Montsegur, Cathars

Pyre at Montségur: 777 years ago – Part 1

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"The rebel is forgotten and the victor writes history" (Ernst Bloch).

In 1320, in one of the mountain villages in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the valley of the Ariège, an inquisitor recorded a conversation he had had with a Catholic woman named Azaleis. Azaleis recounted:

Guillelme, standing close to the fire – and we all heard it – said that the heretics were good people and that they were better with their faith than we Catholics were with ours. She also said that our Church persecuted them because it had too much power and that if it did not persecute the heretics, they would be more numerous than the rest of us.[1]


"Where there is freedom, there is power" (Michel Foucault).

The multifaceted nature of power and its effects played an essential role in the lives of the Cathars – partly as an opportunity and partly as a tragic entanglement of fate. In the context of the circumstances of the Middle Ages, they perceived power in their feelings, thoughts and actions as an interplay between light and darkness.

It began at the turn of the millennium ...

The Roman Carolingian Empire had broken apart. The forces released caused a mood of fear and catastrophe in connection with the imagery from the Apocalypse of John. The scripture was interpreted to mean that in the year 1000 Satan would emerge from the dungeon and throw the earth into chaos. It was at this time that the first Cathars appeared and, at the same time, the first funeral pyres in Europe (Orleans 1022, Montforte and Turin 1025).

The Gregorian Reform

From the middle of the 11th century, the Roman Church initiated a reform of its religious structures which, under Pope Gregory VII was known as the "Gregorian Reform" (1073-1085), brought about a reorganisation of ecclesiastical Christianity. New religious orders were initiated such as the Benedictines (Cluny) and Cistercians (Citeaux), who lived a spirituality in their isolated monasteries without involving the people.
Thereafter, the Pope united ecclesiastical and secular power as Christ's representative within the Christian world, which he called the "heavenly Jerusalem". This papal theocracy legitimised an ideology of fighting.
The Cistercians, led by Bernard de Clairvaux, called for a holy war against the infidels. In this context, Bernard drew up a theoretical justification for persecuting Christians who practised their faith differently and whom he called heretics. This was the beginning of a "culture of persecution"[2]

From now on, there are two churches:

"... one that flees and forgives (Matthew 10:23) and one that possesses and profanes; the one that flees and forgives and follows the right way of the apostles does not lie and does not deceive; and the church that possesses and profanes is the Roman church" (Pierre Authier, Bon Homme). [3]

Man in the 13th century Middle Ages

... was fundamentally different from man today. He could not experience himself as a unity of body, soul and spirit. His body seemed to belong to an alien, diabolical power. As an individual, he was reduced to a soul between two abysses: On one side there was the satanic physical world, and on the other side the divine-spiritual one. For the normal believers, there was no direct access to the latter because the Church represented the divine in this world for him, it was the mediator. It suppressed his own spiritual faculties and intelligence. The soul, thus destabilised, vacillated between "hyper-sensitivity and dangerous emotionality" and could go from compassionate mercy to cruel anger from one moment to the next. [4]

"Before a transformation can take place in the world, it must first be accomplished in the human soul" (Tolstoy).

The Cathars took a leading role in the spiritual evolution of man at this critical time.
They experienced the efficacy of the Christ in their own souls and saw themselves as successors of the apostles. They assumed that Christ had never appeared in a physical body, but as a power in his divine-spiritual word. Thus, as early forerunners of spiritual freedom, they experienced the power of free and independent thought. Their souls took on the role of mediators between body and spirit in self-authority.
The Cathars enabled believers to receive the consolamentum – the only sacrament of their church, the baptism of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands [5]. The consolamentum was a ritual of initiation into the order of the Church and a ritual that was supposed to redeem a dying person from their sins and lead their soul to a "good end": the original unity of soul and spirit.
The prospect of a "good end", a death that made salvation possible, was the greatest longing of people at that time.
"We are in the Middle Ages [...], everyone believes in God. Everyone wants to save their soul. So, the word 'culture' means to get access to the faith that saves." [6]

"Way of truth and justice"

– that's what the Bons Hommes called their way of life (Bons Hommes, Bon Homme, or Bonne Femme was the name given to the brothers/sisters of the order. Only the inquisitors spoke of Parfaits to distinguish them from the faithful). They lived in communities of women and men as followers of the apostles, in maisons (open monasteries), following strict religious rules and at the same time maintaining a lively exchange with the people of the place. This was because the maisons were located in the middle of villages, "castra". [7]  All class distinctions of the feudal system seemed to be abolished: one was "among Christians".
The maisons formed the basic cells of Catharism. They were not only places of residence and work for members of the order, did not only serve to prepare them for the novitiate into the order, but were also places for the education of children and young people and offered food, shelter, nursing and hospice care to people in need. Anybody could take part in the public religious ceremonies of the Cathars; there was no question of heresy there for a long time.
"The presence of the Bons Hommes in the midst of the intimate networking of society is one of the strong features of their churches, [a] guarantor of their great success." [8] 

The Cathars (this word was not used in the Middle Ages, but only introduced in 20th century historiography) did not have churches or chapels made of stone or wood. Their church – like the early Christian church – consisted of a community gathered around an elected bishop. They said: "It is the heart of man that is the true church of God." [9]

"The presence of the Bonnes Femmes helped to anchor Cathar religiosity deeply in the throbbing heart of society" (Anne Brenon)

The aristocratic feudal lords of Occitania were sympathetic towards the Cathars and their church. Usually being The aristocratic feudal lords of Occitania were sympathetic towards the Cathars and their church. Usually being anti-clerical, they soon realised that they shared a common interest with the Cathars.
Both were concerned with preserving the religious and cultural freedom of the country. L'Occitanie, today's Languedoc, was one of the rare countries whose borders were formed only by its language, la langue d`oc - the language of Occitania. This was accompanied by a high culture of language (poetry) and music, as well as human openness and religious tolerance.
Certainly, the feudal lords were also concerned with preserving the wealth of the land and their own possessions. As a rule, they themselves did not join the Cathar religion. However, under the influence of their wives and families, who were attracted by this religion and adopted the "new" faith, they developed into the most powerful patrons of the Cathars – even though the latter were critical of the feudal system. This success, which gave the Cathars the power of a strong unified group [10], was certainly due, above all, to the transparent, flexible, decentralised structure of the Church of the Cathars, in which women were also able to function on an equal footing. unified group

(to be continued in part 2)


[1] Anne Brenon, Les Cathares, Paris 2007, p. 272

[2] Ibid., p. 46

[3] Ibid., p. 27/28

[4] René Nelli, La vie quotidienne des cathares au XIII siècle, Paris1969, p. 15/16

[5] Anne Brenon, Dico des Cathares, Les Dicos essentiels. Milan, S. 61

[6] Anne Brenon, Cathares - La contre-enquête, Paris 2008, S.84

[7] Anne Brenon, Dico des Cathares, p. 51

[8] Anne Brenon, Les Cathares, p. 86

[9] Anne Brenon, Dico des Cathares, p. 81

[10] Anne Brenon, Les Cathares, S. 86

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