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Cathars

 
Cathars in the Languedoc

    The Cathars were a religious group who appeared in Europe in the eleventh century. Their origins is something of a mystery though there is reason to believe their ideas sprang from the Muslim faith in Persia by way of the Byzantine Empire, the Balkans and Northern Italy. 
Cathar Sites in the Languedoc
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     Records from the Roman Catholic Church mention them under various names and in various places. Roman Catholic theologians debated amongst themselves for centuries whether Cathars were Christian heretics, or whether they were not Christians at all. The question is apparently still open. Catholics still refer to Cathar belief as "the Great Heresy" though the current official Catholic position is that Catharism is not Christian at all.

    Cathars believed in two principles, a good creator; God and his evil adversary (much like God and Satan of mainstream Christianity). Cathars called themselves Christians and their neighbours distinguished them as "Good Christians". The Catholic Church called them Cathars or Albigenses, so named after the central powerbase close to Albi in Tarn. Cathars maintained a Church hierarchy and practiced a range of ceremonies, but rejected any idea of priesthood or the use of church buildings. They divided into ordinary believers who led ordinary medieval lives and an inner Elect of Parfaits (men) and Parfaites (women), who led extremely ascetic lives yet still worked for their living - generally in itinerant manual trades like weaving.

    Cathars believed in reincarnation and refused to eat meat or other animal products. They were strict about biblical injunctions - notably those about living in poverty, not telling lies, not killing and not swearing oaths. Basic Cathar tenets led to some surprising logical implications. For example they largely regarded men and women as equals, and had no doctrinal objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide.

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    In some respects the Cathar and Catholic Churches were polar opposites. For example the Cathar Church taught that all non-procreative sex was better than any procreative sex. The Catholic Church taught, and still teaches, exactly the opposite. Both positions produced interesting results. Following their tenet, Catholics concluded that masturbation was a far greater sin than rape, as mediaeval penitentials confirm. Following their principles, Cathar could deduce that sexual intercourse between man and wife was more culpable than homosexual sex.

    In the Languedoc, famous at the time for its high culture, tolerance and liberalism, the Cathar religion took root and gained more and more adherents during the twelfth century. By the early thirteenth century Catharism was probably the majority religion in the area, supported by the nobility as well as the common people.
This was yet another annoyance to the Roman Church which considered the feudal system to be divinely ordained as the natural order (Cathars disliked it because it depended on oath taking).

    In open debates with leading Catholic theologians, Cathars seem invariably to have come out on top. This was embarrassing for the Roman Church, not least because they had fielded the best professional preachers in Europe against what they saw as a collection of uneducated weavers and other manual workers. Worse still a number of Catholic priests had become Cathar adherents (Catharism was a religion that seems to have appealed especially to the theologically literate and whole Cathedral chapters are known to have defected, as they did for example at Orleans). Worse, the Catholic Church was held up to public ridicule (some of the richest men in Christendom, bejewelled, dressed in finery, and preaching poverty, provided an irresistible target even to fellow Catholics). Worst yet, and perhaps a cornerstone issue, Cathars in the Languedoc refused to pay tithes to the Catholic Church.

    The Cathar view of the Catholic Church was as bleak as the Catholic Church's view of the Cathar Church. On the Cathar side it manifested itself in ridiculing Catholic doctrine and practices, and characterising the Catholic Church as the "Church of Wolves". The Catholics accused Cathars of heresy or apostasy and said they belonged to the "Synagogue of Satan". The Catholic side created some striking propaganda. When the propaganda proved only partly successful, there was only one option left; a crusade - the Albigensian Crusade.

    From 1208, a war of terror was waged against the indigenous population and their rulers: Raymond VI of Toulouse,  Raymond-Roger Trencavel, Raymond Roger of Foix in the first generation and Raymond VII of Toulouse, Raymond Trencavel II, and Roger Bernard II of Foix in the second generation. During this period an estimated 500,000 Languedoc men women and children were massacred; Catholics as well as Cathars. The Counts of Toulouse and their allies were dispossessed and humiliated, and their lands annexed to France. 

    Educated and tolerant Languedoc rulers were replaced by relative barbarians; Dominic Guzmán (later Saint Dominic) founded the Dominican Order and soon afterwards the Inquisition, manned by his Dominicans, was established explicitly to wipe out the last vestiges of resistance. Persecutions of Languedoc Jews and other minorities were initiated; the culture of the troubadours was lost as their cultured patrons were reduced to wandering refugees known as faidits. Their characteristic concept of "paratge", a whole sophisticated world-view, was almost destroyed, leaving us a pale imitation in our idea of chivalry.

    Lay learning was discouraged and the reading of the bible became a capital crime. Tithes were enforced. The Languedoc started its long economic decline to become the poorest region in France; and the language of the area, Occitan, began its descent from the foremost literary language in Europe to a regional dialect, now disparaged as a patois. Completing the extermination of the Cathars, the Roman Church now had convincing proof that a sustained campaign of genocide can work. It also had the precedent of an internal Crusade within Christendom, and the machinery of the first modern police state that could be wheeled out for the Spanish Inquisition, and again for later Inquisitions and genocides.

    The crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc has been described as one of the greatest disasters ever to befall Europe. 

Catharism is often said to have been completely eradicated by the end of the fourteenth century. Yet there are more than a few vestiges even today, apart from the enduring memory of Cathar martyrdom and the ruins of the famous "Cathar castles", including the Château of Montségur (Montsegùr). There are even Cathars alive today, or at least people claiming to be modern Cathars. 
There is a flourishing, Cathar tourist industry in the Languedoc, and especially in the Aude départment; and also an increasing number of historians and other academics engaged in serious Cathar studies. Interestingly, to date, the deeper they have dug, the more they have vindicated Cathar claims to represent a survival of the Earliest Christian Church.

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    Arguably just as interesting, Protestant ideas share much in common with Cathar ideas, and there is reason to believe that early reformers were aware of the Cathar tradition. Reformers seem to have known things that the Cathars knew, but the Catholic Church did not - and even today some Protestant Churches claim a Cathar heritage. Tantalisingly, weavers were commonly accused of spreading Protestant ideas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as their antecedents in the same trade had been accused of spreading Cathar ideas in medieval times.

    It can even be argued that in many respects Roman Catholic ideas have shifted over the centuries ever further from the Church's medieval teaching and ever closer to Cathar teaching.

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