Walking in the Footsteps of the Cathars
The Corbières hills have many secrets to tell, not least those relating to the persecution of the mysterious Cathar heretics who developed a more ascetic and less ritualised version of Christianity. Today you can follow in their footsteps over panoramic passes and along green ridges and you will discover one of the last truly ‘secret’ regions of France, one little-known to the French themselves, despite it being the focal point of a very turbulent era of the country’s history.
The region's rugged beauty is made all the more dramatic by the striking and seemingly inaccessible fortresses in which the doomed Cathars sought refuge. This is superb walking country, and varied, very rewarding routes afford inspirational views towards the ever-present Pyrenees.
The Cathars were Gnostic Christians. They claimed that their beliefs and practices dated from the earliest Christian times, and predated the innovations of the Catholic Church - a claim that is now recognised by historians as substantially correct. They had survived in Persia and gradually travelled westwards through the Byzantine Empire, the Balkans and Italy to Western Europe.
The Cathars did not believe that the church should take money from the people. Interestingly they also had women priests. Cathars maintained a Church hierarchy and practiced a range of ceremonies, but rejected any idea of priesthood or the use of church buildings.
Cathars divided into ordinary believers and an inner Elect of Parfaits (men) and Parfaites (women) who led extremely ascetic lives yet still worked for their living - generally in itinerant manual trades like weaving. Cathars were strict about biblical injunctions - notably those about living in poverty, not telling lies, not killing and not swearing oaths.
Cathar regarded men and women as equals, and had no objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide.
In some respects the Cathar and Catholic Churches were polar opposites. For example the Cathar Church taught that all non-procreative sex was better than any procreative sex. The Catholic Church taught - and still teaches - exactly the opposite. Following their tenet, Catholics concluded that masturbation was a far greater sin than rape, as mediaeval penitentials confirm. Following their
principles, Cathar could deduce that sexual intercourse between man and wife was more culpable than homosexual sex.For these reasons the Catholic Church regarded Cathars as heretics. It was then a crime to disagree with Catholic theology and a capital crime if the disagreement was repeated.
Cathars flourished in the Languedoc, becoming the majority religion in many places. After a series of failed attempts to convert them by preaching and debating, Pope Innocent III called a full scale Crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc, appointing a series of military leaders to head his Holy Army. The first was a Cistercian abbot (Arnaud Amaury) now best remembered for his command at Béziers "Kill them all. God will know his own". The second was Simon de Montfort now remembered as the father of another Simon de Montfort, a prominent figure in English parliamentary history. The war against the Cathars of the Languedoc continued for two generations. In the later phases the Kings of France would take over as leaders of the crusade, which thus became a Royal Crusade.
From 1208, a war of terror was waged against the indigenous population and their rulers. They were known together as the Albigensian Crusade from the erroneous idea that the Cathars were centred in the town of Albi. During this period an estimated 500,000 Languedoc men women and children were massacred - Catholics as well as Cathars. The Counts of Toulouse and their allies were dispossessed and humiliated, and their lands annexed to France.
The local nobility of the Languedoc, vassals of the King of Aragon, along with the rest of the local population, sided with the Cathars. As the crusade progressed, Cathars and their sympathisers took refuge in castles and fortified towns, often located on spectacular hill tops in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Many sieges and a few open battles were recorded in detail by three chroniclers.
After several generations of war the local lords were defeated and dispossessed by the (mainly French) Catholic crusaders.
The Cathars were exterminated - burned alive by the hundred. The first Papal Inquisition ensured that there would be no re-emergence of the Cathar religion. Their castles fell into the hands of the victors, and the area was annexed to France.
The castles were reinforced or rebuilt or destroyed. Some were turned into Royal fortresses but after a few centuries the borders of France moved even further south to the Pyrenees and the Royal castles were no longer needed for border defences and were slighted.
Today you can visit many so-called Cathar Castles in the Languedoc. A few, such as Carcassonne, have been restored. Many others are spectacular, romantic and unbearably poignant. They are a major tourist attraction.
The most famous at Montségur. This was the Cathars' last real stronghold, which fell after 10 months of siege in 1244.