Book 4: Heretics
Pbk, Vintage, New York, 2004
It is useful and bracing to bear in mind that the foggy facades of past ages were every bit as filled with crags and holes as is our present age. This was my youthful revelation from Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, but I knew little of the Cathars. As much as I sought a frame for Newton from Gleick, I sought a great deal more from this book. Like Newton, this is not a tome, but it has the sharpness of a well-drawn short history.
The Cathars (their name derived from the Greek of “pure ones”) were dualistic Christians who claimed decent from St. John the Evangelist, but their beliefs owe much to the Gnostics. Dualism - wrongly tagged Manacheism thanks to an influential tract by St. Augustine - is the belief that there are two dominant forces in the world: the powers of Good (in this case God) and evil (the Devil). Dualism is very ancient, and there are dualist strands running through most religions and Christianity, being monotheistic, has strong dualistic elements. There are mitigated (or moderate) dualists who see evil as secondary to good, and believe good as having or eventually gaining the upper hand in the cosmic battle, and absolute dualists who believe that good and evil are coequal and coeternal. The Cathars fall into this latter camp, and this is where they departed radically from their Christian brethren of the time, and indeed today.
A crucial Cathar belief, and one which they inherited from Gnostic thought, was that the Devil was responsible for the material world. This led them to eschew material possessions in a way that set them apart dramatically from their Catholic neighbours, and I suspect it also accounts for the radical simplicity of their liturgy. They did not celebrate mass or sing hymns. They did not build churches, and shunned the cross as an (idolatrous) symbol of Christ’s torture. Their sole formal prayer was the Lord’s prayer and their major rite was the consolamentum (consolement) which was a spiritual baptism where the officiant laid the New testament or the Gospel of John on the candidate’s head to signify that they were now blessed with the holy spirit. The Catchars did not really have a clergy, rather a loose group of elders - the Perfect - who owned nothing but the clothes on their backs and abstained from sex and meat, ministered to both the Listeners, members of the flock who had not received an initial consolamentum, and the Believers, who had been so anointed.
The Cathars’ austerity parallels that of the Fransciscans, who were the Cathars’ implacable foes. I suspect this might because the two movements were called into being by the same social forces, although the Cathars believed that their movement was connected by direct and ancient lineage to Christ himself. In the twelfth century, when the Cathars were most active, the Catholic church had degenerated into venality, and popular anticlericalism was rife. The supposedly one, holy, and apostolic church was in disarray: the century saw numerous anti-popes, and most parish priests did not know enough Latin to read the scriptures.
The first recorded Cathars appear in the historical record in Cologne in 1143, but they are best known as a southern French movement, centered in the Languedoc. They were also active in northern Italy, and it is believed that their direct theological relatives were the Bogomils in Bulgaria, and further back the Paulicians in Armenia. But it was in the South of France that the Cathars were the subject of a notorious and bloody Crusade.
The Crusade was an enterprise that saw thousands of Cathars burnt, and tens of thousand of non-Cathar Christians slaughtered. The notorious sack of Beziers, where the Crusaders, on dispensation from the Pope, murdered all 9,000 inhabitants of the town - fewer than three per-cent of whom were Cathars - points to the mixed motives of the Crusade. This was the conflict that spawned the line, "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." Even contemporary commentators, used to the standards of war of the Middle Ages, were shocked.
Ostensibly the campaign was to suppress heresy, it was actually a war to capture one of Europe’s richest states: Languedoc was home to productive farms and was in the midst of a cultural flowering. It produced the troubadours, and in 1200 Toulouse was outclassed in Europe only by Venice and Rome. In the course of the crusade Languedoc was laid to waste in a holocaust evocative of the German’s destruction of Warsaw in WWII. It never really recovered. And the crusade only served to confirm the belief of the few remaining Cathars that the Catholic church was indeed the church of Satan, and the world was the creation of evil. The Albigensian Crusade, as it was called, also gave Europe the Inquisition.
In the twentieth century the Cathars have served as a spiritual touchstone for figures like Simone Weil, and but the line of the Cathars was extinguished by the opposition of, and reform of the Cathoic church.