Aude History

The Cathars

Let us go back some 800 years, starting with bloodshed and brutality that was very real, but was the starting point for a legacy still with us today that blurs fact, myth and legend. This is the land of the Cathars, and their story is captivating to this day.
Cathars rounded up at Beziers
Cathars rounded up at Beziers
The town is Beziers, in the Languedoc region of the South of France, and it is the 22nd July 1209, appropriately the Feast Day of St Mary Magdalene. Crusader knights await orders from the Catholic Church for their next move, positioned outside of the town’s walls. Inside Beziers, a couple of hundred Cathars are known to be residing, but the community is in no mood to give them up. In the 13th century, the residents of Southern France had loyalty to nobody other than themselves; they even disliked the North, from where many of the Crusading army had come. The Cathars were seen as heretics by the Church of Rome, a growing and alarming threat that needed quelling, but the Cathars saw it differently believing that they were the true heirs of Christianity – “good Christians” as they called themselves. They held services in barns and fields rather than churches, and saw the trappings of the Catholic Church as evil. In fact, they saw the physical world around them as essentially evil, and devoted themselves to a very simple life, aiming for spiritual purity. The Crusaders’ message to Rome was the question of what to do next. The Catholics of Beziers wouldn’t surrender the Cathars, as they lived side by side peacefully, a situation replicated all over the Languedoc region of France. The stand-off continued, until the answer came back, delivered by the Papal Legate under the leadership of Pope Innocent III. It was short and simple, paraphrasing 2 Timothy in the cruelest of ways. They are words that still haven’t been forgotten or forgiven in that region of France, even today.

“Kill them all, for God will know his own”

The Crusaders entered the town and slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens, incredibly mainly Catholics. Women and children sought shelter in the churches and even they were put to the sword. It was said that blood literally ran through the streets. If the pacifist Cathars ever wanted proof that the Church of Rome was indeed evil, here it was, and their faith intensified as the Albigensian Crusade was launched against them.
Death of Simon de Montfort
Death of Simon de Montfort
The leadership of the Crusade fell into the hands of one Simon de Montfort, who gained notoriety for his callous and cruel measures, employed to ensure that the Pope’s work was done. He famously took a hundred prisoners and gouged out their eyes, cut off their lips and noses and tied them all hand to hand. The first poor wretch was left with one eye and made to march to the next town taking his 99 comrades with him – the sorry troop provoking surrender when spotted at Burgundy. Truly a case of the blind leading the blind. De Montfort tortured and then burnt hundreds of Cathars and Cathar sympathisers at the stake or on pyres, even nobility. From a Church perspective, he and the Crusade were a great success, so it was to their great dismay that when at the walls of Toulouse, he was hit on the head with a stone said to have been launched from a catapult by young girls. The documented report stated his “eyes, brains, back teeth, forehead and jaw” were shattered as he dropped dead, killed instantly. De Montfort’s reign of terror was mercifully at an end, causing some crusaders to question the validity of their mission.

The Crusade and the persecution of the heretics via inquisition continued for years however. The leadership changed but the determination to stamp out Catharism did not. Many of the higher profile Cathars decided to retreat to the fortress of Montsegur, an impenetrable structure perched on top of a “pog” (small mountain peak) in the Pyrenees. Here some 200 Parfaits (Perfects, the most spiritually advanced of the Cathars, equivalent to priests) lived with other members of their community, holding out against the Crusaders below. The year was now 1244, and Montsegur was to become the Cathars’ last stand.
Montsegur as it is today
Montsegur as it is today
As resources ran low, and the Crusaders below became frustrated with their inability to scale the pog, an offer of compromise was given. If the Perfects and the rest of the community renounced their beliefs, and converted to Catholicism, they would be spared. This wasn’t a choice however to the Cathars, and one can only imagine the atmosphere in that community as they made their decision as to what their next action would be. Some non-Cathars living there went through the ceremony of initiation during the few days they had remaining.

As deadline day arrived, striding down the hillside, hand in hand, and singing hymns, they walked voluntarily onto the pyres built in readiness at the bottom of the mountain. All were burnt to death, viewed no doubt uncomfortably by Papal representation and many others at the scene, who were witness to such devoted and committed faith. The Crusade against the Cathars, the only crusade on Western soil, was effectively at an end. A monument stands to this day on the “Field of the Cremated”, and always has flowers residing on it. Even now, the whole Languedoc region has reminders of the acts of cruelty performed upon it’s ancestors, with the rolling hills and landscapes adding to the timelessness of place. One can still smell a whiff of heresy in the air, and one can’t help wonder “have the Cathars ever really gone away….?”

But the tale apparently doesn’t end on the Field of the Cremated at Montsegur. There were reports that some Cathars escaped down the other side of the pog, taking with them their wealth and treasure. Exactly what that wealth and treasure might have been is much speculated, but the Nazis believed it to be, amongst other things, the Holy Grail. Indeed, they were seen circling Montsegur in 1944, on the 700th anniversary of that fateful day. How would the Cathars come to have the Holy Grail you may be asking, and it is a good question. One theory is from the Knights Templar, known Cathar sympathisers, who some suggest found it in the Holy Land, whilst excavating the site of Solomon’s Temple where they were based.