Catharism is a heretical Christian sect that flourished in Western Europe in the 12th century and lasted until the 13th century. The name comes from the Greek word katharos (καθαρός) which means “pure”. The Cathari professed a neo-Manichaean dualism or religion of two principals, one good that is represented by everything none-material (good, permanent, immutable) and the other evil that is represented by the material world (bad, temporary, perishable). They also embraced the doctrine of reincarnation, which went against the mainstream Christian teaching of resurrection of the dead. Similar views were held in the Balkan and the Middle East by the religious sects Paulicians or Bogomils, so it is likely that the Cathars ideas came from them. The Roman Catholic Church even nowadays refers to them as “The Great Hersey”, and catholic theologians still debate whether Cathars are Christian heretics or whether they were not Christians at all. The Catholic Church called the Cathars Albigenses but the Cathars simply called themselves Christians. The religion flourished in an area often referred to as the Languedoc, broadly frontiered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees and the rivers Garonne, Tarn and Rhône, corresponding to the new French region of Occitanie. They could also be located in northern Italy in smaller numbers. Rapid growth of the Cathars came in the years fallowing 1140, at the same time when the Bogomil Church was reorganizing itself and Bogomil missionaries and western dualists returned from the Second Crusade (1147-1149).

Cathars organization and believes

Cathars were an organized church with hierarchy, special liturgy and a practiced range of ceremonies. At about 1149 the first bishop established himself in the north of France. Few years later, he established colleagues at Albi and Lombardy. The status of these bishops was confirmed and the prestige of the Cathar Church was enhanced by the visit of the Bogomil bishop Nicetas in 1167. In the following years more bishops were set up, so by the turn of the century there were 11 bishoprics in total; 1 in the north of France, 4 in the south and 6 in Italy. Even though they had a hierarchy established, they strongly opposed any idea of priesthood or the use of church buildings. Hence, they were divided in ordinary believers who led an ordinary medieval life and in an inner elect of Parfaits for men and Parfaits for women. They were commonly known as “The Perfect”, which led a very self-disciplined life, but still had to work to earn a living. They were strictly forbidden to eat meat or other animal products and they were strict about biblical injunctions, notably those about living in poverty. They could not tell lies, nor kill or swear oaths. Some viewed much of the Old Testament with reserve and some rejected it altogether. Jesus was considered an angel and his human sufferings and death were an illusion. Man was considered an alien, so his aim had been to free his spirit and restore it in communion with God.

Suppression, Albigensian Crusade

The Cathar doctrines struck at the roots of orthodox Christianity, the political institutions of Christendom and the authorities of church and state united to attack them. In 1147 Pope Eugene II sent a legate to the affected district in order to stop the progress of the Cathars, but this mission ended with poor results which showed the power of the sect in the Languedoc. The missions of Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180–1181, obtained only momentary successes. Henry of Albano’s armed expedition, which took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.

When Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, the suppression grew even more. At first he used a non-belligerent conversation and sent a number of legates. They had to contend not only with the Cathars and the nobles who protected them but also with the bishops of the region. In 1204, Innocent III suspended a number of bishops in the south of France and in 1205 he appointed a new and a vigorous bishop of Toulouse, the former troubadour Foulques. In 1206, Diego of Osma and his canon, the future Saint Dominic, began a program of conversion in Languedoc. Saint Dominic met and debated the Cathars in 1203, during his mission to the Languedoc. He concluded that only preachers who displayed real sanctity, humility, and asceticism could win over convinced Cathar believers. His conviction led eventually to the establishment of the Dominican Order in 1216.

In January 1208 the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was sent to meet the ruler of the aria, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, who was known to protect the Cathars. Pierre de Castelnau excommunicated Raymond as an abettor of heresy. Castelnau was immediately murdered near Saint Gilles Abbey on his way back to Rome by a knight in the service of Count Raymond. This finally spilled the cup. Having failed in his effort to peacefully demonstrate the perceived errors of Catharism, the Pope Innocent III called a formal crusade, appointing leaders to head the assault. Twenty years of war followed against the Cathars and their allies in the Languedoc, in what will later on become known as The Albigensian Crusade. This crusade had a wide support from nobility from the north of France, against the nobility of the south, who supported the Cathars. This wide support was possibly inspired by a papal decree stating that all land owned by the Cathars and their defenders could be confiscated. Such events made the territory a target for French nobles looking to gain new lands.

In the first significant engagement of the war, the town of Beziers was hedged on July 22, 1209. The Catholic inhabitants of the city were granted freedom to leave unharmed, but most refused and stayed to fight alongside the Cathars. The Cathars tried to exit but were quickly defeated and chased back in the city. One of the leaders of the crusade, Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, was said to have been asked how to tell the Cathars from the Catholic. His famous reply was “Caediteeos. Novitenim Dominus qui sunteius”—“Kill them all; the Lord will recognize what is his.” Then, a real massacre began. The doors of the church St. Mary Magdalene were broken down and the refugees from the surrounding arias around the town were dragged out and slaughtered. This ended in 7000 deaths including women and children. Thousands and thousands of people were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses and used as a target practice. Arnaud wrote to pope Innocent III that “20 000 heretics were put to sword, regardless of rank, age or sex”.

After the siege of Carcassonne, Simon de Montfort was appointed to lead the Crusade army. Opponents of the Crusaders were Raymond- Roger de Trancavel and his feudal overlord Peter II, king of Aragon. Peter died at the Battle of Muret, on September 12, 1213. The persecution continued. In 1244 the great fortress of Montsegur near the Pyrenees was captured and destroyed. The Cathars were forced to go underground and many fled to Italy, where the persecutions were smaller. The hierarchy faded out in the 1270s, but the heresy survived through the 14th century and finally disappeared early in the 15th century.