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The Cathars — heretics who can inspire us today

Elaine Graham-Leigh looks at a crusade fought on European soil, and shows how religious heresy became a powerful reflection of discontent from below during the Middle Ages

Issue No. 1970

Thirteenth century painting of Cathars being expelled from Carcassone, France

Thirteenth century painting of Cathars being expelled from Carcassone, France


The popular perception of the crusades is of wars fought by christian Europeans against Muslims who inhabited the holy land. But the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was fought by Europeans against Europeans in the south of France. It was not about a “clash of civilisations” — rather it was a clash of feudal power, fought by nobles and the church.

The crusade was aimed at the Cathars, members of a heretical Christian sect that believed that the world was created by the devil and was inherently evil. Unlike previous heretical movements, Catharism was a large and popular mass movement, centred on the Languedoc region of France.

Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars following the murder of a papal representative in Languedoc in 1208. The pope’s aim was to force the nobles of the region, in particular Count Raimond of Toulouse, to take action against the heretics.

But in the end, the defeat of Catharism in the south of France was achieved through the extension of royal authority to the area and the establishment of the Inquisition, which was used to brutally root out the heresy.

The crusade was not primarily about religion, but reflected deeper social forces at work.

Now the popular perception is that the nobility’s feudal authority was always accepted as legitimate — but the reality was very different. From the early 11th century it was clear that noble authority was often regarded by the people who experienced it as essentially illegitimate.

For instance, in 12th century Languedoc banditry was probably a major source of revenue for local nobles. It is also likely that villages were fortified to defend themselves against these “noble bandits”, a tactic that does not suggest acceptance of aristocratic rights.

Competing ideas

Heresy develops as a form of protest. If you were a peasant and you wanted to find a way of complaining, one way of doing it was through heresy. The heretical movements of the Middle Ages were basically movements of social protest.

It was not really about theology at all, it was more a case of “you have too much money and we don’t have enough”.

There are always a large number of ideas floating around in society. Out of the hundreds of competing ideas Catharism became important, at least in part, because the church decided to clamp down on it.

Because of church repression it became the predominant vehicle of protest in the south of France. Religion was simply the main way that people expressed their ideas.

US historian Mark Pegg has examined the manuscripts of the Languedoc Inquisition. They show how villagers’ perceptions changed through religion. Heretical and orthodox Christian beliefs flourished side by side. What people were fighting for became redefined.

People didn’t start off fighting for organised religious sects, but they ended up fighting for them.

Peasants might have started fighting because of their poverty, but then come to affiliate with the Cathars. Of course history was written by the victors — these accounts were written down by monks — but they do show what the other side thought.

None of the major lords in Languedoc were heretics. The reason that nobles such as Count Raimond did not enforce the orthodox form of religion was that he couldn’t. The nobles did not have enough control.

Ideological control

There was also tension between the French king and other nobles. For southern French nobles the king did not really have any authority. He was seen as a sort of court of appeal for disputes. If you were a noble and you were involved in a dispute you would say, “I am going to the king.”

But there was no affiliation to a French state. It was too early for the concept of nation states.

In the early Middle Ages the church didn’t really care what the peasants thought, so there was little talk of heresy. However, after the 11th century, a struggle for control over the land, the main source of wealth, began to emerge.

What developed, along with church control, was the idea that as well as doing what you are told, you had to think what you are told to think. It was a mechanism of consolidating real power over the peasantry.

The Inquisition set up by the Albigensian Crusade strengthened ideological control over the peasantry but it also signalled the end of the actual domination of the church.

The attitude of the nobles changed because there was a contradiction between them acting under the direction of the church and acting for themselves. The nobles started off being directed by the church, but by the end they were fighting for their own interests.

There was intense savagery in the putting down of the Cathars. The savagery was deliberate.

Both the main written sources — from a monk and from a secular man who was on the side of the crusaders — give accounts of whole populations of castles been thrown into wells or having their eyes gorged out.

Today the vocabulary of protest has changed. But I think people should look back and take inspiration from the Cathars. The Middle Ages are portrayed as static, instead of as a period of social conflict and immensely contested ideas. We should view this society in terms of active and evolving social conflict.

Elaine Graham-Leigh’s book The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade is published by The Boydell Press. Order copies from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848.


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Features
Sat 1 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1970
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