Languedoc's Cathar history

Castle ruin

As you wander around the pretty villages and idyllic countryside of Languedoc, it is hard to imagine how far removed it is today from its horrific and blood stained past.

The region of Languedoc-Roussillon is steeped in history, far too much to cover in one article, but there is one period that has left its scars on the landscape and the pages of its history books due to its particular brutality. Fortified hilltops, castles, villages and towns remain to this day as a stark reminder of the area's turbulent history. As is so often the case, it was all down to religion and a north/south divide.

In the early medieval period during the 12th and 14th centuries, Catharism (meaning purity - as in catharsis) was a religion that thrived in some areas of Southern Europe and particularly in southern France. 'Languedoc' was the generic name given to the southern half of the country, where they did not speak French but a mix of French and Spanish languages known as 'les langues d'oc', or Occitan. The majority of people living here were 'Cathars' who promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity, and turned their backs on the pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth of the Catholic church of the time who became an irresistible target for ridicule as some of the richest men in Christendom, bejewelled and dressed in finery, were preaching poverty.

As killing was abhorrent to them, Cathars were vegetarians, refusing to eat meat or other animal products. War and capital punishment were also condemned by them and they were strict about not telling lies or swearing oaths. This was yet another annoyance to the Catholic Church which considered the feudal system, which depended on oath taking, to be divinely ordained as the natural order.

The Cathars believed in reincarnation and that a man could be reincarnated as a woman and vice versa. Because of this belief, the Cathars saw women equally capable of being spiritual leaders, which undermined the very concept of gender held by the Catholic Church.

Thus, they were a direct challenge to the Catholic Church, which denounced its practices and dismissed it outright as 'the Church of Satan' and branded Catharism as a heresy.

Cathars used their religion as a way by which they could assert their differences and their cultural independence from the great European powers of the day, the Roman Catholic Church and the Kings of France, refusing to pay the tithes demanded.

By the early 13th century Catharism had taken a strong hold in the area. From the beginning of his reign, Pope Innocent III attempted to end Catharism by sending missionaries to convince the local authorities to act against them. However, in 1208 when a papal legate was murdered the Pope abandoned the 'soft' option and launched the notorious Albigensian Crusade (the Catholic Church called them Albigenses and not Cathars) that lasted twenty years, massacring Cathars or converting them by force to Catholicism.

A papal decree permitting the confiscation of lands owned by the Cathars motivated many barons and nobles of the north to head south.

The first military leader appointed by Pope Innocent III to head his Holy Army was a Cistercias abbot called Arnaud Amaury. The first significant engagement of the war was at Béziers when it was besieged on 22 July 1209. Catholic inhabitants remained in the city and when the Abbot was asked how to tell Cathars from Catholics, he replied, "Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own." The doors of the churches and cathedral were broken down and the refugees dragged out and slaughtered. All over the town people were massacred in their thousands. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. The city was burned. At that time the population of Béziers was around 5,000, but local refugees seeking shelter within the city walls increased the number to 20,000. All were killed regardless of rank, age, sex or religious belief.

During the Albigensian crusade period, often described as the first act of genocide in Europe, many castles and other fortified positions served as strongholds for besieged Cathars, and many witnessed atrocious massacres.

Cathar Castle

The second military leader was Simon de Montfort who's greatest triumph was the victory at the Battle of Muret, even though he was greatly outnumbered. This was the start of the unified French kingdom and the country we know today.

Finally, most of the area was conquered and in 1229 the Treaty of Meaux-Paris was signed, however, pockets of Cathar resistance held out for the next twenty-six years. The Inquisition was established in 1234 to wipe out the last vestiges of resistance and continued through most of the 14th century, crushing Catharism as a popular movement and driving its remaining adherents underground. Cathars who refused to recant were hanged or burnt at the stake.

The castle at Montségur remained a Cathar stronghold until 1244, when it was finally taken and over 200 Cathars were burned alive in an enormous pyre. The last Cathar stronghold, the Chateau de Peyrepertuse, fell in 1255.

Lay learning was discouraged and the reading of the bible became a capital crime. Tithes were enforced. The Languedoc, once one of the great cultures of medieval Europe, started its long economic decline to become the poorest region in France. The language of the area, Occitan, began its descent from the foremost literary language in Europe to a regional dialect, disparaged by the French as a patois (slang).

It is estimated that half a million deaths occurred during the persecution of the Cathars in Languedoc.

The remaining Cathar castles, in ruins and precariously clinging to the ragged mountain ridges, resonate with the haunting echoes of a bygone era and the terrible atrocities witnessed there.

Hilltop Castle