Burned at the stake for their souls’ liberty. To stand with the Cathars, to die and be free – Iron Maiden “Montségur”[i]
On the morning of March 16th, 1244, at the foot of a hill in what is now the Ariège department of southern France, over 200 people[ii], men and women, stoically mounted a giant wooden pyre upon which, subsequent to their executioners’ recitation of obligatory prayers, they were immolated in the name of their faith. This consummate display of bravery notwithstanding, the fall of the Cathar stronghold of Montségur to the troops of the French King Louis IX represented the beginning of the end for the Cathar religion, the most stubbornly persistent heresy of pre-Reformation Christendom, the eradication of which followed a series of brutal military campaigns known as the Albigensian Crusade.
The Cathar faith was based on a dualistic worldview, in which there were two elemental and opposing forces of good and evil. The material world was held in Cathar theology to be the creation of the god of evil, not of the Good God, whose realm was that of the spirit. Although the Cathars were Christians who believed in Jesus, they rejected the notion that he could have been a flesh-and-blood human being, or that he could have been crucified and resurrected: the Good God of the spiritual world would never enter, or send any part of himself, into the material world of the god of evil, least of all to be tortured and murdered for human salvation. The Cathars also rejected the traditional Christian sacraments, such as marriage and baptism, as meaningless: they performed only a single sacrament, the consolamentum, from the Latin for “comforting”, which represented the liberation of the spirit from the prison of the material body. Lay Cathar believers, or credentes, received the consolamentum when near death, but the elite of the faith, the perfecti and perfectae (women), received the sacrament earlier, after a period of initiation. Perfecti were expected to live lives of extreme austerity – in particular, they were forbidden from eating meat, on the grounds that it was the product of sexual reproduction: the method via which the evil god trapped immortal souls in his material creation. Perhaps the Cathar belief most offensive to orthodox Catholicism was that the Catholic Church and its followers had mistakenly fallen into worshiping this evil god of material creation. The Cathars believed that humanity would reach its apotheosis when every eternal soul was reunited with the spiritual realm of the Good God. This was a universalist view which held that all would reach heaven – strongly at odds with orthodox medieval Catholicism’s insistence that only the Elect would enter paradise, and that the damned would be banished to an eternity of torment.
The origins of Catharism can be traced to the Bogomil church, founded in south-eastern Europe during the early 10th century. During the latter half of the twelfth century, the Papacy became increasingly concerned with the prevalence of Cathar/Bogomil heresy in many parts of western Europe, but it was in the Languedoc region of what is now France that it had become particularly entrenched. A number of local factors contributed to the resilience of Catharism in Languedoc: weak ties of fealty and vassalage and a less rigidly authoritarian social structure than was the norm elsewhere, the presence of numerous believers of a relatively high social station, a feeble and impoverished Catholic bureaucracy, and conflict between the representatives of Rome and the local nobility. It was this latter problem in particular that would produce the spark that would ignite the main phase of Catholic Christendom’s war against the Cathars: the Albigensian Crusades.
The accession of Innocent III to the Papacy in 1198 brought strengthened determination to stamp out heresy – and Catharism in particular – from Western Christendom. Over the following decade, a series of legatine missions were sent to Langeudoc, with the express aim of rolling back the Cathar heresy, but met with little success. The Pope’s legates were not reticent on the matter of where the blame for their failure lay: the willingness of the region’s secular rulers, particularly Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, to tolerate Catharism in the land. The situation came to a head when, in January 1208, Papal Legate Pierre de Castlenau was assassinated on the banks of the Rhône. Although there was no proof, his fellow legate, Abbot Arnaud Aimery, harboured little doubt as to who was ultimately responsible for his colleague’s murder: the Cathar-sympathising Count Raymond. Aimery wasted no time in bringing Innocent round to this point of view, and on March 12th 1208, the furious Pope preached a crusade, with full indulgences (i.e. remission for all confessed sins), to stamp out the Albigensian heresy. Raymond VI of Toulouse had already been excommunicated.
Arnaud Aimery was put in charge of recruitment for the Crusade, most of which occurred in northern France. It must be noted that whilst the extirpation of the Cathar heresy was the official reason for the Crusade, the opportunity for territorial conquest was undoubtedly a strong motivational factor for many of those involved. This does not mean that they were not true believers, or were not genuine in their desire to cleanse Christendom of spiritual deviancy, but in an era when the region which in modern times is known as France was divided into a patchwork of polities ruled by nobles of various houses, the opportunity to seize rival lands, with the blessing of the church, was no minor inducement for noblemen to take the cross. The Albigensian Crusade, therefore, must be understood as much in terms of the desire of northern French lords to extend their suzerainty over the southern regions of modern France, as it is as an exercise in Catholic jihad.
Whilst Aimery was still gathering his forces, Raymond VI, seeing the strength of the opposition he would soon have to face, successfully sued for reconciliation with the Pope, and was readmitted into the Catholic fold, taking the cross himself on June 22nd. Departing Lyon in early July, the Crusaders turned their attention to the lands ruled by the Trencavel Viscount Raymond Roger, in which Cathar heresy was rife. On July 20th, the crusader army reached the town of Béziers, handing the town’s population, through its Catholic bishop, an ultimatum to hand over the heretics amongst them or to share their fate. The town refused, and was sacked the following day. According to contemporary sources, 20,000, Catholic and Cathar alike, were massacred, although this is likely a gross exaggeration – the population of Béziers at the time was probably not more than 9000, of which less than 10% were likely Cathars[iii]. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that a massacre was perpetrated: in the logic of pre-modern warfare, it made sense to meet the first sign of resistance with heavy retribution, in order to encourage the quick submission of other settlements, and avoid costly and protracted sieges.
Over the next three years, the crusaders took town after town, often burning Cathar perfecti en masse, most notoriously at Lavaur, near Toulouse, in May 1211, where over 300 died at the stake[iv]. Raymond VI’s reconciliation with the crusaders had quickly become strained, and in early 1211 he broke with them altogether. The crusaders, under Simon de Montfort, the 5th Earl of Leicester, who had become the crusade’s undisputed secular leader in 1209, conquered large swaths of territory from vassals of Pedro II of Aragon, who were also allies of Raymond. Montfort met Pedro in battle at Muret in September 1213, an encounter which the Aragonese king did not survive. Although the Pope was not willing to recognise Montfort’s rule over all the lands the crusaders had seized, Innocent did, in January 1215, recognise Montfort’s claim to the county of Toulouse itself. Montfort’s luck was soon to run out permanently, however: in June 1218, whilst trying to retake Toulouse from Raymond VI’s son, the future Raymond VII, Montfort was killed by a rock fired from one of the city’s mangonels.
Simon de Montfort’s leadership of the Crusade was passed to his son, Amaury, who proved a lacklustre general compared to his father. Despite the involvement of Louis VIII of France, who took the cross in 1219, by the time Raymond VII succeeded his father as Count of Toulouse, upon the latter’s death in 1222, the younger Raymond had won back most of the lands his father had lost to Simon. Louis was not willing to allow that state of affairs to persist, however, and after successfully blocking Papal recognition of Raymond VII’s titles, took the cross again in early 1226. Although Louis VIII died of dysentery later that year, the crusade continued under his son, Louis IX, and in 1229 Raymond VII was forced to accept Capetian French suzerainty in an agreement that would see the county of Toulouse permanently joined to the French crown upon the death of his daughter Jeanne and the Capetian prince, Alphonse of Poitiers, to whom she was to be married as part of the peace treaty.
The 1229 Treaty of Paris between Raymond VII and Louis IX brought the Albigensian Crusade to an end after over 20 years, but Catharism remained a major problem for the Catholic Church in southern France. A Dominican-led Inquisition was set up to return wayward members of the population to the true faith, by persuasion if possible, but by harsher means where necessary. Only a small minority of those convicted of heresy by the Inquisition were burned at the stake: the ultimate punishment reserved for the most recalcitrant of offenders. Resistance both to the Catholic authorities and the French crown, however, continued. In 1242, widespread rebellion broke out after the assassination of two of the Catholic Church’s inquisitors and their assistants at Avignonet. Raymond VII again negotiated peace with the French crown the following year, but the French insisted on sending their own troops to eliminate the Cathar stronghold at Montségur. The siege began in May 1243 and the fortress, bolstered by regular supplies sneaked in by sympathetic locals, held out for ten months, until 1st March 1244. On this date the Cathar leader, Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix, left the stronghold and negotiated a two-week truce, after which the Cathars would surrender. The terms were generous: the lives of those who abjured their heresy would be spared, yet most of the perfecti chose to burn rather than abandon their faith. Twenty-six even took the consolamentum on March 13th, the date of the Spring Equinox, and three days before the date of surrender.
Raymond VII died in 1249, and in 1271 the county of Toulouse was united with the Kingdom of France, as per the terms of the 1229 treaty. The remnants of Catharism died a slow death at the hands of the Inquisition, and it was not until 1323 the last death sentence was passed on a Cathar heretic, Guillaume Belibaste, who was burnt at the stake in the village of Villerouse Termenes, having been lured back from exile in Aragon by the Inquisitor Bishop Jacques Fournier with fabricated stories of a Cathar revival in the Languedoc[v]. Fournier’s success in mopping up the final remnants of the Cathar heresy was undoubtedly a factor in his ascension through the ranks of the Church: he was made Cardinal in 1327, and a little over a decade after the burning of Belibaste, Fournier was elected to the Papacy as Benedict XII.
[i] Iron Maiden – Montségur Lyrics
[iii] God’s War, Tyerman, C., (2006), p. 591
[iv] Ibid, p. 580
[v] The Last Cathar