Les Cathares - The Crusade Against the Grail
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The Catharism story is the story of the Minne - the ideal, sublime love - , of the troubadours - the knights who knew how to use the sword but also the pen and the harp - , the sons of Belissena, the Moon Goddess, the "Pure Ones", of fallen angels and of the world created by Lucifer. It is also the story of the most spread heresy of the Middle Ages, the first actions of the Inquisition and struggle of the King of France to extend his domination all the way to the Pyrenean mountains.
The "Bons Hommes" of Occitania
The Catharism appears in Western Europe in the 12th century and survives until the first decades of the 14th century. While Catharism appears in many parts of Europe - Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain and France - our story traces the history of the cathars of the South of France region that is still known to this day as Pays Cathare and that was in their time a part of Europe known as Occitania.
The cathars of this region were also know as "Albigoise" (Albigensians) from the name of Albi a town situated north of Toulouse in the present day department of Tarn and the capital of French catharism.
The origin of the Catharism is still debated but the most recent researches indicate that it was in fact a Christian sect who appeared as a continuation of the reforms of the catholic clergy practices - reforms championed by pope Gregory VIII in the 11th century.
The very word's "cathar" origin is still debated. The word is believed to derive from the Greek word "katharos" which means pure. Other scholars mention the usage of the word by the German Abbot Eckbert Schönau who in the 12th century was comparing the adepts of the heresy to witches worshiping to cats - "catier" in Occitan language!
Certainly, the cathars considered themselves Christians - Jesus Christ was indeed at the center of their faith - and called each other "Bons Hommes" and "Bonnes Femmes":"good men" and "good women".
In few words the cathars believed that God who is perfection could not create an imperfect terrestrial world and the world we are living in with all its innumerable pains and hardships, the material perishable world was created by Lucifer - whom they also called Luzbel - a fallen angel whom God has expelled from Heaven. And while the human spirit was created by God and is eternal the bodies produced Adam and Eve are the prisons of the spirit of the other fallen angels that are following Luzbel. This faith was embraced by a great number of people - that became "heretics" in the eyes of the Church - as to make Catharism the biggest heresy of the feudalism. The reason of its popularity was probably purity of the cathar life in contrast of the life lead by the Catholic clergy.
Cathar’s church was in fact a parallel church, organized by the model of the early churches, with a clergy constituted of "Bons Hommes" and "Bonnes Femmes" -women were allowed to preach! - and lead by bishops and deacons. At the beginning of the 13th century, on the eve of the crusade, there were four Cathar churches or bishoprics Occitania: the Church of Toulouse, the Church of Agen, the Church of Albi and the Church of Carcassonne. In 1226 when the military conflict was already raging for more than 15 years, the "Bons Hommes" created another bishopric that of Razès with authority over the Corbières region
As the whole the cathar society was divided in two categories: "Perfecti" or the "Perfect Ones" or the "Pure Ones" the equivalent of the catholic monks but living in the society not in convents and the believers called "Credentes".
To become a "Perfecti" one was supposed to follow a 40 day fast on bread and water - a process called endura -, receive a sacramental act called "Consolamentum" and then fast again (endura) for 40 days. The Perfecti were renouncing all earthly possessions, marriage (if they were married before) and carnal love, were forbidden to kill even the smallest insect and were strict vegetarians. The Consolamentum ritual consisted of the laying on of hands of the Perfectis giving it (and thus allowing the transfer of the spirit) on the head of the receiver in a manner believed to have been passed down unchanged from Jesus Christ. The ritual was in the same time baptism, absolution and ordination, did not require any material like water or anointed oil.
Consolamentum was also given to the dying believers since it was thought that without receiving it the soul will migrate to another body.
Receiving the Consolamentum before death ensured the salvation of the soul and its Heaven destination. "All the souls are good and equal and all are going to be saved" was the tenet of the Bons Hommes! This also implied, 3 centuries before Martin Luther, that the indulgences sold by the Catholic Church were useless!
Since cathars also rejected the church as a human hand made building, the celebration of the consolamentum was often taking place in forests or in one of the many caves of the Pyrenean Mountains.
Both men and women could become "Perfecti". To show their discontent with the earthly life the "Perfecti" were wearing only black clothes.
Consolamentum was the only main rite accepted by Catharism and it ensured the rising of the soul to heaven. The Cathar Church was rejecting the baptism and the Eucharist, did not believe in the Last Judgment and did not venerate the cross considering it a torture device.
Another known ritual was the sharing of the bread at meal time. At the beginning of the meal the oldest of the Bon Hommes or Bonnes Femmes blesses the bread before sharing it with all the people around the table, the significance of the ritual being the spreading of their creed in the world.
It is interesting to note that all the information we have about the practices of the Catharism followers are coming from their foe, the Catholic Inquisition, since almost all their writings- with 5 exceptions one being the Cathar Bible - were burned in order to destroy any traces of the heresy.
Kill Them All! God Will Recognize His Own
During the second half of the 12th century this new faith was taking by storm the quasi-independent earldoms and viscouncies of the south of France. Even some of the Catholic clergy saw the cathars as the true evangelists.
Faced with the prospect of losing his influence in this part of the world Pope Alexander III excommunicates in 1179 the Count of Toulouse, the Viscount o Beziers, the Count of Foix and other Occitan nobles and proclaims a “Crusade against Albigenses”. He also appeals to the nobles and prelates of the northern part of France to take the arms against the heretics. These appeals were received with great enthusiasm by the northern nobles that were already dreaming to reunite France to the greatness of Clovis’ I - the first Frank King - time.
It will take however the determination of a new pope Innocent III for the actual armed attacks to start.
In the beginning there were attempts to bring the heretics under the Catholic fold by sending missionaries – Cistercian monks like the bishop Diego de Osma the future Saint Dominic and the founder of the Dominican order - to preach the catholic evangel and to try to convert the local population to Catholicism. In this context there were also a series of theological debates brought about by the Catholic Church like Conference of Pamiers in 1207 that was attended by Cathars and Catholics and where a famous Perfecti, Esclarmonde de Foix, is sharply sent “to her spindle” by one of the Catholic representatives. When all these attempts turned to failure the pope decided to send his legates, first Raoul de Fontfroide and then Pierre de Castelnau with the plan to bring together all the Occitan nobles in a coalition against the cathars. This plan turns out badly and on the 15th January 1208 Pierre de Castelnau is killed. This killing triggers the armed response of the pope and the beginning of the actual crusade. An army of around 300,000 people is formed - northern nobles and knights, their servants and mercenaries, people attracted by the riches of the South and by the promise of the indulgences offered by the pope.
The first city to fall is Béziers, followed by Carcassonne and then Toulouse .
Béziers fall in July 1209 was an epic one. It is said that almost 20,000 people are killed and the city is burnt down. It is during this siege that the Cistercian abbot Abbot Arnaud Amaury – the commander of the royal troops - gives his infamous answer to the question of how to recognize the heretics from the Catholics: “Kill them all! God will recognize His own!” .
Carcassonne fell to the crusader’s army in August 1209 after a 2 week siege, its leader Viscount Raimond Roger Trencavel taken prisoner and thrown one of the Carcassonne’s dungeons where he dies three months later. The commander of the crusader, Simon de Montfort, grabs this way the control of Carcassonne.
The Toulouse fall was lengthier. While its counts were not cathare but only cathare sympathizers, they were too powerful to be left outside the battle.
Between 1209 and 1229 the city passed back and forth several times between the hands of the two opposing camps. It is in Toulouse that the commander Simon de Montfort - known as "The butcher of Occitanie", or "The Crusade Lion" (depending on the side!)- finds his end, his skull crushed in 1218 by a catapulted stone thrown by the women of the city (he was recognized by his distinct red hair!!). Toulouse falls definitely in 1229. Raymond, Count of Toulouse is forced to sign the Treaty of Paris (Meaux) in April 1229 that recognizes the French King's authority over Toulouse and provides for the destruction of the city’s defense system and the chasing of the cathars from its teritory.
With its main protectors in Toulouse, Carcassonne and Beziers now committed to the royal power and other lords sympathizers stripped of their possessions, the Cathar Church, still large in number of adherents, enters a stage of clandestinity, sustained by familial and social solidarity.
This "underground" network was the main target of the new penal legal body introduced in 1233 by Pope Gregory IX: the Inquisition. A true religious police, the Inquisition, formed mainly by Dominican and Franciscan, was directly subordinate to the Pope and did not have to report to the local authorities. As weapons it used not only the terror and suspicion spread in the communities and families, but also economical punishments like the seizure of the possessions of the individuals accused of harboring Cathar beliefs. Thus the Inquisition worked ceaselessly for almost a century to eradicate any traces of heresy.
The middle of the 13th century was punctuated as well by armed conflicts against the Cathars, like the siege of Montségur in 1244 where 500 people resisted 10 months to an army of 10,000 fighters or the fall in 1255 of the last heretic stronghold Queribus.
The last decades of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century sees the Catharism reduced to a small number of “Bons Hommes” preaching and giving the Consolamentum in great secrecy.
The capture of the “Bons Hommes” Pierre, Guilhelm and Jacques Authier – all three from the same family - in 1309 puts an end to religious dissidence in Occitania, since after that the registries of the Inquisition mention only a few heretical survivors.
The last “Perfecti” to be burned at stake in the central court of Villerouge Termenès castle was Guilhèm Belibaste who died in 1321. His death marks the end of this chapter of history known as Albigensian Crusade.