Catharism was a Gnostic movement that originated around the middle of the 10th century, branded by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church as heretical. It existed throughout much of Western Europe, but its home was in Languedoc, in southern France. The name Cathar most likely originated from Greek catharos, "the pure ones". Another suggested origin was from Latin cattus, for "cat", which were usually associated with witches and heretics. Most likely this is just a myth initiated by the Roman Catholics. One of the first recorded uses is Eckbert von Schönau who wrote on heretics from Cologne in 1181: "Hos nostra germania catharos appellat."
The Cathars are also called Albigensians. This name originates from the end of the 12th century, and was used by the chronicler Geoffroy du Breuil of Vigeois in 1181. The name refers to the southern town of Albi (the ancient Albiga.) The designation is hardly exact, for the centre was at Toulouse and in the neighbouring districts.
The beliefs came originally from eastern Europe by way of trade routes. The name of Bulgarians (Bougres) was also applied to the Albigenses, and they maintained an association with the Bogomils of Thrace. Their doctrines have numerous resemblances to those of the Bogomils, and still more to those of the Paulicians, with whom they are also sometimes connected. It is difficult to form any precise idea of the Cathar doctrines, as all the existing knowledge of them is derived from their opponents, and the few texts from the Cathars (the Rituel cathare de Lyon and the Nouveau Testament en provencal) contain very little information concerning their beliefs and moral practices. What is certain is that they formed an anti-sacerdotal party in opposition to the Roman church, and raised a continued protest against the corruption of the clergy. The Cathar theologians, called Cathari or perfecti (in France bons hommes or bons chretiens) were few in number; the mass of believers (credentes) were not initiated into the doctrine at all - they were freed from all moral prohibition and all religious obligation, on condition that they promised by an act called convenenza to become "hereticized" by receiving the consolamentum, the baptism of the Spirit, before their death.
The first Cathars appeared in Limousin between 1012 and 1020. Several were discovered and put to death at Toulouse in 1022. The synods of Charroux (Vienne) (1028) and Toulouse (1056) condemned the growing sect. Preachers were summoned to the districts of the Agenais and the Toulousain to combat the heretical propaganda in the 1100s. The Cathars, however, gained ground in the south due to the protection given by William, Duke of Aquitaine, and that given by a significant proportion of the southern nobility. The people were impressed by the bons hommes, and the anti-sacerdotal preaching of Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne in Perigord.
Catharism was based on the idea that the world was evil. This was a distinct feature of Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Manicheanism and the theology of the Bogomils. This idea may possibly also have been influenced by older Gnostic lines of thought. According to the Cathars, the world had been created by an evil deity known to the Gnostics as the Demiurge. The Cathars identified the Demiurge with the being the Christians called Satan. Earlier Gnostics, however, did not identify the Demiurge with Satan. This may be due to the fact that the concept of Satan was not "in fashion" in the 1st century, while the concept became increasingly popular in medieval times.
The Cathars also believed that souls would be reborn until they escaped the material world and succeeded to the immaterial heaven. The way to escape was to live an ascetic's life, and to be not corrupted by the world. Those that did live this life were called 'Perfects'(Parfaits). They had the power to wipe away a person's sins and connections to the material world, so that they would go to heaven when they died. The Perfects themselves lived lives of unimpeachable frugality, in stark contrast to that lived within the corrupt and opulent church of the time. Commonly, the wiping away of sin, called the consolamentum, was performed on someone about to die. After receiving this, the believer would sometimes stop eating, so that they could die faster, and with less taint from the world. The consulamentum was the only sacrament of the Cathar faith. They did not perform any rite of marriage, as procreation (bringing more souls into the world) was frowned upon. It was as a result of this particular belief that the term "buggery" was coined (after the 'Bulgars', or 'Bougres') since sex (using a loose definition) was perfectly all right as long as as no children resulted.
The Cathars also held many beliefs that were odious to the rest of medieval society. They believed that Jesus had been an apparition, a ghost, that showed the way to God. They refused to believe that the good God could or would come in material form, since all physical objects were tainted by sin. This specific belief is called docetism. Furthermore, they believed that the God of the Old Testament was the Devil, since he had created the world. They also did not believe in any sacrament except the consulamentum, which was another major heresy.
Women were treated as equals, because their physical form was irrelevant; their soul could have been a man's soul before, and it might once again become one.
One of their ideas most heretical to feudal Europe was the belief that oaths were a sin, because they attached you to the world. To call them a sin in this manner was very dangerous in a society where illiteracy was wide-spread and almost all business transactions and pledges of allegiance were based on oaths.
In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the affected district in order to arrest the progress of the Cathars. The few isolated successes of Bernard of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, and well shows the power of the sect in the south of France at that period. The missions of Cardinal Peter (of St Chrysogonus) to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180-1181, obtained merely momentary successes. Henry of Albano's armed expedition, where he took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.
The persistent decisions of the councils against the Cathars at this period— in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179)— had scarcely more effect. Pope Innocent III, however, when he came to power in 1198 resolved to suppress the Albigenses.
At first he tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the affected regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who venerated them, but also with the bishops of the district, who rejected the extraordinary authority which the Pope had conferred upon his legates. In 1204 Innocent III suspended the authority of the bishops in the south of France. Papal legate Peter of Castelnau, known for recklessly excommunicating the noblemen who protected the Cathari, retaliated in 1207 by excommunicating the Count of Toulouse, as an abettor of heresy. He was murdered near Saint Gilles Abbey in 1208 on his way back to Rome, according to Catholic Encyclopedia, "probably at the connivance of Raymond VI, count of Toulouse". As soon as he heard of the murder of Peter of Castelnau, the Pope ordered his legates to preach the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars.
This implacable war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, possibly instigated by a papal decree stating that all land owned by Cathars could be confiscated at will. This was practically an open invitation to wholesale theft with the blessings of the Church as the area was full of Cathar sympathisers. It is thus hardly surprising that the barons of the north flocked south to do battle for the Church.
In one famous incident in 1209, most of Béziers was slaughtered by the Catholic forces headed by the Papal legate. The Abbot of Citeaux was asked how to distinguish between the Catholic and Cathars, and he answered "kill them all, God will know his own." The Catholic Encyclopedia denies these words were ever spoken.
The war also involved Peter II, the king of Aragon, who owned fiefdoms and had vassals in the area. Peter died fighting against the crusade on September 12, 1213 at the Battle of Muret.
The war ended in the treaty of Paris (1229), by which the king of France dispossessed the house of Toulouse of the greater part of its fiefs, and that of Beziers of the whole of its fiefs. The independence of the princes of the south was at an end. But in spite of the wholesale massacre of Cathars during the war, Catharism was not extinguished.
The Inquisition was established in 1229 to root out the Cathars. Operating unremittingly in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century and a great part of the 14th, it succeeded in crushing the movement. From May 1243 to March 1244, the Cathar citadel of Montségur was besieged by the troops of the seneschal of Carcassonne and the archbishop of Narbonne. On March 16, 1244 a large and symbolically important slaughter took place, where leaders of Catharism together with more than 200 heretics were thrown into an enormous fire at the 'prat des cramats' near the foot of the castle. Moreover, the church decreed severe chastisement against all laymen suspected of sympathy with Cathars (Council of Narbonne, 1235; Bull Ad extirpanda, 1252).
Hunted down by the Inquisition and abandoned by the nobles of the district, the Albigenses became more and more scattered, hiding in the forests and mountains, and only meeting surreptitiously. The people made some attempts to throw off the yoke of the Inquisition and the French, and insurrections broke out under the leadership of Bernard of Foix, Aimerv of Narbonne, and Bernard Délicieux at the beginning of the 14th century. But at this point vast inquests were set on foot by the Inquisition, which terrorized the district. Precise indications of these are found in the registers of the Inquisitors, Bernard of Caux, Jean de St Pierre, Geoffroy d'Ablis, and others. The sect was exhausted and could find no more adepts and after 1330 the records of the Inquisition contain few proceedings against Catharists. The last Cathar Perfect died in the beginning of the 14th century. Sympathizers with the Cathars went underground and hid their faith for obvious reasons.
- Christian Rosencreuz, according to some, may have been associated with an underground Cathar movement that hid from the Inquisition. However, this is highly unlikely because there is absolutely no evidence that the Cathar movement still existed by Rosencreuz' time, nor is there any concrete evidence that Rosencreuz existed at all.
- Histories of the Cathars: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, trans. Barbera Bray, Vintage Books, 1979
- Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars, Jean Markale, ISBN 0_89281_090_4, Inner Traditions, http://www.innertraditions.com/titles/momyca.html
- The Cathars, Malcolm Lambert, ISBN 0-631-14343-2, Blackwell, 1998
- The Treasure of Montsegur: A Novel of the Cathars, Sophy Burnham, ISBN 0060000791, Harper, 2002
- The Perfect Heresy, Stephen Shea, ISBN 1-86197-350-0, Profile Books 2000, http://www.profilebooks.co.uk/title.php?titleissue_id=26
- Heresy and the Inquisition II Persecution of Heretics (http://www.askwhy.co.uk/christianity/0811Inquisition.html) by Dr M D Magee, 12 December 2002.
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.