16 January 2016

Cathar history, Cathar architecture

11th century records from the Roman Catholic Church described how Catholic theologians were debating amongst themselves whether Cathars were Christian heretics or whether they were not Christians at all.  As Dualists, Cathars believed in two principles, a good creator God and his evil adversary Satan. These Good Christians maintained a Church hierarchy and practised religious ceremonies, but rejected the idea of priesthood. Vegetarians, the Cathars led very ascetic lives, working for their living in itinerant manual trades like weaving. They were strict and literal about biblical injunctions.

In the Languedoc, known at the time for its high culture, tolerance and liberalism, the Cathar religion took root and bloomed during the C12th. By the early C13th Catharism was probably the majority religion in the area, supported by the nobility as well as commoners. This was yet another annoyance to the Roman Church which considered the feudal system to be divinely ordained as the Natural Order.

In open debates, the Cathars character­ised the Catholic Church as the Church of Wolves. On the other side, Catholics acc­us­ed Cathars of heresy and said they belonged to the Syn­agogue of Satan. The Cathars seemed to have come out on top and as a result, a number of theologic­al­ly literate Catholic priests become Cathar adherents. The Catholic Church and its richest bejewelled men were being ridiculed! Worst, Cathars declined to pay tithes to the Catholic Church.

As a result the Catholic side created striking propaganda and when the propaganda failed, there was only option left - the Albigensian Crusade. Pope Innocent III called a formal Crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc, appointing a series of military leaders to head his Holy Army, including Simon de Monfort. This Languedoc Crusade continued for two generations. In time, the Kings of France took over as leaders of what had now become a "royal" crusade.
Chateau Comtal inside the medieval city of Carcassonne.

From 1208, a Catholic war of terror was waged against the indigenous popul­ation of the Languedoc and their rulers. During this period a half-million Languedoc citizens were massacred, Catholics as well as Cathars.  In August 1209 the crusading army of the Papal legate forced Cacassone’s citizens to surrender. The local viscount was imprisoned whilst negotiating his city's surrender and soon died in his own dungeon. Simon De Montfort was appointed the new (Catholic) viscount and promptly strengthened Carcassonne's fortifications. The Cathar inhabitants were not massacred but were forced to strip naked and were expelled from the city gates. Later captives were given the option either to accept Catholicism or be burned at the stake. Cathar scriptures were added to the flames, all their property was seized, and the city was left in a state of devastation.

The Counts of Toulouse and their allies were dispossessed and humiliated, and their lands annexed. Cathar-free, there was no reason why Carcassonne should have not immed­iately submitted to the rule of the kingdom of France; it did so in 1247.

Ed­ucated, tolerant Languedoc rulers had been replaced by relative bar­barians. Dominic Guzmán-St Dominic founded the Dominican Order - soon the In­­quisition, manned by his Dominicans, was established explicitly to wipe out the last vestiges of resist­ance. The culture of the trou­b­adours was lost as their cultured pat­rons were reduced to wandering refugees. Lay learning was discouraged and the reading of the bible became a capital crime. Tithes were enforced. The Languedoc declined to become the poorest region in France; and the local Occ­itan lang­uage, once the foremost literary language, became a regional dialect.

The Catholic military victors had strengthened the defences of the old Cathar walled cities like Carcassonne and Narbonne, and renovated most of the imposing strongholds that they had captured. They even built the massive fortified cathedral at Albi, as a high-powered statement of Catholic dominance in the area. Thus at the end of the extermination of the Cathars, the Roman Church had proof that a sustained campaign of genocide worked. It also had the precedent of an internal Crusade within Christendom, and the machin­ery that could be reconstructed for the later Spanish Inquisition.

Cathar castle, Beziers

Catharism was said to have been completely eradicated by the end of the C14th. Yet there are more than a few vestiges even today. The Cathars' fortified hilltops, castles, villages and towns remain as a stark reminder of the the area's hideous medieval history.There are historical tours of Cathar sites and also a flourishing amusement-based Cathar tourist industry in the Languedoc, and especially in the Aude département (see map). More and more memorials are springing up on the massacres sites eg Les Casses, Lavaur, Minerve and the hilltop Château of Montségur. There is also an increasing community of historians and other academics engaged in serious Cathar studies.

Carcassonne, a fortified settlement that existed on the hill since Roman times, was doing very well under the wealthy Trencavel family in the C12th but it did not became a truly famous city until the Albigensian Crusades. Since the city was once a splendid stronghold of the Cathars, it is now the historical centre of Cathar country. It is an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, with its massive defences encircling the castle and associated buildings, its streets and its fine Gothic cathedral.

Modern visitors start their Carcassone tour at the citadel in the Château Comtal. There are guided tours of this château in the upper town which also take in sections of the walls and St-Nazaire basilica. It was not a coincidence that Languedoc-born Pope Urban V visited the site in 1096 and ordered the construction of the basilica. However the or­iginal Rom­anesque style was altered over the years; the best features today are its enormous Gothic rose windows and its Gothic gargoyles.

Aude is a department in Languedoc Roussillon in Sth France
Note the proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and to Spain

The second place to visit would be The Mazamet Catharism Museum in the town of Mazamet, half way between Saissac and Lastours. Recently a project was launched to transform the Fuzier Home in Mazamet into a remembrance house for the historic heritage of the town. On the 1st floor is a permanent exhibition called “Occitan Catharism”. The Cathars, who had been forced to flee into remote areas, went to the Montagne Noire at the edge of the Aude Cathar Country. The Tarn side of this mountainous massif gave the refugees their place of refuge and resistance. Mazamet, the ancient fortified village perched on a rocky outcrop, thus served as a safe haven during the period of the Inquisition. It was also one of the places of residence of the Cathar Archbishop of the diocese of Albi in the C13th.

My third place would be Béziers. In 1210 a group of Cathars sought refuge in the village after the massacre at Béziers during the Albigensian Crusade. The attacking army besieged the village for six weeks. Event­ual­ly the commander of the 200 defenders, the viscount of the nearby town of Minerve, gave in and negot­iated a surrender which saved the villagers after the destruction of the town's main water supply. However 140 Cathars refused to give up their faith and were burned at the stake in 1210. Today a memorial at Minerve reminds visitors of those 140 Christians who were burned alive for religious heresy.

Many thanks to James McDonald, author of Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in the Languedoc and to About France.com


Student of History said...

Helen I remembering having a laugh in lectures, but I cannot remember the details. If Cathars didn't have marriage, sex and babies, how would they have kept up their numbers? Or did they go out and recuit new adult members?

Cathar Country Tours said...

Cathar Country Tours include guided visits to Cathar Castles and other Cathar related sites, informal illustrated lectures and talks on Catharism, Cathar beliefs and practices, the concept of heresy, Medieval warfare and the Albigensian Crusade, along with the history of the region. Talks also cover the ancient culture of the area including the role of the medieval Counts of Toulouse and the medieval Inquisition. The tours are all conducted in English.

Here are some examples.
Counts' Three-day Tour, 08 May 2016 — 10 May 2016
Montségur / Puivert / Montaillou / Foix / Toulouse

Viscounts' Three-day Tour, 12 May 2016 — 14 May 2016
Albi / Cordes-sur-Ciel / Avignonet / Lavaur / Les Casses / Mazamet / Hautpoule

Carcassonne Three-day Tour, 17 May 2016 —19 May 2016
Carcassonne / Chateau Comtal / Lastours (Cabaret) / Minerve / Fontfroide / Arques

Hels said...


How much was true Cathar belief and how much was Catholic ridicule?

The idea that human beings were sparks of light trapped in tunics of material flesh had a number of logical consequences for the Cathars:
1. Procreative sex was bad, since conception would result in another soul being trapped. For this reason, normal sex between man and wife was as bad as any other procreative sex. Marriage was worthless, so there was no reason to condemn any form of non-procreative sex.
2. The less one had to do with evil material things, the better. Eating animal products was particularly abhorred, though fish were allowed since they reproduced asexually.
3. The sooner we can shed this tunic of flesh, the sooner our souls could be free to fly back to heaven. There was therefore no reason to discourage suicide.
4. There was not any reason to regard men as better than women. The important part, the soul, was the same.
5. Since material objects were creations of the Bad God, it was absurd to imagine that they could be of any virtue. So jewels, money, relics, the Eucharist, reproductions of the cross, and church buildings were of no value whatsoever.

See: Cathar Beliefs http://www.cathar.info/cathar_beliefs.htm#other

Hels said...

Cathar Country Tours

sounds very cool.

My favourite summer holiday courses were always at the various universities that participated in the Summer Academy (administered from Canterbury in Kent). Your one-week tour designed for for academics, experts and aficionados who already have an in-depth knowledge of Cathar history sounds perfect, but my holidays are June-July (not Sept) and the price is quite steep.

Jim said...

So beautiful. Just visited the medieval city of Carcassonne on my recent trip to Europe and was amazed by it.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Even if people were "sparks of light trapped in tunics of material flesh," why was this necessarily bad, especially given a human time-span vs. eternity. Considering the earth's population today, there must have been a lot of untrapped lights-sparks around then.

The Shaker religious colonies in the U.S. also did not believe in procreative sex, and apparently were sincere, since the colonies slowly died out.

Mandy Southgate said...

Gosh, this is simply fascinating. I did not know anything about the Cathar people but would definitely like to do some historical touring in the future.

Hels said...


Happy 2016 :) Sometimes we visit great places intentionally and sometimes it is totally random. But the clever traveller always maximises the experience.

Every time I assume I know every historical location in Europe, the next year suggests something new and wonderful.

Hels said...


You will understand this material far better than I. In fact I read the masses (no pun intended) of theological information on the Cathars Beliefs page, and found it very difficult to understand. But so did the C12th Catholic Church!! The papacy sent missionaries to France at first, but the Cathars were increasingly religiously and politically intolerable. So missionaries were replaced by military crusaders. In the long term...what a tragedy!

Hels said...


When Joe and I were travelling from Israel to Britain many decades ago, we travelled for three months and slept in cheap caravans. I had a number of absolutely favourite parts, but even now I remember Languedoc very fondly. It must have worked. I eventually went back to university to study history and art history :)

Kimberly Eve said...

Hi Hels,

Every time I read about Languedoc and Carcassone, I can't help thinking about Labyrinth and Sepulchre written by Kate Mosse. The same setting and location. Have you read them? I highly recommend them. Especially, if you are intereted and familiar with the history.

Hels said...


I love blogging... the references from other people are the BEST part :)

And you could not have been more spot on: "the Labyrinth novel relies heavily on historical events such as the massacre at Béziers and the Crusade against the Cathars in Occitania, now the South of France, from around 1200".

the foto fanatic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the foto fanatic said...

Edited for typos

Interesting, as always. I have visited Carcasonne, in fact it was one of the highlights of my travels in France, and yet I knew not one iota of the Cathars. My loss.

The other thought that springs to mind is that we are now nine hundred years on, give or take, and there are still those who want to kill others who don't share a particular view on religion.

What will it take to learn that another person's beliefs alone cannot hurt us - they are just thought processes.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

apart from the fact that Cathar heretics were executed by being burned at the stake, I am not sure anything much has changed in the last 800 years. In this case, it was a Catholic war of terror waged against the indigenous Cathar popul­ation of the Languedoc and their rulers. But you could have substituted any other religious groups over the centuries.

Or non-religious groups like "witches". They were harmless women who were drowned, burned or hanged, mainly in Protestant countries.

mem said...

Very Interesting . I remember reading a book called Montaillou by someone whose name I dont remember . It was the actual transcripts of the inquisition of the people of the Langdoc and the records were used to write this very interesting history of this period . It is quite famous I think.

Hels said...


that is so true. Students are always asked to read Le Roy Ladurie's work on "Montaillou village occitan", in the early 14th century. I think the reason these particular inquisition interview reports survived was ONLY because Pope Benedict XII took the records with him. Normally evidence of religious crusades is hidden or destroyed.