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History becomes legend


Who were the Cathars? How did this religion appear in the South of France? Are there still Cathars today? Legendary tales and historical reality have intertwined over the centuries. Today, it’s difficult to distinguish between myth, legend, far-fetched stories and French history. Let’s shed some light on the saga of the heretics of medieval Languedoc, who have forever marked the identity of the Cathar Pyrenees.

The Gospel in a different way

In the XIᵉ century, dissident spiritual movements developed, while the Catholic Church grew in power and structure. Thus, “Cathar” communities developed throughout Western Europe (Flanders, Burgundy, Champagne, England, Italy, Germany) under various names (piphles, publicans, weavers, patarins, bougres, albigeois).

It was in the Occitan region that Catharism experienced its most significant expansion. Throughout the region, men and women, whether simple sympathizers, confirmed believers or openly religious, embraced this alternative conception of Christianity.

Their worldview is based on a different interpretation of the Gospels. According to these believers, Good and Evil rule heaven and earth respectively. Christ is said to be a pure spirit sent to earth by God to bring people the baptism of the Holy Spirit: consolation. This baptism is given by the bonshommes to believers by the laying on of hands, and only from the age of 13 or 14 onwards, so that the believer commits himself in full knowledge of the facts and by conviction.

A way of life

Cathar religious are called “good men” or “good women”, “good Christians” or “good Christian women”. They organized themselves into communities attached to a preaching territory or diocese. At the head of the diocese, a bishop is assisted by a Major Son and a Minor Son. Deacons provide the link between each community and the hierarchy of each bishopric.

The “good men” see themselves as the only true disciples of the apostles. They practice absolute poverty and are obliged to work with their hands for a living. They don’t own churches or monasteries, and gather to preach in Occitan to the local population in “houses” where the faithful live. This way of approaching the practice of faith responds to believers’ thirst for a spirituality that is accessible, understandable and close to them.

Cathar prayer

The standard prayer is the Our Father, but the Cathars also used other prayers.

Text of the Cathar prayer above

“Since we are not of this world, and this world is not of us, give us to know what you know, and to love what you love […]”.

In a few words

Albigensians: Members of the heretical religious sect that spread throughout southern France in the 13th century, particularly around Albi and in the Bas Languedoc region. Also known as Cathars. As a reminder, this is also the current name of the inhabitants of the city of Albi 😉*

Bons Hommes, Bonnes Femmes: Cathar clerics call themselves “bons hommes” or “bonnes femmes”, “good Christians” or “bonnes chrétiennes”. This respectful term is used by believers to designate the religious and ordained of the Cathar Church.

Cathars: in the mid-12th century, the Catholic Church used the term “Cathar” to designate members of a community whose ideas were deemed subversive, and which it first condemned in the Rhineland (Germany). It was one of the pejorative terms used by medieval clerics to designate heretics (publicans, patarenes, Albigensians, weavers, Manichaeans, etc.). In Occitania, the terms “Albigensian heresy “, “albigéisme” and “albigeois” were used. It was only in the XXᵉ century that the term “Cathar” came to replace these denominations.

Consolament: the only sacrament of the religion of “good Christians”, this is a baptism given by the simple laying on of hands. Practiced by Cathar clergy, it consecrated the believer’s entry into the Christian life and freed him from his sins for the salvation of his soul.

Faydit : Southern lord or bourgeois dispossessed and banished by the French authorities following the crusade against the Albigensians.

Inquisition: specialized, itinerant ecclesiastical tribunal created in the 12th century by the Catholic Church. It applied penalties ranging from simple spiritual punishments (prayers, penances) to fines when heresy had not been established, but for heretics the penalties ranged from confiscation of all property to the death penalty.

A threat to the Church

From the second half of the 12th century onwards, Cathar communities grew in Occitania, which was dominated by the Counts of Toulouse: they worried the Papacy. Many of the faithful joined them, and they were supported by the main noble families, particularly in the county of Foix, to which today’s Cathar Pyrenees belong.

The Catholic Church felt threatened by the spread of Cathar beliefs in Languedoc. It sought to combat the heresy of the “good men”, as well as the Occitan lords, who were accused of encouraging expansion and protecting heretical communities.

At the very beginning of the XIIIᵉ century, Episcopal and Cistercian missions sent to counter heresy in Toulousain and Carcassès met with little success. Neither did the future Saint Dominic, who fought Catharism by preaching to the people of the Lauragais region.

Tension mounts. The murder of the Pope’s legate, Pierre de Castelnau, in 1208 at St Gilles du Gard was the spark that ignited it all! In 1209, Pope Innocent III unleashed the Albigensian Crusade, Europe’s first holy war. Under the guise of fighting heresy, the crusade quickly became a war of conquest, targeting the Count of Toulouse and the Occitan nobility.

20 years of war

The crusade, led for a time by Simon de Montfort, lasted twenty years (1209-1229). Two decades of sieges, pitched battles, guerrilla warfare and diplomatic negotiations! The intervention of the King of France in the conflict led to the surrender of Count Raymond VII of Toulouse, who submitted to royal authority. Occitania became part of the Kingdom of France.

Although the political question was settled in 1229, and despite the terrible collective pyres and bloody episodes of the conflict, the religious crusade was a failure. Cathar communities remained active in the Pyrenees and around the refuge of Montségur.

In response, Pope Gregory IX founded the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in 1233. This itinerant penal system, entrusted to the Dominicans, was to identify heretics and networks of complicity through investigation and denunciation. With its methodical organization, it put great pressure on the local population and spread fear.

The rebelliousMontségur became the head and seat of the heretical Occitan Church from 1232 onwards. And in 1242, a commando left the castrum for Avignonnet, where the inquisitorial tribunal had set up for the night: the armed men massacred the monks.

The end of the Cathar story

Condemned by the Pope and the King of France, this bloody expedition led to the siege of the Eagle’s Nest by a Crusader army of almost 3,000 men. The castrum of Montségur fell on March 16, 1244, after ten months of siege. The epic ends with the burning at the stake of 225 Cathar monks and believers. The head of the Cathar Church was destroyed: the “good men” were driven underground or into exile in Lombardy and neighboring Catalonia. They were hunted down and persecuted for almost a century, until Catharism was eradicated in the early 14th century. The arrest and subsequent burning at the stake of the “good men” Jacques and Pierre Authié in 1309, and Guilhem Bélibaste in 1321 at Villerouge Termenès, marked the end of Cathar dissidence in Languedoc.

The consequences of this page in history are still clearly visible today. The sites of Roquefixade and Montségur bear witness to this: erected as royal fortresses, they became border posts to face Spain. The villages we know today grew up at the foot of the castles. Guy de Lévis, Simon de Montfort’s lieutenant during the Crusade, became lord of Mirepoix.

Lords of MirepoixLevis-Mirepoix family

Guy de Levis, lieutenant to Simon de Montfort during the Crusade and lord of Levis in Ile-de-France, was awarded the seigneury of Mirepoix.

His family, in power from the XIIIᵉ to the XVIIIᵉ century, would become a powerful family of Languedoc lords. They built emblematic sites such as the castles of Lagarde and Léran. The Levis family contributed to the embellishment of Mirepoix’s Saint-Maurice cathedral and the fortified village of Camon.

Antoine de Lévis-Mirepoix (Antoine Pierre Marie François Joseph de Lévis-Mirepoix), known as the Duc de Lévis-Mirepoix, born in Léran (Ariège) on August 1, 1884 and died in Lavelanet (Ariège) on July 16, 1981, was a French novelist, historian and essayist, and a member of the Académie française. He was the 5th Duke of San Fernando Luis, Grand of Spain, and the 4th Baron de Lévis-Mirepoix.

All about Montségur

Cathar Mecca

Montségur was home to the Cathars and an important center for the heretical religion. Many traces remain. By discovering the fortress, rebuilt on the original Cathar castrum, at the top of the pog and visiting the village now at the foot of the mountain, by listening to the stories and legends still told today, you can get an idea of what this medieval epic with its sad conclusion was all about.