Such are the heights of wickedness
to which men are driven by religion.
Lucretius (99-55 BC), De Rerum
Some 1,000 years after its birth, mainstream Christianity was
still in competition with other religions in Europe and the
Middle East. Often these religions were so intermixed with Christianity,
or Christianity was so intermixed with them, that it was not
easy for the Roman Church to decide whether their followers
should be persecuted as infidels, heretics or schismatics. The
Cathars were a case in point. They were spiritual successors
to early Christian Gnostics. In Europe Gnostic and Dualist traditions
survived, despite persecution. In various forms and under numerous
names they cropped throughout the known world. The Bogomils
("Friends of God") or Bulgars were a Gnostic Christian
sect that flourished in Thrace and Bulgaria in the tenth century.
Their beliefs spread throughout Europe: to Italy, northern Spain,
the Languedoc, France, Germany and Flanders. Bulgars rejected
the Catholic sacraments, denied the Roman Catholic Church's
teachings on images, infant baptism, saints, and held that matter
is inherently evil. A derivative sect, which came to be known
as Cathari, or Cathars, flourished in the Languedoc
(now southern France) and northern Italy.
They followed a life of severe asceticism and found little difficulty
in attracting the bulk of the population who were, according
to the Roman Church's own records, sated with the corruption
of the local clergy.
Little is known about Cathars. Most of the information about
them has been destroyed, and what we do know has mostly been
pieced together from Roman Catholic records. This is rather
like reconstructing Jewish theology from Nazi records of the
Holocaust. Records are biased and incomplete. What we do know
is that the Cathars were ascetics. Their ministers and teachers,
called perfecti, parfaits or perfected ones, ate fish
but not meat or dairy products. They generally adopted a life
of extreme devotion and simplicity. Both men and women could
become perfecti. They lived in poverty, the men travelling and
preaching. They earned their livings by cloth-making, shepherding
and other trades. Followers were not expected to adhere to the
same ascetic standards as the perfecti, and were permitted to
eat meat and engage in sex. They had a low opinion of the institution
of marriage and are thought to have practised birth control
and abortion. They disagreed with the Roman Church on many points.
They took the view that if sex was agreeable to both partners
then it could not be disagreeable to God. They declined to take
oaths. They denied the validity of clerical hierarchies and
of ordained intercessors between man and God. They believed
in reincarnation. They had no problems with the practice of
charging interest on loans. They did not build churches. They
criticised the accumulation of land, and the forcible extraction
of tithes, by the Roman clergy. One of the things that most
outraged the Roman Catholic authorities was that they read the
Bible. Another was that women could be regarded as men's equals.
A third was their sincere conviction that the Roman Church was
inspired by Satan.
Cathars regarded themselves as Christians. They used the New
Testament, especially the John gospel, and repeated the Lord's
Prayer with the addition of the words "For thine is the
kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever" (which
the Roman Church regarded as evidence of heresy)*.
Believers were generally called "Good-men" and "Good-women",
or "Good-Christians". The name Cathar had
been adopted by the Church originally as an insult, but people
tended to assume that the name was derived from the Greek word
for "pure", so it stuck.
When St Bernard visited the Languedoc in 1145 his main impression
seems to have been the shameless corruption in his own Church.
In 1205 the churchman Dominic Guzmán had planned, with
the help of God, to convert Cathars to the Roman faith by preaching
to them. Despite God's help, his preaching proved a spectacular
and embarrassing failure. When this line failed, the Church
tried open debates. These debates were permitted because the
Roman clergy thought that they could humiliate the opposition
intellectually and so facilitate mass defections to the Roman
Church. This did not happen, and the Roman Church seems to have
succeeded only in confirming the extent of the gulf between
themselves and the general population. When a great noblewoman,
the Lady Esclarmonde of Foix, a perfecta, tried to
speak at a formal debate between Roman clergy and Cathar representatives,
she was admonished by a representative of the Roman Church:
"go to your spinning madam. It is not proper for you to
speak in a debate of this sort". The churchman's treatment
of such a prestigious figure as Esclarmonde could only have
had the opposite effect to that intended. In any case, even
with God's personal help, the Roman Church once again failed
to secure mass conversions, or indeed any conversions at all.
More vigorous action was called for. Speaking on behalf of Christ
a little later, Guzmán promised the Cathars slavery and
Partly because of the attraction of Cathar teaching, and partially
because of the widespread corruption of the Roman Catholic Church,
more and more people defected to the Cathars. The Roman Church
hierarchy became increasingly worried. In 1208, Pope Innocent
III found a convenient excuse to order a crusade against the
Cathars. Crusaders enjoyed the same privileges as those who
fought the Muslims. Killing Cathars, like killing Muslims, assured
the killer of the highest place in Heaven. An army was mustered
under the command of the Cistercian Abbot of Cîteaux.
Tens of thousands of crusaders were enlisted. They were mainly
French, keen for plunder, the remission of their sins, and an
assured place in Heaven. They were crusaders in every sense,
wearing the crusaders cross and enjoying all of their privileges
(protection of goods, suspension of debts, and so on).
On 22 nd July 1209 they arrived at Béziers, on the periphery
of the area in the Languedoc where Cathars flourished. There
were believed to be around 200 Cathars amongst a much greater
population of sympathetic Roman Catholics. The crusading army
sacked and looted the town indiscriminately, while townspeople
retreated to the sanctuary of the churches. The Cistercian abbot-commander
is said to have been asked how to tell Cathar from Roman Catholic.
His reply, recorded later by a fellow Cistercian, demonstrated
his faith: "Kill them all the Lord will recognise
His own"*. The doors
of the church of St Mary Magdalene were broken down and the
occupants slaughtered. Some 7,000 people died in the church
including women, children, clerics and old men. Elsewhere many
more thousands were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded,
dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. The town
was razed. Arnaud, the abbot-commander, wrote to his master,
the Pope: "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand citizens
were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex"*.
Other towns followed. The crusaders refined their methods.
At Carcassone they expelled the inhabitants with a day's safe
conduct, so that they could loot at leisure. Arnaud wrote to
the Pope to explain why on this occasion no one had been killed.
Simon de Montfort, the new military leader, had another technique.
When the castle at Bram fell in 1210 he had the noses of 100
prisoners cropped, their lips cut off and their eyes gouged
out. One man was left with one eye so that he could guide the
others away. With a hand on the shoulder of the one in front,
and the one-eyed man at their head, a file of blind prisoners
wound its way to the next town to demonstrate the ineffable
mercy of God's Army. At other towns Simon favoured mass burnings.
The Pope, who was kept informed, gave thanks to God. For their
part, the Cathar perfecti behaved like the early martyrs of
Christian legend. At Minerve the Cistercian Vaux de Cernay noted
that it was not necessary to throw them to the flames, for they
went voluntarily. They claimed that "neither death nor
life can separate us from the faith to which we are joined".
Their behaviour seems to have impressed some of their persecutors,
but not enough to raise qualms about killing them. At Lavaur,
400 were burned by the crusaders, "with great joy"
as de Cernay noted. (The crusaders generally burned people alive
with great joy cum ingenti gaudio.) One perfectus
allegedly renounced his faith. The rest died in silence.
Like the Abbot of Cîteaux, other churchmen were keen
participants in the extirpation of a rival faith. A major participant
was Folquet of Marseilles, Bishop of Toulouse, who is now numbered
among the saints. Dominic Guzmán was another. Still smarting
from his conspicuous failure to convert by persuasion, he made
good his promise to bring slavery and death. He is now venerated
as St Dominic, and is regarded by many Christians as one of
the most holy men ever to have lived.
The crusade against the Cathars was intensified under the next
pope, Honorius III. Here is a contemporary account of a massacre
carried out by crusaders in 1219 at Marmonde, a town of some
7,000 people. It shocked even the crusaders" own allies:
…terror and massacre began. Noblemen, ladies and their
little children, men and women stripped naked, all were slashed
and cut to ribbons by keen-edged swords. Flesh, blood, brains,
torsos, limbs and faces hacked in two; lungs, livers and guts
torn out and thrown away laying on the open ground
as if they had rained down from the heavens. Marshland and
firm ground, all was red with blood. Not a man or woman was
left alive, neither young nor old, no living creature, except
perhaps some well-hidden infant. Marmond was razed and set
Ordinances were passed that imposed new penalties for heresy.
Honorius sanctioned Dominic Guzmán's new religious order,
popularly called Dominicans after him. The Dominicans
in turn spawned the Inquisition. In 1233 the next pope, Gregory
IX, charged the Dominican Inquisition with the final solution:
the absolute extirpation of the Cathars.
Soon the Franciscans would join in too. By the end of the fourteenth
century Catharism had been virtually eliminated. Before the
crusade the Languedoc had been the most civilised land in Europe.
Learning had been highly valued. Literacy had been widespread,
and a vernacular literature had developed earlier than anywhere
else in Europe. Religious tolerance had been widely practised.
Jews enjoyed ordinary civil rights. This was the home of courtly
love, poetry, romance, chivalry and the troubadours. With the
notable exception of most of the Roman Catholic priesthood,
people had preferred simple asceticism to venality and corruption.
Even some Roman priests are known to have been Cathars*.
All in all some 500,000 men women and children were massacred
in the Church's campaign*.
The holocaust was so severe that, apparently by accident, it
extinguished the high culture of the troubadours. Educated and
tolerant rulers were killed, and replaced by relative barbarians
from France, who were prepared to toe the Church's line. At
the end of the extirpation of the Cathars, the Church had convincing
proof that a sustained campaign of genocide can work. It also
had the precedent of an internal crusade within Christendom,
the machinery of an inquisition, and two bodies of dedicated
men, Dominicans and Franciscans, prepared to man it.
Cathars were exterminated elsewhere. There were mass burnings
at Montwimer in Champagne in 1239, at Plaisance in Lombardy
in 1268 (28 cartloads), and at Verona in 1278*.
From a secular point of view there was no harm in the Cathars.
Their fate is still mourned in the Languedoc to this day. Yet
it is not difficult to find Roman Catholic authorities that
seek to justify the Church's genocide and make out that it acted
for the best. A Handbook of Heresies, approved by a
Roman Catholic Censor and bearing the Imprimatur of the Vicar
General at Westminster, refers to Guzmán's "heroic
exercise of fraternal charity"*.
His failure as a preacher is not mentioned, nor the fact that
even using trickery and torture no more than a handful of perfecti
could be induced to abandon their faith. The thousands of Cathar
deaths are not referred to except in the most oblique
terms: "The long and arduous task was at length successful,
and by the end of the fourteenth century Albigensianism, with
all other forms of Catharism, was practically extinct"*.
The handbook also takes the opportunity to condemn Cathar beliefs
once again: "This anti-human heresy, by destroying the
sanctity of the family, would reduce mankind to a horde of unclean
beasts ..." *. There
is not a hint of remorse or regret for the holocaust, and one
can only assume that, if it could, the Church would act in the
same way again if similar circumstances arose in the future.
Most chillingly, numerous Catholic websites, including many
associated with seminaries feature variations on the following
joke, refering to Cathars as Albigensians. A young man with
a religious vocation asks
"Which Order is most successful, the Jesuits or the Dominicans?"
"Well, the Jesuits were founded by a Spaniard to wipe
out the Protestant heresy, and the Dominicans were founded
by a Spaniard to wipe out the Albigensian heresy".
"So which is best?"
"The Dominicans, obviously."
"Seen any Albigensians lately?"
As of 2016 a Google search on the words "Jesuits, Dominicans,
Protestants, Albigensians" produces thousands of examples.