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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Dark Crusade

A belief does not become a heresy because it is ‘wrong’, for all beliefs have their own validity. A belief becomes a heresy because someone, somewhere, has decided that it conflicts with what in their opinion is ‘right’. And to make things stick, that someone needs to possess the power to enforce their opinion. You then have ‘orthodox’ beliefs on one side, and ‘heretical’ beliefs on the other. It is a conjouring trick, a stage illusion, so stamped into our mindset to think of those beliefs which fall on the orthodox side of the line as being the ‘correct’ ones, that it needs an effort of will to realise that this is not the way that things actually are, and that it is all down to fallible human opinion. So why is it that orthodox beliefs tend to prevail, and heresies seem to fall by the wayside? Does that not demonstrate the inherent ‘rightness’ of the orthodox view?

It is the first few years of the 13th-century, and we are in the wild and rugged grandeur of the Languedoc region of southern France. Becoming increasingly alarmed by the rapidly-growing influence of the version of Christianity practiced by those known as [1]Cathars, Pope Innocent III ponders how best to deal with what he perceives to be a serious heretical threat to orthodox Catholic power. Not without reason, because the Cathars, inheriting the mantle of the Gnostics from earlier centuries, do not recognise the hierarchical structure of the church upon which Papal authority rests. Instead, their [2]beliefs treat both men and women as spiritual equals, and faith as a personal journey. And such beliefs have no need of bishops, or even popes. And so Pope Innocent declares the Christian-against-Christian [3]Albigensian Crusade, with the promise of Cathar land and property – and absolution from all sins – for any French nobleman who will follow his cause.

The campaigns against the Cathars are extended and complex. In 1209 some two hundred thousand crusaders ride down from the north along the east bank of the Rhône, cross at Avignon, then, avoiding the marshlands of the Camargue farther to the south, swing southwest towards the principal towns of the region. Béziers therefore will be the first large town which they encounter, and the horror of what takes place there is a tactic specifically intended to spread terror through the Languedoc. Both Cathars and their local Catholic sympathisers find themselves trapped inside the city walls.

As the soldiery are about to enter the city gates to put the populace to the sword, a crusader asks the commander, the Cistercian abbot [4]Arnaud Amaury, how they are to recognise Catholics from Cathars. “Kill them all,” the abbot infamously replies, “God will know his own.” The commander’s words might be [5]apocryphal, but what follows is all-too real. The city is razed to the ground, and Amaury reports triumphantly to the Pope: “Today your Holiness, [6]twenty thousand citizens were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.".

Other towns either capitulate or are taken by force. After Béziers it is the turn of the town of Carcassonne, although in this case, rather than being slaughtered, the demoralised and humiliated citizens are forced to strip and are forcibly expelled naked from the city gates (right). Captives are given the [7]option either to accept Catholicism or be burned at the stake. Many choose the latter. Cathar scriptures are added to the flames, all property is seized, and the [8]city is left in a state of devastation.

It is now twenty years into the crusade, and the last pockets of resistance need to be eradicated by other than military means. Founded and overseen by the Dominican Order, the [9]Inquisition is established. Under the new Pope Gregory IX, it is granted sweeping powers, and those Cathars who come before it (below) are denied legal counsel, hear no charges against them, and are presumed [10]guilty. In the surrounding fields and farmlands a scorched earth policy is pursued, and the land is laid waste.

The last great stronghold of Cathar resistance, the fortress of Montségur in the foothills of the Pyrenees (below), finally falls in 1244 after a siege lasting nine months. Over two hundred Cathars who surrender are given the usual option of converting to Catholicism or facing the flames. Without exception they choose immolation, and are burned alive at the site of their surrender in the shadow of this last bastion of Cathar defiance.

Over the sustained span of almost half a century of time, some one million [11]Cathars and their Catholic sympathisers are either burned alive, put to the sword, or tortured and executed at the directives of the Inquisition. These figures are genocidal in any language. Equated with the population of 13th-century France against today’s population, the crusade is a holocaust. In the lives it has cost, the Albigensian Crusade has been the Church of Rome's Final Solution, more effective even than that of the Third Reich in that it succeeded in its intention of erasing from existence a religious belief. Cathar beliefs did not 'fall by the wayside'. They were exterminated.

But history is written by the victors. The Third Reich holocaust against the Jewish population of Europe is rightly condemned as an abominable and inhuman evil - and the Third Reich lost. In the south of France the Catholic papacy won - and the Albigensian Crusade has become an episode in history of which many remain unaware even today. But the Pope would have his way, Catholics prevailed over Cathars, and the Languedoc burned.

[1] From the Greek katharos, meaning ‘purity’. The Christian Cathars viewed the Catholics as apostates, unworthy in their turn of being considered true Christians. The Cathars simply referred to themselves by the term 'Good Men', or ‘Good Christians’ – a term not without its retrospective irony. The twelve points of the Cathar cross (at left) represent the twelve Beatitudes.

[2] As I here focus on the actual crusade, detailing these beliefs lies beyond the scope of this post, although I will certainly aim to cover these in a future post. (Note added February 28 2014: I have now posted A Fragment of Love about Cathar doctrine.)

[3] After the town of Albi in the region. While the motivation for the Albigensian crusade was primarily a religious one, there was an added political factor in that the Languedoc was a largely autonomous region independent of the French Monarchy, with its own language (Occitan, the langue d’oc) and culture which owed more to its Aragon neighbours over the Pyrenees than it did to a distant French court. The French monarchy was opportunist enough to see the advantages of this region being compliantly subdued by the Pope’s intentions, and claimed it firmly for France – as it is to this day.

[4] The abbot also supervised the mass burning alive of ‘many heretics and many fair women’ at the town of Casseneuil. When he arrived at the town of Minerve he summarily ordered one hundred and forty of its citizens put to death whose lives had previously been spared (confirmed Cathars, being pacifists, always refused a combative response). Having retired from his leadership of the crusade, Amaury became archbishop of Narbonne.

Kill 'Em All
[5] Although the abbot’s words were not reported until much later, the assertion that he never actually said them seems to be based more upon the idea that no man of the cloth would say something so inhuman. In fact, such actions were considered to be founded in, and therefore were endorsed by, scriptural precedent, as my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land makes clear. Mass slaughter was even used as a calculated terror tactic during the Albigensian crusade to make other towns capitulate more quickly – as actually happened with towns such as Narbonne. In our own age, the abbot’s famous retort endures in the form of pithy slogans on gung-ho T-shirts sold on army bases and elsewhere. The example here is from an online outlet, price $12.49, which evidently is a higher price than its wearer – and a certain Catholic abbot – would place on human life.

[6] The actual number was probably closer to twelve thousand, but it hardly matters. The horrors perpetrated upon the inhabitants – men, women and children – before they were slain is better imagined than related here. The massacre at Béziers was not a one-off event. Ten years later the five thousand inhabitants of the commune of Marmande were slaughtered after they had surrendered.

[7] In a grim foreshadowing of the treatment of Jews, who under the Third Reich were forced to wear a yellow Star of David, such forced Cathar converts were compelled to wear a yellow cross on their tunics. Why this would have been so repugnant to them I'll discuss in my post on Cathar beliefs, but the action would have been like forcing the Pope to wear an Islamic Star and Crescent.

[8] The tragedy of the destruction of Carcassonne is that it was a centre of learning and culture for the region, where Cathars, Catholics, Jews and Moors lived peaceably together. The Papacy put an end to all that.

[9] Established to extinguish the remaining Cathars, the Inquisition would go on to become an entrenched institution which endured into the 19th-century. Since the Inquisition was essentially an institution of the Church, it was from the beginning the practice both to ‘put to the question’ (an Inquisitor's euphemism for torture), try, sentence and incarcerate those who came before it. But once sentence was passed, the prisoner was always handed over to the civic authorities for execution so that the Church’s hands – and its records – were seen to remain untainted by death. See also my post Giordano Bruno's Infinite Space for more about the Inquisition from a later historical period – and I would recommend the excellent Milos Foreman film Goya’s Ghosts.

[9] cont: In a 13th-century version of waterboarding (above), an Inquisitor waits quill-in-hand to note the confession of heresy from a Cathar woman; a confession which she will be physically unable to utter, thus allowing the torture to continue. But there were guidelines laid down by the Inquisitors for the correct procedures for torture: its application must not be continuous - which merely meant that the torturers would pause and carry on with the interrogation the following day. It is clear enough that (except for superficial legal reasons) such interrogations had less to do with any process of the Church's enquiry into 'the truth' than they did with the frenzied sexual sadism of the Dominican Inquisitors who gloated piously at the sufferings. The Inquisition also included children in its proceedings. 

[10] A point of legality meant that even the corpses of the Cathar deceased could be – and were – exhumed, put on trial, found guilty and burned as heretics, which then legally allowed the Dominican Inquisitors to seize assets and property from the heirs of the deceased.

[11] This total is agreed upon by various historians, including Robertson, Brookmyre, Gus, Ellerbe, et al. Retrieved from: on 24 November 2012.

Christopher Tyerman: God's War: A New History of the Crusades, 2006. And: Otto Rahn: Crusade Against the Grail: The Struggle between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome, 1933, newly-published in 2006 by Inner Traditions. There are many other published works covering the events related here. Although its theme is more in the direction of speculative history, I should mention Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval’s intriguing and thoughtful Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith, published in 2004 by Michael Joseph, specifically because reading it several years ago was my own first encounter with the events of the Albigensian Crusade. The sense of shock that I felt then has not left me, and it is what motivates me to write this post – and to have created this blog in the first place. I remain aware that someone, somewhere, will be reading about these events for the first time, perhaps even here.

Top image: 13th-century crusader sword by Hanwei Swords.

Painting of a Cathar before the Inquisition: L'Agitateur du Langedoc, by Jean-Paul Laurens.

Because my style of doing things is to tend to let others condemn themselves out of their own mouths rather than having my own rant, I was going to include here links to a couple of Christian Apologist websites which actually manage to justify the Albigensian crusade on ‘defending-the-true-faith-against-those-evil-heretics’ grounds (but which nevertheless keep unanimous silence about the one million deaths). But my nerve failed me: reading them was just too distasteful. If nothing else, at least such Apologists demonstrate the way in which blind faith can have the effect of shutting down a normal compassionate human response. And it is pointless to take the line (as they do) that Cathar beliefs were ‘wrong’. Someone can believe that the world was built by a construction crew of seven creatively-gifted gnomes waving magic wands. It still does not justify killing that person to preserve one’s own religious power base.

And lastly...
This plaque of Pope Innocent III is on display in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives as one of twenty three great historical lawgivers. Presumably they have another plaque somewhere which depicts Joseph Stalin as one of the great social reformers.

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