, what precisely the Cathars believed, remains somewhat of an enigma. Some have even used it as a blank canvas, to paint their own thoughts or convictions on. Hence, a lot of myths and lies now exist about Catharism.
It is known that Bélibaste, in captivity, asked Arnaud Sicre, the man who had engineered his capture, to give him the consolamentum, and to then jointly commit suicide by jumping from the tower in which they were kept prisoner, thus entering Heaven directly. Suicide – then and now – was seen by the Catholic Church as an act that would disqualify people from entering Heaven, so already it is clear that in matters of faith, Catharism and the Catholic doctrine were miles apart.
The central mystery – in both senses of the word – of Catharism is indeed this consolamentum, a largely unknown ritual given to Cathars, whereby the performance of the ritual (which could be administered more than once) guaranteed admittance to Heaven – no matter what the sins or morals of that person had been. It should therefore be seen as a magical ritual, similar (in nature) to those uttered in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And its reliance on magic not only betrays its oriental origins, but also underlines that Catharism was not – as some would like to see it – a Christian heresy – i.e. a derivation of Christianity, but nevertheless still Christian. Catharism spread from the East, and it is in the Eastern religions that its origins sit.

The main core of their belief was the rejection of the material world, which was seen as a trap imprisoning the soul. All things material were hence seen as evil and to be opposed and rejected. Hence, they built no churches, were largely vegetarian and shared both common possessions and ate common meals. Though it is true that their doctrine had room for Jesus and the Bible, especially the Gospel of John, and that they proclaimed Christ had no real body (if he was the Son of God, how could he have a body of flesh, which was evil?) and hence also died no real death, all of these accommodations should be seen as educational tools so that they could explain to those that had been raised as Christians where both teachings differed.
But in the end, their doctrine was appealing not so much for its core magical rituals, but because the Catholic clergy were corrupt and as materialistic as one could be. Though historians have often underlined that the Perfects were not as perfect as they should have been (e.g. still having sexual intercourse and having children, whereas they were not allowed to by their own rules), it is clear that in general, their house was far more in order than that of the Pope.

Today, Catharism is thus largely seen as a dualist religion, like most Gnostic and oriental teachings. The man largely responsible for identifying Catharism as such was Déodat Roche, often referred to both as “the Cathar Bishop”, if not “the Cathar Pope”. However, outside of France, his name is relatively unknown, as is that of his friend and Professor of Sociology René Nelli of the University of Toulouse (and often referred to as “the vicar of Catharism”), who lectured on the subject all over France.
Their fame has largely been eclipsed by the likes of Otto Rahn and Antonin Gadal, who saw the caves of the valley south of Foix as secret initiation centres for the Cathars – a theory that is now often widely accepted, but which has very little academic support.
Gadal continued the work that had been started by the local historian Adolphe Garrigou. From the 1930s onwards, circles were formed around Gadal and the already mentioned Roche and Nelli. Together, they formed “La Société du souvenir de Montségur et du Graal”, to promote the forgotten history of Catharism – but specifically tying it to the Holy Grail – and the promotion of Montségur, and the region as a whole. It is here that what is now known as “neo-Catharism” was born, and it has little to do with the original belief.
A second circle of Cathar enthusiasts had the countess Pujol-Murat as a key figure; she was one of Otto Rahn’s patrons. Rahn was a young German academic, whose books greatly advanced interest in Montségur and Catharism, both in the 1930s and now. The countess claimed to be a descendent of Esclarmonde de Foix, who was seen (though historically inaccurately so) as one of the most esteemed Cathar Perfects of the early 13th century and in some accounts held to be responsible for the rise of Montségur as the “Vatican” of Catharism. It should be pointed out that these hilltop castles (like Montségur) were never “Cathar cathedrals”, as some would have it, but merely refuges the Perfects had to flee to, to escape the Inquisition.
The Countess hoped to discover the lost treasure of the Cathars – and the Templars – which she believed was the Grail itself, which supposedly was hidden at Montségur by Esclarmonde, just before she threw herself off the mountain to escape from the papal troops. Some therefore believed that the Grail was hidden there, whereas others felt that the Grail was secreted out of Montségur, days before its fall. It is said that four Cathars descended down the steep slopes, carrying with them a “treasure”. Though the story of this escape is true, whether they carried anything, is a matter of debate. Furthermore, as the descent was steep and arduous, whatever they carried must have been small.

Amidst the wild speculation as to what they might have secured, some believe it was a holy book, containing the wisdom of the Cathar religion. It is indeed unlikely that the Cathars would have secured a physical treasure, if only because it would have been too heavy, and in their eyes, unimportant: Catharism saw everything on this plane of existence as evil and despicable; money and wealth were chief amongst Earth’s – and Satan’s – vices.
Authors such as Walter Birks and R.A. Gilbert, as well as Elizabeth van Buren, have therefore suggested that the Cathars guarded a manuscript, knowledge – a spiritual treasure. This manuscript is often said to be the “Book of Love” and is linked with the Gospel of John, and is claimed to contain “sublime teachings, marvellous revelations, the most secret words confided by our Lord Jesus Christ to the beloved disciple [John the Evangelist]. Their power would be such that all hatred, all anger, all jealousy would vanish from the hearts of men. The Divine Love, like a new flood, would submerge all souls and never again would blood be shed on this earth.” The only problem with this conclusion, of course, is that the Cathars were not really Christians; their doctrine did not focus on Jesus…
Still, it is known that books were very important to the Cathars, and some, such as “Stella”, by the Cathars of Desenzano, talk about the wars between God and Lucifer – underlining their dualist doctrine. But as Saint Dominic, founder of the Inquisition, is often depicted committing these books to the fire, it should come as little surprise that few have survived his “intervention”.

However beautiful Montségur is, the “real” Cathar heartland were the somewhat gentler slopes, where now desolate villages once thrived. One such village is Arques, near Rennes-le-Château, where the hunted Perfect Pierre Authié preached and found refuge, and where Déodat Roche was born and lived, and where there is now a museum dedicated to him.
Though Roche was part of this Cathar Revival, he never focused too much on the promotion of Montségur or the “initiation caves”, which for him were distractions – tourist attractions. Roche focused on the true Cathar belief and, as mentioned, correctly identified it as a dualist religion. But the question needs to be asked whether he discovered this, or whether he knew so all along.
For those who have studied and known Roche, there are hints that somehow, Roche’s interest in Catharism was very fundamental – that he may have been one himself. He is known to have made solitary early morning walks to a hill just outside of Arques, where he was taken as a young child by his father. The site holds a statue of the Virgin Mary, and though this might appear typically Christian, the Cathars of the 14th century are known to have made similar pilgrimages to the nearby basilica of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, which held a Black Madonna. As in Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, did the Virgin Mary in Arques have a secondary – dualistic – meaning for Cathars – and Roche?
As mentioned, his home town of Arques also had a strong connection with Authié. Roche once unearthed an image of Authié and both he and others who saw this, noted how remarkably similar the two men looked. Roche was not only mayor of Arques; he had also held important positions within the French judicial system. He was also a very private individual. Hence, he never spoke about whether or not he felt that he was indeed the possible reincarnation of Authié, but Roche must have understood that what he was doing, was uncovering what had been buried with Authié. If he did feel that he was the incarnation of Authié, then it was clear that upon this Perfect’s death, he had after all not entered Heaven.

So, what was Catharism? A dualist religion is primarily seen as a religion that believes in two competing forces, good versus evil, but it is much more than that. An insight into the Cathar cosmography comes from Authié himself. He preached that the Devil had sneaked into Paradise, after waiting 1000 years at it doors. Once inside, he seduced the spirits, who all fell from a hole in Paradise for nine days and nine nights. After this Fall, they ended up on Earth. When Heaven had largely become depleted, God immediately plugged the hole. But the souls on Earth soon were saddened by their loss and the Devil offered them as comfort such overcoats that would make them forget the bliss of Heaven: the human body, which began a series of incarnations. It thus became Mankind’s mission to ascend back to Heaven, i.e. break the cycle of incarnations. By accepting this cosmography and performing the consolamentum, one’s next death would end the soul’s odyssey and return it to Heaven.
The two most important Cathar rituals were the consolamentum and the endura. The consolamentum was performed at the ordination of the Perfect as well as for the dying. Once received, the dying person was forbidden any sustenance other than water. Indeed, the endura was nothing more – or less – than a state of being to safeguard the integrity of the consolation. It was, in short, a hunger strike, to enter death “pure”.
The longest endura on record lasted twelve weeks, from a woman of Coustaussa, a village opposite Rennes-le-Château. A person was able to receive the consolamentum more than once, underlining the magical nature of the religion once again. But as the consolamentum had to be administered by a Perfect, and the Inquisition specifically chased down the Perfects (for that very reason), as fewer priests were around to perform it, those who received it, even if they had a chance to survive their illness, often chose to die. Eternal salvation was, after all, more important than life on Earth.

In conclusion, neo-Catharism had little to do with Catharism as such. Jesus was an unimportant figure for the Cathars, yet neo-Cathars underline how the Cathars believed that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Christ. Yuri Stoyanov has indeed confirmed that the Cathars believed as such and that this belief had no counterpart in Bogomil doctrines, meaning that the Cathars were unique amongst the dualists to have this belief – meaning their religion was not at all based on the knowledge that Jesus and Mary Magdalene created a dynasty but that, instead, Cathars in Southern France, where Mary Magdalene was a popular saint, used her in their cosmography, to illustrate the feminine aspect of the divine duality they believed in.
Equally, others have tried to underline the role of John the Baptist in this movement, but Cathars saw Elijah as an angel of Satan and they rejected baptism by water – instead baptising by fire. There is indeed some irony that as “punishment”, Cathars were burnt at the stake. Perhaps one shouldn’t just think the Inquisitors didn’t know what they were doing, but that instead they were offering an easy and welcome way out for all Perfects.

Cathars underlined the 1000 years the Devil had to wait at the gates of Paradise before he entered it. Cathars saw it as their mission to have the soul repent for the sin of being seduced by the Devil, and once accomplished, it would return to Heaven. The Church, however, saw it differently, using especially Revelation 20:7, where it is said that after 1000 years, Satan would be released from his prison. Seeing Catharism rose approximately one millennium after the death of Christ, chronicler Ralph the Bard and St Hildegard of Bingen – the latter who stated she had a vision in which she saw Satan released from his chains – said Catharism was in fact the return of Satan, there to destroy the Church. It was the very reason why it had to be destroyed; for many Christians, conquering Catharism meant slaying Satan. Thus, not only Catharism, but the Cathar Crusade itself, had an innate dualism to it too.

This article appeared in New Dawn, Volume 10, Number 10 (September - October 2008).