A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Cathars

Dominic Guzmán and the Albigenses, 1480, Pedro Berruguete
Dominic Guzmán and the Albigenses, 1480, Pedro Berruguete

Around the mid 12th Century the Catholic Church reported on the emergence of a new heresy: Catharism. Although Catharism shared many similarities in beliefs and organisational structures that it appears to be a descendant of other Gnostic heretical sects such as the Bogomils, Paulicians and others, all the way back to the Manichaeans in the 3rd Century, it would become for the Catholic Church the Great Heresy.

Although the first reports of Catharism was from Cologne, the heartlands of the heresy was the Languedoc, ruled at the time by  independent Counts. By the early 13th Century adherents of Catharism were said to outnumber Catholics in the region, a development that Pope Innocent III tried to combat by sending missionaries to debate with the leaders of the Cathars, the perfecti. Faced with the embarrassment of educated churchmen out-debated by humble, illiterate weavers (who formed the bulk of the perfecti), the Pope resorted to putting pressure on the Languedoc nobility, However the nobility were sympathetic to the Cathars and defied papal authority. Things came to a head when the Pope sent his legate Pierre de Castelnau to excommunicate Count Raymond VI of Toulouse for his leniency towards the Cathars. Pierre de Castelnau never made it back to Rome as he was murdered after leaving Toulouse. The Pope swiftly declared the Albigensian Crusade to obliterate all traces of the heresy and its adherents.

But before we tackle the brutal crime against humanity that is the Albigensian Crusade and the following Inquisition, lets undertake a brief survey of the beliefs of the Cathars.

  • The Cathars were Dualists. There are Two Principles, the Good God of the New Testament, God of Spirit and Light and there is the Evil God of the Old Testament, the Creator of the World, the God of Matter and Darkness.
  • The Creator of the World is expressly stated as being Satan.
  • Human are gender-less angels of light who have been encased in a material shell.
  • There is no other hell than the hell on earth.
  • The soul is doomed to be re-incarnated in either human or animal form until it can escape back to Heaven by achieving perfection and receiving the one sacrament of the Cathars, the Consolamentium.
  • There were only two levels of Cathar society; Believers and the Perfecti. The Perfecti could be both male or female.
  • Perfecti were vegetarians and also abstained from all diary products because of its tainted nature as a product of procreation.
  • Sexual intercourse, but especially reproductive sex, is to be avoided as it involves further spirits and more light being trapped in the evil realm of matter.
  • They refused to take oaths or pay tithes to the Church.

The Albigensian Crusade is one of the most violent and blood-stained chapters of all medieval history. It was nothing less than a war of extermination.  The qualms expressed by the Languedoc Knight as to why he didn’t hunt down the heretics more avidly in the following quote were certainly not shared by Northern French Lords eager to seize lands and property, “We cannot. We have been reared in their midst. We have relatives among them and we see them living lives of perfection.”  Nor where they shared by the Arnaud-Amaury, the Cistercian abbot, who on being questioned on how to tell Cathars from Catholics responded, “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own”. In the town of  Béziers, the entire population of twenty thousand men, women and children was put to the sword.

Overall around half a million people were massacred. By the time that 200 perfecti were symbolically burnt at the castle of Montsegur in 1244, the Cathars as a force was spent, though it would take the Inquisition around a hundred years to root out the remnants of the Cathars in the Languedoc and Northern Italy.

The Cathars and their heresy were gone, but certainly not forgotten. Their mysteries would become part of the lore of the Occult Revival of the 19th and 20th Centuries.