by Eric Wynants
Reprinted from Critique magazine,
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the region known as the
Languedoc, spreading approximately southward from the Loire to the
Pyrenees down into Arragon and eastward to the Rhone, became the
most highly civilized area of Western Europe. Its fertile soil and
pleasant climate provided the means for a leisurely life. The Rhone
and the Garonne were notable routes of communication and the passage
of many Crusaders on their way to the East gave an immense stimulus
Above all the Moslem conquest of Spain had brought the
influence of Arabic culture. The larger cities had schools of
medicine, mathematics and astrology where Arabian scholarship was
imparted. Jews were not debarred from public life and were highly
respected as doctors and teachers. The Catholic Church no longer
held the monopoly of knowledge; and were gradually losing their
power hold in the Languedoc.
The wealth of the monastic orders and the intolerance of the bishops
roused the contempt of the nobles who accused them of self-indulgence
and lack of interest in the poor. The common priests, through the
neglect of their superiors, had fallen into discredit on account of
their poverty and illiteracy.
Very different was the behaviour of
the Cathars. Their eloquence in presenting their beliefs and their
untiring care for all in need of help won the devotion of both
nobles and common people. They became known by the name of bons
hommes. When the leaders of the Catholic Church realized how widely
the movement had spread, it was already too late to stem the tide.
It was inevitable that sooner or later the clash would come, for no
expressions of faith could be more diametrically opposed between the
Catholics and the Cathars.
The heretics were known by a variety of names. In 1165, they had
been condemned by an ecclesiastical council at the Languedoc town of
Albi. For this reason, or perhaps because Albi continued to be one
of their centers, they were often called Albigensians. On other
occasions, they were called Cathars or Cathares or Cathari. Not
infrequently they were also branded or stigmatized with the names of
much earlier heresies - Arian, Marcionite, and Manichaean.
"Albigensian" and "Cathar" were essentially generic names. In other
words, they did not refer to a single coherent church, like that of
Rome, with a fixed, codified, and definitive body of doctrine and
theology. The heretics in question comprised a multitude of diverse
sects - many under the direction of an independent leader whose
followers would assume his name. And while these sects may have held
to certain principles, they diverged radically from one another in
And although a conscious connection between the different groups
have sometimes been exaggerated, a distinct influence of the Persian Manichaens by means of the Bogomils in Bulgaria, and from there to
the Cathars is quite certain. Deodat Roche in his Cahiers d'Etudes
Cathars points out that Gnosticism and Manichaeanism had a
reciprocal influence upon each other and Manichaean teaching
influenced Christian thought.
The nominal Manichaeans who had spread
across Europe and Asia, and even reached China, disappeared as the
result of persecution. The Paulicians, a Manichaean-Christian group,
survived in Asia Minor and Armenia until 872, when they were overrun
by the Greeks and deported to the Balkan peninsula. Here they grew
into the organization that was eventually to become the Cathars.
The originator of Manichaeism, Mani, came from the southern region
of Mesopotamia; he probably was born on the 14th of April, 216 AD,
in the vicinity of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris, the Persian
capital. His parents are said to be of noble Iranian descent, his
mother even of Parthian royal lineage, but this is uncertain.
father, Pattak (Greek: Parttikios, Latin: Patecius) had joined a
gnostic baptist sect to which he also introduced his son early on.
From a recently discovered source, the Cologne Mania Codex, it is
clear that this was the heretical Jewish Christian community of the
Elkesaites, which claimed to go back to the legendary prophet
Elkesai (i.e. the "hidden power of God") who appeared in about 100
AD in Syria. The Mandeans, who to this day live in Southern Iraq,
also formed part of this baptist sectarian world which surrounded
the young Mani.
When he was twelve years old, in about 228/29,
had his first vision in which his heavenly double, his "twin," his
"partner" or "companion," appeared to him and assured him of his
constant protection and help. Later, Mani saw in this the effective
revelation of the "comforter," or the "Holy Spirit," who had
revealed to him the "mysteries" of his teaching.
When Mani was 24 years old, he confronted King Shapur on the day of
his coronation and proclaimed himself a spiritual leader. Shapur
intended to destroy him but through the persuasion of Shapur's wife
Nadir, Mani was called to the court, at Ghondi-Shapur, as tutor to
the King's eldest son. When the boy fell ill, Mani offered his
healing gifts to save the boy's life. But he failed and the boy
died. Mani was consequently imprisoned.
Mani continued to deepen his teaching more and more with the coming
Christianity so that his disciples would be better equipped to give
the world a new message.
When King Shapur saw his state religion endangered, he condemned
Mani to death. Mani escaped first to the castle Arabion, thence to
Kayak in Mesopotamia. Here he encountered the Christian bishop
Archelaus with whom he had a dogmatic argument on Christianity; Mani
refused to accept the bishop's dogma and was banned by a religious
council. Again, he was forced to save his life and fled to Khatai in
China, and everywhere he founded Manichaean Communities.
When Mani returned to the Persian capital, after the death of
King Shapur, he had gone through many mystery experiences. He was a
conqueror in Spirit, accomplished as a human being, a teacher,
artist and painter. But the successor of King Shapur, his son
Barahm, was as hostile as his father and called Mani before a Synod
of Persian priests and scholars who demanded that Mani should
recant. When he refused, he was condemned to death. His decapitated
body was skinned and the skin filled with precious herbs. It was
then crucified before the gates of Ghondi-Shapur as a warning.
Ghondi-Shapur was later on in history a station between Orient and
Occident and was of importance for the spreading of Arabism.
To understand Manichaeism and its attitude to the forces of evil in
man and in the world, we are greatly dependent on the writings of
the opponents of Manichaeism, especially to those of St. Augustine,
the church-father. Augustine's opposition stemmed from the fact that
he was unable to overcome the darkness within himself. His faith,
enhanced and enflamed through an immeasurable devotion (Credo Quia
Absurdum) finds his passionate expression in his "Confessions." They
strike us like a divine dithyramb of a modern man, an egobearer, who
has renounced knowledge. Tortured by unanswerable questions,
Augustine wrestles with the problem of pre-existence.
The Manicheans saw in the search for the evil itself the beginning
of the transformation. This search was an act of cognition. What is
the origin of evil? Evil is in the first instance a displaced good.
What in one sphere or at one time is right and good, is evil in
another sphere or at another time.
The Manichaens believed that in the course of repeated earth lives
the light element will be victorious over the darkness, in a process
of gradual soul-transformation. Man will become a co-fighter of the
King of Light against the Regent of Darkness.
Nicetas, the Bulgarian mystic who several times travelled through
Southern France, is said to have laid the foundations of a new
church at Saint-Felix de Caraman, and entrusted to certain men, whom
he recognized as being pure of heart, the book in which the
"spiritual doctrine" was embodied. Nothing is known of him, except
the deep impression left by his visit and the extension of the
Catharist movement which followed his departure for Sicily.
The Cathars were part of the movement of the "poor," dating back to
older times. And of which, for example, the hermits who, at the
beginning of the Christian era, lived around the Mediterranean were
a part. During the 12th century, this movement was taken up
idealistically by the people at large.
The way into poorness was in
reality the way into the deeper realms of the higher "I." The
"Monachos" went all the way within, to have a dialogue with "God."
Wealth, therefore, was being rejected by the Cathars as "external."
The way of the Troubadour, on the other hand, valued the ego as a
result of self-knowledge. The values contained in the ego, had to
come to fruition in order to reach completion. So the Cathars
represented more the inward path, the Troubadours the other.
Side by side with the Troubadours, Catharism spread with
extraordinary speed in Southern France. It was the radiant cult of
the pure spirit which took possession of men's souls, and it
seriously endangered the materialistic Church of the Pope. Innocent
III realized this and dispatched several apostolic legates to
Southern France. These legates went to Toulouse, which was the
capital of Catharism. They were resolved to strike a resounding
blow, which should bring misery and terror to the south.
In general the Cathars subscribed to a doctrine of reincarnation and
to a recognition of the feminine principle in religion. Indeed, the
preachers and teachers of Cathar congregations were of both sexes.
At the same time, the Cathars rejected the orthodox Catholic Church
and denied the validity of all clerical hierarchies, all official
and ordained intercessors between man and God.
At the core of this
position lay a gnostic tenet - the repudiation of "faith," at least
as the Church insisted on it. In the place of "faith" accepted at
secondhand, the Cathars insisted on direct and personal knowledge, a
religious or mystical experience apprehended at firsthand.
The Cathars were heirs to knowledge which partly came from the East
and was known to the Gnostics and the early Christians. The basis of
this secret was the transmission of the power of love. The gesture
of the rite was the material and visible means of projecting this
power. Behind it was hidden the spiritual gift, by which the soul
was helped, and was able to cross without suffering the narrow
portal of death, to escape the shadows and become merged with the
In the Black Mountain, not far from Carcassone, there was found a
chamber, dating from the Cathar period, containing skeletons.
lay in a circle, with their heads at the center and their feet at
the circumference, like the spokes of a wheel."
Those who have
studied magical rites will recognize in this posture of death a very
ancient rite (Endura) intended to facilitate the escape of the soul, to allow
it to traverse the intermediate worlds by virtue of the impetus
given by union.
The logical consequence of the Cathar philosophy is that life is
evil and that it is expedient to escape from the form in which we
are confined. The principle of creation, God the Creator, is
consequently evil, since he has created form, which is the cause of
evil. He is
the Jehovah of the Old Testament, angry, destructive,
who takes pleasure in punishment and revenge. The Cathars saw in
this terrible God the retrograde power of matter.
Jesus Christ, the
symbol of the Word, came to teach man the means of escaping from
this God and returning to the Kingdom of Heaven. Certain of them
affirmed that Jesus had no terrestrial existence, that he only came
among men clothed in a spiritual body, and that the miracles
recounted in the New Testament had a symbolic character and had been
performed only on the spiritual plane.
The blind were healed only of
spiritual blindness, because they were blinded by sin. The tomb
whence Lazarus rose from the dead was the dark abode in which man
voluntarily imprisons himself. The true cult of the Cathars was the
cult of the Holy Spirit, the divine Paraclete. That is to say, of
the principle which enables the human spirit to attain the "real
world," the invisible world, the world of pure light, "the permanent
and unaltered city."
The conclusions which might be drawn from this creed seemed, for all
their strict logic, monstrous to men of the twelfth century, as they
would seem monstrous to men of the twentieth. Suicide, to escape the
evils of life, which were still further aggravated by the
persecutions, was at least allowed, if it was not actually enjoined.
The Cathars, like the Romans under the Empire, sought death gladly
by opening their veins. But they were forbidden to end their lives
unless they had attained absolute calm, complete indifference, in
order to escape a death incurred in circumstances of agony. The
executioners of the Inquisition often found Cathar adepts lifeless
in their cells, their white faces showing the reflection of the
eternal light towards which they were journeying.
Among them women played an unexpected part. They were the equals of
men. And many relatives of the Languedoc Seigneurs, were in charge
of centers of instruction and healing.
In many respects, Cathar ritual reflected the practices of the early
pre-Constantine Church. There is also a link with the common
ancestors of Freemasonry in that the Cathar candidate was addressed
as "a living stone in the temple of God." Mani already had been
called a "son of the widow.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there had been sporadic
burnings of Cathar heretics; but it gradually became apparent that
these measures had no effect. In 1179 Pope Alexander III pronounced
an Anathema against the sect and sent Papal legates ordering the
nobles of the Languedoc to take strong disciplinary measures. The
report was brought back to him that the disease was far too
widespread to be dealt with in this way.
When Innocent III came to
the Papal throne he determined to bring an end to this scandalous
opposition to his authority. He first tried measures of
conciliation. In 1203 he launched a preaching campaign to convert
all who were straying from the true path. In the chief towns of the
Languedoc a series of public debates was arranged. Leading heretics
were to meet the Pope's legates and each side was to expound its
teaching. It was a remarkable gesture to allow heretics to speak on
equal terms with the orthodox, but the Pope imagined that the truth
of Catholic dogma must win the day.
The legates arrived in their splendid robes with cavalcades of
followers, demanding almost royal hospitality; while the Cathar
Perfecti appeared in their modest simplicity. The populace loved the
"bons hommes" and despised the haughty representatives of Rome; so
the Catholics made little progress.
There came, however, a surprising diversion. Two Spanish monks,
fired with missionary zeal, arrived on the scene. The more energetic
of the two, Dominic de Guzman, later to become the famous
St. Dominic, reproved the legates for their ostentation and arrogance.
He himself even out did the Perfecti in asceticism.
When the mob
flung mud and threatened to kill him, he replied,
"I should beg you
not to kill me at one blow, but to tear me limb from limb; I would
like to be a mere limbless trunk, with eyes gouged out, wallowing in
my own blood, that I might thereby win a worthier martyr's crown!"
Such intrepidity won an awed respect, but in spite of Dominic's
ardent eloquence, no converts of great importance appeared.
There lived at that time in Toulouse, in the rue du Taur, a
venerable old man named Pierre Maurand, who had been the host of
Nicetas and held nocturnal meetings at which he preached the new
religion. He was compared to St. John on account of his shining
eyes. He was a capitoul (magistrate) and one of the richest men in
Toulouse. The legates summoned him solemnly before the people,
interrogated him, convicted him of heresy and condemned him to
The strength of a martyr was not in him. He feared death,
which is usually harder for a rich old man than to other men, and
promised to return to the Roman Catholic Church. But his return was
made difficult. He was compelled to walk barefoot from the prison to
the church of Saint-Sernin between the Bishop of Toulouse and one of
the legates, who beat him unmercifully with rods. At the church he
asked pardon on his knees, recanted, and listened to his sentence,
which was that he should have his houses destroyed and his property
He had, further, to go to the Holy Land and for three
years to devote himself to the succor of the poor of Jerusalem.
Before his departure, moreover, in order that no inhabitant of
Toulouse should remain in ignorance of his recantation, he was
obliged for forty days to visit every church in Toulouse, scourging
Pierre Maurand, who was then eighty years old, scourged himself and
wandered naked about the streets for the prescribed forty days.
After that he left Toulouse, crossed the sea and came to the East.
He visited Arabia to discuss mystical subjects with the Persian
Sufi, Farid Uddin, stayed in Tripoli, learned about the Maimonid
philosophy, spent three years in Jerusalem and returned to Toulouse,
where his friends had never thought to see him again.
His career was
not yet at an end. It was hardly more than a beginning. Typical of
the stubborn men of Toulouse, he started once more preaching
secretly, and for five consecutive periods of three years he was
elected consul of the town by his fellow-citizens, who desired to honour him as the national resistance to a foreign pope.
People had grown so used to the idea that death could not take him
that it was thought for a long time that he had taken refuge in the
forests of Comminges; and a century and a half later inhabitants of
the outskirts of Toulouse claimed to have seen Pierre Maurand going
the rounds of the ramparts to examine their strength, leaning on his
stick and erect as ever.
The south had been terrified by the condemnation of Pierre Maurand.
A pope who dared lay hands on this noble old man must be the pope of
evil. Catharism grew; the churches were abandoned. A new Church came
secretly into being, without buildings, without a hierarchy, without
grand vestments. The voice of Dominic the Spaniard rang in vain in
the public squares.
More drastic measures had to be taken. The Pope sent his legate,
Peter of Castelnau, to discipline Count Raymond of Toulouse for
harboring and supporting heretics; and, as the Count failed to act
effectively, he was excommunicated. Then, almost certainly without
the Count's sanction one of his followers kindled the spark which
fired the conflagration. In 1208, while crossing the Rhone on his
return to Italy, Peter of Castelnau was murdered.
The crime seems to
have been committed by anti-clerical rebels with no Cathar
affiliation whatever. Furnished with the excuse she needed, however,
Rome did not hesitate to blame the Cathars. At once Pope Innocent
III ordered a crusade. Although there had been intermittent
persecution of heretics all through the previous century, the Church
now mobilized her forces in earnest. The heresy was to be extirpated
once and for all.
Raymond of Toulouse realized the danger but he failed to form an
alliance with his fellow nobles. The Counts of the South had no
common policy and were only too ready to suspect one another of
crying to gain undue power. Raymond then decided on the clever ruse
of doing penance to win back a position in the Catholic church and
of joining the Crusade. In this way he secured the safety of his own
people, for the Crusading army was now prevented from entering his
realm. His nephew and vassal, Raymond Roger Trencavel, Viscount of
Beziers and Carcassonne, decided to defend his own realms.
The Crusading army made rapid progress along the course of the
Rhone. In the early thirteenth century, most of the leading nobles
relied to a great extent on mercenaries. With the progress of
civilization knights no longer regarded fighting as their role task
and, though many were still loyal to their overlords, their support
was erratic, as their obligation to fight was traditionally for a
period of only forty days. The mercenaries, having no personal
loyalty or standard of honor, were brutal and godless. They could
expect no consideration from their leaders.
On the 21st of July 1209, an army of some thirty thousand knights
and foot soldiers from northern Europe descended like a whirlwind on
the Languedoc - the mountainous northeastern foothills of the
Pyrenees in what is now Southern France. In the ensuing war, the
whole territory was ravaged, crops were destroyed, towns and cities
were razed, a whole population was put to the sword.
extermination occurred on so vast, so terrible a scale that it may
well constitute the first case of "genocide" in modern European
history. In the town of Beziers alone, for example, at least fifteen
thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered wholesale - many
of them in the sanctuary of the church itself. When an officer
inquired of the Pope's representative how he might distinguish
heretics from true believers, the reply was,
"Kill them all. God
will recognize his own."
This quotation, though widely reported, may
be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it typifies the fanatical zeal and
bloodlust with which the atrocities were perpetrated. The same papal
representative, writing to Innocent III in Rome, announced proudly
that "neither age nor sex nor status was spared."
Surviving Cathars disappeared into remote hiding places in the
forests and mountain clefts of the Pyrenees. Yet it is known that
many of the Perfecti travelled freely from place to place,
comforting and encouraging their followers, who risked death in
keeping them provided with food and other necessities. From time to
time, citizens of the towns which capitulated were commanded to
affirm their loyalty to the Catholic faith. Those who refused were
burned to death, but no real suppression of the heresy was achieved
and no attempt was made by de Montfort to win the support of the
The leaders of the Cathars realized that steps should be taken to
protect their Order. As early as 1204 Raymond de Perella had been
requested by them to repair the fortress of Montsegur of which he
was the Seigneur. At first, this remote refuge seems to have been
used only as centre of pilgrimage, but from 1233 onwards it became
the heart of the resistance movement.
The origin of this fortress is
a mystery as it was not constructed according to any accepted plan
of defense. It guarded no main route and protected no fertile
district; it seemed more fitted for a sanctuary, secluded in its
wild forbidding surroundings. It is thought that it may once have
been a Celtic temple.
The incisive observations of Fernand Niel in his book, Montsegur,
the Holy Mountain (Montsegur, la montagne inspiree), prove that the
layout of the edifice lends itself to plotting with astonishing
accuracy the principal positions of the sun in its ascendancy. An
ancient Manichaean temple consecrated to sun worship, Montsegur
became the Mount Tabor of the Cathari by means of a spiritual
affiliation which today is practically impossible to deny.
Other castles in Aquitaine, it should be noted, such as Queribus in
the Corbieres (which also served as an Albigensian refuge) and
Puivert (where the mother of Trencavel, Viscount of Carcassonne,
held her court of love), possess an architecture much like that of
Henri Coltel, who conducted extensive research on this subject in
southwestern France, discovered important evidence confirming
Fernand Niel's findings. He saw some forty-odd subterranean
passageways dating back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and
he found that all of the subterraneans have a chapel hall wherein is
found a sort of altar; for a given region all the subterraneans are
so oriented that they converge toward a single point.
convinced that they were not primarily refuges, but rather temples
where the Cathars, before the period of the persecutions, celebrated
their initiation ceremonies. Montsegur became the last stronghold of
the Cathar movement.
Yet in 1242, the invading armies in collaboration with the church,
decided to attack Montsegur. And by April of 1243, a vast army of
more than ten thousand surrounded the mountain.
With this vast force, the besiegers attempted to surround the entire
mountain, precluding all entry and exit and hoping to starve out the
defenders. Despite their numerical strength, however, they lacked
sufficient manpower to make their ring completely secure. Many
troops were local, moreover, and sympathetic to the Cathars. And
many troops were simply unreliable. In consequence it was not
difficult to pass undetected through the attackers' lines. There
were many gaps through which men slipped to and fro, and supplies
found their way up to the fortress.
The Cathars took advantage of these gaps. In January 1244, nearly
three months before the fall of the fortress, two parfaits escaped.
According to reliable accounts, they carried with them the bulk of
the Cathars' material wealth - a load of gold, silver, and coin that
they carried first to a fortified cave in the mountains and from
there to a castle stronghold. After that the treasure vanished and
has never been heard of again.
On March 1, Montsegur finally capitulated. By then its defenders
numbered less than 400 - between 150 and 180 of them were parfaits,
the rest being knights, squires, men-at-arms, and their families.
They were granted surprisingly lenient terms. The fighting men were
to receive full pardon for all previous "crimes."
They would be
allowed to depart with their arms, baggage, and any gifts, including
money, they might receive from their employers. The parfaits were
also accorded unexpected generosity. Provided they abjured their
heretical beliefs and confessed their "sins" to the Inquisition,
they would be freed and subjected only to light penances. Yet, they
decided not to do so.
answer, not one of the parfaits, as far is known, accepted the
besiegers' terms. On the contrary, all of them chose martyrdom.
Moreover, at least twenty of the other occupants of the fortress,
six women and some fifteen fighting men, voluntarily received the Consolamentum and became parfaits as well, thus committing
themselves to certain death.
On March 15, the truce expired. At dawn the following day more than
two hundred parfaits were dragged roughly down the mountainside. Not
one recanted. There was not time to erect individual stakes. They
were locked into a large wood-filled stockade at the foot of the
mountain and burned en masse.
Documents of the Inquisition confirm that the night preceding the
capitulation of Montsegur, four Cathars let themselves down on ropes
along the veniginous side of the mountain (Aican, Poitevin,
and Alfaro) and managed to make good their escape into the
surrounding mountains, carrying off with them the sacred treasure.
Tradition has it that when the Grail had been saved, a flame
appeared on the neighboring mountain of Biaorta, announcing to the
Cathari of Montsegur that they could now lie in peace. The Grail
stone, or sacred book, was doubtless hidden in one of the
innumerable grottoes of the Sabarthez.
The story told by an old
During the time when the walls of Montsegur were still standing, the
Cathars kept the Holy Grail there. Montesegur was in danger, the
armies of Lucifer had besieged it. They wanted the Grail, to restore
it to their Prince's diadem from which it had fallen during the fall
of the angels. Then, at the most critical moment, there came down
from heaven a white dove which, with its beak, split Tabor in two.
Esclarmonde, who was keeper of the Grail, threw the sacred jewel
into the depths of the mountain. The mountain closed up again, and
in this manner was the Grail saved. When the devils entered the
fortress, they were too late. Enraged, they put to death by fire all
of the Pures, not far from the rock on which the castle stands, in
the champ des cremats, the Field of the Stake... All of the Pures
perished on the pyre, except Esclarmonde de Foix.
When she knew the
Grail to be safe, she climbed to the summit of Mount Tabor, changed
into a white dove, and flew off toward the mountains of Asia.
Esclarmonde is not dead. Even now she lives over there, in the