I enjoy traveling around Occitanie, the region surrounding Uzès. You can visit the sea or the mountains in a day. I spent a few hours unmasking the allure of Lagrasse in the Corbières wine region on one outing. While there, I couldn’t escape the stories of a religious cult that lived in this part of France during the Middle Ages —the Cathars. The more I explore the paths of the Cathars, the more I am fascinated by the people, their beliefs, their persecution, and their imprint on the South of France.
Cathars: A Brief Overview
Cathars were a faith community throughout parts of Europe between the 10th and 12th centuries, especially in the Languedoc region. They were hard-working people who led simple lives, primarily craftsmen and artisans. Some followers and sympathizers also included clergy and royalty—the likes of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Cathars disavowed material possessions. In fact, “Cathar” literally means “purity” (as in catharsis). Worldly goods were “of the devil.” Their religious beliefs included equality of the sexes, reincarnation, celibacy, and dual deities—one good, “heavenly,” and one evil “of earth.” They renounced the birth and life of Christ, the holy sacraments, as well as the opulence and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. Cathars were considered “good neighbors” by villagers yet labeled “heretics” by the Church.
The Albigensian Crusade
By the late twelfth century, the growing popularity and acceptance of the Cathars in the South of France had become such a nuisance to the Catholic leaders in Rome that in 1208, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathar religion was considered more dangerous than the Jewish or Muslim faiths because it called into question Catholic beliefs. For thirty years, Cathars were searched out, murdered, or forced to convert to Catholicism. The Pope enlisted the help of the French crown and nobles, promising them great riches. Crusades led by King Louis VIII and later Louis IX wiped out the Cathars by 1229.
Lagrasse: A Historical Gem
Lagrasse is a picturesque medieval village listed as one of France’s “Les Plus Beaux Villages.” Halfway between Narbonne and Carcassonne, the town straddles the River Orbieu. My July road trip to Lagrasse was short and sweet. In just a couple of hours, I covered the town’s highlights and visited the monastery, which, strangely, was deserted at the time. Most stores were closed, and only one snack shop was open. The “ghost” village allowed me to imagine life during medieval times.
Exploring Lagrasse: A Look Back in Time
A gift to hunters of medieval history, the rich architectural heritage of Lagrasse appears to be intact. The town is divided by the River Orbieu, with an abbey on one side and the village on the other. Le Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) connects the two and was, at one time, a toll bridge for the active trade business.
Narrow streets through the town lead to a market square surrounded by centuries-old houses. The Market Place, dating back to 1315, once bustled with activity and trade, and today, it continues to be a vibrant hub of Lagrasse’s daily life and culture.
Maison Maynard and Maison Lautier: These 14th-century houses offer a glimpse into the village’s past and showcase the intricacies of medieval architecture.
The Old Bridge (1303): Remodeled in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the Old Bridge that leads to the city remains in constant use and divides the town from the Abbey. Once used to collect tolls from visiting merchants, the bridge towers were destroyed through the centuries.
St. Michael’s Church (Gothic Style): This remarkable Church is a place of worship and a prime example of Gothic architecture. Why remarkable? The Church was moved in 1359 from the side of the River Orbieu, where the Abbey stands, to the other side, in the middle of the village.
The Benedictine Abbey Sainte-Marie d’Orbieu: One of the most important Abbeys in the south of France, Abbey Sainte-Marie d’Orbieu was founded in the 8th century by a charter ordered by the Frankish King Charlemagne. It was named after the river that flows through the village. Initially built in the Romanesque style, it is a timeless treasure. You may even spot monks in their white robes walking through the grounds.
The Abbey, the Crusades, and the Wars
Soon after Abbey Sainte-Marie d’Orbieu was established in the 8th century, it became very wealthy due to large donations from the lords in the surrounding area. By the 12th century, the Abbey had acquired land, castles, monasteries, and other assets encompassing the dioceses of Toulouse, Béziers, and the County of Barcelona.
Bounty from the Cathars
In the early 13th century, the Abbey’s fortunes multiplied. The Church collected bounties collected by crusaders during the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars. Additionally, the Church confiscated many properties belonging to individuals and groups suspected of supporting or sympathizing with the Cathars. This included lands, buildings, and wealth. Some families made large donations for the Church’s protection and favor during the conflict.
The Abbey was reinforced and fortified during the 13th to 15th centuries to protect its riches from numerous wars, including the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. The renovations included a new cloister. Eventually, the fortunes diminished, and the Abbey closed its doors during the French Revolution. In 2004, the Canons of the Mother of God took possession of the Abbey and moved into a portion of the property where they live today. The unoccupied area was purchased by the State of the Aude in 2007 and is currently undergoing restoration.
Lagrasse: A Village of Art and Culture
Throughout history, agriculture, arts and crafts, weaving, and textile production have thrived in Lagrasse. Today, the town is home to many artists and potters.
Fortunately, I discovered one open shop with the potter hard at work.
Oh … I must visit again…
Les Plus Beaux Villages de France
Lagrasse holds the prestigious title of being one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (The Most Beautiful Villages of France). This designation is a testament to the village’s timeless attraction and commitment to preserving the historical and architectural past. The criteria for the prestigious award are based on three essential components: a maximum population of 2,000 inhabitants (the total municipal population may be greater than 2,000 inhabitants), at least two listed heritage sites, and the approval of the village’s Municipal Council.