Friday, June 8, 2007

A Brief History of Catharism

You'll see some gorgeous old castles when you're here in the Languedoc and it's not too long before you learn about the Cathars and their sad history. Nancy and I have visited one of the Cathar strongholds, Roquefixade, and we were left with some pictures of another Cathar castle, Peyrepertusse, by Drew and Joan Rothrock when they visited us here several weeks ago. The first four pictures are really striking and are by the Rothrocks. The last four are by me. Click to enlarge.

The following is a brief history of the Cathars. I basically plagiarized two different websites (which shall remain nameless) and changed some things, edited a little, combined here and there, and added some of my own words. If you want to learn more, and you should, there are lots of ways to research the Cathars beyond the internet. There are perhaps a dozen of these ruins, all perched on top of very defensible sites, in the Languedoc. And Montsegur, one of the most famous, can be seen from Leran. We will be visiting more of these sites in the future. Scroll down for the brief history.

In west-north-west of Marseilles on Golfe du Lion is the old province of Languedoc where in 1208 the people were condemned to death by catholic pope Innocent III. In 1209 a papal army of more than 30,000 soldiers descended on the region under the command of Simon de Montfort. The soldiers had been sent to kill and exterminate the Cathar religion.

The Cathars were a religious group who appeared in Europe in the eleventh century, their origins something of a mystery though there is reason to believe their ideas came from Persia by way of the Byzantine Empire, the Balkans and Northern Italy.

The killing went on for approximately 35 years claiming thousands of lives of men women and children.

The doctrine of the Cathars was Gnostic, they were basically spiritual people. The catholic churches fear of the Cathars was in part caused by the Cathars knowledge of the bloodlines of Jesus, which was in conflict with the church’s propaganda of the crucifixion. The Cathars were also said to be the guardians of a great and sacred treasure, associated with an ancient knowledge. The Cathars also regarded Mary Magdalene as the Grail Mother.

The Cathars were tolerant of other people’s religions and believed in equality of the sexes. Their belief of equality of the sexes was a major problem for the Catholic Church which wanted to suppress women. Basic Cathar tenets led to some surprising logical implications. For example they largely regarded men and women as equals, and had no doctrinal objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide. In some respects the Cathar and Catholic Churches were polar opposites. For example the Cathar Church taught that all non-procreative sex was better than any procreative sex. The Catholic Church taught - and still teaches - exactly the opposite.
The Cathars believed in God, recited the prayer, and had a welfare system for the poor, elderly and sick, schools, hospitals, charity and a fine society. The Cathars also practiced birth control which led to all sorts of accusations. Cathars maintained a Church hierarchy and practiced a range of ceremonies, but rejected any idea of priesthood. Catharism was a religion that seems to have appealed especially to the theologically literate and whole Cathedral chapters are known to have defected, as they did for example at Orleans. Worse, the Catholic Church was held up to public ridicule (some of the richest men in Christendom, bejeweled, dressed in finery, and preaching poverty, provided an irresistible target even to fellow Catholics). Worst yet, Cathars in the Languedoc refused to pay tithes to the Catholic Church. Obviously, the Catholic Church determined that the Cathars had to be stopped.

The Catholic Church also believed that the Cathars were in possession of the Table of Testimony and the Jerusalem Manuscripts of the gospel era. The Cathar religion was presumed to hold enough information of substance as to expose the fundamental concept of the Catholic Church. There was only one solution for the desperate and fanatical church, to kill them all. The Pope was said to have proclaimed “Kill them all, God will know his own”.

In 1209 the papal troops arrived in the foothills of Pyrenees and the savage campaign was called the Albigensian Crusade. The people were murdered by the thousands, including men, women and children. Whole towns were destroyed but the treasure was never found. The Cathar religion was completely eradicated. The crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc has been described as one of the greatest disasters ever to befall Europe.

In one of the last episodes of the Cathar eradication, some 200 people were captured after a long siege at Montsegur, just a few miles from Leran, and were offered death by burning at the stake or the opportunity to convert to Catholicism. They all chose to die by fire.

At the end of the extermination of the Cathars, the Roman Church had convincing proof that a sustained campaign of genocide can work. It also had the precedent of an internal Crusade within Christendom, and the machinery of the first modern police state that could be wheeled out for the Spanish Inquisition, and again for later Inquisitions and genocides.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your brief history lesson and am amazed that so many ruins are still standing...they are definitely "photogenic".

Believe it or not, one of my college courses (at a Catholic college!) was entitled "In Search of Ancient Gnosticisms". It was a Political Science class and the only thing I remember about it is that we studied the Zoroastrians of the assumption that the Cathars got some of their doctrine through the Persians is probably quite correct.

We could spend years discussing the effect of the Catholic church on the social, religious and military history of Europe...but there's not enough space in this forum! So, Luke will sign off with a "thank you" for your splendid pictures and narration.

Judy said...

Doug, Your treatise on the Cathars sounds like you have done the background work for Dan Brown to do another "Da Vinci Code". It was very interesting. Judy

sarah alexander said...

Fascinating! The Cathars sound like they really had something good going too. Thanks for the history lesson! And gorgeous photos.

leslie said...

Joan and Drew look wonderful and the photos are so gorgeous. I am just dying to be there, but I will just enjoy the blog for now. I know it's a lot of work but I appreciate it so much. And I will save my money.