Remembering the Cathars: Beliefs and Persecution

The Cathars were a medieval religious movement primarily remembered today for the religious persecution inflicted upon them by the Catholic Church.

In the 12th century, a new Christian religious movement emerged in the town of Albi, called Catharism, which quickly spread throughout the surrounding Languedoc region. The movement gained popularity as a response to the scandalous and extravagant lifestyle of the local Catholic clergy.

Cathars were dualists, believing in two opposing principles: a good god and an evil adversary. They believed that the good principle created everything immaterial while the bad principle created everything material, including the human body. The Cathars believed that the ultimate goal of life was to escape the cycle of reincarnation and return to the spiritual realm of the good principle. In order to achieve purity, they strictly followed biblical injunctions, renounced worldly possessions and pleasures, and lived a simple and ascetic life.

The Cathars held the belief in spiritual equality, acknowledging that both men and women were viewed equally by God. Women in Catharism were fully members of the faith and could preach and administer the sacraments. but were still subject to the patriarchal structures of medieval society beyond the church. The Cathars rejected the authority of the Pope, the Catholic hierarchy, and the Catholic Church, relying instead on their own spiritual leaders. They also rejected the traditional sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist and instead practiced their own version of baptism and communion.

“Then they attack and vituperate, in turn, all the sacraments of the Church, especially the sacrament of the eucharist, saying that it cannot contain the body of Christ, for had this been as great as the largest mountain Christians would have entirely consumed it before this. They assert that the host comes from straw, that it passes through the tails of horses, to wit, when the flour is cleaned by a sieve (of horse hair); that, moreover, it passes through the body and comes to a vile end, which, they say, could not happen if God were in it. Of baptism, they assert that the water is material and corruptible and is therefore the creation of the evil power, and cannot sanctify the soul, but that the churchmen sell this water out of avarice, just as they sell earth for the burial of the dead, and oil to the sick when they anoint them, and as: they sell the confession of sins as made to the priests. Hence, they claim that confession made to the priests of, the Roman Church is useless, and that, since the priests may be sinners, they cannot loose nor bind, and, being unclean in themselves, cannot make others clean. They assert, moreover, that the cross of Christ should not be adored or venerated, because, as they urge, no one would venerate or adore the gallows upon which a father, relative, or friend had been hung.”

Bernardus Guidonis: The Inquisitor’s Guide – A Medieval Manual on Heretics

In 1208, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, branding them as heretics and feeling that the dominance of the Catholic faith was in jeopardy. The pope offered the lands of the Cathars to any French nobleman who was willing to take up arms, assuring them of forgiveness before they committed their sins. The northern French nobility saw this as an opportunity to gain wealth by subjugating the independent southern territories and thus joined the crusade. This marked the beginning of brutal killings and torture.

The Albigensian Crusade quickly turned brutal, with widespread violence and torture. In 1209, the crusaders sacked the city of Béziers, massacring the entire population, including both Cathars and Catholics. The campaign continued in Carcassonne, which held out for several months before finally surrendering. The crusade continued for several years, with many other cities and towns falling to the crusaders, leading to the annihilation of the Cathars and the acquisition of Languedoc under French rule. Notably, this was the first time a Christian Holy War had been fought against fellow Christians on European soil. The persecution of the Cathars also played a significant role in the establishment of the Holy Inquisition, which was tasked with the rooting out heresy throughout Europe and was established under the auspices of the Dominicans.

“Alais looked away from her father and out over the gardens. Beyond the high walls, Carcassonne was waking up to a fine day. Bells from the citadel and the basilica were ringing out, calling the faithful to prayer. A procession of priests and acolytes, white-robed and carrying candles and crosses, was making its way along the road towards the castle. At the sight of them, Alais shuddered. She felt sick with hatred for the papal legate and the so-called holy men who preached a message of love and peace, but showed only greed and cruelty. For the new bishop of Carcassonne, with his powerful friends in Rome and his ambition to rid the region of heretics, most especially the Cathars, the peace of the city was a mere hindrance to his work.”

Kate Moss: Labyrinth (2005)


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