The Cathars is a term used to denote people who practised Catharism, a term not used by the Cathars themselves. Catharism was a form of Catholicism but their beliefs differed from that of the Roman Catholic Church. Their history is centered around the 12th-13th century but historic documents from Catharism itself are nearly non-existent due to purges carried out by French Lords and the Roman Catholic Church. So much of what we understand of Catharism comes from those that sought to extinguish the religion and its followers. It is worth remembering then, that history is written by the victors.
Catharism first appeared in the Languedoc region of France in the eleventh century. It’s not known where their beliefs came from but it’s possible they originated in Persia (an area centered around modern day Iran) and spread to the Languedoc region of France via Southern Europe and Northern Italy. Those beliefs grew in popularity throughout the region in the twelfth and thirteenth century. It is thought that they called themselves Christians while others in the region called them ”Good Neighbours”. The Roman Catholic Church called them Albigenses or Cathars (from the Greek Katharoi for “pure ones”).
It is no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church viewed other religions as at least misguided, but a special hatred was held for catholics who dared to refute the teachings of Rome. They were worse than any other religion because they were a threat to the power base of Rome. Consider the reformation in Europe in the early sixteenth centurey – the difference between that and Catharism is a few hundred years but more importantly, the reformation had critical mass, probably due to the printing press that allowed for the rapid spread of ideas and thus thwarting the Church’s response of killing off the reformation before it could take hold.
The main differences between Catharism and Roman Catholicism can be summarised as;
- Cathars were dualists, believing in a good and bad realms – much like Satan and God.
- They rejected the notion of churches and the idea of priests and a pope. Instead, Cathars were organised into normal followers and Parfaits / Parfaites (i.e. men and women could preach), or the ”Elect”. As the religion grew, bishops were appointed who were only answerable to their own followers. Rules were laid down by a council governing the organisation of the religion but in practise it was very much an independent movement with no head.
- The Elect lived extraordinary lives, practising a vow of poverty, chastity, never to lie, steal, kill or swear an oath. The Elect were in stark contrast to the priests and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. They eeked out a living with a manual trade and travelled the countryside preaching. They were forbidden from touching the opposite sex and undertook fasts throughout the year.
- Meat was forbidden for the Elect as was animal products such as eggs and milk – quiet possibly, the Cathar’s Elect were the first spiritual vegans in Europe.
- There were no formal ceremonies like baptism or mass. Instead, followers simply announced their intention to join and were welcomed. Spiritual teaching often took place in homes.
- The Cathars believed in Jesus but only as either an ordinary man who preached the good word or a spiritual allegory that described man’s soul journey in this world. They did not believe he had been crucified, buried and resurrected.
- Only some books of the bible were accepted by the Cathars. Many books, including the old testament, were outright rejected by the Cathars as false. A book by John the Evangelist (”The Secret Supper”) was an important Cathar scripture. The Book of the Two Principles is the largest surviving work of Cathar literature.
To Cathars, the Elect were the embodiment of the Holy Spirit and were considered with reverence and obedience. That is not to say that they were considered imbued with special powers for they did not absolve, grant or perform special rites such as confession. They did however, pray to God on behalf of believers.
Straight away, the ‘Elect’ must have seemed far superior to anything the Roman Church had to offer to followers. The Elect were men of peace and acceptance. They renounced the world and its material wealth. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church was accruing wealth, power and land at an enormous pace. Its priests and bishops were threatening people with eternal damnation, required tithes and donations and were sending crusades into the Holy Land.
The Roman Church was very much of the view that those not Roman Catholic were seriously misled, to the point that killing unbelievers was of no major concern. This belief persisted for hundreds of years, stretching through the crusades, the assaults on the Cathars (and other minority religions) and into the witchcraft trials of the 15-16th centuries. Remanants of this belief can be seen in modern times with scandals surrounding baby homes for women, the attitudes towards unchristened children and falsified death records for children that were actually sold for adaption.
The violence and power surrounding the Roman Catholic Church was anathema to the ethos of the Cathars and in an age where killing was rife, finding solace and non-violence in a Cathar religion must have been very appealing to many people. And it proved so – Catharism began to spread throughout the Languedoc and threatened to spill over into Italy, Germany and Spain.
At a time when the Roman Catholic Church was cementing its vice like grip on power in Europe, the rapid spread of Catharism represented a direct threat to the dominance of Rome. If Catharism could spread so quickly in Languedoc, it could spread like wildfire over all of Europe. To add insult to injury, the Cathars refused to pay tithes to Rome.
Pope Innocent III took it upon himself to tackle the growing influence of the Cathars. This pope was one of the most powerful of the medieval Popes, claiming supremacy over most of Europe’s Kings. Missions by friars and priests to Languedoc proved unsuccessful in persuading ”heretics” to transfer to the Roman Catholic Church as did councils that were convened to solve the ‘problem’. At the same time, a French Count, Raymond VI of Toulouse, was notable in his active refusal to help the Roman Church and was seen by Rome as even actively protecting the Cathars. It is possible he was distracted by his own problems in ruling the enormous tract of land he owned, with many arguments with commoners on those lands. Alternatively, he may have thought that siding with Rome against the Cathars would have meant untold trouble, given many of the people on his land were Cathars.
In any case, a Papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, was sent to Raymond VI to persuade him to actively tackle the spread of Catharism in 1206. Pierre was assassinated at some point on his journeys to the region and this led to the excommunication of Raymond VI and the ‘seizure’ of his lands by Rome. This prompted Pope Innocent III to launch the Albigensian Crusade – interestingly, this was not the first time the Pope had tried to launch a crusade against the Cathars, but the murder of the Papal Legate seemed to have provided the impetus to push the crusade forward.
Simon IV de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester, a Northern French Lord led the crusade along with the Papal Legate, the Abbot of Citeaux Arnaud Amalric. A key element in having French Lords march on Languedoc as part of the crusade was the promise from Rome of keeping any lands they captured. The King of France, supposedly the ruler of the Languedoc region in France also – actually wrote to the Pope protesting against this ‘giveaway’ of his lands – but such was the power of Rome that his protests were ignored.
Marching on Béziers, they arrived on July 21st, 2009 where they faced Raymond VI of Toulouse. The Bishop of Béziers attempted to convince the people of Béziers that they would be spared if they handed over the heretics, specifically a list of 222 people considered to be leaders of the Cathars in the town and surrounding region. They people refused and the Bishop left Béziers with only a few of his followers.
On the following day, a number of townspeople or soldiers engaged the crusade in a sortie. Quickly outnumbered and surrounded, they retreated through the gates but seizing the opportunity, mercenaries taking part in the crusade stormed through the gates and scaled the unmanned walls after them. The Knights of the Crusade quickly followed, realizing that the town had fallen.
A massacre ensued in the town with nobody spared. Those that sheltered in the churches were put to the sword. When it was asked of Abbot of Citeaux how the soldiers should know Catholic from Cathar, he replied;
“Kill them all, God will know His own”
It is estimated that upwards of 14,000 could have been killed. Abbot Amalric’s own version of the siege, described in his letter to Pope Innocent III in August 1209 describes 20,000 people as being put to the sword;
“While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying “to arms, to arms!”, within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt…”
After the massacre at Béziers, the rest of the Cathar lands fell quickly. Within two months of the crusade starting, much of its active fighting had been completed even though the crusade officially went on to last another 20 years. French lords began taking over Cathar lands. Saint Dominic established the Dominican Order in the area, probably to replace the Cathar Elect. Soon after, the Inquisition was established by Saint Dominic and set about rooting out any remaining Cathars and those of any belief alien to the Roman Catholic Church. Up to half a million people could have lost their lives over the duration of the crusades and Inquisition in the area, many of them Catholic.
The Crusade effectively ended the Cathar religion and belief system and destroyed the cultural identity of the region. Even the language of the area, Occitan, was reduced to a mere regional dialect. It is arguable that the actions of Rome started the decline of the region to one of the poorest in Europe.
The Holy Grail
So where then does the Holy Grail fit into this backdrop? For many, the Holy Grail is the ‘cup’ that was used by Jesus at the last supper. Or literally the bloodline of Jesus. Either way, the cup and/or bloodline would be irrelevant to the Cathars because they did not believe that Jesus was divine – he was a preacher spreading the word at best and a biblical story at worst. Many people, taking after Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code, believe that the Holy Grail was literally the son/daughter of Jesus, who he conceived with his wife, Mary of Magdalene. Is it possible that Mary of Magdalene or her children fled to Languedoc to escape the clutches of John the Baptist, founder of the Roman Catholic Church and that the Cathars shielded her descendants from Rome?
While possible that the Cathars ‘hid’ someone of Jesus’s bloodline, more likely their beliefs were tied up inextricably to preachings attributed to Mary of Magdalene or at the very least, heavily influenced by this Gospel. The Gospel of Mary was written sometime in the fourth of fifth century. This gospel never made it into the Bible because it lays bare that Jesus was possibly married. Furthermore, the Gospel of Mary was widely distributed and it’s quiet possible that it reached Frace with fragments of the Gospel being also found in the Nag Hammadi collection and Berlin Gnostic Codex.
Some of the parallels between the Gospel of Mary and Catharism are illustrated below;
- Not allowing others to dictate to you God’s way – ‘Beware that no one lead you astray saying Lo here or lo there! For the Son of Man is within you.‘
This is essentially telling people that priests/bishops/popes do not have a monopoly on spiritual teaching hence the Cathar practice of ‘Elects’.
- ‘Do not lay down any rules beyond what I appointed you, and do not give a law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it.‘
The Cathars did not organise themselves into a hierarchy like the Roman Catholic Church. Hence Cathars had no Pope or physical infrastructure like churches and monasteries.
- ‘Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.’
The Gospel claims that Jesus loved Mary of Magdalene, tying in with the Cathar belief that Jesus was an ‘ordinary’ man and not the divine son of God.
- ‘Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.’
Reinforcing the Cathar practise of going forth and preaching, not laying down any formal laws like the Roman Catholic Church did.
The extreme violence meted out to the Cathars by Rome was based on a nearly hysterical belief that the Cathars actually represented the teachings of Jesus. It was imperative that this teaching be stamped out. It was worse than any Muslim teaching because it directly challenged the notion the Rome was the church of Jesus. Not only was the crusade launced against the Cathars, but their culture, religion and belifs were just about wiped out by the inquisition that followed over a period of 300 years. It was a consistent and brutal suppression of a belief that laid bare the true teachings of Jesus. Perhaps the Holy Grail was a spritual teaching, a spiritual truth that spoke to the people and this was the reason Cathars were treated with such brutality by Rome.