The Killing of the Cathars by Crazy Catholic Crusaders
It is a widely known fact that the Catholic Church and Christians in general have had a pretty disturbing history. There always seems to be a surplus of killing every time Jesus raises his thorny crowned head. Famous examples of such atrocities include witch burning, crusades and the very modern sexual abuse of young people by priests. But we are not going to go over old ground today, but rather focus in on a fascinating group of heretics called the Cathars. The Cathars, sometimes referred to as the Abigensians practiced a religion called Catharism which has been understood to be a type of revival of ancient Gnosticism. Gnosticisim Rebooted! Considering the extreme pains the Church went to to get rid of the Gnostics during Christianity’s beginnings, they were not about to welcome this particular comeback tour with open arms. Today we shall speak of the Cathars, and of their brutal eradication from history (this is not a happy article. Gnostics may suffer some major ‘feels’ hearing about the fate of their ancestors).
Picture yourself standing 700 years in the past. Look around you. It’s bright and warm, you can see vineyards spilling over lush hills to kiss the feet of the clear blue sky. Welcome to the Languidoc, a region of France, which in the 12th-14th century played host to a thriving community of Cathars. The Cathars were dualistic in their outlook. They believed in a physical world of matter which was corrupted by its innate imperfection, and a mental world of pure light which was perfect. The soul was trapped in the world of matter, being continuously reincarnated therein until attaining elightenment. This state was referred to as becoming “perfect.” When you had reached perfection, you were no longer bound by matter and you could enter the pleroma in a blaze of divine glory. The precise details of their beliefs varied from one place to another because, unlike the Catholic Church, they were not too thrilled about strict dogma.
“Wait!” You might declare, “before you go any further. Just where did the Cathars come from? Surely the Church did a thorough job in killing anyone who had even heard the word Gnostic?” Well, you would be right in asking this and indeed, the origins of the movement is not at all clear. There is consensus among archaeologists that they first showed up in the Byzantine Empire, spreading their beliefs along the established European trade routes which criss crossed from Bulgaria to the Netherlands. Indeed, many people referred to the Cathars as Bougres or Bulgarians. As their ideas started moving about, they started to make friends with like minded groups such as the Friends of God from Thrace. Later Cathar ideas were influenced by them as they were similar to the Bogomils, Paulicians, Marcionites, Manicheans and other Gnostic groups. Mainstream scholarship is hesitant to directly connect Catharism to ancient Gnosticism, preferring to settle with them being inspired by their ideas.
So when did the Cathars start showing up on paper? Well, in the 8th century AD, St John Damascene published a book known as On Heresies. This was basically an encyclopedia of Christian groups which held ideas contrary to those of the Catholic Church. He quoted an epitome written by Epiphanius of Salamis’s in his Pararion and said:
“They absolutely reject those who marry a second time, and reject the possibility of penance [that means having your sins magically forgiven after baptism].”
It is theorised, but not proven that these could have been the same Cathari which were briefly brought up in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea 325 AD. Canon 8 of the council stated:
“If those Cathari convert [to Catholicism], they should firstly show willingness to enter communion with the twice-married, and grant pardon to those who have lapsed…”
Their history is very difficult to piece together because many of their writings were destroyed by the Catholic Church. This means that mainstream scholarship is forced to wade through accounts of them made by their enemies. These are of course, heavily biased and probably needlessly exaggerated or even entirely false! Some texts such as the Rituel Cathere de Lyon were preserved by the Church which offers a bit of a look into the habits and beliefs of this mysterious group. Scholars however, agree that the first time the Cathars definitely showed up in history was in 1143 AD where they were reported by Eberwin of Steinfeld for holding heretical beliefs. Once they had emerged, they dug in their heels and become ubiquitous in Northern Italy and Southern France in which their popularity boomed much to the displeasure of the Catholic Church.
So what exactly was it about the Cathars that the Church hated so much? Well, we can start to see what got on their nerves when we examine some of the beliefs the Cathars held. They were very Gnostic in their outlook, with the vast majority of their views being deliberately opposed to those of the Catholic Church which they viewed as corrupt, spiritually and morally bankrupt and overly focused on earthly political and economic power. Indeed, some contemporary writers such as St Bernard of Clairvaux begrudgingly admired the Cathars for their non-violence, their humility and their positive work ethic. This goes against the tone of much more modern Catholic scholars such as G.K. Chesterton who said that the Cathar’s “system began to be broken to pieces intellectually, long before it showed the slightest hint of falling to pieces morally. The huge early heresies, like the Abigenses had not the fainted excuse in moral superiority.” This poses a striking contrast to Bishop Clairvaux’s statement that “Women are leaving their husbands, men their wives to go to the heretics. Clerics and priests among them leave their Churches and congregations.” Clearly the “moral superiority” so vehemently denied by Chesterton, was clearly seen by people living at the time.
Not only were the Cathars showing Catholics up as the most morally respectable show in town, but their theology was also formally opposed to that of the Church. Many scholars such as Bernard of Clairvaux, thought that the Cathars were practitioners of Arianism or at least that their beliefs having had roots in the Arian heresy. Those opposed to Catharism claimed that they were against the concept of the Trinity (naturally, since it is the most irrational concept ever cobbled together) but rather considered Christ as a type of Angel in human form. A Phoster in Gnostic terms. This was combined with their preference for reincarnation over resurrection. This was enough to make Catholics foam at the mouth and choke on their communion bread.
But there was something much worse in the eyes of the Church, even denying Christ’s status as the one true God and that was the Cathar sacrament of Consolation. They refused all other sacarments such as the eucharist (communion) claiming that it was impossible for bread to become the ‘real’ body of Christ (obviously, and we bet they weren’t too thrilled about the cannibalistic aspect of it anyway). This was the ceremony in which an initiate was “cured of all sin” and attained the status of “perfect.” This was another way of saying that they became divine, a God. A Phoster, like Christ himself. This was saying that humanity could achieve divinity and join a community of Gods. The rite was typically performed as the initiate was close to death as they believed that death was required to escape the constant cycle of reincarnation. This is often displayed in the Cathars seemingly happy acceptance of death when faced with Inquisitorial blades. They believed that since they had become Perfecti, that godhood lay on the other side of death. It was this that made the Catholics go into hysterical inquisitorial fervor.
When it came to daily life, Cathar habits were also quite different from other groups at the time. For starters, they did not kill anybody, and they even made capital punishment illegal which was unheard of at the time. They also had some habits that modern Gnostics don’t bother with like not eating meat and abstaining from marriage and sex, viewing earthly pleasures as being from the ‘demiurge’ and hence evil (modern Illuminists now view the flesh as requiring to be sated and not ignored – this is Sin for Salvation). They also treated women as equals.
Since they were such a positive influence on a highly endarkened Christendom, it was only a matter of time before the persecution and murder were set in motion. The first attempt at quelling the Cathars was in 1147 AD on the order of Pope Eugene III who sent a legate, whose mission quickly went downhill to the great embarrassment of the Church. They underestimated the strength of Catharism in the region. This was followed up by an armed attack in 1178 which still failed to dent the upstart religion. All of this was punctuated by official condemnations by Church councils which failed spectacularly to do anything. But then came the Papacy of the highly ironically named Pope Innocent III. He was ready to get some serious killing done, but even he offered one last chance at willing conversion to Catholicism. He sent a bunch of legates who were again rejected, but additionally they now had to contend with the region’s nobility who had taken to protecting Catharism, they were joined by a motley crue of Cathar admires and jealous Bishops who did not like the amount of authority that legates were being given by the Pope.
The sabre rattling had now reached a high point, and things were about to come to a head. One of the legates, named Pierre de Castelnau was dispatched to have a chat with the Count of Toulouse Raymond VI about his protection of the Cathars. Castelnau was a deeply zealous Catholic who did not hesitate to excommunicate anyone, even members of the nobility. The two quickly got into a row in which the Count threatened to hurt Castelnau. Castelnau crisply excommunicated the noble. On his way back to Rome, a Knight, most likely in the Count’s service attacked him on the road, sending the pious legate kicking and screaming from this earthly coil, back to his God.
When the Pope heard that his legate had been murdered, he went into a right old rage and declared full on war against the Cathars. This became known as the Abigensian Crusade. This split the nobility of France in two because the Pope promised the confiscated lands of the Cathars to those who chose to fight them. This led to a long series of battles over the next number of years as Cathar lands were slowly ceded to Catholic forces which were led by Legate Arnaud-Amaury. The height of the war took place in the town of Béziers. During the conflict, the soldiers were faced with an unexpected problem. How do you tell loyal Catholics from heretical Cathars? They dressed the same, looked the same and spoke the same language. The response, as later recalled by Caesarius of Heisterbach was:
“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” – Kill them all. God will know his own.
In one battle, over 7000 people were massacred inside the Chruch of St Mary Magdelene, all of which were most likely Catholics and not Cathars. Many thousands more were massacred in unimaginably brutal ways, from sword slashings to live burnings. It was a hell of a party in Catholic Europe. Once the Cathar town of Béziers had all human life cleansed from it, it was set on fire and utterly destroyed.
It was now only a matter of time before Catharism itself would be destroyed because the French King began to reign in the rogue Lords who were supporting the Cathars, effectively ending the freedom they had previously enjoyed. This left the Church free to found the Inquisition, which was tasked with getting rid of the very last instances of Catharism. They waged constant war against heretics, burning those who did not convert to Catholicism, and forcing others to practice their religion in secret. This eventually led to the siege of Montségur, a Cathar fortress which held out as long as it could before finally capitulating, many of the Cathars willingly went to the fires, comforted in the knowledge that after death they would become Gods. However, there is a curious legend that before the fortress fell, a sneaky group of Perfecti escaped, carrying with them, le trésor creamts. This is speculated to either be secret Gnostic writings, the accumulated wealth of the group or even the Holy Grail itself (this legend was included in the coded fiction novel The Armageddon Conspiracy by Mike Hockney). With most of their people and texts destroyed, Catharism became just a memory with various revivalists groups being put down with maximum Catholic ferocity. The Inquisition did what it did best, ruined the process of enlightened within the lands of the Demiurge.
By the Gnostic Heretic.