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Crusade Against Catharism

I am appalled that a Christian church would commit genocide against another Christian group. How could the spiritual leader of Catholicism, the Pope, declare an unprovoked war against a relatively small group of Christians that he considered heretical? Can you imagine a mainline Christian denomination today declaring war against The Church of Latter Day Saints because they don’t agree with their theology? Well, such an atrocity happened in the thirteenth century. The Pope, ironically named Innocent III, called for a crusade against the Cathars, the only time a crusade was fought against fellow Christians. The most famous – or infamous – crusades were wars against the Muslims who had captured two-thirds of the Christian world, including Jerusalem. Those Crusaders were promised forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven, but most of them expected to acquire land and wealth from those they conquered. In 1198, while Crusades were still being fought in the Middle East, Pope Innocent III determined to rid Europe of “the Great Heresy.”

So, who were the Cathars? They were a religious group that Catholic theologians argued was not Christian. The Cathars, however, considered themselves Christians. Catharism flourished in the southern part of what is now France, an area known as the Languedoc, which, in the thirteenth century, was not a part of France.

The Cathars were dualists. They believed in two antagonistic principles: Good and Evil. God, the force of good, was spiritual, the God of love, order and peace. A fallen angel, that they called Rex Mundi – which means “King of the World” – represented Evil. The material world, everything visible and perishable, was created by Rex Mundi, so Cathars thought the physical world, including the human body, was evil. Since the human body was sinful, so was sex, even after marriage. God created the immaterial world, everything that endures, including the invisible and incorruptible human soul. After Rex Mundi created the world, God sent an angel to earth, Adam, who Rex Mundi forced to become human.

The Cathars thought their tradition was older than Catholicism, was less contaminated and nearer to the spirit of the early church. Unlike Catholics, who were forbidden to read the Bible, Cathars read it in Latin and Occitan (their regional language). They Catholic priesthood, including the Pope, according to the Cathars, was corrupted. Therefore, they rejected the idea of a priesthood and church-owned buildings – no temples, cathedrals, or churches. Anyone could serve the Eucharist and hear confession. Contrary to Catholicism’s teaching, individuals were responsible for developing their relationship with God. Henry the Petrobrusian, a 12th century Cathar preacher, did not believe in original sin; people yielded to sin through their own actions. The Cathars had a unique sacrament known as the “consolamentum,” which was typically received near death. But some received the sacrament earlier in life and became Perfects.

Since the God of the Old Testament drowned all of humanity, routed and drowned Pharaoh and his army, destroyed the inhabitants of Sodom, and actually ordered the Israelites to massacre the people of Canaan, they didn’t consider the Old Testament God to be righteous.

The Cathar view of Jesus was drastically different from other Christians. They believed he was an angel who came to earth to awaken the sleeping souls of men. The earthly Jesus, the one who died on the cross in Jerusalem, led a typical life, including marrying Mary Magdalene and fathering children. They considered him a rabbi – a teacher – not a savior. They thought the New Testament accounts of Jesus were to be viewed allegorically not literally. The celestial Christ, however, was born and died in the invisible world.

The ordinary believers, called “credentes,” led routine medieval lives. The Perfects, both men and women, led very virtuous lives, which included celibacy, but they still worked for their living. They believed that non-procreative sex was better than procreative sex – exactly the opposite of the Catholicism. Cathars believed in reincarnation, so they refused to eat meat or any animal products (they might be eating one of their relatives who was reincarnated as a cow). They believed they were supposed to live in poverty, not tells lies, and not swear oaths, which are all Biblical principles.

By the thirteenth century in the southern part of what is now France that was called the Languedoc, Catharism was the majority religion. In open debates with leading Catholic theologians Cathars often won and a number of Catholic priests became Cathars, which was exceedingly embarrassing for the Catholic Church. The Cathars ridiculed the Catholics for preaching poverty, but being exceedingly wealthy. They also accused the church of being bogged down in the material world, of forgetting its divine mission, and of joining the Evil One to deceive the souls who still believed in the light. And they refused to pay taxes and tithes to the Catholic Church, which, believe it or not, was expected of everyone – Christian and non-Christian – during the Middle Ages. The Cathars called Catholicism the “Church of Wolves,” while Catholics called the Cathars the “Synagogue of Satan.” Evidently, Catholicism was afraid it was being replaced by Catharism, so only one option remained – a crusade. The Pope appointed a Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amaury to lead the Albigensian Crusade (the church called the Cathars Albigensians because they erroneously believed that they were concentrated in the town of Albi). Like all crusades backed by the Roman Catholic Church, those who fought on the church’s side were promised remission of sins and salvation, but most of them expected to reap a fortune in spoils.

One of the most brutal episodes of the crusade against the Cathars occurred on July 22, 1209 at Beziers. The Church’s “Holy Army” surrounded the city with ten to fifteen thousand church officials, French nobles, knights, mercenaries and camp-followers and prepared for a lengthy siege.

The Bishop of Beziers negotiated with the Crusaders who agreed to spare the city if the Catholic residents left the city and handed over two hundred and twenty-two suspected heretics. Included were individuals and/or families of Perfects and other Cathars who were well-to-do middle-class citizens (“burghers”) of the city. To their credit, the town’s leaders indignantly refused to surrender or betray their fellow-citizens.

So, on the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, one of the most infamous tragedies in history occurred. First, insults were exchanged between some of the crusaders and the men of the city who were safely on top of the city’s walls. When one of the crusaders walked onto the bridge over the Orb and loudly taunted the citizens of Beziers, a few young men rashly decided to teach him a lesson. They gathered a few primitive weapons, swung open a gate, charged the heckler on the bridge and threw him into the river. Some of the man’s fellow crusaders ran to his aid and saw that the gate was open. They yelled for others to attack. Soon thousands of crusaders launched an assault through the open gate. When the men on the battlements descended to the streets to defend their city, the crusaders propped tall ladders against the walls and scampered up.

It was supposedly at this point that Abbot Amaury said: “Caedite cos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius, which translates as “Kill them all. God will know his own.” No one, including representatives of the Church, tried to avert the butchery that followed.

Everyone – Cathar, Catholic, women, children – was killed in one morning (in the days before guns, killing that many people in a few hours required savagery that staggers the imagination). At the city’s cathedral, the priests were holding a vigil for their faithful parishioners, when crusaders charged the congregation and killed everyone including the priests. Women and children crowded into the Church of St. Mary Magdalene to pray. According to Peter of Vaux de Cernay, the crusaders broke down the doors and slaughtered everyone – he claimed there were 7,000 inside. When the church was renovated in 1840, a huge pile of human bones, the victims of the massacre, were discovered under the floor of the church.

In a letter to the Pope, Arnaud Amaury proudly wrote that “nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to the sword, regardless of age and sex. The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous.”

Once all the townspeople were dead, the mercenaries and camp-followers began looting, which made the French Lords and knights furious. The spoils of war were supposed to be apportioned by the leader of the army, i.e. these ruffians were taking what rightly belonged to the nobility. Then the “filthy wretches all shouted out ‘Burn it! Burn it!’,” which they did. The city literally became a funeral pyre.

Some historians blame the mercenaries for this massacre. But the question is, why did the Church use such diabolical criminals and ruffians?

After the Beziers massacre, other heretic strongholds fell one after the other. In August, the town of Carcassone capitulated. Albi, Casteinaudary, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux, Lombers and Montreal surrendered without a fight.

The conditions for surrender were:

• Any heretic who recants his false faith must wear two crosses sewn on his breast, and the crosses are to be in striking contrast to the color of his clothes (like The Scarlet Letter). He must change residence. No heretic or reformed heretic may hold public office.
• Every boy over fourteen and every girl over twelve must swear loyalty to the Catholic faith, renounce heresy, and promise to hunt out heretics. This oath shall be renewed every two years.
• All persons, without exception, must attend Mass on Sundays and take Communion thrice a year – at Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost.
• No one suspected of heresy is to practice as a doctor, and no sick person may have a heretic near him when he dies.
• No one may possess a Bible or translate it from Latin or read it in the vernacular.

After a halt of fighting during winter, one hundred and fifty Cathars were executed in Minerve in July 1210. Other massacres were perpetrated in 1211 and 1213. Toulouse fell in 1214. The crusade supposedly ended when a treaty was signed in 1229. But the struggle against heresy didn’t end; it just transferred to the Inquisition.

As a result of the Albigensian Crusade, the educated and tolerant Languedoc rulers were replaced by barbarians like Dominic Guzman, who later was sainted for founding the Dominican Order, which headed the infamous Inquisition. The Dominicans developed techniques that tormented any trace of the Albigensian heresy until the Cathars of Languedoc capitulated or went underground.

Jews and other minorities were also persecuted; the culture of the troubadours vanished because their cultured patrons became refugees; lay learning was discouraged and reading the Bible became a capital crime.

In Catalonia, in 1242, a conclave of churchmen assembled to define heretics, believers and others:

Heretics are those who remain obstinate in error.
Believers are those who put faith in the errors of heretics and are assimilated to them.
• Those suspected of heresy are those who are present at the preaching of heretics and participate, however little, in their ceremonies.
Those simply suspected have done such thing only once.
Those vehemently suspected have done this often.
• Those most vehemently suspected have done this frequently.
Concealers are those who have agreed to prevent heretics being discovered.
Receivers are those who have twice received heretics on their property.
Defenders are those who knowingly defend heretics so as to prevent the Church from extirpating heretical depravity.
Favorers are all of the above to a greater or lesser degree.
Relapsed are those who return to their former heretical errors after having formally renounced them.

During the heyday of Catharism, everyone would have been a “concealer,” because known heretics were accepted members of every community of the Languedoc.

The crusade may have been over, but the Inquisition continued to hunt heretics. The final chapter of Catharism was not written until the siege of Montsegur (“mons secures” which means “safe hill”).

The Chateau de Montsegur was built on a mountain that resembles Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. During the Middle Ages, the pog (mountain) and the chateau became a Cathar refuge. In 1243, thousands of troops surrounded the pog and began a siege that lasted over nine months. Finally, on March 1, 1244, the Cathars negotiated an honorable surrender. Because the troops couldn’t take Montsegur by assault, they were somewhat lenient. Conditions for the surrender were as follows:

• Everyone was to remain in the fortress for fifteen days; meanwhile, they were to release all hostages.
• They would receive pardons for all their past crimes, including the Avignonet affair in which the Pope’s legate had been assassinated.
• The hundred or so men-at-arms would be allowed to leave with their arms and baggage, but would be required to appear before the Inquisition and confess their errors. They would receive only light penances.
• All other persons in the fortress would remain at liberty, and would similarly be subject to light penances, provided they recanted their heretical beliefs and confessed before the Inquisitors. Those who did not recant would be burned at the stake.
• The fortress of Montsegur would pass into the hands of the Church and the French Crown.

On the night before the surrender, four Perfects were lowered by cable down the perilous western face of the mountain and escaped. They may have known the location of the Cathar treasure that had been secreted away earlier and/or were charged with keeping Catharism alive. The treasure may have contained valuables, but also documents and relics, but it has never been found.

Early on the morning of March 16, 1244, 205 barefoot Cathars who refused to recant, dressed only in course robes, marched down from the mountain top to a snowy meadow where a pyre that been hastily erected. Not one Perfect recanted. Holding hands and singing, they climbed the ladders into the pyre. At the Archbishop’s sign, the pyre was lit. Amid low murmurs of prayers, the flames soon consumed what was supposed to be the last of the Cathars. Some element of the Cathar faith lived, however, but, haunted by the Inquisition, many moved to Spain and Italy where oppressive was less severe.

The church’s war against the Cathars of the Languedoc lasted for forty years. During this period an estimated 500,000 men, women and children were massacred. The Crusaders killed indiscriminately. In other words, Catholicism became a police state, not unlike Nazi Germany. They committed genocide to save the Catholic Church from extinction. Chateaubriand referred to the crusade as “this abominable episode of our history.” Voltaire observed that “there was never anything as unjust as the war against the Albigensians.” Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide in the 20th century, referred to the Albigensian Crusade as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history.

I understand that this happened during the Middle Ages and that the Catholic Church was corrupted during this era, but it boggles my mind that a Christian Church could be that inhumane to anyone.

Had they never read the tenth chapter of Acts? Cornelius was a devout Gentile centurion who was instructed by God’s angel to send his emissaries to bring “Simon who is called Peter” to Joppa. Meanwhile, Peter was on the roof praying when he became hungry. While his food was being prepared, he had a vision. He saw several kinds of creatures that Jews considered unclean. Three times, God instructed him to kill and eat them. As he pondered the meaning of his vision, Cornelius’ emissaries arrived. Even though they were Gentiles, Peter invited them to spend the night. The next day, they traveled to Caesarea to Cornelius’ house where Peter ate with and spoke to Cornelius and some of his friends; Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. Peter explained that God had shown him that he should not call anyone profane or unclean. The criteria for God’s acceptance is not race, nationality, wealth or social position. It is to revere God and do righteous works.

The Pope and his church were the Jews and the Cathars were the Gentiles in the excerpt from Acts mentioned above. Even though they considered the Cathars heretics, they had no right to force them to become Catholics and they certainly didn’t have the right to exterminate them.

Please, God, teach us to be accepting of others: those who worship differently, different races, sexual orientation, socio-economic level – any and everyone who is different from us for whatever reason. God, you created us and pronounced your creation good. We have no right to be judge and jury. Help us to look inward, recognize our own faults, confess them, and attempt to correct them. We never want to experience another Crusade.

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