These days, I’m curious as I embark on my travels around Languedoc Occitanie in search of the Cathars. The Cathar religion is a cult that once thrived in the southern regions of France.
The more I research, I find myself increasingly drawn to the intriguing stories surrounding the Cathars, their unique beliefs, the persecution they endured, and their lasting impact on the regions stretching from Marseille to the Pyranees.
Unveiling Medieval Heresy and Cathar History
The Cathars, also known as Albigensians, were a group of believers who flourished during the Middle Ages. Believed to have originated from Persia and the Byzantine Empire, they found a prominent presence in the southern French region known as “Languedoc” or “Occitania,” encompassing the areas bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees, and the Garonne, Tarn, and Rhône rivers. Notably, Languedoc is home to numerous Cathar castles, serving as powerful remnants of their history.
The hard-working Cathar people led simple lives, primarily craftsmen and artisans. They were protected by local Lords because they brought peace and prosperity to the region.
A visit to the village of Minerve is an essential stop for its Cathar history and for its designation as one of Le Plus Beaux Village de France.
Exploring Cathar Beliefs and Persecution
The Cathar religion included beliefs such as equality of the sexes, reincarnation, celibacy, and dualism — one good, “heavenly,” and one evil, “of earth.” They renounced the birth and life of Christ, the holy sacraments, and the opulence and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. They disavowed material possessions. In fact, “Cathar” literally means “purity” (as in catharsis). Worldly goods were “of the devil.”
The Cathars, who called themselves “Christians,” were good neighbors to villagers, yet the Church called them “heretics.”
Some Cathars and sympathizers included men of the clergy and royalty, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine. To understand their prevalence in the region, it is essential to know that Languedoc was not part of France in the Middle Ages. Instead, the area comprised a group of “city-states” with their own rulers. These local rulers could assert their differences and independence from the great European powers– including the Church — by declaring themselves “Cathars.”
Pope Innocent’s Albigensian Crusade
By the late twelfth century, the popularity and acceptance of Cathar beliefs in the Languedoc — known for its high culture, tolerance, and liberalism — gained more and more followers. By the early thirteenth century, Catharism was probably the major religion in the region. Indeed, the Church in Rome feared it might replace Catholicism. So, in 1209, Pope Innocent III launched a war of terror against the “heretical” Cathars soon after the Crusades in the Holy Land. The Albigensian Crusade enlisted the help of the French crown and nobles, promising them great riches.
For twenty years, Cathars were hunted and murdered or forced to convert to Catholicism. During this inquisition period, an estimated half-million Languedoc men, women, and children were massacred, Catholics and Cathars.
In Search of Cathar Traces: Unveiling the Legacy in Languedoc/Occitanie
Perhaps one of the Church’s most notable attacks on the Cathar religion occurred in Béziers. Arnaud, Chief Abbot of the Cistercian monastic order, was the military leader of the siege responsible for the mass burning alive of “many heretics and many fair women.”
Arnaud’s troops tortured and killed an estimated 9,000 to 20,000 men, women, and children of Béziers who refused to surrender their Cathar citizens.
“Kill them all. God will know his own,” Arnaud said, reportedly.
Papal legate Arnaud was also responsible for the Cathar capture and surrender at Carcassonne.
Reflecting on the Cathar Legacy: Understanding Catharism’s End
The last Crusades, led by King Louis VIII in 1226, wiped out most Cathars. Many believers went deep underground. Some towns surrendered without a fight, and some resisted the Crusaders. The persecution continued through 1229 when the Inquisition established itself in Toulouse. Crusaders captured and destroyed the Cathar stronghold of Montségur in the Pyrenees in 1244. By the end of the 14th century, Catharism supposedly no longer existed.
Raphael Lemkin, the 20th-century originator of the word “genocide,” referred to the Albigensian Crusade as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history.”