The Cathars were the followers of a dissident church that flourished in several parts of Europe during the early Mediaeval period. First mentioned around the eleventh century, and derived from an older version of Christianity, the origins of Catharism remain something of a mystery.
Cathars: The Pure Ones
The word “Cathar” comes from the Greek word katharos meaning “the pure ones”. Catharism promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity, and turned its back on the pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth of the Catholic church. It did not have a founder or leader, nor did it take root in one place. It appears to have originated in the Middle East, and spread to Europe via Constantinople, the Balkans and Italy. It inherited elements of Sufism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, fused with a dualist perspective: a universe of Good versus Evil; Light versus Darkness; a Good God of the spiritual world and an Evil God of the material world. Accordingly the material world was of no interest, and one had to achieve spiritual enlightenment in order to reach the Good God. By the eleventh century, there were Cathar believers all over Europe, including England. But one of the places in which the Cathar church really flourished, and the place with which the word Cathar is now strongly associated, is in the Languedoc.
The word “Cathar” comes from the Greek word katharos meaning “the pure ones”. Catharism promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity, and turned its back on pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth.
Pays Cathares and the Languedoc
Certain events can sometimes change the entire course of history for a country or region, and the rise of the Cathars in the Languedoc was one of these important historical flashpoints. In the early Middle Ages, France was a much smaller country; it was a patchwork of kingdoms, duchies and counties, some with allegiance to the French crown, others with different loyalties. “Languedoc” was the generic name given to the vast area in the south where they did not speak French at all, but a family of languages between French and Spanish known as “les langues d’oc”, or Occitanian. Some areas in Occitania (itself derived from Roman “Aquitania”) were largely independent, others belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, and others – including parts of Pays Cathares – to the kingdom of Aragon.
Territories in this frontier region, far from the powerhouses of Europe, changed hands frequently as a result of alliances and power struggles, yet despite that the Languedoc was a wealthy, prosperous place, rich in culture and learning: it was a cultural melting pot, where new ideas and different religious ideas were more readily embraced than in the cooler climes of northern Europe; it was home to a large Jewish community that enjoyed much greater freedom and prosperity than was usual in Catholic Europe; it was the birthplace of the poetic, romantic troubadours, a land of courtly love and chivalry; and it was also the perfect place in the Middle Ages for a heresy to flourish.
As in later centuries, religious dissent was not just a theological statement; it was a way by which local rulers and people could assert their differences and cultural independence from the great European powers of the day: the Catholic church and the Kings of France. Thus many peoples of the Languedoc adopted Catharism, and in doing so, distanced themselves from the French and from Rome. By the early 13th century, Catharism had taken such a strong hold in the area, that in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the notorious Albigensian Crusade – a crusade aimed not against the Infidels, but against the “heretical” Cathars.
In 1233 the Church authorities created the Inquisition, with the express intention of completely wiping out heresy. The Inquisitors worked tirelessly and logically to track down and destroy every heretic in the land.
For twenty years, crusaders led by the Barons of France sacked and pillaged the area, massacring Cathars or converting them by force to Catholicism. They were not eradicated however, and in the early 1220s a second wave of crusading took place, this time led by The Kings of France. Finally, most of the area was subjugated, and in 1229 the Treaty of Meaux-Paris was signed, bringing almost the whole of Occitania into the realm of the French crown. In 1233 the Church authorities created the Inquisition, with the express intention of completely wiping out heresy. The Inquisitors worked tirelessly and methodically to track down and destroy every heretic in the land, although pockets of Cathar resistance held out for the next twenty-six years.
Seeking Refuge in the Cathar Castles
The fortified hilltops, castles, villages and towns surrounding Domaine de Palatz in the Pays Cathares are a stark reminder of the the region’s turbulent history. Many of the castles actually predate the Cathar period, having been constructed in earlier centuries as defensive positions along the changing border between Aragon and France. But during the Albigensian Crusade, these fortified positions often served as strongholds for besieged Cathars, and many witnessed the most atrocious massacres.
The castle at Montségur remained a Cathar stronghold until 1244, when it was finally taken and 200 Cathar prisoners taken were burned alive. The last Cathar stronghold, the Chateau de Peyrepertuse, fell in 1255. In order to consolidate their power, the new French masters of Languedoc rebuilt and maintained the fortified cities and great defensive castles of the area. They strengthened the defences of walled cities like Carcassonne and Narbonne, and renovated most of the imposing strongholds that they had captured, as at Quéribus, Peyrepertuse, Puylaurent or Lastours. They even built the massive fortified cathedral at Albi as a statement of Catholic dominance in the area. And because Languedoc was for the next six centuries largely a peripheral area in terms of European development, many of these mediaeval monuments have passed the centuries relatively intact. Today, these fortifications are known as the Cathar Castles. Some were restored, others are romantic ruins, and all of them are worth a visit.
The Albigensian Crusade has been described as the first act of genocide in Europe. Starting with the sack of Béziers, historians estimate that the persecution of the Cathars in Languedoc caused half a million deaths. In cultural terms, the suppression of the Cathar heresy and the consolidation of French power in Occitania led to the strangling of one of the great cultures of mediaeval Europe.
Death and Rebirth
From Montségur, as the legends tell us, a small group of Cathars fled with something – a secret – which was never found by the crusaders. What was it? The Holy Grail; a green jade bowl; the heir of the royal bloodline; the Arthurian legends; knowledge; or all of these? We may never find out. The flame of Occitanian literature and culture, snuffed out in the 13th century by the imposition of a nobility answerable to the crown of France, has never been seriously rekindled. But all was not lost; many people in the area continued to follow the Occitanian ways, and the language is still alive even to this day. In recent years the memory of the Cathars has staged a strong revival, as can be seen in the increasing numbers of explorers, historians and lovers of the Langue d’Oc that travel to the region every year.