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Catharism (/ˈkæθərɪzəm/; from Greek: καθαρός, katharos, pure) was a name given to a Christian religious movement with dualistic and gnostic elements that appeared in the Languedoc region of France and other parts of Europe in the 11th century and flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1208, Pope Innocent III attempted to use diplomacy to end Catharism, but in that year, his papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered while returning to Rome. This prompted the Pope into action and resulted in the Albigensian Crusade. The Albigensian Crusade sought to extinguish the movement in the early decades of the thirteenth century but was not entirely successful. When the pope realized the crusade had failed to eliminate the Catharist movement, he launched the Medieval Inquisition to finish the task.
Catharism had its roots in the Paulician movement in Armenia and the Bogomils of Bulgaria, which took influences from the Paulicians. Though the term "Cathar"[pronunciation?] has been used for centuries to identify the movement, whether the movement identified itself with this name is debatable. In Cathar texts, the terms "Good Men" (Bons Hommes) or "Good Christians" are the common terms of self-identification.
The Cathars' beliefs are thought to have come originally from Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire by way of trade routes. The name of Bulgarians (Bougres) was also applied to the Albigenses, and they maintained an association with the similar Christian movement of the Bogomils ("Friends of God") of Thrace. "That there was a substantial transmission of ritual and ideas from Bogomilism to Catharism is beyond reasonable doubt." Their doctrines have numerous resemblances to those of the Bogomils and the earlier Paulicians as well as the Manicheans and the Christian Gnostics of the first few centuries AD, although, as many scholars, most notably Mark Pegg, have pointed out, it would be erroneous to extrapolate direct, historical connections based on theoretical similarities perceived by modern scholars. St John Damascene, writing in the 8th century AD, also notes of an earlier sect called the "Cathari", in his book On Heresies, taken from the epitome provided by Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion. He says of them: "They absolutely reject those who marry a second time, and reject the possibility of penance [that is, forgiveness of sins after baptism]." These are likely the same Cathari mentioned in Canon 8 of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which states "...[I]f those called Cathari come over [to the Catholic faith], let them first make profession that they are willing to communicate [share full communion] with the twice-married, and grant pardon to those who have lapsed..."
"It is likely that we have only a partial view of their beliefs, because the writings of the Cathars were mostly destroyed due to the doctrinal threat perceived by the Papacy; much of our existing knowledge of the Cathars is derived from their opponents. Conclusions about Cathar ideology continue to be fiercely debated with commentators regularly accusing their opponents of speculation, distortion and bias. There are a few texts from the Cathars themselves which were preserved by their opponents (the Rituel Cathare de Lyon) which give a glimpse of the inner workings of their faith, but these still leave many questions unanswered. One large text which has survived, The Book of Two Principles (Liber de duobus principiis), elaborates the principles of dualistic theology from the point of view of some of the Albanenses Cathars.
It is now generally agreed by most scholars that identifiable Catharism did not emerge until at least 1143, when the first confirmed report of a group espousing similar beliefs is reported being active at Cologne by the cleric Eberwin of Steinfeld. A landmark in the "institutional history" of the Cathars was the Council, held in 1167 at Saint-Félix-Lauragais, attended by many local figures and also by the Bogomil papa Nicetas, the Cathar bishop of (northern) France and a leader of the Cathars of Lombardy.
The Cathars were largely a homegrown, Western European/Latin Christian phenomenon, springing up in the Rhineland cities (particularly Cologne) in the mid-12th century, northern France around the same time, and particularly southern France—the Languedoc—and the northern Italian cities in the mid-late 12th century. In the Languedoc and northern Italy, the Cathars would enjoy their greatest popularity, surviving in the Languedoc, in much reduced form, up to around 1325 and in the Italian cities until the Inquisitions of the 1260s–1300s finally rooted them out.
Cathars, in general, formed an anti-sacerdotal party in opposition to the Catholic Church, protesting against what they perceived to be the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Church.
...they usually say of themselves that they are good Christians, ...hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel as the apostles taught... occupy the place of the apostles. ...they talk to the laity of the evil lives of the clerks and prelates of the Roman Church... ...they attack and vituperate, in turn, all the sacraments of the Church, especially the sacrament of the eucharist, saying that it cannot contain the body of Christ... Of baptism, they assert that the water is material and corruptible... and cannot sanctify the soul... ...they claim that confession made to the priests of the Roman Church is useless... They assert, moreover, that the cross of Christ should not be adored or venerated... Moreover they read from the Gospels and the Epistles in the vulgar tongue, applying and expounding them in their favour and against the condition of the Roman Church...
— Bernard Gui, On the Albigensians
Chesterton, the Christian apologist, claimed: "..the medieval 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 Albigenses, had not the faintest excuse in moral superiority."
In sharp contrast to the traditional Catholic church, the Cathars had a single sacrament, the Consolamentum, or Consolation. It involved a brief spiritual ceremony to remove all sin from the credente, or believer, and induct them into the next higher level as a Perfect. Unlike the Catholic sacrament of Penance, the Consolamentum could be taken only once.
Thus it has been alleged that many credentes would eventually receive the consolamentum as death drew near—performing the ritual of liberation at a moment when the heavy obligations of purity required of Perfecti would be temporally short. Some of those who received the sacrament of the consolamentum upon their death-beds may thereafter have shunned further food or drink in order to speed death. This has been termed the endura. It was claimed by Catharism's opponents that by such self-imposed starvation, the Cathars were committing suicide in order to escape this world. Other than at such moments of extremis, little evidence exists to suggest this was a common Cathar practice.
Bernard of Clairvaux's biographer and other sources accuse some Cathars of Arianism, and some scholars see Cathar Christology as having traces of earlier Arian roots. According to some of their contemporary enemies Cathars did not accept the Trinitarian understanding of Jesus, but considered him the human form of an angel similar to Docetic Christology. Zoé Oldenbourg (2000) compared the Cathars to "Western Buddhists" because she considered that their view of the doctrine of "resurrection" taught by Jesus was, in fact, similar to the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation.
Killing was abhorrent to the Cathars. Consequently, abstention from all animal food (sometimes exempting fish) was enjoined of the Perfecti. The Perfecti apparently avoided eating anything considered to be a by-product of sexual reproduction. War and capital punishment were also condemned, an abnormality in the Medieval age. As a consequence of their rejection of oaths, Cathars also rejected marriage vows. Sexual intercourse between the sexes and reproduction was viewed as a moral evil to be avoided. Their moral doctrine was based on the belief that the material world including the flesh was intrinsically evil as stemming from the evil principle or god. Cathars were often unmarried. Charges of heresy made by the Catholic Church against suspected Cathars were often dismissed if the accused could show he was legally married.
It has been alleged that the Cathar Church of the Languedoc had a relatively flat structure, distinguishing between perfecti (a term they did not use, instead bonhommes) and credentes. By about 1140 liturgy and a system of doctrine had been established. It created a number of bishoprics, first at Albi around 1165 (hence the term Albigensians) and after the 1167 Council at Saint-Félix-Lauragais sites at Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Agen, so that four bishoprics were in existence by 1200. In about 1225, during a lull in the Albigensian Crusade, the bishopric of Razes was added. Bishops were supported by their two assistants: a filius maior (typically the successor) and a filius minor, who were further assisted by deacons. The perfecti were the spiritual elite, highly respected by many of the local people, leading a life of austerity and charity. In the apostolic fashion they ministered to the people and travelled in pairs.
In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the Cathar district in order to arrest the progress of the Cathars. The few isolated successes of Bernard of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, which clearly showed the power of the sect in the Languedoc at that period. The missions of Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry of Marcy, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180–81, obtained merely momentary successes. Henry's armed expedition, which took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.
Decisions of Catholic Church councils—in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179)—had scarcely more effect upon the Cathars. When Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, he was resolved to deal with them.
At first Pope Innocent III tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the Cathar regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who respected them, but also with many of the bishops of the region, who resented the considerable authority the Pope had conferred upon his legates. In 1204, Innocent III suspended a number of bishops in Occitania; in 1205 he appointed a new and vigorous bishop of Toulouse, the former troubadour Foulques. In 1206 Diego of Osma and his canon, the future Saint Dominic, began a programme of conversion in Languedoc; as part of this, Catholic-Cathar public debates were held at Verfeil, Servian, Pamiers, Montréal and elsewhere.
Saint Dominic met and debated the Cathars in 1203 during his mission to the Languedoc. He concluded that only preachers who displayed real sanctity, humility and asceticism could win over convinced Cathar believers. The official Church as a rule did not possess these spiritual warrants. His conviction led eventually to the establishment of the Dominican Order in 1216. The order was to live up to the terms of his famous rebuke, "Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth." However, even St. Dominic managed only a few converts among the Cathari.
In January 1208 the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, was sent to meet the ruler of the area, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Known for excommunicating noblemen who protected the Cathars, Castelnau excommunicated Raymond as an abettor of heresy following an allegedly fierce argument during which Raymond supposedly threatened Castelnau with violence. Shortly thereafter, Castelnau was murdered as he returned to Rome, allegedly by a knight in the service of Count Raymond. His body was returned and laid to rest in the Abbey at Saint Gilles. As soon as he heard of the murder, the Pope ordered the legates to preach a crusade against the Cathars and wrote a letter to Phillip Augustus, King of France, appealing for his intervention—or an intervention led by his son, Louis. This was not the first appeal but some have seen the murder of the legate as a turning point in papal policy—whereas it might be more accurate to see it as a fortuitous event in allowing the Pope to excite popular opinion and to renew his pleas for intervention in the south. The chronicler of the crusade which was to follow, Peter de Vaux de Cernay, portrays the sequence of events in such a way that, having failed in his effort to peacefully demonstrate the errors of Catharism, the Pope then called a formal crusade, appointing a series of leaders to head the assault. The French King refused to lead the crusade himself, nor could he spare his son—despite his victory against John of England, there were still pressing issues with Flanders and the empire and the threat of an Angevin revival. Phillip did however sanction the participation of some of his more bellicose and ambitious—some might say dangerous—barons, notably Simon de Montfort and Bouchard de Marly. There followed twenty years of war against the Cathars and their allies in the Languedoc: the Albigensian Crusade.
This war pitted the nobles of the north of France against those of the south. The widespread northern enthusiasm for the Crusade was partially inspired by a papal decree permitting the confiscation of lands owned by Cathars and their supporters. This not only angered the lords of the south but also the French King, who was at least nominally the suzerain of the lords whose lands were now open to despoliation and seizure. Phillip Augustus wrote to Pope Innocent in strong terms to point this out—but the Pope did not change his policy—and many of those who went to the Midi were aware that the Pope had been equivocal over the siege of Zara and the seizure and looting of Constantinople. As the Languedoc was supposedly teeming with Cathars and Cathar sympathisers, this made the region a target for northern French noblemen looking to acquire new fiefs. The barons of the north headed south to do battle.
Their first target was the lands of the Trencavel, powerful lords of Albi, Carcassonne and the Razes—but a family with few allies in the Midi. Little was thus done to form a regional coalition and the crusading army was able to take Carcassonne, the Trencavel capital, incarcerating Raymond Roger in his own citadel where he died, allegedly of natural causes; champions of the Occitan cause from that day to this believe he was murdered. Simon de Montfort was granted the Trencavel lands by the Pope and did homage for them to the King of France, thus incurring the enmity of Peter of Aragon who had held aloof from the conflict, even acting as a mediator at the time of the siege of Carcassonne. The remainder of the first of the two Cathar wars now essentially focused on Simon's attempt to hold on to his fabulous gains through winters where he was faced, with only a small force of confederates operating from the main winter camp at Fanjeau, with the desertion of local lords who had sworn fealty to him out of necessity—and attempts to enlarge his newfound domains in the summer when his forces were greatly augmented by reinforcements from northern France, Germany and elsewhere. Summer campaigns saw him not only retake, sometimes with brutal reprisals, what he had lost in the 'close' season, but also seek to widen his sphere of operation—and we see him in action in the Aveyron at St. Antonin and on the banks of the Rhone at Beaucaire. Simon's greatest triumph was the victory against superior numbers at the Battle of Muret—a battle which saw not only the defeat of Raymond of Toulouse and his Occitan allies—but also the death of Peter of Aragon—and the effective end of the ambitions of the house of Aragon/Barcelona in the Languedoc. This was in the medium and longer term of much greater significance to the royal house of France than it was to De Montfort—and with the battle of Bouvines was to secure the position of Philip Augustus vis a vis England and the Empire. The Battle of Muret was a massive step in the creation of the unified French kingdom and the country we know today—although Edward III, the Black Prince and Henry V would threaten later to shake these foundations.
The crusader army came under the command, both spiritually and militarily, of the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux. In the first significant engagement of the war, the town of Béziers was besieged on 22 July 1209. The Catholic inhabitants of the city were granted the freedom to leave unharmed, but many refused and opted to stay and fight alongside the Cathars.
The Cathars spent much of 1209 fending off the crusaders. The Béziers army attempted a sortie but was quickly defeated, then pursued by the crusaders back through the gates and into the city. Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander, is supposed to have been asked how to tell Cathars from Catholics. His reply, recalled by Caesar of Heisterbach, a fellow Cistercian, thirty years later was "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius."—"Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own." The doors of the church of St Mary Magdalene were broken down and the refugees dragged out and slaughtered. Reportedly, 7,000 people died there. Elsewhere in the town many more thousands were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. What remained of the city was razed by fire. Arnaud wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex." The permanent population of Béziers at that time was then probably no more than 5,000, but local refugees seeking shelter within the city walls could conceivably have increased the number to 20,000.
After the success of his siege of Carcassonne, which followed the massacre at Béziers, Simon de Montfort was designated as leader of the Crusader army. Prominent opponents of the Crusaders were Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, and his feudal overlord Peter II, the king of Aragon, who held fiefdoms and had a number of vassals in the region. Peter died fighting against the crusade on 12 September 1213 at the Battle of Muret. Simon was killed on 25 June 1218 after maintaining a siege of Toulouse for nine months.
The war ended in the Treaty of Paris (1229), by which the king of France dispossessed the house of Toulouse of the greater part of its fiefs, and that of the Trencavels (Viscounts of Béziers and Carcassonne) of the whole of their fiefs. The independence of the princes of the Languedoc was at an end. But in spite of the wholesale massacre of Cathars during the war, Catharism was not yet extinguished.
The Inquisition was established in 1229 to uproot the remaining Cathars. Operating in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century, and a great part of the 14th, it finally succeeded in extirpating the movement. Cathars who refused to recant were hanged, or burnt at the stake.
From May 1243 to March 1244, the Cathar fortress of Montségur was besieged by the troops of the seneschal of Carcassonne and the archbishop of Narbonne. On 16 March 1244, a large and symbolically important massacre took place, where over 200 Cathar Perfects were burnt in an enormous fire at the prat dels cremats near the foot of the castle. Moreover, the Church decreed lesser chastisements against laymen suspected of sympathy with Cathars, at the 1235 Council of Narbonne.
A popular though as yet unsubstantiated theory holds that a small party of Cathar Perfects escaped from the fortress before the massacre at prat dels cremats. It is widely held in the Cathar region to this day that the escapees took with them le tresor cathar. What this treasure consisted of has been a matter of considerable speculation: claims range from sacred Gnostic texts to the Cathars' accumulated wealth.
Hunted by the Inquisition and deserted by the nobles of their districts, the Cathars became more and more scattered fugitives: meeting surreptitiously in forests and mountain wilds. Later insurrections broke out under the leadership of Bernard of Foix, Aimery of Narbonne[disambiguation needed] and Bernard Délicieux (a Franciscan friar later prosecuted for his adherence to another heretical movement, that of the Spiritual Franciscans) at the beginning of the 14th century. But by this time the Inquisition had grown very powerful. Consequently, many were summoned to appear before it. Precise indications of this are found in the registers of the Inquisitors, Bernard of Caux, Jean de St Pierre, Geoffroy d'Ablis, and others. The parfaits only rarely recanted, and hundreds were burnt. Repentant lay believers were punished, but their lives were spared as long as they did not relapse. Having recanted, they were obliged to sew yellow crosses onto their outdoor clothing and to live apart from other Catholics, at least for a while.
After several decades of harassment and re-proselytising, and perhaps even more importantly, the systematic destruction of their religious texts, the sect was exhausted and could find no more adepts. The leaders of a Cathar revival in the Pyrenean foothills, Peire and Jacques Autier, were executed in 1310. Catharism disappeared from the northern Italian cities after the 1260s, under pressure from the Inquisition. After 1330, the records of the Inquisition contain very few proceedings against Cathars. The last known Cathar perfectus in the Languedoc, Guillaume Bélibaste, was executed in 1321.
Other movements, such as the Waldensians and the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit, which suffered persecution in the same area, survived in remote areas and in small numbers into the 14th and 15th centuries. Some Waldensian ideas were absorbed into early Protestant sects, such as the Hussites, Lollards, and the Moravian Church (Herrnhuters of Germany).
After the suppression of Catharism, the descendants of Cathars were at times required to live outside towns and their defences. They thus retained a certain Cathar identity, despite having returned to the Catholic religion.
Any use of the term "Cathar" to refer to people after the suppression of Catharism in the 14th century is a cultural or ancestral reference, and has no religious implication. Nevertheless, interest in the Cathars, their history, legacy and beliefs continues. The publication of the book Crusade against the Grail by the young German Otto Rahn in the 1930s rekindled interest in the connection between the Cathars and the Holy Grail. Rahn was convinced that the 13th century work Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach was a veiled account of the Cathars. His research attracted the attention of the Nazi government and in particular of Heinrich Himmler, who made him archaeologist in the SS. Also, the Cathars have been depicted in popular books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and Labyrinth.
The term Pays Cathare, French meaning "Cathar Country" is used to highlight the Cathar heritage and history of the region where Catharism was traditionally strongest. This area is centred around fortresses such as Montségur and Carcassonne; also the French département of the Aude uses the title Pays Cathare in tourist brochures. These areas have ruins from the wars against the Cathars which are still visible today.
Some criticise the promotion of the identity of Pays Cathare as an exaggeration for tourist purposes. Actually, most of the promoted Cathar castles were not built by Cathars but by local lords and later many of them were rebuilt and extended for strategic purposes. Good examples of these are the magnificent castles of Queribus and Peyrepertuse which are both perched on the side of precipitous drops on the last folds of the Corbieres mountains. They were for several hundred years frontier fortresses belonging to the French crown and most of what you will see there today in their well preserved remains dates from a post-Cathar era. The Cathars sought refuge at these sites. Many consider the County of Foix to be the actual historical centre of Catharism.
In an effort to find the few remaining heretics in and around the village of Montaillou, Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, future Pope Benedict XII, had those suspected of heresy interrogated in the presence of scribes who recorded their conversations. The late 13th to early 14th century document, discovered in the Vatican archives in the 1960s, is the oldest known account of the daily lives of ordinary people told in their own words. It was translated by Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie as Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error. In the original, the book was entitled:Montaillou, Occitan Village.
The principal legacy of the Cathar movement is in the poems and songs of the Cathar troubadors, though this artistic legacy is only a smaller part of the wider Occitan linguistic and artistic heritage. Recent artistic projects concentrating on the Cathar element in Provençal and troubador art include commercial recording projects by Thomas Binkley, electric hurdy-gurdy artist Valentin Clastrier and his CD Heresie dedicated to the church at Cathars, La Nef, and Jordi Savall.
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