Catharism was a Gnostic sect of Christianity which thrived in southern France until the 13th century. Although essentially Christian the Cathar’s beliefs differed somewhat from the Church. Principally they did not believe in Jesus as the son of God but rather that he was an angel in human form; they believed that those who lead in impure life are destined for reincarnation until they achieve spiritual purity; the sacraments were largely ignored as they saw no reason for marriage, communion or baptism. Contrary to many conspiracy theories about the Cathars and the Holy Grail they despised the veneration of relics which they considered idolatry. They have been described as something akin to a European form of Buddhism.
The Cathars had but one sacrament called the Consolamentum which was their method of ordination. The candidate (man or women as they believed in sexual equality) would be purified of sin and made a Parfait. The term Parfait was actually coined by the Catholic Church (the Cathars referred to them as Bon Hommes, Good Men) in that these men were considered the “perfect heretic”. A Parfait would then have to follow a life of the strictest purity. Having forsaken a life of material possession, they would travel around the country finding shelter in the homes of fellow Cathars and preaching as they went eventually gaining release from the cycle of death and rebirth. They were forbidden from sexual intercourse and as such could not eat any produce of reproduction, i.e. meat. This purity was upheld because a Parfait was considered as being inhabited by the Holy Spirit and as such the body must be kept entirely pure. The smallest infraction would mean that the Parfait would revert to being a layman and the whole process of taking the Consolamentum would have to begin again.
This way of living went reasonably undisturbed enabling a Cathar culture to flourish in southern France. Among them was the tradition of the troubadours which would spread throughout Europe and produce great stories like the embellishments of the Arthurian legends and other tales of chivalry. However, by the end of the 12th century the Pope, Innocent III, decided to send delegations to persuade the Cathars to come in line with the Church. One of the men sent on this mission was a Dominic de Guzman (the future St Dominic and founder of the Dominican Order) who was already considered a great speaker of his time. Several debates were held but to no avail. At the turn of the century the Pope sent a legate to the area, Pierre de Castelnau. De Castelnau was murdered on his journey by an unknown assassin and the Cathars (rightly or wrongly) got the blame. Now armed with this casus belli the Pope declared a crusade against the Cathars.
The Abligensian Crusade, as it became known, was a bloody affair. With a Papal promise that they could keep any lands they seized thousands of knights from across Europe joined the crusade. The leader was an Englishman called Simon de Montfort (whose son, also called Simon, would found the English Parliament) who carried out a brutal and bloody campaign. The Crusade officially ended when the last Cathar stronghold, the castle of Montsegur, was taken in 1240. However, this did not end Catharism. Their eradication now became the focus of the newly formed Papal Inquisition (not to be confused with the Spanish Inquisition).
Nearly 40 years after the end of the Albigensian Crusade, the man who would be the last Parfait was executed, was born. Guillaume Belibaste was born in the town of Cubieres in the Longuedoc region of southern France. The son of a wealthy, Cathar, farmer Guillaume had a reasonably normal life. As Cathars, his family would occasionally shelter Cathar Parfaits as in the days before the Albigensian Crusade and so Guillaime would have had some access to the dwindling number of Parfaits.
However, Guillaume’s life took an unexpected turn when, in 1305 at the age of 25, he got into an argument with a shepherd in the town of Villerouge Termenes and killed the aforementioned farmer. Forced to flee the authorities he joined two Cathars attempting to revive the dwindling faith, Pierre and Jacques Authie, who had taken shelter with his family in the past. At some point during his time with these men Guillaume took the Consolamentum and became a Parfait and, from a spiritual point of view, became cleansed of his previous sin.
Unfortunately for Guillaume the Inquisition was still very much active in the region and he was forced to flee when his fellow Parfaits were arrested and executed. Guillaume followed in the footsteps of many other Cathars fleeing persecution and escaped over the Pyrenees and into the Spanish kingdom of Aragon. The kingdom of Aragon, did not tolerate Catharism as such but did turn a blind eye to refugees from France, of which there were many. Guillaume settled in the town of Morella, near the city of Tarragona, where he made a living weaving baskets and making carding combs. In his spare time he held secret meeting where he would act as a pastor to the Cathars in exile.
However, he did not keep to his vows of chastity and became engaged in a love affair with one of these Cathar exiles, Raymonde Piquier (Raymonde being the female version of Raymond). His troubles began when Raymonde became pregnant with his child. Fearing for his reputation, Guillaume decided to shovel his mistake onto someone else. He married Raymonde to a friend of his, Pierre Maury (a Cathar from Montaillou), again breaking with Cathar tradition which did not believe in marriage. A few days later Guillaume dissolved the marriage (another break with tradition) so that he could resume his affair with Raymonde. All of these impurities made Guillaume increasingly aware that he had not lived up to his role as Parfait and he suffered increasingly from a guilty conscience.
Back in southern France, the Inquisitor Bishop, Jacques Fournier (the future Pope Benedict XII), had heard of Guillaume’s exile in Spain. Knowing that Aragon was beyond his jurisdiction Fournier devised a plot to lure Guillaume back to France. He sent a man called Arnaud Sicre to Morella to impersonate a Cathar exile. On meeting Guillaume, Arnaud let it be known that the Cathars were very much alive in southern France and that there were still Parfaits roaming the country side. Thinking that he could find one of these Parfaits and retake his Consolamentum, Guillaume took the bait and returned to France. He was very quickly arrested and locked up awaiting execution. He was granted one last audience with Arnaud whom he tried to convince to take the Consolamentum and carry on the Cathar faith. Arnaud refused. Guillaume was burnt at the stake in 1323 in Villerouge Termenes, the village where he had murdered the shepherd all those years ago.
We do not know for certain whether Guillaume Belibaste was the last Cathar Parfait (he probably wasnt), however, he was the last one to be executed and his death marks the end of a rich culture that had thrived in Europe for centuries. Guillaume, himself, was far from the Cathar ideal but he did show a devotion to his dying faith that made him, in a way, a noble and human end for Catharism, the imparfait Parfait.