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Land of the Cathars

By Peter Shepherd

A beautiful drive through the countryside of Provence brought us to the foothills of the Pyrenees, where we were to stay for a week with Malcolm Milligan and his wife Gil. Their welcome and hospitality throughout the week were wonderful and ensured the success of our holiday. The accommodation that they offered us - a luxurious and spacious apartment in a setting that dreams are made of - is available to rent for your next holiday and I recommend it highly.

From this base we first visited nearby Rennes-le-Chateau, a center of Holy Grail mysteries, recently publicised in the DaVinci Code novel and film. Then we visited several of the castles perched on the very top of mountain peaks, which were the refuge of the Cathars when they were persecuted for their beliefs at the start of the last millennium.

Particularly impressive was Montsegur. We climbed up the steps to this sacred place, paying homage to the many Cathars who gave their lives to preserve their integrity and honor the wisdom of their ancient Gnostic teachings. The burning of the Cathars at Montsegur stands as a monument for us to confront the destructive force of hate and intolerance. We united with the spirit of the Cathars, to live in the power of love instead.

Following is an account of the martyrdom of the Cathars at Montsegur, drawn from a much longer original article, 'The Church's War on the Cathars' by Eric Wynants...

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the region known as the Languedoc, spreading approximately southward from the Loire to the Pyrenees, down into Arragon and eastward to the Rhone, became the most highly civilized area of Western Europe. Its fertile soil and pleasant climate provided the means for a leisurely life. The Rhone and the Garonne were notable routes of communication and the passage of many Crusaders on their way to the East gave an immense stimulus to trade. Above all, the Moslem conquest of Spain had brought the influence of Arabic culture. The larger cities had schools of medicine, mathematics and astrology where Arabian scholarship was imparted. Jews were not debarred from public life and were highly respected as doctors and teachers. The Catholic Church no longer held the monopoly of knowledge and it was gradually losing its power hold in the Languedoc.

The wealth of the monastic orders and the intolerance of the bishops roused the contempt of the nobles who accused them of self-indulgence and lack of interest in the poor. The common priests, through the neglect of their superiors, had fallen into discredit on account of their poverty and illiteracy. Very different was the behavior of the Cathars. Their eloquence in presenting their beliefs and their untiring care for all in need of help, won the devotion of both nobles and common people. They became known by the name of "bons hommes" (the good men).

In general the Cathars subscribed to a doctrine of reincarnation and to a recognition of the feminine principle in religion. Indeed, the preachers and teachers of Cathar congregations were of both sexes. At the same time, the Cathars rejected the orthodox Catholic Church and denied the validity of all clerical hierarchies, all official and ordained intercessors between man and God. At the core of this position lay a gnostic tenet - the repudiation of "faith," at least as the Church insisted on it. In the place of "faith" accepted at secondhand, the Cathars insisted on direct and personal knowledge, a religious or mystical experience apprehended at firsthand. The Cathars were heirs to knowledge which partly came from the East and was known to the Gnostics and the early Christians. The basis of this secret was the transmission of the power of love. The gesture of the rite was the material and visible means of projecting this power. Behind it was hidden the spiritual gift, by which the soul was helped, and was able to cross without suffering the narrow portal of death, to escape the shadows and become merged with the light.

In the Black Mountain, not far from Carcassone, there was found a chamber, dating from the Cathar period, containing skeletons. "They lay in a circle, with their heads at the center and their feet at the circumference, like the spokes of a wheel." Those who have studied magical rites will recognize in this posture of death a very ancient rite intended to facilitate the escape of the soul, to allow it to traverse the intermediate worlds by virtue of the impetus given by union.

It was inevitable that sooner or later the clash would come, for no expressions of faith could be more diametrically opposed than between the Catholics and the Cathars. The Cathars were part of the movement of the poor, dating back to older times. Wealth was rejected by the Cathars as "external." Catharism spread with extraordinary speed in Southern France. It was the radiant cult of the pure spirit which took possession of men's souls, and it seriously endangered the materialistic Church of the Pope.

Pope Innocent III realized this and dispatched several apostolic legates to Southern France. These legates went to Toulouse, which was the capital of Catharism. When the legates were rejected, and one of them murdered, Innocent III ordered a crusade of mercenary knights and soldiers. Although there had been intermittent persecution of heretics all through the previous century, especially through the Inquisition, the Church now mobilized her forces in earnest. They were resolved to strike a resounding blow, which would bring misery and terror to the south. The mercenaries, having no personal loyalty or standard of honor, were brutal and godless. The heresy was to be extinguished once and for all.

On the 21st of July 1209, an army of some thirty thousand knights and foot soldiers from northern Europe descended like a whirlwind on the Languedoc - the mountainous northeastern foothills of the Pyrenees in what is now Southern France. In the ensuing war, the whole territory was ravaged, crops were destroyed, towns and cities were razed, a whole population was put to the sword. This extermination occurred on so vast, so terrible a scale that it may well constitute the first case of "genocide" in modern European history. In the town of Beziers alone, for example, at least fifteen thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered wholesale - many of them in the sanctuary of the church itself. When an officer inquired of the Pope's representative how he might distinguish heretics from true believers, the reply was, "Kill them all. God will recognize his own." This quotation, though widely reported, may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it typifies the fanatical zeal and bloodlust with which the atrocities were perpetrated. The same papal representative, writing to Innocent III in Rome, announced proudly that "neither age nor sex nor status was spared."

Surviving Cathars disappeared into remote hiding places in the forests and mountain clefts of the Pyrenees. The heart of the resistance movement was at Montsegur, originally an ancient Manichaean temple consecrated to sun worship. By April of 1243, a vast army of more than ten thousand surrounded the mountain, and by March 1, Montsegur finally capitulated. The Cathars were accorded unexpected generosity. Provided they abjured their heretical beliefs and confessed their "sins" to the Inquisition, they would be freed and subjected only to light penances. Yet, they decided not to do so. On March 15, the truce expired. At dawn the following day more than two hundred Cathars were dragged roughly down the mountainside. Not one recanted. There was not time to erect individual stakes. They were locked into a large wood-filled stockade at the foot of the mountain and burned en masse.

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