Catharism, as talked about in previous articles (See The Last Cathar and The Real Cup of Christ?), was a Gnostic Christian sect which flourished in southern France until the 14th century when the last Cathar Parfait was executed. It has been theorised that this sect came to France by way of trade with the Byzantine Empire which had contact with various Gnostic groups such as the Bogomils in Bulgaria, the Paulicians in Armenia and even the Manicheans from the days of the old Roman Empire. The Cathars have a general similarity of beliefs with these other groups, in particular the Bogomils. It is unknown exactly how old the Cathars are as opinion is divided as to when they were identified as a separate group. The earliest possible mention of them comes from the Oecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 (which established church beliefs as we know it today) the record of which states: “If those called Cathari come over [to the Catholic faith], let them first make profession that they are willing [to share full communion].” By the 8th century it is generally accepted that they are recognised as a separate group of Christianity. From southern France they would develop a culture that would reach across Europe in the troubadour tradition. The troubadours were wondering musicians who told tales in the form of songs. Many of our Arthurian legends owe their beginning to the troubadours such as Chretien de Troyes who composed the epic of Parzival which was later famously transformed by Wagner and is the source of many of our Grail legends.
The Cathars differed from mainstream Christianity by their lack of belief in hierarchy or in the Sacraments (even marriage). The closest they came to the Sacraments was the consolamentum which was a ritual in which the body was purified and inhabited by the Holy Spirit. This ritual was usually conducted when at death’s door in a similar manner to Baptism in early Christianity. Some people would take this “Sacrament” early and become Bonnes Hommes (later called Parfait by the church to denote them as “the perfect heretic”) who were the closest thing to a Cathar priest. Once imbued with the Holy Spirit one had to keep the body as pure a vessel as possible. This involved abstention from meat, sex and drink. One of the Cathar’s most interesting qualities was their attitude to sexual equality. Women were held in total equality and could take the consolamentum as well.
In the 1198 century Pope Innocent III came to power and resolved to settle the Cathar issue. A series of debates were held between the Catholics and the Cathars (a simplification) at Verfeil, Servian, Pamiers and Montreal. The Catholic delegation were led by Dominic de Guzman, later known as St Dominic and founder of the Domenican order. On the Cathar side were Guilhabert des Castres, the bishop of Toulouse, and a woman, Esclarmonde de Foix. There is a relatively small amount known about Guilhabert des Castres much to our loss according to Zoe Oldenbourg (author of The Massacre at Monsegur, a history of the Albigensian crusade) who wrote, in 1961, that “It is a little disconcerting to find history telling us so little about this man, and indeed about other leaders of this movement… Yet Guilhabert himself seems to have been one of the greatest personalities of 13th century France. The history of the deeds and actions of these persecuted apostles may well have proved as rich in inspiration and instruction as that of Francis of Assisi. They too were messengers of God’s love. It is not immaterial to recall that these torches were put out forever, their face obliterated and their example lost to all those whose lives they might have guided during the centuries that followed”. The debates at Pamiers featured some of the most violent clashes between the two sides. There are reports that as Esclarmonde contributed to the debates she was shouted down by a certain Brother Stephanus de Misericordia who said “Go, lady, and work at your distaff! It is no business of yours to join in a debate such as this.” Esclarmonde, her name meaning “light of the world” in the Occitan dialect, the sister of the Count of Foix. She married a man of noble birth, the lord of L’isle Jourdain, with whom she had several children. However, she was widowed in 1200 and a few years later took the consolamentum becoming one of the Parfait. She would set up schools for girls in the town of Dun in the Pyrenees as well as several hospitals in the region as well as shelter refugees in the crusade that was to follow.
The debates did not create the opportunity to fix the divide between the two sides. In 1208 Pope Innocent launched the Albigensian Crusade. This crusade of mostly French knights was led by the English Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester (it is important to remember that at this time the English and French nobility were culturally and linguistically homogeneous being essentially one people, owning lands in both countries). The Cathar armies were led by Raymond, Count of Toulouse and were allied to Peter, King of Aragon. However, the numerically superior Cathars were defeated at the battle of Muret, in 1213, where the King of Aragon was also killed. This battle is seen as being one of the most important factors in the unification of France as we know it today (the region of Occitan where this all takes place was virtually an autonomous nation in culture and language). Soon after the battle a massacre took place at the town of Beziers as Montfort’s troops seized Occitan. At Beziers the crusaders were unsure of how to recognise who were Cathars and who weren’t. When they confronted Arnaud, the Abbot-Commander, he is said to have replied “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” (kill them all, the Lord will recognize his own). Simon de Montfort would meet his death at walls of Toulouse during the siege in 1218, according to legend he was killed by a mangonel (a type of catapult) which was operated by the women and children of Toulouse.
Military operations against the Cathars would end at the siege of Montsegur, 1243-44. Sheltering in the castle were Esclarmonde de Foix and Guilhabert des Castres. The castle was owned by Ramon de Pereille, a minor knight, who had started repairing the castle at the outbreak of the crusade.
During the year-long siege Esclarmonde died at the age of 90. Rumour has it that her soul took the form of a dove and flew away carrying the Holy Grail which the Cathars were hiding (and some conspiracy theorists claim it was the Grail that was the true object of the crusade). This legend can largely be dismissed as the invention of Otto Rahn (see “The Real Cup of Christ?“) as there is no record of this legend before him and the Cathars despised the veneration of relics as idolatry.
On the eve of the fall of the castle the 300 or so Cathar defenders all took the consolamentum and were subsequently massacred, ending the Albigensian crusade. The Inquisition, led by the newly formed Dominican order, took up the task of routing out the remaining Cathars. Catharism would essentially end with Guillaume Belibaste (see “The Last Cathar“) and his death in 1323. Thus died a fascinating and hugely influential culture which has haunted the imagination many throughout the centuries.