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Cathars |
In fury and fire a heresy perishes

Cathars is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 230, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The teaching that long thwarted Augustine’s conversion breaks out anew; cities are burned, and tens of thousands die in the harsh campaign to destroy it

Cathars - In fury and fire a heresy perishes

Cathars - In fury and fire a heresy perishes
Beziers, seen below in this twentieth-century photograph, presides in pastoral serenity over the coastal lands of southern France, giving no clue of the horror that beset it seven hundred years earlier, when it was a center of the Cathar heresy. In one terrible night the Cathars were slaughtered and the town destroyed as the Albigensian Crusade began.

The town of Beziers, nestled beside the marshlands of the Mediterranean shore west of Marseille, had never before figured prominently in European affairs. In the early thirteenth century, however, something very strange was going on in Beziers–something that appalled the nobility of northern France, seriously alarmed the Roman curia, and was about to issue in a historic tragedy deplored for the next eight hundred years.

For Beziers had become a hotbed of a strange religion called Catharism, whose fanatic adherents actually ran the town and which was spreading throughout the whole region of Languedoc, with powerful people either supporting it or joining it. Something had to be done, and therefore on the evening of July 21, 1209, an army of ten thousand crusaders assembled at the city gates. Their purpose was to take the town and exterminate its Cathars.

But they encountered an immediate difficulty. All the Christians living in Beziers had been asked to evacuate the town and leave the Cathars to their fate, but this warning had been rejected. So how were the invaders to distinguish them from Cathars? They were not there to exterminate Christians.

Next morning, while crusade leaders continued to debate this problem, the town gates suddenly burst open and Beziers’ militia charged out and attacked the crusader camp. The crusaders’ so-called camp followers–cooks, valets, blacksmiths, workmen, stable hands, armorers, and prostitutes–fought off the militiamen. Then they chased them back into the city and ran wild through the streets, bludgeoning everyone in sight, breaking into houses, stealing, raping, and burning.

The crusader knights, meanwhile, hastily armed themselves and joined the fray, snatching plunder from the grip of their camp followers–who then resolved to destroy what they couldn’t steal and set the whole town on fire. By now women and children were being butchered. Nuns, aged priests, and other Christians cowered in churches, clutching crucifixes. As the flames spread, many were buried under the burning timbers. The slaughter ended only when the heat of the blazing city drove the marauders out. Some would claim that twenty thousand died that day at Beziers.

As for that original problem about identity, one account of the slaughter records a particularly distressing claim. How, someone is said to have shouted amidst the melee, could they know who were Cathars and who were Christians? A voice rang out in reply: “Kill them all! The Lord will know who are his!” This allegedly was the voice of Abbot Arnold Amaury, the legate (i.e., representative) of Pope Innocent III, who had ordered the crackdown on Catharism. Could this be true? Quite possibly, although the claim is a frail one. History, however, repeatedly records how men in the throes of such mayhem–even, perhaps, papal legates–can be led by mob hysteria to do terrible things.

Thus began what is known to history as the Albigensian Crusade, the name taken from the city of Albi, another major Cathar center. The war on the Cathars would claim as many as a million lives in Languedoc, their major region; many of the dead would be orthodox Christians. The crusade would last twenty years, and an inquisition established to complete it would go on for another thirty. One outcome would be the absorption of Languedoc into France.

While many have condemned this crusade, few would defend Catharism. It is usually referred to as a Christian heresy, but it is more, in fact, an echo of ancient Manichaeanism, the religion that diverted young Augustine of Hippo from Christianity in the fourth century. It held that spirit alone is good, while the body and the entire material world are evil. Muslim conquerors had almost wiped out Manichaeanism in the seventh century, but a remnant, the Paulicians, lingered in Armenia. The belief later spread to the Danube basin, where a priest named Bogomil preached it to the Bulgarians. By the tenth century it had appeared in southern Italy, where its followers called themselves the Katharoi in Greek, or “Pure” (hence Cathar). By the eleventh Catharism had moved with alarming vigor into Languedoc.

Alarming because of what the Cathars believed. In 1167 they held a public synod at Saint-Felix, where they declared that the humanity of Jesus and his crucifixion were illusions. Jesus was pure “spirit,” they said, and came to free souls from the abomination of natural life. Marriage was evil. Homosexuality was preferable because it produced no children. Ordinary Cathars faced few moral restrictions, but the elite of the sect, known as the perfecti, lived in such dire austerity that most believers delayed becoming “perfected” until they lay on their deathbeds. Suicide, especially by starvation, was the noblest death.

How is it that such a life-denying faith could flourish in, of all places, carefree, life-celebrating Languedoc? The early thirteenth century was a restless age, a period of wild nonconformity in which the church, sunk in luxury, was widely scorned. Innocent III presided over a Christendom in which monastic abbots lived like dukes, their affluent abbeys often sitting like foreign colonies in impoverished lands, where the people of the cities flourished in ever-greater isolation from their cathedrals, where children went untaught in the Christian faith, and where superstition ran rampant. “Discipline breeds wealth, and then wealth destroys discipline,” mourned the chronicler-monk Caesarius of Heisterbach. He saw this as the “tragic law” of civilization.

Biblically based disgust with clerical luxury provoked anticlerical paroxysms everywhere. In Italy Arnold of Brescia de-manded that the clergy return to the poverty of the apostles (see sidebar, page 101). In the Low Countries women known as Beguines lived upright Christian lives in poverty and were slandered and pilloried as lesbians. By contrast, Tanchelin of Antwerp, calling himself the Son of God, roamed Flanders plundering churches and soliciting concubines yet went unmolested because he was protected by a three-thousand-man bodyguard. Flagellants paraded through the streets, thrashing their backs into bloody ribbons, while Peter Waldo’s “Poor Men of Lyon” also strove for biblical poverty and were suppressed because they rejected the sacramental priesthood.1

The need, Pope Innocent realized, was for evangelism. But the austerity and apparent holiness of the perfecti contrasted so sharply with the life of luxury-loving prelates that even gifted mendicant preachers like Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominican order, could not quickly succeed in reaching them (see sidebar, pages 192—193). The preachers needed time, and time was running out.

Already some Languedoc nobles had become Cathars; others, like Toulouse’s Count Raymond VI, were sympathizers.2 His wife, Beatrice of Beziers, was herself a perfecta and very enthusiastic about the prospect of a Catharist Languedoc, free from association with the brutish northern Franks and from Rome’s legalism. For eight years papal legate Peter of Castelnau had been pleading for the cooperation of Languedoc’s barons in suppressing the Cathars, only to be refused or ignored, threatened with assassination, and, eventually, forced to flee. Finally, on January 14, 1208, came the explosion. After an argument with Raymond, the legate was assassinated by one of the count’s knights.

That did it. Pope Innocent declared the crusade and arranged a meeting with the French nobility, at which Raymond, a practiced penitent, sought and gained forgiveness.3 The attack on Beziers followed, and its horrific destruction brought the quick surrender of such other Cathar centers as Albi and Narbonne. Finally, their strongest city, Carcassonne, capitulated. Here the lives of the citizenry were spared, but their property seized. They marched out, one chronicle laconically remarks, “in their shifts and their britches.”

Significantly, the French nobility refused all title to the conquered properties, plainly realizing that if Catharism remained active despite the military defeat, they would be left with a costly and probably unsolvable problem. So papal legate Amaury persuaded the harsh but devout Englishman Simon de Montfort to take over the Cathars’ lands and the leadership of the crusade.4

De Montfort proceeded to carry out this responsibility with a ferocity that would darken Christian history even in this bleak era. As each city surrendered, the tally of executions mounted. At Minerve 140 unrepentant Cathars were burned at the stake. At Montlaur many were hanged. At Bram de Montfort’s men blinded the entire garrison, sparing only one man so that he could lead the others to the next Cathar stronghold. At Lavaur Cathars were stoned and burned by the hundreds while Dominic, the preacher who had tried to convert them but had failed, looked on in horror. Meanwhile, Count Raymond, recanting his recantation, finally threw himself entirely behind the Cathar cause and regained thirty towns before de Montfort could contain him.

As atrocities and betrayals multiplied on both sides, peace became impossible to achieve. In 1213 the ambitious Pedro II of Aragon led an army across the Pyrenees to support his brother-in-law Raymond, trapping de Montfort at Muret. But de Montfort, although vastly outnumbered, attacked at dawn and scattered them “like dust before a gale.” Within minutes Pedro was dead, and Raymond was left to negotiate his exile to England.

Four years later Raymond slipped back into Languedoc and raised the Cathar standard over Toulouse. De Montfort attacked and was killed in the ensuing siege; Raymond died four years later. Both men were succeeded by their sons, neither of whom compared in competence to his father. But now the French monarchy, which had hitherto refused any role in the crusade, appeared as the ultimate victor. Louis VIII rapidly subdued one town after another, and by 1229 his indefatigable widow, Blanche of Castile, had put all Languedoc under French suzerainty. Further, its nobility had agreed to help suppress what was left of Catharism.

But this task, in fact, fell to the church. In 1229 a council at Toulouse began the systematic eradication of Catharism by obliging every adult to swear an explicit oath as a faithful Christian to denounce its teaching. Each parish would provide two laymen and a priest, all called “inquirers” (hence “inquisition”), to search out secret Cathars. When a former adherent named William of Solier argued that public accusation would endanger the lives of accusers, secret indictments were approved.

Implementation was sporadic at first. Toulouse’s bishop caught nineteen Cathars worshipping in a forest by night and had them burned, but prosecution was generally erratic. Besides, the system was abused by private feuds, and unescorted inquirers were beaten or murdered. Therefore, in 1233 Pope Gregory IX declared the first “General Inquisition.” To conduct it, he assigned the Order of Preachers–the organization specifically founded to use reasoned argument, not compulsion, on the misguided. In their new role, however, the Dominicans would prove only too efficient.

On their first visit to Moissac, fifty miles north of Toulouse, the new inquisitors condemned 210 to burning. At Toulouse itself, several prominent citizens went to the stake. When the new inquisitors began to exhume and burn long-dead Cathars, however, they became increasingly unpopular. Caught without bodyguards, they were sometimes beaten or lynched, and when twelve members of the Toulouse nobility were indicted, their retainers sacked the Dominican convent.

Pope Gregory ordered the General Inquisition moderated in 1236 and suspended in 1237, but within three years the Cathars at Beziers were once more in open rebellion. It was crushed again by a fresh royal army, and the Inquisition was reestablished. Now only those refusing to recant were burned, but penitent elders and nobles were imprisoned–often for life–with the proceeds of their lands going to the crown. More cooperative penitents were sometimes required to undertake pilgrimages. The humble were fined or made to wear yellow crosses. Within four years such efforts had reduced Catharism to an impotent secret society.

Their last major stronghold, the aerie of Montsegur, was largely ignored until a sortie from this fortress hacked to death four inquisitors billeted in a nearby town. A year later, intent on wiping out this last embarrassment, a royal army besieged the rocky citadel, and within nine months, in March 1244, it capitulated. Much of the garrison consisted of hired Christians, who were left unmolested. Unrepentant Cathars were allowed fifteen days’ grace. Those not yet perfecti were admitted to that exalted rank, and these, about two hundred in all, were led out and begged to abjure their errors. When they refused, they were chained to a massive pyre, and within minutes it was over.

The Languedoc inquisition suspended systematic activities in 1279. Over fifty years it had executed some five thousand Cathars, meticulously recording their trials (in notable contrast to the vaster and largely undocumented mass exterminations of the twentieth century). A certain William Belibaste, a perfectus, was lured from exile in Catalonia by an enemy in 1321 and became the last Cathar to be burned. With that, the movement vanished from history.

This is the end of the Cathars category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 230, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Cathars from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at