Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cathars

The Medieval Market Square in LaGrasse

Phil and I sit on the terrace of a café in the medieval town of Lagrasse in the Languedoc region of France and warm our hands around cappuccinos. It’s July. The temperature should be in the 30’s (90’s F) but the Sens, a cold wind from the north, has sent the temperatures plummeting to 20 degrees (68 F). We’ve been in France three days and I’ve already concluded cappuccino is not something France does well. The four I’ve had so far – all at different restaurants – have all been disasters. The latest, at least, with its cap of whipped cream is a decent imitation of Viennese coffee.

Lagrasse is in the heart of what, during the 12th and 13th century, was the homeland of the Cathar heresy. Half the sightseeing brochures we’ve picked up indicate that this castle, or that abbey or that village is somehow linked to the biggest bloodbath the south of France experienced. I’ve just found a history of it written in French by a local author, and am reading bits to Phil. As a Medievalist, I knew a little about the so-called heresy, which the church of Rome saw as such a threat that it called a crusade, but I’m amazed at how much of what I thought I knew is wrong. Like my search of the “real” King Arthur, it’s another indication of the vast extent of new information Medievalists have uncovered in the 30 years since I studied for my PhD (and then dropped the whole thing to go into advertising.)


In 1208 Pope Innocent III called the king and nobles of France upon a Crusade to eliminate the Cathar heresy that had spread through southern France. In the thirty years that followed, more than 40,000 Cathars, their supporters and innocent bystanders fell under swords of the crusaders. The principle cities and fortresses of the Languedoc were captured and destroyed. Northern France, at last, gained political and economic dominance over the vast, rich territory it had coveted (and which technically but never in political reality was a fief of France.) A civilization – the one that had spawned troubadours, chivalry and courtly love -- had been destroyed. And the Catholic Church initiated the Inquisition.

Catharism itself was a grass-roots movement of itinerant preachers calling for religious reform at a time when the Catholic Church was growing increasingly corrupt.

Most of what has entered popular knowledge about the Cathars was actually disseminated by the Catholic Church, the Cathars’ worst enemies. Even the name was a Catholic invention, having been given to the group by Benedictine Abbot Eckbert of Schonau in 1163. Cathars themselves had no name for their movement. They called themselves “Bonne homes” – “Good men”. Eckbert himself, in one of his sermons, admits that the members of this group were called different things in different locations. In fact, the movement, which is probably the best term for what the Church considered a heresy, was widespread throughout Europe. There were large pockets in the Rhineland, where Eckbert wrote, Burgundy, Bulgaria, Languedoc, northern Spain and Tuscany and Lombardy in Italy. Depending on the location, the Church referred to them as Bogomils, Bulgarians, Buggers, Publicans, Piphels, Lucifarians, Arians, and Cathars. The many names may have been the Church’s attempt to play down the wide-spread nature of the movement. Or to cause confusion regarding its nature. The church also spread much misinformation about Cather beliefs and practices. It’s only during the past fifty years that historians have unearthed original Cathar documents and been able to sort truth from propaganda.

So who were these Cathars? And what made them such a threat that Church and State united to destroy them?

Join me over the next couple of weeks while I share what Phil and I learned.


  1. Sounds fascinating, Vicky! Is this new story material? ;D

  2. I wish. But so far, I haven't come up with a story line.

  3. We're in the same boat, then. :( I'm reading all sorts of fascinating history, but nothing's beat me over the head like ROTK did. Good luck finding that treasure trove and enjoy your trip. It sounds fascinating and at the very least, it's refilling your creativity tank, I'm sure!