Tuesday, 2 September 2008


"These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whomsoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me." - Gospel of John

It took four decades of bloody fighting before the Cathars were finally destroyed as a major presence in the Languedoc. The brutality of the conflict was unsurpassed, even by Medieval standards, with whole towns and communities put to the sword by the marauding Crusaders. Most notorious was the sack of Beziers where 20000 citizens were slaughtered when they refused to hand over 2000 Cathars in their midst. The story has it that when the gates of Beziers fell and the Crusaders poured in to kill the Cathars, they asked their leaders how they would be able to tell the difference between heretics and fellow Catholics. The answer came: 'Kill them all. God will know his own'. Records show that no-one survived the bloodbath. Beziers was razed to the ground.

Important Languedoc families came to the aid of the Cathars, some, like the Comtes de Foix, because members of their family were of the movement, others, like Duke Raymond of Toulouse, because he hated the incursion on his territory first by Crusaders and then by the northern French. Campaigns raged backwards and forwards, with Raymond and his sons leading the resistance, constantly being defeated but constantly looking for a way of rising up again to defeat the Crusaders under the savage Simon de Montfort. So hated was de Montfort that when he was killed during a siege of Toulouse by a slingshot fired by a group of women, a cheer went up across the entire city walls. Panicked by the death of their previously invincible leader, the Crusaders fled and the Languedoc people were able to roll back the invasion, albeit temporarily. At one point King Pedro of Aragon took the field to defend the region against Rome and was roundly defeated in a tragically bungled battle in which he and his entourage of Knights were surrounded and cut down to a man.

All this time the Cathar Parfaits continued to operate, resorting to more and more subterfuges to slip the net of the marauding Crusaders. As a means to root out the heresy, the Pope ordered the formation of the Inquisition by the Dominicans. The reign of terror this august organisation began spread all across Western Europe with whole communities informing upon each other to escape investigation. Friends and neighbours were denounced as Cathars, 'proof' was negligible and one by one the heretics were hunted down. Refusal to recant meant death at the stake. Even if someone was dead and condemned posthumously, their body would be exhumed and burnt as an example. In some instances terminally ill Cathars were carried to the stake in their beds and put to death. And yet recantations were almost nil. Most Cathars chose to go to their deaths rather than surrender their faith. Records show that onlookers and soldiers who lit the fires were astonished at the calm with which they faced their end. It would seem their unwavering belief in their impending release from Satan's world meant they feared nothing.

The final showdown took place at the now legendary citadel Montsegur (literally 'Mount Secure'), an extraordinarily remote fortress built on top of an almost insurmountable Pog in the Languedoc hills near Foix. The final onslaught had been triggered by the assassination by a group of Cathar sympathisers of a troop of Dominican Inquisitors. Unable to tolerate this final act of violence, the Church launched one last, decisive campaign. The remaining Cathar leadership holed themselves up in Montsegur, protected by mercenaries and sympathetic Knights and prepared to fight on. The held out for almost a year, hoping for relief from Raymond of Toulouse or the Comtes de Foix. But this time it did not come. Eventually the outer defences were breached and the outlook became hopeless. The Cathars and the Crusaders made a truce. Sick of the fighting, the Crusaders' terms were surprisingly fair. The Cathars would have a few weeks of calm before they had to hand themselves over and any who agreed to recant would be allowed to go free unharmed. On the final night before the truce expired, the Cathar leaders gave the offer to their followers and soldiers who had defended them to undergo the Consolamentum and become Parfaits should they wish to. Twenty four Croyants came forward to receive the Holy Spirit.

The next day the entire Cathar leadership were burnt at the foot of the Pog at a spot commemorated today by a small stone obelisk. Inquisition records relate that, as this was happening, three Cathars slipped away via secret route with 'the Treasure of the Cathars' to make contact with other cells in Italy and France. Speculation is rife with what that 'Treasure' was, from the Holy Grail to possible sacred texts to, quite simply, money with which the Cathar movement could continue. But to all intents and purposes, the movement was dead. One final siege occured a decade later at Queribus, but this was an isolated remnant. The main Cathar leadership had been killed at Montsegur. Some ragtag survivors continued to operate into the 14th Century in villages like Montaillou, but eventually they were tracked down and killed by the Inquisition. The last remaining Cathar leader is said to have sealed himself up in the Lombrives Cave with a hundred or so followers to escape the Pope's soldiers, never to emerge. Stories tell of how when 'le Bon Roi' King Henry 4th of France came to the throne and brought in his edict of Religious Tolerance, thus bringing to an end centuries of Catholic/Protestant conflict, he reopened the Cave and had the Cathar remains given a proper burial. If it were true it would not be surprising. After all, Henry was a member of the Comtes de Foix, the famous aristocratic dynasty which had fought to defend the Cathars and counted members in their bloodline.

But that was in the 17th Century. By the 14th Century the Cathars were finished. Other heresies would spring up over the next few centuries but the Pure Ones would rise no more.

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