Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 17 February 2014


Recently I've been nose-deep in the dark and bloody history of the Cathars, one of the most popular and widespread 'heretical' groups of medieval Europe, and as such doomed to a horrible fate at the hands of the established church. 

The Castle of Queribus in Southern France, a Cathar stronghold
The Cathar religion is a fascinating subject, steeped in ancient mysticism and consisting of beliefs that seem downright insane to the modern mind. It was a dualist faith, effectively believing in not one God but two: a God of light and goodness, and a God of evil and darkness. Unlike the Christian religion, which believes that the forces of good are superior to evil, the Cathars placed evil on an equal footing.

Put simply, they were obsessed with evil, and saw it everywhere, in all living things. To a Cathar, all physical matter was by its nature corrupt, and goodness could only be achieved via the spirit. This meant that Jesus Christ had never taken physical form in the world, and the stories of his crucifixion and resurrection were lies invented by the Church. Christ had only ever existed as pure spirit, and the souls of the dead would join him once the corrupted matter of their bodies had ceased to breathe. Essentially, they believed in reincarnation.

Doesn't sound too bad, you might think, and vaguely reminiscent of Buddhism in some respects. But the Cathars didn't deal in mere theory. Since all earthly flesh was sinful and generally rotten, they considered sex an abomination, and marriage as a form of prostitution. Their goal was to obtain purity and become 'parfaits'. These parfaits served as unofficial priests of the religion, preaching to their followers and demanding they abstain from meat, sexual pleasure, and generally as much physical expression and interaction as possible.

Medieval depiction of the persecution of Cathars

The Pope hurled his military forces against the Cathars
The Cathars were largely based in the Langudeoc in the South of France, where they found much support among peasants and nobles alike. The Counts of Toulouse, who owned large tracts of the south, were rather more forward-looking than their peers in the rest of the country, and permitted the Cathar faith to spread in the early 1200s.

Initially the Pope and the Catholic church attempted to mediate with the Cathars, but then in 1208 a papal legate was murdered by an agent of the Count of Toulouse, and all Hell (which the Cathars didn't believe in, incidentally) broke loose. The Pope flexed his military might, hurling army after army at the Cathars and declaring successive Crusades against them.

The Cathars had a problem in that their faith forbade them from taking up arms. However, despite their rejection of the trappings of wealth and power, they did enjoy the support of wealthy patrons, and so hired mercenaries to do the fighting. For over forty years, they stubbornly held out in one remote fortress after another, the dramatic ruins of which can still be seen scattered about Provence and the Languedoc.

Appalling massacres were committed by the papal Inquisition, set up during the mid-1220s to root out the Cathars and other heretical groups. I don't intend to go into the sickening details of the punishments inflicted by the Inquisition: even at a distance of 700 years, it is enough to turn the stomach. Suffice to say that by the 1240s, the remaining Cathars had been driven from their last refuge, though they lingered on into the next century. The last known Cathar, Guillaume BĂ©libaste, was burned alive in 1321.

And now I shall look for some lighter reading matter...

1 comment:

  1. I once followed a trail of information to a book by Zoe Oldenbourg, "Massacre at Montsegur." It's been some time since I read it, but it fascinated me enough to interest me in history more than ever before. I still have the book. Best read it again.