Cathar Country: It’s Complicated

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We want to tell you the story of our learning about the Cathars of southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Arriving in Carcassonne, you hear very quickly about the crusade against the Cathars, about their extermination.

Why would such tragedy 800 years ago be compelling today?

The Cathars practiced versions of “primitive Christianity” in medieval Europe. “Primitive Christianity” means a set of beliefs and practices that rely on the first years of the Christian Era but not on the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church considered the Cathars heretics.

We say “It’s complicated” because historians don’t agree about how the Cathars experienced their life and beliefs. In fact, they sometimes have contentious disagreements. Even so, there exists much documentation from the Catholic Church’s Inquisition against all peoples judged heretical, including the Cathars. What happened to them is fairly clear. The beliefs, perceptions, and personal experiences are more susceptible to interpretation. And a few pages of a blog post only begin to scratch the surface.

This ambiguity is a theme of this post. Over time and from various sources, we have learned different and sometimes contradictory layers about this history. It might be complicated, but it’s alive! Almost every day, we walk on paths where Cathars lived and died.

Layer 1 – First Impressions

From our first visits here, we have heard about the Cathars and their tragic history.

  • A label that we see often in our region of Occitanie, including around Carcassonne, Albi and Béziers, is Pays Cathare, or Cathar Country. 
  • In Carcassonne, we hear stories of the siege of the citadel in 1209 by forces loyal to the French king and the Catholic Church, and deaths of Cathar residents.
  • We hear a lot about the so-called Cathar or Albigensian Crusade — related to the town of Albi. This was a 20-year bloody conflict in the early 13th century.
  • Grand ruined castles sit atop peaks in the departments of Aude, Ariège and Pyrénées Orientales, such as Queribus, Peyrepeteuse, Montségur, Lastours, and Termes. They are sometimes referred to as the Cathar Castles.

Layer 2: Le Musée du Catharisme

We discovered that the Musée du Catharisme is in the town of Mazamet, about an hour’s drive from Carcassonne. 

The exhibits and multimedia presentations are handsomely and clearly presented. Unlike in many museums, the audio-guide narrative was direct, informative, and insightful, even if it did feel like the authors of the exhibition are defenders of the Cathar culture. We listened, looked and read with this possible bias in mind.

A few things we learned in the museum:

  • We are talking about our region in the south of France as it was defined in the 12th century. The Counts of Toulouse ruled in the lands between modern-day Toulouse and Provence, and the Mediterranean and the Massif Central (central highlands). The Kingdom of France to the north was, in terms of territory, smaller. 
  • In the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, the peasants and farmers of the society of our region enjoyed relatively more freedom and peace than their counterparts in the rest of this part of Europe. The Church and the aristocracy were not so interested in controlling every detail of their lives.
  • At the same time, the bishops and priests and others in the Church hierarchy ostentaciously pursued worldly gain, power and wealth.
  • The Cathar perspective and beliefs developed in a few European regions, such as the Balkans, northern Italy, parts of Germany and Spain, in response to people’s feeling that the Catholic Church had strayed too far from the values of original, or “primitive,” Christianity.
  • The Cathars saw themselves as true Christians. They did not recognize the Catholic Church as authentic. They did not provide resources to the Church.
  • The Cathars believed that humans are fallen angels, held captive in earthly bodies by a super-dragon (or Satan). Therefore, life on Earth is the real hell. People need to live consistently with Christian values during their time on earth, always anticipating their return to heaven after death.
  • Both women and men could be “Good Women” and “Good Men,” which corresponded to priests in the Catholic Church. Sex was discouraged: why bring more angels to this earthly hell? There was a lot of fasting.
  • The interests of the King of France and the Pope in Avignon aligned. The King wanted the territory and wealth of the South. The Pope wanted the elimination of what he saw as a heretical sect, and he wanted to replace the Cathars with obedient contributing Catholics.
  • Through various means, the King and the Pope organized and inspired a military program to convert the Cathars, and to gain control of the region. 
  • While many Cathars were massacred and many communities destroyed, the attackers did not succeed in completely eliminating practicing Cathars. The Church and the King established the Inquisition to convert or eliminate those who still resisted. They developed a police state in which each individual was encouraged to report on his or her neighbors. They founded a system of trials, punishments, and keeping of records of heresies and conversions. People judged as unrepentant heretics were burned at the stake. The Catholic Church then used this institutional Inquisition throughout Europe against any non-Catholic groups, such as Jews and Muslims. The well-known Spanish Inquisition continued even into the 19th Century.

After our time in the Musée du Catharisme, our impression of the Cathars was that they were a peaceful fundamentalist Christian sect. They saw themselves as the True Christians, as opposed to the Catholic Church which had lost its way. While ascetic, they lived simply and equably. The bad, greedy, political forces of the King of France and the Pope wanted to wipe them out for territorial gain and to maintain the power of the Church. They pursued brutal campaigns of extermination. 

Layer 3: Le Château de Saissac

The so-called Cathar Château de Saissac is only about 20 minutes from Carcassonne in the same direction as Mazamet.

From the museum and the town of Mazamet, we drove through the green forests and fields of the Montagnes Noires, or the Black Mountains, to the village of Saissac. The village overlooks the broad valley that connects the Atlantic and the Mediterranean; this is the valley that is home to Carcassonne. Even on hazy days, you can see the entire range of Pyrenees. Just below the village, but still atop steep promontories, sit the ruined walls of the château. We wanted to experience one of the castles purportedly decimated during the Cathar Crusade.

Curiously, the brochure that we received at reception only mentioned in passing the “reconstruction” of the castle after the 13th century. Nothing about the Cathars, or the “crusade” against them. From an information panel:

From the start of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), the lords of Saissac surrendered to Simon de Montfort [who led forces for the King of France, Philippe Auguste] for fear of reprisals from the crusade armies.  The seigneury thus passed into the hands of the northern barons: Bouchard de Marly in 1209, then Lambert de Thurey in 1234. The seigneury was then divided in two between the lords of the North and certain members of the Saissac line who had rights and lands, on the condition of swearing loyalty to the king of France and of no longer tolerating Catharism.

Various lords occupied and maintained the castle into the 17th century. By the mid 18th century, the castle had fallen into decay — centuries after the so-called Cathar Crusade.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed strolling amid the severe and picturesque ruined stone walls. The day was warm and the breeze fragrant. It is an evocative although mute place.

Layer 4: Interview with our medieval historian

With our minds full of the stories from the museum and of our experience among the ruins of the Château de Saissac, we sat down with our medieval historian, our friend Jean-François Vassal of Le Centre d’Histoire Vivante Médiévale. He wove for us a richer and subtler tale, both medieval and modern.

  • The religious movement now called Catharism arose in parallel to institutional Christianity, and not in southern France. Its antecedents go back to Bulgaria and the Balkans, and perhaps to the Byzantine Empire. Its ideas and practices evolved and spread to many regions in Western Europe.
  • In the 10th and 11th centuries, what is now southern France was a Roman Catholic Christian place. At the same time, cultural memory from the region’s long history as an important Roman province persisted; people still dressed in clothes similar to ancient secular Roman styles.
  • The Cathars didn’t call themselves “Cathar” at all. They called themselves Good Men and Good Women. While a 12th century Germanic cleric used the name “cathare” in sermons about “heretics” of the Catholic Church, other critics in various European regions used different names. The name “Cathar” did not appear in the south of France at all in the 12th century. Curiously, it was in the 19th century that German historians popularized the term “Cathar.” One historian proposed that the origin was the Greek word katharos, which means “pure.” Swept up in the period’s Romanticism — including in stories, poems and even spiritualism — this term that evoked purity took hold.
  • The museum accurately depicted their core belief that humans are fallen angels, trapped in the physical hell of the Earth, longing for and waiting to return to heaven. We learned that the rites and rituals of the Good Men and Good Women (the “priests”) were more severe than depicted in the museum. Instead of an annual Lenten 40 days of fasting, they required three such periods each year. In addition, they could consume only bread and water every other day. Their lives were harsh and purposefully deprived. On the other hand, the lives of ordinary people were less circumscribed. There is evidence that they ate whatever they wanted.
  • The relative openness to equal participation by women and men may have had more to do with the region’s culture than with Cathar beliefs. Relaxed attitudes toward sex and sexuality and values of individuality remained in the culture. Relaxed attitudes toward different beliefs also continued. The Cathars may have been a bit severe and even strange, but it didn’t matter that much to the local authorities. Most people were more interested in enjoying the prosperity and lively culture of the region than in restricting the beliefs and behaviors of their neighbors.
  • If we read often that sex among the Cathars was discouraged, our medieval historian explained some nuances. While the Good Men and Good Women practiced chastity, ordinary Cathar men and women did not. Evidence indicates that their attitudes about sex and marriage were more open-minded than those of the Catholic Church. They believed that God did not demand marriage. If a man and a woman wanted to be together, they were free to do so; marriage was not needed.
  • If we read often that sex among the Cathars was discouraged, our medieval historian explained some nuances.

While the Good Men and Good Women practiced chastity, ordinary Cathar men and women did not. Evidence indicates that their attitudes about sex and marriage were more open-minded than those of the Catholic Church. They believed that God did not demand marriage. If a man and a woman wanted to be together, they were free to do so; marriage was not needed.

  • Good Men and Good Women preached in the local language, not in Latin. It may be that ordinary people found this approach more accessible and compatible with their daily lives.
  • At this time, the Count of Toulouse and other local lords ruled over the region. The three richest and most powerful cities in Western Europe in this time were Venice, Rome and Toulouse. The Count of Toulouse was a master of pleasing all his powerful neighbors, including the kings of England and France, and the German emperor. The Count’s goals were always to preserve his personal prosperity and that of his region.
  • Nonetheless, the King of France feared that the region would fall to Aragon (part of what would become modern Spain). At the time, England controlled most of the western part of what is now France. Losing this County of Toulouse would leave the King with a small, relatively poor kingdom. It was also very important to the King to reinforce and reestablish Catholicism throughout his territories. The “heresy” of the Cathars was a good reason among others to pursue the King’s real interests.

Two pivotal events of the so-called Cathar Crusade took place not far from where we live.

The massacre at Béziers. In July 1209, the forces of the King and the Church approached the hilltop town of Béziers (today about an hour’s drive from Carcassonne). It was the footmen who arrived first, not their knights. The footmen stopped at the river at the base of the cliffs of the city to refresh and bathe. Some of the locals didn’t appreciate what they were doing and started to throw stones at the outsiders. In reaction, the footmen fought back. They proceeded to fight into the city, to sack the cathedral and kill many residents. But they weren’t under the orders of the knights and nobles who were leading the campaign. When these knights and nobles arrived shortly after the massacre, they found their work of submission completed, although not by the method intended. They continued on to Carcassonne. 

The siege of the La Cité de Carcassonne. The French forces did in fact beseige La Cité. Raymond-Roger Trencavel was resident in the château within La Cité at the time; he was viscount of Carcassonne, Béziers, Razès and Albi, and a vassal of the Count of Toulouse. There may have been Cathar adherents within La Cité, but we don’t know if in fact there were nor how many. The formidable walls of La Cité protected the viscount and his people. Trencavel’s provisions and water sources were more than adequate to withstand the siege. Trencavel expected that the Count of Toulouse would come to his rescue. Unfortunately, the Count did not. After fifteen days, Trencavel surrendered to the forces of the King and the Church. They took him hostage, and he died in their custody. The Count’s choosing not to rescue Trencavel had nothing to do with there being Cathars amid Trencavel’s people. The Count was doing what he always did; he was negotiating with the King of France to retain his own power and wealth in the region.

What do we really know about the Cathars in southern France? The Cathars did in fact exist, and they did practice a fundamentalist version of Christianity. They were persecuted by the French and the Catholic Church, but not solely because they were Cathars. The goals and methods of the King of France and of the Pope were motivated by more familiar objectives of control, dominance, territorial gain, defense of their particular faith, access to resources, and expression of power. The Cathars were just a factor among many. The forces of the King and of the Church converted or exterminated them.

Layer 5: Cathar Country today

Why, then, do we find celebration of the persecution of the Cathars in this part of France? Why is there so much identification with the Cathars, who lived and died almost a millennium ago?

A few ingredients:

Economic prosperity followed by impoverishment. Until the 20th century, this had long been a rich region. Since the 16th century, wool, silver, gold, olives and wine brought great wealth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wine and agricultural industries in the Aude enjoyed notable success. However, since World War II and through to today, the economy of the region has faltered and weakened. There is a nostalgia for the golden ages of the region.

The Wine Revolt of 1907. During the latter half of the 19th century through to 1907, the condition of the winegrowers in southern France evolved from bad to catastrophic. Grapes imported from North Africa flooded the French market. Unscrupulous winemakers added sugar to rehydrated grapes and glutted the market. Prices plummeted. By 1907, the winegrowers of the south of France could take it no more. Immense demonstrations took place in Carcassonne, Narbonne, Perpignan and elsewhere in the region. For example, between 600,000 and 800,000 people demonstrated in Montpellier on 9 June 1907. The national government in Paris tried ignoring the issue, then repression by force and political trickery. Ultimately, although slowly, the winegrowers of the region obtained relief and a more equitable marketplace. Memories of the conflict between local interests and national politics remain.

Repression of local dialects. From 1881 until the end of World War II, the French government repressed the speaking of all of the traditional dialects around the country, including Occitan in this region. There were and are as many as 28 different dialects and accents within France. Starting in 1881, schools could teach only in French. Students caught speaking their local dialect were harshly punished. Noted examples include wearing a heavy weight around their necks, like traditional wooden shoes; having their fingers slapped with metal rulers; or being forced to kneel at length against a square metal bar. Slowly, starting in about 1950, this linguistic and cultural repression lifted. Today, there are proud speakers of Occitan and Catalan in this region. But not many. Another lingering memory.

We foreigners see modern France as simply French. But the truth of people’s lives in different French regions is that they deeply identify with rich specific cultures and histories. Creating and celebrating the brand of Cathar Country expresses pride in local identity, including the cultural memories of persecution. Just as the Cathars were a means 800 years ago for worldly objectives by the King of France and the Pope, today highlighting Cathar history strengthens local identity for visitors and residents alike.

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