The Perfect Heresy

The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars



Albi, as in Albigensian, the most notorious heresy of all time. On a bright summer afternoon several years ago, I found myself walking the silent streets of Albi in the company of my brother, surprised at having stumbled across a town whose name was familiar. We had come to Albi by chance, having rented a car in Paris a week earlier for an aimless drive southward through the French countryside. It was our version of what the English call “a mystery tour,” a trip with an unknown destination. Once the slate roofs and off-white walls north of the Loire had given way to the warm terra-cotta of the Midi, we had our first confirmed beret sighting; in Aurillac, we backed into an accident; in Rodez, we watched as our waitress fell out of her dress. We had reached Languedoc, France’s Mediterranean southwest.

After a long lunch at a truck stop, we cruised into Albi, the town with a whiff of infamy to its name. The Albigensian Crusade, we knew, a ferocious campaign of siege, battle and bonfire during which the supporters of the Catholic Church sought to eliminate the heretics known as the Albigenses, or the Cathars. That thirteenth-century crusade, directed not against Muslims in distant Palestine but against dissident Christians in the heart of Europe, was followed by the founding of the Inquisition, an implacable machine expressly created to destroy the Cathar survivors of the war. As a result of the upheaval, Languedoc, once a proudly independent territory, was annexed to the kingdom of France. Crusade, Inquisition, conquest — Albi’s place in history, if not in fond memory, was assured.

To our eyes on that summer day, the town looked as if it had opted for drowsy amnesia about its past. We strolled through a deserted old quarter, past siesta-shuttered shops and homes, the wine-red bricks of walls and windowsills bathing us in a rosy glow. A white cat slept on a doorstep, undisturbed by any ghosts. It was hard to square Albi’s blush of well-being with its singular legacy. I needed only think back a decade or so to remember a college instructor describing the Albigensian Crusade as nascent colonialism and, in a more obsessive vein, a potheaded roommate rambling on and on about how the heretics had been hunted down by the original thought police. Now that I was actually in Albi, such recollections seemed inappropriate, a rude intrusion into the town’s pink dream.

On a height above the River Tarn, the narrow streets opened up into a wide plaza. My brother and I glanced at each other. This was more like it.

There, looming over a terraced tumble of riverside dwelling, stood a red fortress, monolithic and menacing, a stupendous mountain of bricks piled 100 feet high and 300 feet wide. Sullenly rectangular, its windows little more than elongated slits, the building looked indestructible, like a glowering anvil hurled from the heavens. Its thirty-two buttresses, shaped like smokestacks cut in half lengthwise, ringed cyclopean walls on all four sides and rose as far as the flat line of an impossibly distant roof. In silhouette, it resembled an appallingly large change dispenser, of the type once worn by bus conductors and waitresses — one buttress holding pennies, another nickels, and so on. Yet that homely comparison was spoiled by an even taller structure, a tower, a red-brick rocket shooting 100 feet higher than the roof alongside the west wall.

The tower held bells that toll on Sunday. The building was a church.

We had been dead wrong about Albi’s amnesia. The fearsome oddity that is the Cathedral of Ste-Cécile will never let the townspeople forget their Albigensian connection. Erected from 1282 to 1392, the building is a massive bully that dwarfs and dominate its neighbors. There is no transept; thus the church does not even have the redemptive shape of the cross. For centuries, it had just one small door. Unlike the other great French cathedrals in Paris, Chartres, Rheims, Bourges, Rouen and Amiens, there were no messy markets under Ste-Cécile’s soaring vault, no snoring wayfarers on its floor, no livestock droppings to slop out in the mornings, no grand portals to let in the air breathed by ordinary men. The church’s exterior was — and still is — a monument to power.

Bernard de Castanet was the medieval bishop who approved the plans, raised the money and started the construction. As he was doing this in the 1280s, Castanet was also accusing many prominent townspeople of heresy, even though the Albigensian Crusade had ended two generations earlier and the inquisitors had been assiduously intimidating the populace ever since. The bishop’s opponents, particularly one outspoken Franciscan friar named Bernard Délicieux, claimed that Castanet was using the threat of Inquisition prison to silence free men and to extort funds. Whatever the truth, the fortress church rose, brick by unforgiving brick, until its larger message became clear: Submit or be crushed.

There was nothing subtle about the appearance of Ste-Cécile, nothing that demanded a specialized monograph detailing gargoyles, grace notes and the likes. We walked around the hulking giant, marveling that the midafternoon silence had been so deceptive. The red cathedral was, in the end, an enraged bellow from Bishop Castanet and his successors. They had seen their world — their power, privileges, beliefs — imperiled by the subversive creed of the Cathars, and they had roared out their anger in this monstrous mountain of brick. It filled our eyes and our ears. Only a disagreement over something as fathomless as the soul of a civilization could elicit a shout so loud that it was still audible across a chasm of 700 years.

Not surprisingly, that afternoon echoed for a long time in my memory. In the years to follow, the Cathars and Albi came to my mind again and again, appearing unbidden in books and magazines and the conversations of the Parisian in whose midst I lived. A lot of people had heard the shout. I began haunting the booksellers’ stalls by the Seine. Friends reached into their bookshelves, invariably producing yet another French-language study of the Cathars for me to discover. Specialized libraries contained hard-to-obtain translations of chronicles, correspondence and Inquisition registers. In 1997, years after my first glimpse of Ste-Cécile, I moved to southwestern France to look — and listen — more closely in the places the Cathars had lived and died. The Perfect Heresy, it turned out was the destination of my mystery tour.


“Kill them all, God will know his own.” The sole catchphrase of the Cathar conflict to be handed down to posterity is attributed to Arnold Amaury, the monk who led the Albigensian Crusade. A chronicler reported that Arnold voiced this command outside the Mediterranean trading town of Béziers on July 22, 1209, when his crusading warriors, on the verge of storming the city after having breached its defenses, had turned to him for advice on distinguishing Catholic believer from Cathar heretic. The monk’s simple instructions were followed and the entire population — 20,000 or so — indiscriminately murdered. The sack of Béziers was the Guernica of the Middle Ages.

Whether Arnold Amaury actually uttered that pitiless order is still a matter for debate. What no one doubts, however, is that the phrase neatly illustrates the homicidal passions at work during the Albigensian Crusade. Even in an era commonly considered barbarous — “a thousand years without a bath,” runs a benign putdown of the Middle Ages — the campaign against the Cathars and their supporters stands out for its stark cruelty. The stories of Béziers and other Church-sponsored atrocities shock at first, then play into the belief that the millennium lying between antiquity and Renaissance was an unrelieved nightmare. Popular culture, drawing on the Gothic imagination of the nineteenth century, has exploited that notion; in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, to take a well-known example, an enraged mobster hisses at an enemy, “I’m gonna get medieval on yo’ ass!” Just the word makes us wince.

In this sense, the story of the Cathars is surpassingly medieval. The Albigensian Crusade, which lasted from 1209 to 1229, was launched by the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages, Innocent III, and initially prosecuted by a gifted warrior, Simon de Montfort, under the approving eye of Arnold Amaury. A mail-fisted response to the questions posed by a popular heresy, the crusade set baleful precedents for Christendom’s approach to dissidence by laying waste to Languedoc, the great arc of land stretching from the Pyrenees to Provence and including such cities as Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne, Narbonne, Béziers and Montpellier.

The crusade’s two decades of salutary slaughter then gave way to fifteen years of fitful revolt and repression, which culminated in the siege of Montségur in 1244. A lonely fortress atop a needle of rock, Montségur eventually surrendered, and more than 200 of its defenders, the leaders of the embattled Cathar faith, were herded into a snowy clearing and burned alive. By then the Inquisition, guided since its founding by the steely intellects of the Dominican order, had developed the techniques that would torment Catholic Europe and Latin America for centuries to come and, in the process, provide the model for latter-day totalitarian control of the individual conscience. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Inquisition had razed any residual trace of the Albigensian heresy from the landscape of Christendom, and the Cathars had vanished. The stations of their calvary — the mass burnings, blindings and hangings, the catapulting of body parts over castle walls, the rapine, the looting, the chanting of monks behind battering rams, the secret trials, the exhuming of corpses, the creakings of the rack — match our phantasmagoria of the medieval only too well.

Were the tale just that, a sort of pulp nonfiction for the prurient, then the Cathars should be relegated to a footnote in the annals of terror. Yet their rise and fall call up other connotation of the medieval — the sublime, mysterious and dynamic Middle Ages that often gets obscured by the flash of armored knights. The Cathar heresy, a pacifist brand of Christianity embracing tolerance and poverty, rose to prominence in the middle of the so-called renaissance of the twelfth century, the time when Europe shook off the intellectual torpor that had afflicted it for hundreds of years. It was a period of change, experimentation and broader horizons. After 1095, the year Pope Urban II had urged Christendom to retake Jerusalem, tens of thousands had gone charging off to Palestine in search of adventure and salvation — and returned as men and women who had seen, if not understood, that life was organized differently elsewhere. At home, the towns began to grow for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, and the great era of cathedral building got under way. Schools formed, as yet unfettered by the strictures of a watchful hierarchy. The spread of new ideas and the birth of new ambitions often led to dissatisfaction with an early medieval Church more suited to a benighted age of huddled monks and shivering peasantries. The great awakening of the twelfth century ushered in an era of spiritual longing that searched and often found the sublime outside the fortress of orthodoxy. The Cathars were joined by other heretical groups — notably the Waldensians, or the “Poor Men of Lyons” — in lashing out at the mainstream religion.

Catharism thrived in regions farthest along the road from the Dark Ages: the merchant cities of Italy, the trading centers of Champagne and the Rhineland and, especially, the fractious checkerboard of familial holdings and independent towns that made up Languedoc at the end of the twelfth century. The fate of the Cathars became wedded to the destiny of Languedoc, for it was there where the heretics prospered most and won disciples in every quarter of society, from mountain shepherd and hillside yeoman to lowland noble and urban merchant. When attacked, the creed’s small priestly class — that is, the ascetics known as Perfect — found a militant multitude of protectors from among its far-reaching network of kinsman, convert and anticlerical sympathizer. The Perfect heresy was ideally, indeed perfectly, suited to the tolerant feudalism of Languedoc, and for that its people would pay a terrible tribute. The region entered the thirteenth century a voluble anomaly in the chorus of European Christianity, its culture enlivened by poetic troubadours and revolutionary Cathars; 100 years later, Languedoc had been swallowed whole by the kings of France, its fearful towns the proving grounds for ambitious inquisitors and royal magistrates.

Without the Cathars, the nobles beholden to the Capet monarchy and its small woodland territory around the city of Paris — the Ile de France — might never have found a pretext to swoop down on the Mediterranean and force the unlikely annexation of Languedoc to the Crown of France. Languedoc shared a culture and language with its cousin south of the Pyrenees, the kingdom of Aragon and Barcelona, one of the Christian fiefs that would eventually roll back the Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. Arguably, Languedoc “belonged” with Aragon, not with the Frankish northerners who would someday create the entity known as France. Without the convulsion of the Albigensian Crusade, the map and makeup of Europe could very well have been different.

Although firmly anchored in the politics and society of its era, the story of the Cathars also forms an important — and harrowing — chapter in the history of ideas. The heresy hinged upon the question of Good and Evil. Not that one side in the struggle over Languedoc was good and the other bad, even if propagandists for both sides claimed that such was the case. Rather, the fundamental disagreement between Catholic orthodoxy and Cathar heterodoxy, their irreducible bone of contention, concerned the role and power of Evil in life.

For the Cathars, the world was not the handiwork of a good god. It was wholly the creation of a force of darkness, immanent in all things. Matter was corrupt, therefore irrelevant to salvation. Little if any attention had to be paid to the elaborate systems set up to bully people into obeying the man with the sharpest sword, the fattest wallet or the biggest stick of incense. Wordly authority was a fraud, and worldly authority based on some divine sanction, such as the Church claimed, was outright hypocrisy.

The god deserving of Cathar worship was a god of light, who ruled the invisible, the ethereal, the spiritual domain; this god, unconcerned with the material, simply didn’t care if you got into bed before getting married, had a Jew or Muslim for a friend, treated men and women as equals or did anything else contrary to the teachings of the medieval Church. It was up to the individual (man or woman) to decide whether he or she was willing to renounce the material for a life of self-denial. If not, one would keep returning to this world — that is, be reincarnated — until ready to embrace a life sufficiently spotless to allow accession, at death, to the same blissful state one had experienced as an angel prior to having been tempted out of heaven at the beginning of time. To be saved, then, meant becoming a saint. To be damned was to live, again and again, on this corrupt Earth. Hell was here, not in some horrific afterlife dreamed up by Rome to scare people out of their wits.

To believe in what is called the Two Principles of creation (Evil in the visible, Good in the invisible) is to be a dualist, an adherent to a notion that has been shared by other creeds in the long course of humanity’s grappling with the unknowable. Christian Cathar dualism, however, posited a meeting place between Good and Evil: within the breast of every human beings. There, our wavering divine spark, the remnant of our earlier, angelic state, waited patiently to be freed from the cycle of reincarnations.

Even a cursory description of the Cathar faith gives an idea of how seditious the heresy was. If its tenets were true, the sacraments of the Church necessarily became null and void, for the very good reason that the Church itself was hoax. Why then, the Cathars asked, pay any attention to the Church? More concretely, why pay any taxes and tithes to it? To the Cathars, ecclesiastical trappings of wealth and wordly power served only to show that the Church belonged to the realm of matter. At best, the pope and his underlings were merely unenlighted; at worst, they were active agents of the evil creator.

Neither was the rest of society spared the revolutionary ramifications of Cathar thought. This was particularly true of the movement’s treatment of women. The medieval sexual status quo would have been undermined if everybody had believed, as the Cathars did, that a nobleman in one life might be a milkmaid in the next, or that women were fit to be spiritual leaders. Perhaps even more subversive than this protofeminism was the Cathar repugnance to the swearing of oaths. Minor though this may seem to us now, medieval man thought otherwise, for the swearing of an oath was the contractual underpinning of early feudal society. It lent sacred weight to the existing order; no kingdom, estate or bond of vassalage could be created or transferred without establishing a sworn link, mediated by the clergy, between the individual and the divine. As dualists, the Cathars believed that trying to link the doings of the material world with the detachment of the good god was an exercise in wishful thinking. With startling ease, the Cathar preacher could portray medieval society as a fanciful and illegitimate house of cards.

Catharism was, in short, perfect heresy to the powers-that-were, and it inspired a loathing that knew few bounds. Rome could not allow itself to be publicly humiliated by the success of the Cathars. Although their teachings were often understood by their opponents, fantastic slanders were concocted and repeated — in good faith — about their practices. Their name, once thought to mean “the pure,” is not their own invention; Cathar is now taken as a twelfth-century German play on words implying a cat worshiper. It was long bruited about that Cathars performed the so-called obscene kiss on the rear end of a cat. They were said to consume the ashes of dead babies and indulge in incestuous orgies. Also common was the epithet bougre, a corruption of Bulgar — a reference to a sister church of heretical dualists in eastern Europe. Bougre eventually gave English bugger, which is yet another proclivity ascribed to Cathar enthusiasts. The term Albigensian, snubbed by modern historical convention for circumscribing the geographic reach of Catharism, was the invention of a companion of the crusade who related that the heretics believed that no one could sin from the waist down. We now know that the Cathars referred to themselves, rather soberly, as “good Christians.”

Yet rumors about cat fondling and baby burning found listeners, as did more accurate acounts about the rise of an alternate Christian creed. The might of feudal Europe fell upon Languedoc in a righteous fury. In many ways, the hated aroused by the heretics masked a deeper antipathy, one that pitted the twelfth century’s ebullience against the thirteenth century’s culture of lawmaking and codification. In its largest sense, then, the Cathar wars arose because Western civilization had reached a crossroads — historian R.I. Moore has provocatively seen the years around 1200 as a watershed that led to “the formation of a persecuting society.” Choices were made that would take centuries to undo. Less grandly, the fate of the Cathars can be viewed as the story of a dissidence unprepared for the vigor of its opponents. The Languedoc of the Cathars was too weakened by tolerance to withstand the single-minded certainties of its neighbors.

This telling of the Cathar drama, intended for nonspecialists, relies of the diligent research conducted by academic historians in the last half century. The principal primary sources behind the story will vary according to which act is unfolding. For the rise of the heretics from the 1150s on, the documentary record is spotty, and those documents that do exist — principally letters and the acts of Church councils — were penned by their enemies. If the Cathars had a written corpus at that time, it was destroyed by the Dominican inquisitors charged with extirpating the heresy 100 years later. Ironically, it took a twentieth-century Dominican friar, Antoine Dondaine, to dispel the fog of calumny and guesswork surrounding early Catharism by scouring archives to uncover heretical catechisms and treatises previously unknown to historians.

As for the twilight years of the heresy, the Dominicans again played a role crucial to our understanding. However destructive they were of Catharism in general, the medieval friars proved splendid curators of its decline by taking down the proceedings of their investigations. The transcripts of Inquistion interrogations, the spoken words of long-vanished peasants and burghers, have been made widely available in recent years and form an inestimable boon to students of the periods. One need only refer to Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic work on one of the last redoubts of Catharism, to see the value of Inquisition registers in reconstructing the past.

The heart of the story, however, takes place between the Cathars’ rise and fall, in the momentous time of open conflict that began with the sack of Béziers in 1209 and ended at the fall of Montségur in 1244. Fortunately there were four contemporary chroniclers — only one of whom took the side of Languedoc — to witness and record the sudden triumphs and reversals of this eventful period, as well as several later medieval commentators who quite rightly found the tale to be compelling. Taken together — the manuscripts bequeathed to us by chroniclers, commentators, inquisitors, clergymen and lords — the sources offer a detailed and complex picture of a time abounding with people of great conviction and courage. The Church and its allies counted, among others: Lotario dei Conti di Segni, the charismatic Roman baron crowned Pope Innocent III; Domingo de Guzmán, the barefoot St. Dominic crying out in the Cathar wilderness; Simon de Montfort, a devout warrior intent on building an empire; Bishop Fulk of Toulouse, a troubadour turned persecutor; and Arnold Amaury, the papal legate lacking even the ghost of a scruple. In the other camp stood Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, the leading lecher, diplomat and nobleman of Languedoc; Raymond Roger of Foix, a mountain lord given to exacting horrific revenge; Guilhabert of Castres, a prominent Cathar fugitive who eluded both crusader and inquisitor; Peter Autier, a wealthy notary turned heretical ringleader; and William Bélibaste, a murderous holy man whose burning in 1321 marked the disappearance of the faith.

Cathar missionaries walked the pathways of rural Languedoc two full centuries before the era of Joan of Arc; three, before Martin Luther; four, before the Mayflower. The immense distance between us and them would be even more daunting were it not for the truth behind the axiom enunciated by a disciple of David Hume: “The past has no existence except as a succession of present mental states.” The epilogue of this work will therefore survey the luxuriant oddness of Catharism in our own day, which has seen the Cathars come in from the shadows of the recondite and enter the unruly marketplace of European memory. Indeed, the Cathars have been championed, with varying degrees of seriousness, by vegetarians, nationalists, feminists, treasure hunters, New Agers, civil libertarians, Church bashers and pacifists. Their former hideouts — shattered castles in the foothills of the Pyrenees — have become hiking destinations. Their less benign admirers have included Nazis and, more recently, self-immolating members of the Order of the Solar Temple. A recent French novel even has neo-Cathars combating the force of American corporate imperialism. In some quarters, the Cathars inspire the same mixture of awe and occult respect surrounding the native peoples of the New World. The heretics of Montségur have become European stand-ins for the Hopis, their beliefs pointing to a spiritual choice etched not against the dreamscape of the desert but against the background of medieval nightmare. Despite the great gulf of centuries, the Cathars still haunt the timeless highlands of Languedoc.