I first read about the Cathars in a book recommended by my Philosophy teacher in the first year of University.
The book’s title is “Love in the Western World”, by a French author, Denis de Rougemont, and it tells about the concept of chivalrous love in the western world, including classical legends such as that of Tristan and Iseult, and narrating tales of troubadour love.
As the author writes about the 12th century in the Languedoc (South of France) he tells us that, at the time, a “powerful heresy” developed in that region. The Cathar religion challenged the Catholic Church and its tenets, such as the symbolism of the mass, the baptism through water, among others: theirs was a dualist doctrine, as they saw good and evil as two different, separate worlds and creations.
The author depicts them in a sort of romantic way, and describes how many troubadours adhered to this different faith, much more tolerant and “open minded” than the Catholic one.
I remember finding this intriguing and keeping the book as one of my favourites ever. In fact so many years after I still have it with me, and I’m going through its pages as I write.
For years I didn’t find anything else on the subject, but then I didn’t really look much. Until one day, many years later, as I was looking for books in a bookshop near work where I used to spend some of my lunch breaks, I suddenly came across a book with an enormously attractive cover – of a medievally dressed lady gently touching the arm of a passing by knight – that immediately called my attention. The title was “The strange knight of the holy book” (not available i English I’m afraid), the author an unknown to me Bulgarian writer called Anton Dontchev and the subject – the Cathars! I felt a strange emotion, of finding something utterly familiar after so many years…I bought it and brought it home and immediately started reading it. It took me to their world, first one of harmony and peace, of simplicity and faith, and then one of persecution and horror. I was fascinated and I remember thinking that this book, even if portraying a conflict that took place 800 years ago, at the same time displayed a very current situation that of religious intolerance, that unfortunately hasn’t much changed its face in the 21st century. The story of the book could be transported to the present day, and it portrays the same: intolerance, greed, cruelty, and disregard for one’s fellow men…
About the Cathars
After reading the book I became fascinated by this subject and, in an era before Amazon I tried to find other books about it – which I did. I read more and more. I was amazed at their ideas: they considered, and in fact called, themselves “the good Christians” (while the Catholic Church called them “Albigenses” or Cathars). They had their own Church and ceremonies, but no religious buildings; their equivalent of “priests” were the “parfaits” or “parfaites”, yes, men and women, as they considered both sexes as equal. At this point I could not but admire them! In addition, they believed in reincarnation, didn’t eat meat and had very strong principles: not to lie or kill, and, last but not least, had nothing against contraception, euthanasia or even suicide.
Their tolerant views spread like fire in the warm, easy going, southern territories of Languedoc, among noble and poor, to such an extent that the Catholic Church felt they had to intervene, and Pope Innocent III launched a crusade – the only one against Christians and in Europe – to eliminate this heresy.
This crusade, even if in principle with a religious motive, also had a political one, that of the King of France wanting to annex the southern territories, until then ruled by fiercely independent counts (such as Raymond of Toulouse and Raymond-Roger Trencavel of Carcassonne). As for the nobles and the soldiers who joined the crusade, they mostly had in mind the rich spoils of war, which were certainly more attractive than any religious considerations.
It was a bloody, ruthless war that destroyed the Languedoc as an independent region, brought low its former rulers and eradicated the so called heresy. The cruelty of the crusaders was only equal to that of the high ranking church representatives. At the siege of Béziers, a city that harboured many Cathars, the crusaders came to the Pope’s representative and asked him how they would recognize the Catholics among the heretical population, to which he replied: “Kill them all! God will recognise His own”!
The way to Cathar Country
The more I read, the more I wanted to learn and the more I enjoyed talking about this. Unfortunately, it is not a very common subject in Portugal, so most of the time it would be just me telling the story. Until one day, some 10 years ago, during lunch with a British Client, the subject was mentioned and I discovered he was a “Cathar fan” just like me. In fact, he was more advanced, as he told me he had done the “Cathar route” in Languedoc! I could not believe my ears and asked him many questions. I listened, enthralled, to what he told me about his trip, the castles he had visited, all the information he had learned over there…and at that moment I decided I was going to do the Cathar route myself. I just had to.
And so I did. In what was one of our very first holidays together, Nuno and I, set out for the Languedoc on a summer day. I was startled when, suddenly, as we were approaching Toulouse, I saw a sign that said “Vous êtes en Pays Cathare” (you are in Cathar country). I was amazed at how strong, how powerful this story still is! Then we arrived at Carcassonne, the beautiful medieval walled city that was completely rebuilt in the 19th century by the brilliant French architect Viollet Le Duc according to centuries-old city plans. We stayed at a hotel outside the citadel but went there several times and visited the castle of the Counts Trencavel (“Château Comtal”), walked along the old streets and even watched a medieval joust!
On the following days I immersed myself in Cathar history and places: we visited beautiful villages such as Mirepoix and Limoux, we saw the imposing castle of Foix…but, by far, the most incredible moment was lived when we went to Montségur, the last stronghold of the Cathars, where the last of them resisted the siege of the crusaders until there was nothing left but to surrender. They came down the hill only to be buried alive – unless they recanted their faith, which they did not. As we arrived at the mountain foothill we saw the monument in honour of the martyred Cathars and it was imposing. Then we started climbing – and what a climb it was – but when we got to the ruins of the castle it was an indescribable feeling, it felt as if I had already been there, I felt a strange connection to those people of so long ago and to their tragic, but very inspiring, story. The feeling you have when you finally go to a place you have read so much about is one of such familiarity that it’s really as if you have already been there not one, but several times. And it is an intense emotion.
As we looked at the commanding view over the magnificent landscape I thought of the anguish those Cathars of long ago must have felt as, looking down, it was not the landscape they saw but merely the crusaders’ army closing in on them. They must have known what expected them. As we came down the hill, I was wondering what might have happened had they been allowed to survive and practise their faith – would it have spread all over Europe? Would History have been the same? Would Protestantism ever come to be?
A fascinating subject
Answers that we will never have, for History is what it is. But I’m still passionate about this subject. I have read many, many books about this but still I want to know more. In every new book I look for a piece, tiny as it may be, of new information, some new detail that I may add to the reasonable knowledge I already have about this fascinating subject. But it never seems to be enough, and from time to time I find myself in Amazon looking for new books and buying them!
These books make me go back to the times I like best in this story: the years when Catharism flourished in the Languedoc, when “parfaits” and “parfaites” roamed the countryside spreading their faith and when troubadours animated the long evenings in the castles of the counts of Languedoc – who knows, maybe in another long ago lived life I was there… after all, didn’t the Cathars believe you can live many lives?
Sometimes there are simple explanations even for apparently inexplicable things.