Cathars | Cathartic.


Another, final post from wonderful Languedoc.  So many wondrous things to see and do; walking or boating the gorgeous Canal de Midi…


…to exploring superb architecture…


and extraordinary ecclesiastical art….


…to hillwalking the landscapes of mountain and dramatic, steep sided river valleys.

But what makes Languedoc unique, and gives the area its extraordinary  atmosphere of mystery and grandeur, is its rich, tragic history, as the last stronghold of the Cathars.


The amazing sight, site, you see above, is the mountain fotress of Montsegur.

At the very end of the Albisegenian Crusade, up to 10,000 troops surrounded one of the last redoubts the towering castle fortress on the hill of  Montségur.   It took the Crusaders 2 years to breach the outer defenses, then to wear down and to defeat the Cathar defenders inside the castle walls itself.

The Cathar survivors eventually surrendered, under truce.  Their choice was to renounce their beliefs or perish.  Many, around 220, refused to recant, even to spare their own lives.                                              They were all burnt alive at the stake.


They, the Cathars, were of course followers of and believers in a medieval religion.  After a hundred and fifty years of relative peace, they were ultimately forced to defend their freedom and faith in the face of cruel and powerful enemies.

The first part of the Albigensian crusade -as the move against the Cathars was called, (after the local city of Albi)- was launched by Pope Innocent III from 1208, with barons from the North of France, and acting for the opportunist Kings of France,  soon getting in on the act, seeking to expand his territory, and of course their own.

The Cathars were eventually suppressed and had their faith stamped out, in the most brutal way possible.

The military part of the crusade launched from 1209 when Northern French barons, acting on a plea from the Pope, and with the complicit blessing of the French king (and seeking of course territory and loot for themselves) marched against the indepedent lands, and the mixed, tolerant, diverse (Cathar and Catholic and Jewish) cities of the Southern Midi.

One of the first places they attacked was the city of Béziers, which they started to besiege in mid-July 1209.    Some inhabitants tried to break out of the walls to launch a sortie.   But they failed and were chased back, and the town was stormed in return.  As the town fell,  terrified people fled to the Cathedral hoping for sanctuary.  But the Northern army set the cathedral on fire, so they all burnt to death.  Citizens who fled to the church of Saint Madeleine fared no better.  The doors were knocked in,  they were all hacked to death.

The Northern troops appeared to have spared nobody.  They even burnt a cathedral and, in seperate incident, massacred a large civilians in a church.  During a religious crusade?   How is this possible?   Oddly it’s precisely the religious leaders of the Crusade who must take most of the blame.   Because even after those atrocities, the savagery was still not done.  The order from Rome was to stamp out every last drop of heresy, regardless of cost, or of “collateral damage”

When French forces asked the man commanding them, the Abbot of Citeaux, Alric Arnaud, how would or could they know the differences between Catholics and Cathars, accounts have it he replied:  “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius”.  Meaning, chillingly:  – “Kill them all: God will know his own.”                                                                                                                                                                          (Some say the words were not in Latin but in French:  “Tuez les tous, Dieu reconnaitra les siens”)  

It’s not known if God did recognize “his own”, but it’s well documented almost twenty thousand people, many of them unarmed, men, women and children of all ages, religions and backgrounds, were slaughtered in Béziers that July 22nd 1209.

When the nobles and officers realised that common soldiers had plundered most of the town’s loot, they took it all back. This in turn infuriated the ordinary troops, who promptly set fire to the Béziers.  It burnt to the ground in a few hours, which would have finished off any remaining survivors, concealed or hiding.  They would have been burnt alive, inside the already-defeated, blood soaked city.

That sort of thing is what the Cathars were up against.

It’s important to acknowledge what happended.  But I don’t just want to continue an endless peon of lament here, a dirge of atrocities.  I’d also like to celebrate, and to honour these extraordinary people as well, and the whole, remarkable Occitan culture of the medieval southwest prior to the Crusade.    So then, who exactly were the Cathars, and what did they believe in?

One might be tempted to call them, with some trepidation, a Religious Sect, with a tacit acknowledgement this can be a term to send shivers down the spine.  We should remember too however, that it’s the victors who always write (or approve, suppress or ban) the histories.

From what little I know of Catharism, I rather like the sound of it.  I don’t pretend to be an expert, but let me try to summarise the little I’ve learnt.  It was apparently a mix of Reformist ideas, taken partly from the Bogomil churches of Bulgaria and Dalmatia (modern day Romania, more or less) and partly ideas adopted from older ideas from much further east, everything from Sufism to Buddhism to Zoasterianism, fused with a “Macheanian” or dualist moral word view, meaning a vision of a universe of Good versus Evil, Light versus darkness; opposing deities that were a Creative God versus a Destructive spirit.

Here in this Dualism we can perhaps detect the influence of Zoaster.  He was already a figure from the very distant past at the time of the crusades, indeed from long, long before the time of Christ even.  Zoaster was a Persian Prophet and philosopher, often dated around the 6-12 century BC, but really of uncertain, (although clearly ancient) origin.  He simplified and reformed the pantheon of Persian Gods, and thus the state religion of the ancient Persian Empire.

Zoatrianism has often been called the first monotheistic religion in the world.  Over the following centuries and millennia, it would influence Judaism, the as well as the earliest forms of Christianity, (and Christ himself obviously) Islam and Gnosticism.   Zoaster also provided a title, and theme for 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Given this persistent influence on philosophy and religious thought over millenia, it is no surprise, when nobles and soldiers from Languedoc returning from Crusade in the Middle East in the 11th century brought back their own interpretation of such eastern ideas in their turn.

In the mountainous, fiercely independent lands of Southwest France, the philosophy took root, evolved, and developed into Catharism.

As outlined in my previous post, in terms of economics, thought and ideas, this was one of the wealthiest, most developed and sophisticated parts of Europe.  The woad (deep blue dye) trade was highly lucrative, the middle class, merchant and town burgher-class had a say here, politically, almost earlier than anywhere in Europe, with the possible exception I suppose, of the Hanasetic League (of the Baltic region).  In such an ambiance, in glorious, fierily independent SW France, these esoteric, exotic ideas found fertile ground.

Part of the sophistication of the region can be inferred from its evident tolerance.  Local Catholic people, besieged alongside their Cathar neighbours at the sieige of Béziers, refused to abandon the Cathars when they were invited to surrender under truce.  Instead they vowed to fight on alongside them and try to protect them.

The Count of Carcassonne, Raymond-Roger Trencavel, (1185-1209) was not himself Cathar either.   Yet he too both supported his Cathar subjects.  He also trusted and relied on local Jewish administrators and business people to run his second city of Béziers.

trenceval_seal Raymond-Roger Trencavel family seal.

These Jewish subjects too would most certainly have slaughtered and burnt at Béziers, along with their Catholic and Cathar neighbours.   Except that, the violent anti-semitism of the Crusader/Inquisition forces was so obvious to everyone, that Raymond-Roger Trencavel had already sent them away for their own safety.


medieval image, Knights attack townsfolk & Cathars: from Philip Coppen’s excellent site: Cathars, Struggle for a New Church.

As the Counts of Toulouse, the biggest magnates in the southwest,  and other local nobility had always tolerated, supported and protected the Cathars just like the Trencavel family.  A few local southern nobles even converted themselves.

Faced with annihilation later, during the time of the crusade, many of the southern nobility later relented and sought accommodation with the church.  Others, like Raymond-Roger Trencavel did not buckle.  At first he tried to treat with the Crusaders, but his advances were rejected.  So he fought on, attempting to stop the powerful Albigensian crusade, now led by the ultra-violent Simon de Montfort.  (imageSimon de Montfort, below ) 

File:Simon de Montfort

Trencavel, and Raymond of Toulouse were both allied to and paid feudal homage to Peter King of Aragon, not to the king of France.  Peter  (picture below) was the king of Aragon across the Pyrenees and Count of Barcelona (Cataluña).


At first Peter of Aragon did not wish to directly oppose the Pope,  and tried to act as mediator between de Montfort’s Crusaders and Trencavel.  Later, facing the savagery of de Montfort, the Aragonese king Peter did support Trencaval militarily.

Peter met de Montfort 1213, at the Battle of Muret but was defeated and died trying to leave an attack. De Montfort survived and held Toulouse, having also defeated and expelled Peter’s other vassal in the area, (another Raymond) Raymond Count of Toulouse.

Raymond of Toulouse eventually relented, and ceded to the king of France, in order to hang on to at least some of his lands. Raymond-Roger Trencavel fought on but was defeated and gave himself up eventually as a prisoner. He died imprisoned in his own dungeon, apparently of dysentery, although his many admirers (and later-day Cathars supporters)  say he was poisoned by the enemy.   You may be interested to hear that Raymond-Roger Trencavel is often considered as the modle for Percival, a knight of the Round Table, and quester after the Holy Grail,  in the Arthurian Romances, (and thus the model for Richard Wagner Parsifal)


Raymond-Roger’s son later tried to reclaim the Trencavel family lands & power but ultimately failed.  The king of France now controlled the south, a major step in the modern nation state of France we recognize today on a map.

Simon de Montfort rampaged on around the south for several more years, doing the king’s dirty work and worse:  sacking towns, acquiring new lands titles, and mutilating prisoners.  At one venture he cut of the noses and lips of several hundred men. A lot of his other practices sound like ethnic cleansing, or genocide.


image from Wikipedia:  Cathars expelled from Carcassonne.

He was forced to attack Toulouse again,  when Raymond the count of Toulouse returned from exile in Aragon and re-took possession of the city.  De Montfort invested (besieged) the city and had it surrounded for nine months until in June in 1218, when he was, I’m delighted to report, killed.  He had his head smashed,  pulverized by a stone projected from a mangolet (catapult) fired by women defending their city walls.

Many of the cities and castles of the region were besieged by the crusade.

The southern lords and nobility of that era would have built castles anyway of course.   Given the local landscape, most would have been perched on their craggy hilltops, almost seeming to totter on the edge of hight cliffs, like – Monsegur, & Lastours.  (Lastours, pictured below, old map & my photo) 

L1030439     L1030452

But there is something very poignant when you know that many of these spectacular sites witnessed epic sieges and battles, of the massacres that ensued and the brutal Inquisition that followed, when thousands were tortured, and many hundreds if not thousands more burnt at the stake, for their Cathar “heresy”.

14 thoughts on “Cathars | Cathartic.

  1. Great post Arran! Love the history. I’ve always wondered about the Cathars. This explains it very well. The pictures are great too. I must visit the south of France.


    1. thanks Susan, delighted you enjoyed it. As for the S. of France, I am not a huge fan of the Rivera, (too pricey & bling for me) On the other hand, I could not recommend the SW, Languedoc, region highly enough, especially for a passionate historian & medievalist like yourself.


      1. My plan is to go to France next year. I definitely want to see Normandy and then go south, looking for medieval history!


  2. This was my favorite part of the entire account, both for the content and the phrasing:
    “De Montfort invested (besieged) the city and had it surrounded for nine months until in June in 1218, when he was, I’m delighted to report, killed.” I think a lot of people would find history a lot more interesting if there were more people who wrote like this. And de Montfort does really sound like a colossal ass, quite frankly.

    I know so little about the Cathars so this was extremely interesting. Thanks, as always.


    1. that is generous praise Covetotop, and all the more kind, and satisfying as it comes from a man like you who knows a lot about the history of the region. Really very kind, i am glowing! Thank you, appreciate that.


      1. With my poor level of English I didn’t dare to add any other word to “outstanding”. According to my Merriam-Webster Dictionary it means “marked by eminence and distinction”. You talk about history with clarity, in a very entertaining and intelligent way. In other words … outstanding.


If you've enjoyed the piece above, please leave a comment, love to hear from you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s