While noble women of the Languedoc austerely committed to the 13th century Cathar faith, they were also influential women of education, wealth and power– attributes abhorrent to the misogynistic patriarchal Catholic Church and its Inquisitors. So how did the Cathar attitude concerning women evolve?
In general, the women of the Midi had far greater moral latitude than their sisters to the north. For a century prior to the explosion of Catharism in the region, respect for women had been fully grounded especially through the literature of the troubadours, mainly because according to Cathar scholar Zoé Oldenbourg, “Provençal women had long known how to compel men’s respect.” This was helped by the fact that in the Languedoc, family legacies were split evenly, regardless of gender. Land translated into power.
Although the recognition of equality between the sexes wasn’t limited to the nobility, women such as Esclarmonde de Foix, Blanch of Laurac and Geralda of Lavaur who had committed themselves as parfaits, opened their homes and wealth in order to educate children in the faith(particularly girls) as well as providing comfort and support in mind, body and spirit to those who were less fortunate. History also tells us that Cathar women functioned as physicians, nurses and were highly skilled in various crafts.
Spiritually, Catharism was a faith that appealed to women because not since Gnostic times had women been given a voice in affairs of the soul’s journey. Even simple believers (credentes) were made to feel included in the larger picture of spiritual matters enjoyed by their more elevated sisters. In other words, ALL women sympathetic to the Cathar faith were regarded as having equal status in matters of faith. They were not an afterthought of the Divine as implied by the attitude of the Roman Church.
One can only imagine the outrage when Brother Stephen of Minia directed Esclarmonde (who, by the way was sister to the Count of Foix), “go tend your distaff, madam; it is no business of yours to discuss matters such as these.” Insulting, yes. Women of the Languedoc and certainly Cathar women, especially those who were better educated than their husbands and possessed lands, were not accustomed to being so dismissed.
We do not know for certain how many of these powerful women met their end in the secular world. Many legends abound regarding Esclarmonde including the fact that she lived to be seventy-eight with a cult-ish following. While we know little more of Blanche of Laurac, the Grand Dame of Catharism, we do know what happened to her daughter, Geralda of Lavaur.
In 1211, a zealous, ruthless and uneducated Simon de Montfort took his crusade to the town of Lavaur where he had Geralda, Lavaur’s Chatelaine, thrown down a well and stoned to death. This was followed by the marching of Lavaur’s four-hundred parfaits to the river where they were burned…thereby creating the largest bonfire of humanity in the Middle Ages…surpassing that of the massacre at Montsegur in 1244 thirty-three years later. After besieging Toulouse for nine months, Simon de Montfort was killed on 25 June 1218. His head was smashed by a stone from a mangonel, operated, it is said, by the women and girls of Toulouse. A fitting example of karma if there ever was one.
ART FROM THE CEILING OF TOULOUSE TOWN HALL-DEATH OF THE LION-SIMON DE MONTFORT AS THE CITY REJOICES
Photography©Gaye F. Mack, Inc.
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