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  • Writer's pictureB F Gypsy Scholar

The "Heretics of the Provence" & the Albigensian Crusade

In July 1209, the tranquil and beautiful part of what is now southern France was visited by a vortex of bloodletting the like of which would not be seen again in Europe until the dark days of the ‘Final Solution’. The peaceful hills of the Languedoc-Languedoc were to ring with screams and its mountain air to be adulterated by the stench of burning flesh. An army of 30,000 knights and foot soldiers moved into this area. They destroyed crops, towns and cities were rased to the ground, and a whole population put to the sword. This horror continued unabated until March 1244, when it came to a painful end in the barren, windswept mountain citadel of Montségur. In 1208, Pope Innocent III had declared a Crusade against a group of heretics called Albigensians. This name had been given to them after an ecclesiastical council in the Languedoc town of Albi condemned them as heretics in 1165. The initiates of this sect called themselves Cathari, or the ‘purified ones’, and because they stressed the Christian values of humility and charity they attracted many followers. The Church, in condemning them at Albi, had given a strong message that this schism would not be tolerated and strong measures were to be taken to stamp it out.

This met with a fair degree of success but in the Languedoc, under the protection of the Counts of Toulouse, Catharism flourished. This was all to change in 1209, when the first major town to fall to the invaders was Béziers, where at least 15,000 men, women and children were slaughtered wholesale. The fanatical zeal by which these atrocities were perpetrated caused the papal representative, in a letter to Innocent, to announce proudly that ‘neither age nor sex nor status was spared’. After Béziers, Perpignan, Narbonne, Carcassonne and Toulouse were all to be visited with the same savagery. For 35 years Languedoc became the place in Europe where men could do all kinds of evil and receive God’s blessing. As the Pope had declared this venture to be a crusade, the rewards were the same as those available by fighting in the Holy Land, and it did not involve a sea journey. Individuals could pull on a red-crossed tunic and literally walk to salvation and, more importantly, potential riches. For the reward of the remission of all sins, an expiation of penances and an assured place in heaven, all they had to do was fight for no more than 40 days. Another incentive was the automatic ownership of all the booty that they could lay their hands on. By 1243, all major Cathar towns and bastions had fallen to the invaders, except for a handful of remote and isolated strongholds. Major among these was the majestic mountain citadel of Montségur. For 10 months the invaders besieged Montségur: standing upon an almost sheer rock rising some 500 feet from the surrounding plain, the citadel stood firm. In the end, time took its toll and on 2 March, 1244 Pierre-Roger of Mirepoix, the leader of the defenders, was compelled to sue for a 15-day truce. On 16 March, the Cathars finally surrendered the castle to the Archbishop of Narbonne and the Seneschal of Carcassonne. On that day 225 people, male and female, were taken to a stake below the rock and summarily burned alive. This was the effective end of Catharism, although there is evidence that small groups survived, living in caves and mounting a sporadic, but bitter, guerrilla war against their persecutors. So how did this outburst of bloodletting and religious intolerance erupt in such an obscure part of France, and what had the inhabitants of this area done to reap such a whirlwind? The reason was quite simple: Gnosticism had not died out as the Church had hoped. The belief had held true in small communities in the Balkans and had survived through the Dark Ages as a secret church, an esoteric belief system at odds with, yet uncomfortably similar to, official Christianity. It was to come out of the shadows in the 10th century when a humble Bulgarian priest named Bogomil established a church openly espousing dualist beliefs. During the 11th and 12th centuries it spread rapidly through many European and Asian provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Such was the concern of the Orthodox authorities that in 1100 many prominent Bogomils were tried and imprisoned. This culminated in the public burning of their leader, Basil.

There is evidence that many crusaders returning from the Second Crusade (1147–9) had become exposed to Manichaeism. To the more open-minded of them this belief was attractive, as it rationalized why evil exists in a world created by a good god. The Cathars accepted the dualist philosophy as advocated by Mani, the Bogomils and the Gnostic sages. To them the physical world was intrinsically evil, created by the Demiurge. They re-named the Demiurge ‘Rex Mundi’, the ‘King of the World’. They also accepted the dualism of the human personality and so continued the belief in the Daemon and the Eidolon. The belief that salvation was available through personal growth and inward knowledge was as antithetical to Church teaching in the 12th century as it was in the 3rd. Knowledge of God could only be gained through the intercession of intermediaries, be they priests or popes. This ‘do it yourself’ religion, if it became too popular, would do away with the need for a ‘professional’ clergy, which was not a situation that the princes of the Church would look on kindly from their palaces. Catharism had proven itself popular and in the face of continued hostility from both ecclesiastical and civil authorities, the Cathari had still managed to form themselves into an organized church. Bogomil missionaries had been active since the early years of the century and had sown the seeds well. In about 1149, the first Cathari bishop established himself in the north of France; a few years later he established colleagues in Albi and in Lombardy. Their status was recognized in 1167 when the Bogomil bishop Nicetas visited Albi. By this time the ecclesiastical conference at Albi, chosen because of the strength of the Cathar presence in that town, had condemned the sect as heretical (1149). Even so, this failed to stop the spread of the heresy. By the turn of the century there were 11 bishoprics in all, 1 in the north of France, 4 in the south, and 6 in Italy. The action by Innocent III was not just against a small group of heretics in the South of France.

It was a message to all of Christendom that neo-Manichean dualism would not be tolerated. After the disaster at Montségur, the remaining Cathari had to go underground. While some stayed to fight a small-scale guerrilla war, many others sought sanctuary in Italy, where persecution, although evident, was less common. By the 1270s, the hierarchy had faded out and by the 15th century Catharism had disappeared from view. The way in which Gnosticism, Manichaeanism, the Bogomils and Cathari all seemed just to fade away seems peculiar. All suffered great persecution but so have many other religions – most notably, Christianity itself. It is unclear why a belief that has such a degree of rationalism attached to it erupted with such power on the historical stage, only to disappear again with equal rapidity. Some scholars argue that the Bogomils and the Cathari were forerunners of certain Protestant groups such as the Anabaptists and the Hussite Brethren. However, these groups are extreme fundamentalists, accepting totally the literal truth of the Old Testament. In the face of this it is clear that the Cathari and Bogomil belief that the God of the Israelites was a god of Evil would be totally unacceptable to them. It may be that the answer is far more intriguing – these groups did not die away at all but continue among us even to this day. The answer lies in the reason why these dualistic religions, churches of extreme asceticism, became so popular. As we have seen, the central belief of all these neo-Gnostic groups is that matter is evil. It is only by the total ascetic renunciation of the world that purity can be regained and the soul commune with the true God of light. Accordingly, strict rules had to be followed: fasting, including the total prohibition of meat, total sexual abstinence, and avoidance of all alcohol. But would this be the way to attract the masses? The faithful were divided into two groups, the ‘believers’ and the ‘perfect’, or parfaits. The perfect were set apart from the mass of believers by a ceremony of initiation known as the consolamentum. These individuals then

pursued a life of extreme asceticism given over to study and contemplation. This was in keeping with the Gnostic belief that religious or mystical experience must be apprehended at first hand, not through priests or received wisdom. The believers, on the other hand, were not expected to attain the standards of the parfaits. Thus when disaster strikes and persecution takes place it is the believers that usually fade away; the parfaits do not. They go underground and seek out others to carry forward their beliefs. These individuals become initiates into what is, in effect, a secret society. When circumstances are right and the wider culture is open to such beliefs, dualism again becomes popular.


(Text taken from book chapter on the Albigensian Crusade)

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