story of the Cathars
of Cathar country, showing main towns and main Cathar castles
The "Cathars" themselves were not a race, or a people; they were the
followers of a dissident church that flourished in several parts of
Europe during the early Mediaeval period.
Catharism - meaning litterally purity - was a sort
of proto- Protestantism that promoted values of equality,
neighbourliness and charity, and turned its back on the
pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth of the Catholic
church of the time. Cathars believed that Earth was ruled by a
malevolent God, and that Heaven was the world of the good God: this
dualist concept of God was not unique to Catharism, but it was
sufficient cause for the Catholic church of the time to brand Catharism
as a heresy.
Catharism did not have a founder, nor a designated
it did not only take
root in one place. It appears to have originated in the Byzantine
world, and to have spread to Europe via churches in Bulgaria. By the
eleventh century, there were Cathar believers all over Europe,
including England. But one of the places in which the Cathar church
really flourished, and the place with which the word Cathar is now
strongly associated, is the southern half of the French regions of
In the early Middle Ages, France was a
much smaller country than now; the area that is France today
was then a hotchpotch of kingdoms, duchies and counties, some
with allegiance to the French crown, others with different
"Languedoc" was the generic name given to the southern half of the
country, where they did not speak French at all, but a family of
languages between French and Spanish known as "les langues d'oc", or
Occitanian. Some areas in this "Occitania" were largely independent,
others belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, others - including parts of
"Cathar country" to the kingdom of Aragon. Above all, territories in
this frontier region far from the power houses of Europe - Paris,
London and Rome - changed hands frequently following alliances and
power struggles, marriages and deaths, among the local rulers, the most
important of whom were the Counts of Toulouse.
in later centuries, religious dissent was not just a theological
statement; it was a way by which local rulers and people could assert
their differences and their cultural independence from the great
European powers of the day, the Catholic church and the Kings of France.
Thus a large part of the Languedoc, people and nobles, adopted
the Cathar heresy, and by so
doing distanced themselves from the French and from Rome. By the early
13th century, Catharism had taken such a strong hold in the area, that
in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the notorious Albigensian Crusade
a crusade aimed not against the Infidels, but against the "heretical"
Cathars. For twenty years, crusaders, led by the Barons of France
including Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, sacked and pillaged the
area, massacring Cathars or converting them by force to Catholicism.
In the early 1220s, the Cathars' fortunes revived, prompting a second
wave of Crusading this time led by King Louis VIII and later Louis IX.
Finally, most of the area was subjugated, and in 1229, the Treaty of
Meaux-Paris was signed, bringing almost the whole of Occitania into the
realm of the French crown. Pockets of Cathar resistance held out for
the next twenty-six years.
fortified hilltops, castles, villages and towns remain to this day as a
stark reminder of the the area's turbulent history. Many of the castles
predate the period of the Cathar heresy, having been built in earlier
centuries as defensive positions along the changing border area between
Aragon and France. During the Albigensian crusade period, many castles
and other fortified positions served as strongholds for beseiged
Cathars, and many witnessed atrocious massacres.
Crusade has been described as the first act of genocide in Europe,
though this is surely an exaggeration; mediaeval wars were cruel, and
acts that would be classed today as crimes against humanity, were in
those days part and parcel of the strategy of conquest. The castle at
Montségur remained a Cathar stronghold until 1244, when it
taken and 200 Cathar prisoners taken were burned alive. The last Cathar
stronghold, the Chateau de Peyrepertuse, fell in 1255.
In order to consolidate their power, the
masters of Languedoc rebuilt and maintained the fortified cities and
the great defensive castles of the area. They strengthened the defences
of walled cities
like Carcassonne and Narbonne, and renovated most of the
imposing strongholds that they had captured, as at Quéribus,
Peyrepertuis, or Puylaurent. They even built the massive fortified
cathedral at Albi
as a high-powered statement of Catholic dominance in
the area. And because Languedoc was for the next six centuries largely
a peripheral area in terms of European development, a lot of these
mediaeval monuments have come down through time relatively intact.
In human terms, historians estimate that the persecution of the Cathars
in Languedoc caused half a million deaths. In cultural terms, the
suppression of the Cathar heresy and the consolidation of French power
in Occitania led to the strangling of of one of the great cultures of
mediaeval Europe. However most people in the area continued to speak
forms of Occitanian until well into the nineteenth century, and
Occitanian languages are still alive as patois even to
this day. In recent years,; and since the 1970s, the concept
of "Oc" - and with it the memory of
the Cathars - has staged a strong revival. Even so, the flame of
Occitanian literature and culture, sniffed out in the 13th century by
imposition of a nobility answerable to the crown of France, has ever
been seriously rekindled .
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