The War on the Cathars

The “Cathar heresy” that struck Southern France in the 13th century, and was viciously persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, remains a pool of interest and intrigue. What really happened, and what did the Cathars actually believe?

Wars between nations or faiths are commonplace. Sometimes, the leaders of nations turn against a minority resident within their own borders. But the Albigensian Crusade is unique in history, as the Pope on March 10, 1208 proclaimed a crusade against a ‘heresy’ that was present inside Catholic Europe itself. “These heretics are worse than the Saracens!” he proclaimed.

In retrospect, the crusade was one of the bloodiest episodes in European history. Indeed, the decades-long persecution of simple folk has often been seen as the event that prepared the way for the birth of Protestantism, as it awakened ordinary Europeans to the realisation that something was not ‘quite’ right within the papal corridors.

Today, the ‘heretics’ are most commonly known as Cathars, but historically they went under a number of guises for, in fact, they were not a uniform organisation at all.

The main focus, however, has always been on the Cathars (from the Greek word meaning ‘pure’), a name that is normally reserved for the dissident Christians who lived in Southern France and Northern Spain.

Catharism arrived in southern France and northern Italy in the 11th century. It was present in Orléans as early as 1022, when thirteen Parfaits – the name for the ascetic Cathar elders – were condemned to the stake. At the time, the south of France (the Languedoc) was not yet under the political control of Northern France. In the Languedoc, Catharism, endorsed by the local nobility, became a popular alternative to the Catholic Church. The likes of the Count of Toulouse – one of the most important rulers of Southern France – supported Catharism.

Cathar Beginnings

The first Cathar Synod was held between 1167 and 1176 at St. Felix-de-Caraman, near Toulouse. The event, attended by many local notables, was presided over by the Bogomil papa Nicetas of the Balkan dualist church (see ‘The Bogomils: Europe’s Forgotten Gnostics’ by Paul Tice, New Dawn No. 106, January-February 2008), assisted by the Cathar bishop of (Northern) France and a leader of the Cathars of Lombardy.

The Synod marked the start of the real struggle between the Catholic Church and Catharism, as the Church now had an organised body to fight. Of course, it meant ‘the enemy’ now had a name, and could thus be more easily fought.

As early as 1178, Louis VII of France asked for a forceful intervention to stamp out the New Church. In 1208, Pope Innocent III repeatedly tried to use diplomacy to stop the spread of Catharism, but in that year his papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered (allegedly by an agent serving the Count of Toulouse). The event pushed him from diplomacy into military action. Some now consider the death of de Castelnau a false flag operation, engineered so that the crusade would be declared.

Whichever scenario is true, the end remains the same: an estimated 200,000 to one million people died during the twenty year campaign, which began in earnest in Béziers in July 1209. Papal troops marched to Béziers where they ordered that 222 people, suspected of being Cathars, be handed over to them by the town’s citizens. When this was refused, the papal troops decided to attack. One of the crusaders asked their leader, the Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, how to distinguish between the 222 heretics and the thousands of faithful Catholics that lived in the city. “Kill them all,” was the abbot’s alleged reply. “God will recognise his own!” The number of dead that day was between 7,000 and 20,000, the latter figure being the one quoted when Arnaud-Amaury reported back to the Pope.

With such carnage, the other towns (e.g. Narbonne and Carcassonne) offered no resistance and soon the Southern counts had lost their territories and powers to the King of France and his allies. For these Northern lords, attaining the lands of the Languedoc had always been paramount; their mission had been accomplished.

Though the crusade was over, only the powerbrokers who supported the spread of Catharism had been removed from power, their lands confiscated. What about the people? It is a known fact that the more one hunts down a group, the more convinced it becomes in its ways. Hence, at the end of the Albigensian Crusade, Catharism wasn’t by any means eradicated.

For this purpose, the Inquisition was established in Toulouse in 1229 to guarantee that any future resurgence of this ‘heresy’ was nipped in the bud – literally – but also that a new phase of the campaign could commence: individual manhunts to track down Parfaits (the Cathars elders) who were still hiding and preaching within the general population.

Ruins of the Cathar castle of Montségur
Ruins of the Cathar castle of Montségur

From 1233 onwards, hunting down Catharism was no longer done via wide-sweeping crusades, but on an individual basis. This meant any Cathars caught were ferociously interrogated about the secret network they were part of, their hideouts, their clandestine financiers and supporters, etc.

Faced with the incredible pains subjected to their bodies, and the Cathar oath not to lie, the Inquisition learned important secrets about the underground network. Despite this, René Weis, author of The Yellow Cross, states: “The Cathar movement in the late-thirteenth-century Sabartès was an underground organisation, and the Inquisition of Geoffroy d’Ablis never penetrated to its core in spite of the fact that it executed most of their leaders.”

Many Cathar elders realised the lethal dangers they faced and began to take refuge in the fortresses at Fenouillèdes and Montségur, while others were able to incite uprisings, which forced the Inquisition out of Albi, Narbonne and Toulouse. Count Raymond-Roger de Trencavel even led a military campaign in 1240, but was defeated at Carcassonne, surrendered and was exiled to Aragon.

The Church felt victory was near and only those Cathars hiding in the castles remained to be eradicated. A siege began of the castle of Montségur, where 300 soldiers and 200 Parfaits stood off an army of 10,000. Among the Cathars inside Montségur were the Cathar bishop of Toulouse and the Cathar bishop of the Razès, Raymond Aguilher, leading members of the ‘heresy’.

After a ten month siege, in March 1244, the castle surrendered. Though their life would be spared if they recanted, the Cathars preferred to be burnt, rather than reject their faith – a true sign of their conviction, which is one of the key reasons why Catharism today has such a wide appeal with the local people of Southern France.

The fall of a small, isolated but very idyllic fort, that of Quéribus, in August 1255, is often seen as the final demise of Catharism, but that is not true. In fact, in the following decades, there was something of a Cathar revival. The much hunted Cathar Parfait Pierre Authié even consoled the Count of Foix, Roger-Bernard III, in March 1302 in the hall of Tarascon castle, even though he was later buried by the Bishop of Carcassonne. It shows how many local lords still remained loyal to the Cathar cause.

The underground survival of Catharism has become symbolised by the events that occurred in and to the small village of Montaillou, near Montségur, as it was the subject of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s pioneering book of the same name. From 1294 to 1324, the daily routines of Montaillou’s 250 inhabitants are known, as they survived in the records of Jacques Fournier, later to be Pope Benedict XII. It was Fournier, then the local Catholic bishop, who unleashed the Inquisition at Pamiers against the villagers, even resulting in the arrest of the entire village in 1308. One should, perhaps, be happy they weren’t all killed…

Fournier also captured the last Cathar Parfait to be burnt at the stake: Guillaume Bélibaste, in 1321. Bélibaste’s bailiwick was the area between Rennes-le-Château – known for the mysterious 19th century priest Bérenger Saunière, who is at the core of the mystery of the so-called Priory of Sion and Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code – and the coastal city of Perpignan.

Bélibaste was the son of a rich farmer from Cubières. He became a shepherd and a Parfait, the pupil of the Parfaits Pierre and Jacques Authié, whom had stayed with Bélibaste’s family in Cubières. As the Inquisition’s stranglehold tightened, Bélibaste settled across the border, in Catalonia, where the political regime did not persecute Cathars, and he was able to make baskets and carding combs, as well as become the mentor to a local Cathar community. He nevertheless decided to return to his homeland, but was caught, tried, and burnt at Villerouge-Termenès.

Bélibaste’s death signalled the end of the official Occitan Cathar Church, which blossomed in the 11th century, organised in 1167, and perished in 1321. But though officially defeated in France, elsewhere, e.g. in Bosnia, Catharism continued to exist into the 15th century, when its adherents converted to Islam. Some, however, argue that Catharism in France may have disappeared as an organised Church in 1321, but that as a religion… it remains alive until today.

Though it was the Inquisition – the accusers – that wrote down the life of Authié and Bélibaste, there is general consensus the insights the accounts provide into their lives and beliefs are credible. Indeed, what precisely the Cathars believed, remains somewhat of an enigma. Some have even used it as a blank canvas, to paint their own thoughts or convictions on. Hence, a lot of myths and falsehoods now exist about Catharism.

The Cathar Revival

At the core of the Cathar faith was the rejection of the material world, which was seen as a trap imprisoning the soul. All things material were seen as evil and to be opposed and rejected. Hence, they built no churches, were largely vegetarian and shared both common possessions and ate common meals. Though it is true that their doctrine had room for Jesus and the Bible, especially the Gospel of John, and that they proclaimed Christ had no real body (if he was the Son of God, how could he have a body of flesh, which was evil?) and hence also died no real death, all of these accommodations should be seen as educational tools so that they could explain to those that had been raised as Christians where both teachings differed.

But in the end, their doctrine was appealing not so much for its core beliefs, but because the Catholic clergy were corrupt and as materialistic as one could be.

Today, Catharism is largely seen as a dualist religion, like most Gnostic and oriental teachings. The man largely responsible for identifying Catharism as such was Déodat Roche (1877-1978), often referred to both as ‘the Cathar Bishop’, if not ‘the Cathar Pope’. However, outside of France, his name is relatively unknown, as is that of his friend and Professor of Sociology René Nelli of the University of Toulouse (and often referred to as ‘the vicar of Catharism’), who lectured on the subject all over France.

Their fame has largely been eclipsed by the likes of Otto Rahn and Antonin Gadal, who saw the caves of the valley south of Foix as secret initiation centres for the Cathars – a theory that is now often widely accepted, but which has very little academic support.

Gadal continued the work started by the local historian Adolphe Garrigou. From the 1930s onwards, circles were formed around Gadal and the already mentioned Roche and Nelli. Together, they formed “La Société du souvenir de Montségur et du Graal,” to promote the forgotten history of Catharism – but specifically tying it to the Holy Grail – and the promotion of Montségur, and the region as a whole. It is here that what is now known as ‘neo-Catharism’ was born, and it has little to do with the original belief.

A second circle of Cathar enthusiasts had the countess Pujol-Murat as a key figure; she was one of Otto Rahn’s patrons. Rahn was a young German academic, whose books greatly advanced interest in Montségur and Catharism, both in the 1930s and now (see my article ‘The Strange Life of Otto Rahn: Author, Poet, Grail Seeker, SS Officer’, in New Dawn No. 109, July-August 2008). The countess claimed to be a descendent of Esclarmonde de Foix, who was seen (though historically inaccurately so) as one of the most esteemed Cathar Parfaits of the early 13th century and in some accounts held to be responsible for the rise of Montségur as the ‘Vatican’ of Catharism. It should be pointed out that these hilltop castles (like Montségur) were never ‘Cathar cathedrals’, as some would have it, but merely refuges for the Parfaits escaping the Inquisition.

The Countess hoped to discover the lost treasure of the Cathars – and the Templars – which she believed was the Grail itself, supposedly hidden at Montségur by Esclarmonde, just before she threw herself off the mountain to escape from the papal troops. Some therefore believed the Grail was hidden there, whereas others felt the Grail had been secreted out of Montségur, days before its fall. It is said four Cathars descended down the steep slopes, carrying with them a ‘treasure’. Though the story of this escape is true, whether they carried anything is a matter of debate. Furthermore, as the descent was steep and arduous, whatever they carried must have been small.

Amidst the wild speculation as to what they might have secured, some believe it was a holy book, containing the wisdom of the Cathar religion. It is indeed unlikely the Cathars secured a physical treasure, if only because it would have been too heavy, and in their eyes, unimportant: Catharism saw everything on this plane of existence as evil and despicable; money and wealth were chief amongst Earth’s – and Satan’s – vices.

Authors such as Walter Birks and R.A. Gilbert, as well as Elizabeth van Buren, have suggested the Cathars guarded a manuscript, knowledge – a spiritual treasure. This manuscript is often said to be the ‘Book of Love’ and is linked with the Gospel of John, and is claimed to contain “sublime teachings, marvellous revelations, the most secret words confided by our Lord Jesus Christ to the beloved disciple [John the Evangelist]. Their power would be such that all hatred, all anger, all jealousy would vanish from the hearts of men. The Divine Love, like a new flood, would submerge all souls and never again would blood be shed on this earth.”

It is known that books were very important to the Cathars, and some, such as “Stella,” by the Cathars of Desenzano, talk about the wars between God and Lucifer – underlining their dualist doctrine. But as Saint Dominic, founder of the Inquisition, is often depicted committing these books to the fire, it should come as little surprise that few have survived his ‘intervention’.

However beautiful Montségur is, the ‘real’ Cathar heartland are somewhat gentler slopes where now desolate villages once thrived. One such village, Arques, near Rennes-le-Château, is where the hunted Parfait Pierre Authié preached and found refuge, and the modern Cathar researcher Déodat Roche was born and lived. Today there is a museum dedicated to him.

Deodat Roche

Though Roche was part of the modern Cathar Revival, he never focused too much on the promotion of Montségur or the ‘initiation caves’, which for him were distractions – tourist attractions. Roche focused on the true Cathar belief.  But the question needs to be asked whether he discovered this, or whether he knew so all along.

For those who have studied and known Roche, there are hints that somehow Roche’s interest in Catharism was very fundamental – that he may have been one himself. He is known to have made solitary early morning walks to a hill just outside of Arques, where he was taken as a young child by his father. The site holds a statue of the Virgin Mary, and though this might appear typically Christian, the Cathars of the 14th century are known to have made similar pilgrimages to the nearby basilica of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, which held a Black Madonna. As in Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, did the Virgin Mary in Arques have a secondary – dualist – meaning for Cathars – and Roche?

As mentioned, his home town of Arques also had a strong connection with Authié. Roche once unearthed an image of Pierre Authié and both he and others who saw this noted how remarkably similar the two men looked. Roche was not only mayor of Arques; he had also held important positions within the French judicial system. He was also a very private individual. He never spoke about whether or not he felt that he was indeed the possible reincarnation of Authié. Roche must have understood that what he was doing was uncovering what had been buried with Authié. If he did feel that he was the incarnation of Authié, then it was clear that upon this Parfait’s death, he had after all not entered Heaven.

So, what was Catharism? A dualist religion is primarily seen as a religion that believes in two competing forces, good versus evil, but it is much more than that. An insight into the Cathar cosmography comes from Authié himself. He preached that the Devil had sneaked into Paradise, after waiting 1,000 years at it doors. Once inside, he seduced the spirits, who all fell from a hole in Paradise for nine days and nine nights. After this Fall, they ended up on Earth. When Heaven had largely become depleted, God immediately plugged the hole. But the souls on Earth soon were saddened by their loss and the Devil offered them as comfort such overcoats that would make them forget the bliss of Heaven: the human body, which began a series of incarnations. It thus became Mankind’s mission to ascend back to Heaven, i.e. break the cycle of incarnations. By accepting this cosmography and performing the Consolamentum, one’s next death would end the soul’s odyssey and return it to Heaven.

The two most important Cathar rituals were the Consolamentum and the Endura.

In conclusion, neo-Catharism had little to do with Catharism as such. The notion of Jesus as a man of flesh and blood was rejected by the Cathars, yet neo-Cathars underline how the Cathars believed that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Christ. Yuri Stoyanov has indeed confirmed that the Cathars claimed as such and that this belief had no counterpart in Bogomil doctrines, meaning that the Cathars were unique amongst the dualists to have this belief. Their religion was not at all based on the knowledge that Jesus and Mary Magdalene created a dynasty but that, instead, Cathars in Southern France, where Mary Magdalene was a popular saint, used her in their cosmography, to illustrate the feminine aspect of the divine duality.

Cathars underlined the 1,000 years the Devil had to wait at the gates of Paradise before he entered it. Cathars saw it as their mission to have the soul repent for the sin of being seduced by the Devil, and once accomplished, it would return to Heaven. The Church, however, saw it differently, using especially Revelation 20:7, where it is said that after 1,000 years, Satan would be released from his prison. Seeing Catharism rose approximately one millennium after the death of Christ, chronicler Ralph the Bard and St Hildegard of Bingen – the latter who stated she had a vision in which she saw Satan released from his chains – said Catharism was in fact the return of Satan, there to destroy the Church. It was the very reason why it had to be destroyed; for many Christians, conquering Catharism meant slaying Satan. Thus, not only Catharism, but the Cathar Crusade itself, had an innate dualism to it too.

© Copyright 2008 by New Dawn Magazine & the respective author. This article first appeared in New Dawn 110. For further information visit