The scene is the medieval castle at Montségur in the Languedoc region of southern France. Here in the spring of 1244, one of the most diabolical massacres was carried out against the Gnostic religious sect known as the Cathars. History reports that on March 16th after suffering a nine month siege by the Seneschal of Carcassone and the Archbishop of Narbonne, some 200 Cathar men and women were marched out of the castle stronghold to the field below where they were systematically burned to death as heretics. Such a scene is nearly unfathomable and begs the question for those unfamiliar with this event, what precipitated such unspeakable brutality by Rome on this peace-loving community?
The Cathar history is a complex one that begins in the late 1100′s with esoteric threads that have spilled into the 21st century. This is a story that recounts relentless persecution by the Catholic Church, but also it’s one that is deep, complex and fascinating with many facets worthy of exploration, including legends surrounding the Holy Grail and an illusive‘Cathar Treasure.’ While the movement is believed to have originated in the Balkans, it spread to other parts of Europe, appearing in the Languedoc region at the beginning of the twelfth century…and there it multiplied like wildfire.
The Cathar philosophy was fairly simple, but clearly heretical. It was a religion of duality that believed God did not create the mundane world, Christ was never embodied, therefore did not suffer on the cross and certainly baptism with water would not bring salvation. Furthermore, Catharism believed in reincarnation and honored women equally! Their only sacrament was the Consolamentum, a ritual of baptism by the holy spirit. There was very little hierarchy in Cathar clergy of men and women who were known as Perfects or Perfecti. Once a Prefect was ordained with the Consolamentum, he or she then abstained from meat and sexual intercourse. They did not have a high regard for the temporal world believing it to be a creation of evil but nevertheless, they were known for their skills in the arts of medicine, botany and astrology. At the end of the day the underlying foundation of their doctrine was one of simplicity and peace and in this spirit, lay Cathars were required to receive the Consolamentum in order to reach salvation, often as they hovered on the brink of death, .
Considering these basic facts, it’s apparent why the Cathars were such a thorn in the side of Rome with their blatant disregard for Rome’s dictatorial belief that its priests were the only means to commune with God, the Church’s trappings, money and control. Going back as far as 1208, once Rome realized the Cathars were gaining sympathy amongst the powerful Languedoc lords, the initial crusade against them was launched and led by Simon de Montfort; it was a crusade carried out with overwhelming violence and lack of mercy. Following de Montfort’s death in 1218, Pope Honorious III then embarked on a second crusade led by King Louis VIII. The rest is history, as it’s said. With the final assault on Montségur in 1244, the Cathar heresy was snuffed out and Rome’s Inquisition launched to bring the surviving believers to heel.
While I’ve read about the Cathars for years, early this fall I’ll be traveling to Cathar country in the Languedoc to take in more of the history as a backdrop for my next historical fiction book, Flight of Doves. In the meantime, I plan from time to time, to blog more on this intriguing aspect of esoteric history!
There is a great deal of information and books written about the Cathars, ironically much owing to the meticulous records kept by the Inquisition! However, here are a few of my favorites:
The Great Heresy-Arthur Guirdham, MD
We Are All One-Arthur Guirdham, MD
The Cathar View-The Mysterious Legacy of Montsegur-David Patrick, Ed.
Massacre at Montsegur: A History of the Albigensian Crusade-Zoe Oldenburg
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Just found your website when looking on Google for info on Cathars.
I am English but have just returned from a short holiday in the region, where I became hooked on the Cathar story.
I read a short but informative French history called “Understanding the tragedy of the Cathars” by Claude Lebedel. (No connection other than appreciative of the work’s relatively easy introduction to a complex history). It also includes a useful suggestion for a Cathar itinerary which I wish I had seen at the start of my holiday. Anyway I am sure you will have a great time.Best wishes, Mike
Mike, thanks for your comments! The Cathar history is fascinating and actually I just posted another piece on them last week. One book that you might find of interest is, ‘The Cathar View-The Mysterious Legacy of Montsegur’ edited by Dave Patrick, published by Polair Publishing, my publishers in London. Its an anthology of academic, personal and esoteric contributions. And for something completely different you might want to check out the books by Arthur Guirdham, MD on the Cathars and his experiences as a practicing psychiatrist in England.
I am also fascinated by the Cathars and did follow their route a couple of summers ago, climbing to the heights of where they had built their castles and refuges. Montsegur was an especially moving experience; we learned that everyone was burned even when the mayor declared, “some of these people are Catholic!” And the response was, “God will sort them out.” One thing that makes me curious:
since sexual relations were not permitted, how was the proliferation of Cathars to be carried out, pre-crusade snuff-out, in order to keep the movement alive? And, pre-artificial insemination, no?
Michelle, thanks for your comments here! I too have been fascinated with the Cathars for about 20 years and was fortunate enough to travel Cathar country in September. I was with a small group led by Oxford academic, James MacDonald who is unquestionably an expert in this subject and has lived in the region for many years.
Yes Montsegur is moving although not the scene of the largest massacre…that was at Lavaur in May 1211 led by Simon de Montfort and Arnold Aumaury, head of the Cisterian order…he is the one actually credited with the quote, “kill them all, God will know his own” which(if it really was said) happened at the Beziers massacre prior to Lavaur. Lavaur was a much bigger tragedy than Montsegur in that 400 perfect were burned…double of Montsegur, but Montsegur was and is, certainly dramatic.
As for carrying on the line, it was only the perfect(someone who had taken the oath of commitment) who was to abstain from sex among other things…the credentes were ‘followers’ but had not been what we would call baptized into the faith…kind of like Catholics who follow the faith but use birth control.
All in all as you said, the sect is fascinating…especially the fact that women were viewed as equal, men and women were healers even though they themselves had a disdain for the physical body, and they had interest in astrology…
Now that I’m working on my next historical fiction work which features the Cathars to some extent, I hope to be blogging more on them.
thanks again for your comments and visiting my site!