Cathars: The Medieval Progressives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

The Catholic Church was determined to destroy the Cathars. Many people were put to death by fire and sword. Were the Cathars ever truly destroyed? Or did they just adapt, and become invisible?

The remains of Montségur Castle, France.
On March 16, 1244, around 200 Cathar perfects at the Montségur Castle embraced death rather than accepting to serve the Pope. (Image: bjul/Shutterstock)

The Siege of Montségur

In March of the year 1244, 10,000 troops serving the Pope and the King of France huddled in their cold, wet camp in the Pyrenees, near the present-day border of France and Spain. For almost a year this army had fruitlessly besieged the small mountaintop castle of Montségur. Trapped inside was a small band of fighting men—perhaps 50 to 100—and around 500 non-combatants. The besieged were among the last survivors of a religious sect known as the Cathars.

Among the non-combatants were many of the elite of the Cathar faith known as ‘perfects’ or perfecti. Realizing their fate was sealed, the defenders of Montségur agreed to surrender. For decades, the Pope’s crusaders had laid waste to southern France in a ruthless campaign to stamp out the heresy. Whole cities had been put to the sword.

With the surrender of Montségur, final victory seemed at hand. The Crusaders constructed a massive pyre at the base of the rock. The Cathars, who renounced their sin and accepted absolution, would go free. But some 200 perfecti stubbornly refused. On March 16, 1244, as the pyre was lit, the condemned perfects embraced and walked into the flames singing hymns. They were leaving this world and not coming back.

In most history books, if the Cathars are mentioned at all, the fall of Montségur is portrayed as their last stand as an organized movement. But that’s not really true. Heresies are hard things to kill. According to legend, prior to the surrender, three or four perfects escaped Montségur by a secret passage. The escapees were said to have taken with them some kind of Cathar treasure. Some thought it was the Cathars’ holy books, or gold and silver, or the Holy Grail. Or maybe it was a person: the Cathars’ secret leader.

Eleven years later, another royal host attacked the nearby castle of Queribus, where more Cathars and their perfects were holed-up. But the attackers found the place deserted. The heretics had all slipped away; where to, no one knew. Cathar bishops—the highest rank of the perfecti—were still active in the Pyrenees a half century later.

A painting depicting the massacre of the Cathars by the crusaders.
According to the Cathars, the Catholic Church was the church of wolves. The Cathars practiced gender and social equality instead. (Image: Chroniques de Saint-Denis/Public domain)

In 1321, the last known perfect in France was put to death. Church officials in northern Italy burned another in 1340. Despite all the efforts of soldiers and inquisitors—despite a genocidal crusade—Catharism proved very hard to stamp out.

What made this group so difficult to eradicate? And was it ever truly destroyed? It’s much the same question that is also asked of many other secret societies in history, including the Assassins of Persia and the Knights Templar of the Crusades.

The Cathar’s redoubt of Montségur bears an uncanny resemblance to the mountain fortress of the Muslim Assassins, who flourished around the same time in present-day Iran.

And the flaming pyre that consumed the Cathar perfects prefigures by less than a century the burning at the stake of the Knights Templar leader, Jacques de Molay. Coincidences? Probably. Or do they hint at cosmic correspondences we can barely imagine?

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Who Were the Cathars?

The Cathars—condemned as diabolical heretics by the Roman church—are often hailed as a manifestation of a separate, ‘primitive’ brand of Christianity. A brand that could be termed as Proto-Protestants or even enlightened harbingers of social and sexual equality.

They’ve also been roped into the resurgence of southern French—or Occitanian—cultural identity. If you travel to towns like Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne today, you’ll see signs proclaiming the Pays Cathare, ‘Cathar country’ with prominent displays of the gold-and-red Cathar cross, which is misleading since they didn’t worship the cross.

Like many other secret orders down through time, the Cathars have been spun, co-opted, and mythologized, which makes sorting out who exactly they were and what they believed almost impossible.

Indeed, like many secret societies, the Cathars leave open doors at both ends. They appear and disappear with no definitive evidence of creation or destruction. Still, as a religious movement—one that must have had hundreds of thousands of followers—how can Catharism be called a secret society?

As always, that comes down to inner doctrines as opposed to outward appearances. The name Cathar comes from the Greek term katharos, or ‘pure’. It’s the same root as our modern term ‘catharsis’, meaning cleansing or release. But the Cathars never called themselves such. Instead, they referred to themselves simply as Bons Chrétiens, ‘good Christians’; or Bons Hommes, ‘good men’.

Despite the heretic label, Cathars regarded themselves as Christians—the true Christians. An alternative name was Albigensian, taken from one of their main strongholds, Albi. Cathars believed that a good god rules the world of spirit, whereas the material world is a spiritual prison ruled by the evil god.

They reviled the Catholic Church as the church of wolves, a monstrosity of brick and mortar, sumptuousness, and idolatry, which did nothing but mislead.

Learn more about the Knights Templar.

Cathars Versus Catholics

The Vatican eventually sat up and took notice. In 1208, the Pope Innocent III sent a papal legate to Toulouse to re-convert the heretics. The legate’s murder, probably at the instigation of Count Raymond of Toulouse, set off the so-called Albigensian Crusade. It raged for the next 20 years. An army of 20,000 northern crusaders descended on Languedoc with fire and sword.

A depiction of the crusaders drowning bodies of the heretics in a well.
The secret police of the Vatican was ruthless in its extermination of the Cathars. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

An early indication of what was to come was the sack of Béziers in 1209. The town was the home of many Cathars, and of ordinary Catholics, as well. The crusaders who stormed the walls asked another papal representative, Arnaud Amaury, how they could tell good Christians from the heretics.

Amaury issued the order that still echoes today, “Kill them all and God will know his own.” It’s said that 20,000 were butchered in Beziers, including 7,000 cut-down while praying in the town cathedral.

By the time peace was signed in 1229, the south was devastated, with 500,000 to a million people dead, and the power of its nobles crushed. This did much to increase the power of the king in Paris. But the war against Catharism wasn’t over, as became clear in the 1244 siege of Montségur.

But the struggle changed. The Cathars now had to truly become a secret society. And the Catholic Church, to root it out, formed a secret society of its own: the Inquisition. For the next hundred years, the secret police of the Vatican conducted a ruthless campaign of extermination against the Cathar underground, burning their perfects and their books wherever they were found. Repentant credentes were forced to wear a yellow cross and live apart from other Christians.

The heretics were amazingly resilient and preserved a large number of secret supporters among the population. There was even a brief Cathar resurgence in the Pyrenees in the early 1300s. But thereafter, the once-powerful sect just seems to fade away.

Or did it? As I mentioned, there are many interesting parallels between the Shias of Islam and the Gnostics of Christendom. Many Shia practiced taqiyya, or dissimulation, which allowed them to publicly deny their faith while keeping it privately. Did the Cathars do the same? One theory is that the Cathars blended into various organizations that sprang up on the fringes of the official church.

For instance, around 1307, in the mountains of northern Italy, the renegade Catholic monk Fra Dolcino led a thousand-strong band in a bloody struggle against the church and local nobility. It’s interesting that Dolcino’s band made their stand on the Piano dei Gazzari—the Plateau of the Cathars—and they were called Cathars by the locals.

Like the Cathars, Dolcino practiced gender equality; and like the Paulicians, he preached egalitarianism and ‘primitive communism’. That said, there’s no evidence of dualism in Dolcino’s teaching.

The true origins of the Cathars are lost in time. Yet it’s clear they did not just spring from nothing. The Cathars inherited and adapted much older beliefs, and they undoubtedly influenced other groups to come.

Learn more about the Rosicrucians.

Common Questions about Cathars: The Medieval Progressives

Q: What was the alternative name of the Cathars?

Albigensian was the alternative name of the Cathars, taken from one of their main strongholds, Albi.

Q: What were the beliefs of the Cathars?

Cathars believed that a good god rules the world of spirit, whereas the material world is a spiritual prison ruled by the evil god.

Q: What led to the Albigensian Crusade?

The murder of the papal legate in Toulouse set off the Albigensian Crusade.

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