The Cathars of the Languedoc

 


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In the area where I live, in the foothills on the French side of the Pyrenees, the earth has a rich red colour. Local people say that it has healing properties. Some of them make medical poultices with it. After heavy rains this red earth washes into streams, and flows into the river Aude. After particularly heavy rains the Aude turns red as it flows first North down its valley all the way to Carcassonne and then East into the Mediterranean Sea.

Eight centuries ago, none of the land for hundreds of miles around this river was French. Most of it technically belonged to the Kings of Aragon, but in practice it was run by Counts of Toulouse. The area is now one of the poorest in Western Europe, but under the Counts it was one of the richest, and in many ways the most advanced. Literacy was widespread among lay people. Jews enjoyed levels of tolerance that were rare in Europe, some of them holding high office under the Count himself. The Languedoc was then a major European crossroads important for natural materials and trade. It had its own language, Occitan, after which the area is now named: it is the Langue d'oc - “the Language of Oc" - oc being the word for yes in Occitan. Learning, culture and poetry all flourished. It was here that the troubadours became prototype rock-stars, here that shepherds were known for discussing theology, and here that some of the greatest tragedies of the Middle Ages took place.

The problem was that the local people were increasingly unwilling to follow to the Church of Rome. They refused to pay their tithes and laughed at the excommunications incurred as a result. They regarded themselves as good Christians, but at least half the population held beliefs not shared by mainstream Catholics. The Roman Church called these people Cathars. Cathars espoused ideas that were considered offensive and often heretical. They did not believe in a priesthood. They translated the scriptures into occitan so that lay men and women could read them. They believed in reincarnation. They rejected the sacraments, most notably marriage and infant baptism.

Cathars claimed to have preserved practices and beliefs of earliest Christians, a claim which was then considered absurd, but which historians and theologians now take seriously. Like many ancient gnostic sects they made a distinction between the inner Elect and the mass of believers. The Elect led ascetic lives: they spent their time meditating and teaching when not earning their living. They observed strict rules prohibiting lying and swearing. They did not eat meat, nor engage in sex, nor war, and looked forward to their release from the cycle of reincarnation. Both men and women could become members of the Elect. Male members of the Elect went from village to village, travelling in pairs as they said the original apostles had done.

Cathars reasoned that a good God could not have created such an evil world as this, and concluded that there must be two gods: a good one who created good things and a bad one who created bad ones. It was easy to tell which was which because the good things were all immaterial and a bad ones all material. The bad God delighted in trapping immaterial spirits in his own material creations, which accounted for human beings and, according to some, animals as well. When people died the bad God would imprison the newly released spirit in another body, human or animal. When people became members of the Elect, the bad god lost his power to trap their spirits, and the cycle of reincarnation was broken, allowing the spirit to return to the Good God's realm of light. Cathars explicitly worshipped the good God, and despised the work of the bad God, including all material objects. Material objects incidentally included the material goods of the Catholic Church: not only rich vestments, jewel encrusted relicaries and expensive palaces, but ordinary churches, statues and crucifixes. Cathar ideas were not popular among the Catholic hierarchy, but the two religions continued side by side for many years without any noticeable problems.

The Roman Church sent preachers to bring the Cathar population back into the orthodox fold, but it was already too late. Corrupt and ignorant priests and monks had become figures of fun even among the remaining professed Catholics. Preachers speaking French and Latin, however golden-mouthed, cannot have been accustomed to the educated and critical Occitan congregations they encountered here. In any case the preachers failed in their mission - spectacularly and publicly. They did themselves no favours by refusing to enter a public debate with one member of the Elect, an educated and highly respected noblewoman. When one Churchman shouted at her “Go back to your spinning, woman; it is not suitable for you to speak at such a debate" he cannot have imagined what damage he was doing to his cause.

The Pope instructed Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, to root out the pernicious Eastern heresy that had infected his lands but the Count could not, or would not, do so. Most of his nobles were Cathars, or at least came from families of Cathar sympathisers. It soon became apparent to all that the area was lost to the Roman Church. The solution was the same as in other lands lost to rival religions: a Holy Crusade. Pope Innocent III preached a Crusade in 1208, and armies of French knights marched South to the Languedoc. The area became an arena for war and massacre for forty years. The Elect would not fight, even to defend themselves, but their followers protected them, and so did many of their Catholic neighbours. At one town 20,000 people were killed by the crusaders because they refused to give up a couple of hundred alleged Cathars. The whole population died together, Cathars and Catholics; men, women, children and even some Catholic priests.

After forty years of war the area was exhausted. Raymond VI and his successor Raymond VII had both been humiliated, excommunicated, publicly flogged, and dispossessed. The area was annexed to France and the Langued'oc, both area and language, started their long slow decline. A Papal Inquisition was set up to eliminate the last vestiges of Catharism. Centuries later the idea would be picked up in Aragon, and then spread to the rest of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition was not a new invention, it was a development of the Inquisition founded here in the Languedoc to eliminate religious dissent.

Did the Inquisition succeed in eliminating Catharism? Inquisitors were still at work here a century after the first Inquisitions, in one famous case arresting a whole village for the Cathar heresy, but after that there is hardly another word about Cathar beliefs. Catharism seems to have been dead by the end of the fourteenth century, though many of its ideas would soon be picked up and developed by Protestant reformers. Other Cathar ideas have found respectable places later: the dignity of labour, women's equality, tolerance towards minorities, vegetarianism, meditation, euthanasia, even reincarnation.

The remnants of the Cathars’ remote mountain refuges are now major tourist attractions. Walkers and riders follow ancient Cathar trails through remote mountainous countryside, occasionally meeting shepherds surprisingly well versed in theology. Locals quote by heart thirteenth century anti-crusader poetry in the original occitan. When the rivers runs red after heavy rains the locals refer to it as the blood of the Cathars. And I notice that people around here rarely talk about God, but specifically about the Good God.

James McDonald is an author and consultant. He lives in the Languedoc in France.

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