The Cathars: Persecuting Heretical Christians In The 13th Century

Flourishing in southern France, Catharism was a dualist Christian heresy whose followers opposed the corruption of the medieval Catholic Church and were subject to widespread persecution.

Dec 21, 2020By Jack Crawford, BA Medieval History, MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic History
st paul the hermit
St. Paul the Hermit by Luca Giordano, 1685-90; with Innocent III, fresco in the Abbey of San Benedetto, Subiaco, ca. 6th century AD


Arriving in the Languedoc region of southern France as early as the 11th century, Cathars (deriving from the Greek Katharoi, meaning ‘pure ones’) were dualist, gnostic Christians. Their doctrine, which stated that two opposing deities existed, was antithetical to the doctrine of the medieval Catholic Church, which held that God alone created the physical and spiritual worlds. It was during the 13th century that organized persecution of the Cathar faith reached a climax: in 1209 Pope Innocent III abandoned efforts to peacefully convert the Cathars in southern France, and instead launched the Albigensian Crusade to wipe out the heretics through military might. Over the next century and a half, the Cathars were systematically eradicated through forced conversion, inquisitions and massacres.


The Origins Of The Cathars

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Cathars being expelled from the city of Carcassonne in 1209 by the workshop of Master of Boucicaut, ca. 1415, in the Grandes Chroniques de France, via Medieval Histories


The Cathars were by no means the first dualistic, ascetic Christian sect to occur during the medieval period. The origins of their beliefs are generally thought to have originated further east, in the Byzantine Empire. It is likely that these religious ideas that influenced Catharism reached France along trade routes that passed through Bulgaria on their way from Byzantium.


The Bogomils in particular have been identified as being very similar in doctrine to the Cathars. Originating in the teachings of the Bulgarian priest Bogomil, who was active during the 10th century in the First Bulgarian Empire, the Bogomils rejected the church and secular hierarchy in favor of personal faith and religious knowledge. Crucially, like the Cathars they were also dualists and did not even believe in building churches – instead, they believed that the body itself was sacred, and purified it through fasting, purging and dancing.


The earlier Christian sect known as the Paulicians may have been the origin of Cathar belief, as they almost certainly influenced the Bogomils themselves. Emerging in Anatolia in the 7th century, the Paulicians may also have been dualists and were almost certainly adoptionists (believing that Christ was not born son of God, but was ‘adopted’). Like the Cathars, the Paulicians were subject to repression and persecution by the Byzantine state.


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Whatever its exact origin, Catharism reached western Europe in the mid-12th century. Localized groups appeared in the Rhineland, Northern France, Northern Italian cities, and the Languedoc region of southern France. It was in southern France that the greatest concentration of Cathar activity was located. As early as 1167 the heads of the Cathar sect converged here – in that year, a council was held at Saint-Félix-Lauragais, attended by Cathar leaders from northern France and Italy, as well as the Bogomil Bishop of Constantinople.



the war in heaven gustave dore
The War In Heaven by Gustave Doré, 1870, via Getty Images


The main tenant of Cathar doctrine was dualism – the belief in two opposing deities, one benevolent and one malevolent. The good god, identified as the god of the New Testament, was the creator of the spiritual world, whereas the evil deity, the god of the Old Testament, was the creator of the physical world. He was therefore known as Rex Mundi (‘King of the World’) and sometimes conflated with Satan. The cosmic battle between these two deities explained the existence of good and evil in the world.


In this theology, humans were considered to be fallen angels: their spirits had been created by the benevolent god, but they were trapped in physical bodies created by Rex Mundi which were, by virtue of their creator, corrupt and sinful. In order to liberate themselves from the sinful physical body, Cathars believed they had to renounce the temporal world entirely, denying themselves physical pleasures of any kind. Unless this separation from the world was achieved, human spirits were condemned to be eternally reincarnated in earthly bodies, surrounded by sin and iniquity.


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Hell by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1515, via Museum Bojimans Van Beunungen, Rotterdam


Cathar teaching regarding Jesus Christ was also very different from that espoused by the medieval Catholic Church. Although they venerated Christ and followed his teachings as they were laid down in the bible, the Cathars denied that Christ physically existed. Instead, they believed that he was in fact an angel who took on human form as an illusion so that he could appear amongst humanity. They also did not believe that Christ was resurrected, believing instead that his ‘resurrection’ was in fact a symbolic representation of the process of reincarnation. They also rejected the cross as a holy symbol – for the Cathars, it was no more than a torture device, and therefore a symbol of evil.


It also seems that some Cathar groups were non-trinitarian, and some considered the Holy Spirit to be made up of all the angels who had not followed Satan in rebellion against God. However, Cathar doctrine is very difficult to identify with any certainty, as hardly any of their texts survive. Most information regarding Cathar belief was written by agents of the medieval Catholic Church who were attempting to destroy Catharism – as a result, their texts may be biased or inaccurate.



luca giordano st paul the hermit
St. Paul the Hermit by Luca Giordano, 1685-90, via the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond


The Cathars were anti-sacerdotal, meaning they did not believe that clergy were meant to act as mediators between humanity and the divine. This is perceived to partially have been a protest against the moral and political corruption of the incredibly powerful medieval Catholic Church.


As a result, the Cathars had only one ceremonial practice, known as Consolamentum or ‘Consolation.’ This rite baptized the participant as a Perfecti or ‘Perfect,’ the highest level of spirituality a living Cathar could achieve. These perfects practiced an extreme ascetic lifestyle, refusing to eat any animal products and remaining celibate. Many Cathars would undergo the ceremony on their death bed so that they would only have to practice the harsh lifestyle of a Perfect for a short period of time. Some voluntarily starved themselves to death following the Consolation, a practice known as endura.




Catharism in southern France seems to have had a relatively simple hierarchy, reflecting the fact that Cathar beliefs seem to have been fairly loosely organized. The baptized Perfecti typically lived as an ascetic, traveling around the countryside, ministering to the population and administering the Consolation. Unbaptized Cathars were known as credentes. By the mid-12th century, a liturgy and doctrine appear to have been decided upon, and the first Cathar bishopric was created at Albi in 1165. By the year 1200, four bishoprics were in existence.



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Manuscript Illumination with Scenes of Easter in an Initial A, from an Antiphonary by Nerius, ca. 1320, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Cathars were surprisingly pacifistic by medieval standards, condemning all killing including war and capital punishment. They also considered reproduction to be immoral, as it only perpetuated the cycle of reincarnation which led to human suffering – this stance left them open to accusations of sodomy by their opponents.


Because they believed the human spirit to be sexless, Cathars regarded men and women as spiritual equals. There are many examples of women becoming Cathar leaders, and large numbers of them made up the ranks of the Perfecti – it has been suggested that widowed Cathar women would often take the Consolation and become Perfects. There are even records of communal homes for Cathar women, in which they would live and receive instruction in the faith.


Persecution By The Medieval Catholic Church

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Innocent III, fresco in the Abbey of San Benedetto, Subiaco, ca. 6th century AD


Throughout the second half of the 12th century, the medieval Catholic Church made several attempts to suppress Cathar doctrine and convert Cathars to Catholic orthodoxy. In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a mission to the Languedoc, and despite the presence of Bernard of Clairvaux, very little progress was made. Similar expeditions in 1178 and 1180-1 similarly achieved little, perhaps demonstrating how entrenched Cathar belief was. Church councils proved to be ineffective too: The council of Tours in 1163, and the Third Lateran Council of 1179, did little to curtail the spread of Catharism.


It is not known how many Cathars there were in southern France, but they certainly seem to have been well-liked by their Catholic neighbors, and were an accepted part of society – Bishop Fulk of Toulouse noted how well respected these ‘heretics’ were by the nobility of the Languedoc. Innocent III, who became pope in 1198, resolved to break the Cathar heresy. Initially, he dispatched papal legates to southern France, suspended a number of bishops in the region who he suspected of being sympathetic to the Cathars, and appointed a new Bishop of Toulouse, the energetic Fulk.


Widescale conversion was also attempted by large numbers of Catholic priests and holy men, including the future founder of the Dominican order, Saint Dominic. However, once again these peaceful conversion missions had little effect. Dominic himself noted the piety of true Cathar believers, stating that only preachers who showed true asceticism and humility stood a chance of converting them back to the orthodoxy of the medieval Catholic Church.


The Albigensian Crusade

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Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Albigensians, and a Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders, 1209-29 CE, via the Ancient History Encyclopedia


Frustrated by repeated failed attempts of grassroots conversion of the Cathar heretics, pope Innocent decided upon a new approach. In January 1208, he dispatched the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau to meet with Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. At their meeting, the legate denounced the count and excommunicated him from the Catholic faith, accusing him of aiding the spread of Catharism. On his journey back to Rome, Castelnau was murdered, supposedly by a knight in the service of Count Raymond. In response, the furious Innocent instructed his legates to preach a full-scale crusade against the Cathar heretics, which became known as the Albigensian Crusade.


The pope appealed to the French king Philip Augustus, who refused to participate but allowed several of his most powerful barons to do so, including Simon de Montfort. Innocent also released a papal decree which granted the crusaders the right to confiscate any lands belonging to Cathars or their supporters, which ensured widespread support for the crusade amongst northern French nobles eager to seize new territories. As a result, resistance from southern French lords was fierce – there is little evidence that any of them were actually Cathars, but the crusade threatened their status and their wealth.


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The Church of St. Mary Magdalene at Béziers, built in 1209, via European Nomad


The crusader armies moved quickly to strike the Trencavels, who were perhaps the strongest nobles in the region, at their strongholds of Carcassonne, Béziers and Albi. Initially led by papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, the first target of the crusade was the city of Béziers. Catholic citizens of Béziers were allowed to leave the city, but many elected to stay and fight alongside the Cathars. When the garrison attempted a sortie, the crusaders gained access to the city and captured it. What followed was one of the most brutal massacres of the medieval period.


With the city taken, thousands of its inhabitants had sought refuge in the church of St. Mary Magdelene. According to the Cistercian Abbott Caesarius of Heisterbach, Arnaud-Amaury was asked how his troops should tell apart the Cathars from the Catholics hiding in the church. His chilling reply – Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius: “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own,” – condemned the citizens of Béziers. It is estimated that some 7,000 men, women and children were killed as the crusading soldiers broke down the doors of the church, dragged out those within, and slaughtered them.


The rest of the city’s inhabitants were pulled from their homes, tortured, blinded, and mutilated. Arnaud-Amaury wrote to Pope Innocent, reporting that some 20,000 heretics had been put to the sword. It seems likely that this horrendous act of cruelty was inflicted upon the people of Béziers in order to terrify the inhabitants of the Languedoc into submission.


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Aerial view of Carcassonne with double-concentric fortifications, and curtain walls punctuated by towers, via the Tourism Office of Carcassonne


After Béziers, Carcassonne and other cities were quickly taken by Simon de Montfort, who granted a large portion of the conquered lands to the pope. After this point, the crusade degenerated into a protracted conflict that lasted some twenty years, characterized by annual summer campaigns by the crusaders. During winter, the beleaguered crusader garrisons fought defensive battles against attempts by southern French lords to recapture their settlements and castles. The war ended in 1229 in a peace in which the French king revoked much of southern France from its independent nobles.


Annihilation Of The Cathars

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Chateau de Montségur, built in 1204, via Provence and Beyond


However, the Albigensian crusade did not destroy Cathar belief entirely. In 1233, an inquisition was established in Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne (amongst other towns). Cathars caught by inquisitors who refused to recant were executed, often by being burned at the stake. Several Cathar strongholds remained but were slowly wiped out throughout the 13th century. One such fortress was the castle of Montségur which finally fell on 16th March 1244 – following the siege, 200 Cathar Perfects were burned at the stake in a symbolic mass execution.


As the power of the inquisition grew, the Cathars were increasingly driven underground and were forced to resort to meeting in remote locations in the woodlands and mountains of the Pyrenees. The destruction of their religious texts by the inquisition also hampered Cathar attempts to organize and recruit new members, and the constant harassment by the Catholic authorities meant their numbers dwindled significantly, never to recover. In 1310 the leader of the Cathar revival group in the Pyrenees, Peire Autier, was captured and executed, and in 1321 the last known Cathar Perfect in the Languedoc was burned at the stake. These executions seem to have marked the end of Catharism, as after 1330 the records of the inquisition record very few mentions of Cathars.

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By Jack CrawfordBA Medieval History, MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic HistoryJack is a contributing writer with a primary interest in Medieval History, in particular the early medieval period. He completed a bachelor’s degree in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews, and a masters in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.