Catharism, a Christian heresy attested from approximately the tenth until the fifteenth century from France to Asia Minor, advocated a path to salvation through one sacrament, held that the material world was evil, and believed that salvation was available for all believers. The Cathars shared with the Bogomils (another, nearly contemporary Christian heresy) certain elements of belief, organization, and ritual, whose dissemination probably followed the trade routes from East to West. The Cathars, who called themselves simply "good Christians," constituted a real counter-church, consisting of believers, clergy, and bishops. The name "Cathar" was explained as referring to cat worshippers, because the Cathars were accused of holding diabolical rites, or as a derivative from the Greek word katharos (meaning "clean, pure") to describe the pure asceticism of the believers.
Origins and Development
In Bulgaria, the followers of a priest named Bogomil initiated a dissident movement in the tenth century, attested by various sources such as the sermon of Cosmas (c. 970). In the West, other heretical groups began to emerge around the year 1000, as lay apostolic movements reacted to the reforms initiated by Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) and to the growth of monasticism. In the 1140s, when the trials and condemnations of the Bogomils were occurring in the East, Evervin, prior of Steinfeld (in Germany), wrote to Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux (in France), about heretics who claimed that their church originated with Christ and the apostles and had been existing secretly in and around Greece. Reports of heresy followed in the 1150s and 1160s. In 1163, five people were burned in Cologne by authority of a lay court. Eckbert of Schönau authored thirteen sermons against the heretics he termed Cathars. Eckbert's sister Elisabeth and Hildegard of Bingen both engaged in polemics against the dissidents. Popular heresy spread rapidly from the 1170s until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Among the various movements that arose, the Cathars attracted the greatest suspicion and were the primary targets of campaigns against heresy, from preaching missions to armed intervention.
Contacts between Eastern Bogomils and Western Cathars were not uncommon, especially in and through Italy because of its proximity to the Balkans. Sometime between 1167 and 1172, Pope Nicetas of Constantinople attended a synod in France at Saint-Félix-de-Caraman, north of Toulouse. A document from that council, the so-called Charter of Nicetas, gives the names of Cathar bishops who arrived at the conference from various parts of France and Italy. Nicetas reconsecrated bishops who already held office and consecrated newly elected bishops. Around 1190, Nazarius, the Cathar bishop of Concorezzo, brought the Bogomil text Interrogatio Iohannis from Bulgaria to Italy. Envoys carried letters between French and northern Italian Cathars, and leading French Cathars took refuge in Italy during periods of persecution in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Italian Cathars in cities such as Orvieto and Viterbo benefited from the protection of political leaders who opposed the papacy. Eventually, the Cathars in Italy emerged into three divisions according to their affiliation with different Bogomil churches: the Albanenses centered in Desenzano, near Lake Garda were affiliated with the church of Dragovitia; the Garatenses, located in Concorezzo, near Milan, observed ties to the church of Bulgaria; and the Bagnolenses from Bagnolo, near Mantua, maintained affiliation with the church of Sclavonia.
Sources pertaining to the beliefs and existence of the Cathars consist primarily of polemical texts written against them, but also include three extant Cathar rituals, two in Occitan and one in Latin; an anonymous treatise for Cathar preachers; and the Book of Two Principles, a scholastic exposition written by John of Lugio, bishop of Desenzano.
Catharism differed from orthodox Christianity on several points, including beliefs regarding the nature of Christ, the role of the church hierarchy, the number and function of the sacraments, the source of evil in the world, and the possibility of salvation for all believers. The Cathars leaned toward docetism, which rejects the human nature of Christ. They practiced a single sacrament, the consolamentum, which was a laying-on-ofhands that served as baptism, confirmation, ordination, forgiveness of sins, and extreme unction. Through the consolamentum, human souls which had fallen away from God would return to God's realm. The Cathars rejected any necessity for a priest's absolution to forgive sins, any function for the saints' intercession, or any need of prayers for the dead. The Cathars shared a symbolic but non-sacramental breaking of bread. They practiced a generally austere way of life, with special dietary restrictions. The women perfectae performed evangelical, pastoral, and sacramental functions. Cathars refused obedience to Rome and the local clerical hierarchy. With the Bogomils, they believed that matter was created by Satan and that the last fallen soul would be saved at the end of this world. Both Cathars and Bogomils rejected icons and practiced a simple, repetitive liturgy emphasizing the Lord's Prayer, an Adoremus formula, and multiple genuflections.
Social Location and Practices
Catharism included all social classes, perhaps having been introduced among the elites but later filtering down to the lower classes. Family ties represented an important force. Cathar houses played a religious and socio-economic role; people were welcomed there for instruction in trades as well as religion. Less prosperous and military than their northern counterparts, Occitan nobles engaged in some form of work, such as weaving or cobblery. They lived with members of other social classes in the castrum, a fortified village built around a castle. As the population of Occitan villages expanded, the Cathars developed a strong network. Furthermore, Catharism placed no economic restrictions on believers and exacted no tithes.
Before their persecution, Cathar bishops preached widely, traveling with assistants who set forth their doctrines. Cathars also met and preached in the homes of their patrons. The Roman church responded first by expanding the scope and frequency of orthodox preaching to the people, mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and implemented through the approval of the mendicant orders (Dominicans in 1216; Franciscans in 1220). Eventually, however, the ideology that justified the crusades to the Holy Land was extended to rationalize campaigns against heresy in Italy, France, and the Balkans.
The Albigensian Crusade: 1209 to 1229
Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade in 1208/1209, after the murder of the papal legate, Peter of Castelanu. This decision followed decades of unsuccessful efforts at preaching conversion to the Cathars in Occitania and failed attempts to suppress their alliances with political enemies of the pope in Italian cities. It also rested on a gradual build-up of mechanisms for persecution. When teaching and preaching no longer proved effective in persuading dissenters to conform, church and secular leaders turned to coercion.
The third canon of Lateran IV (1215), which established the mechanisms for persecution, was preceded by a series of landmarks. These were:
Chapter 21 of the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, the first secular legislation against heresy;
Lateran III in 1179;
Ad abolendam in 1184, the first joint (secular and spiritual) condemnation of heresy since the Theodosian code;
Innocent III's 1199 decree Vergentis in senium equating heretics with traitors before the law.
Moreover, in 1207, just prior to the Albigensian Crusade, Innocent III issued Cum ex officii, which expressed the intent to "remove from the patrimony of St. Peter the defilement of heretics," and provided for the delivery of heretics to secular courts, the confiscation and sale of a heretic's possessions, destruction of his home, and penalties imposed on his followers or supporters. These papal measures, aimed at Cathars and political foes in Viterbo, equated the two groups and furthered the alliance of the ecclesiastical and secular forces that drove the Albigensian Crusade.
Historians divide the Albigensian crusade into six general phases, as follows:
1209 to 1211, when the land belonging to the powerful Trencavel family was conquered;
1211 to 1213, when Toulouse and the surrounding area were subdued;
1213, the year of the decisive battle at Muret, when allied forces under Peter of Aragon were defeated by Simon of Montfort's armies;
1213 to 1215, the period of Montfort's triumph and Lateran IV, where the disposition of conquered territory was debated and Count Raymond VI was deprived of his lands;
1215 to 1225, a decade of counter-attack and reassertion of southern lords;
1225 to 1229, when royal intervention conquered the southern forces and compelled Raymond VII's submission.
The first phase of the crusade included some of the most brutal massacres. On July 22, 1209, the city of Béziers was sacked and thousands were slaughtered. When asked whether to kill both Catholic Christians and heretics, the legate Arnaud Amaury supposedly replied: "Kill them all; God will recognize his own." Whether or not he uttered those infamous words, Amaury reported succinctly to Innocent III that "neither age, nor sex, nor status had been spared, and nearly twenty thousand people perished." The legate described the subsequent sack and burning of the city as "divine revenge raging wondrously against it," and he termed the event a "great miracle." In June of 1210, 140 Cathars were burned at Minerve. The following year, in April and May 1211, at Lavaur, about 80 faidits, Occitanian nobles who supported the Cathars, were executed, and 300 to 400 Cathars were burned. In May of the same year, at the siege of Cassès, 60 to 100 Cathars were burned.
The middle period of the crusade involved more victories for the French army, but those were followed by victories by southern (Occitanian) forces at Castelnaudary, Agen, Moissac (1221), and Carcassonne (1223 and 1224). The deaths of Raymond VI in 1222, Raymond-Roger of Foix in 1223, and King Philip Augustus in 1223 led to a reversal of southern victories. When Louis VIII acceded to the throne, full royal intervention in Occitania ensued. After negotiations with Raymond VII and his excommunication in 1226, the king's army moved southward. After Louis VIII's death in November of the same year, his cousin continued the campaign, under the urging of Blanche of Castille, who was serving as regent until her son, the future Louis IX, reached the age to assume the throne. Humbert de Beaujeau, the governor of Languedoc, directed the systematic devastation of the area around Toulouse, which along with pressure from Pope Gregory IX, forced the beginning of negotiations for peace, and culminated in the treaty of Paris/Meaux in 1229.
The brutality of the Albigensian crusade reflects the perception of heresy's threat to the social order, as expressed by Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk from the Rhineland, in his Dialogus miraculorum: "The Albigensian error was so strong that in a short period of time it would have infected as many as 1,000 cities, if it had not been repressed by the swords of the faithful. I think that it would have corrupted all of Europe."
Inquisition, Dissent, and Reform
After Innocent III's papacy, the legislative campaign to combat heresy was renewed by Honorius III (1216 to 1227). The migration of Occitan Cathars into northern Italy increased the presence of the counter-church there. The friars undertook influential preaching campaigns to swing public opinion toward enforcement of already existing legislation against heresy or toward the enactment of new laws. Attention to the crusade to the holy land eclipsed the effort against heresy again in 1221, but Gregory VIII, Honorius's successor, resumed the legal assault on heresy, establishing Dominicans as inquisitors first in Germany with Ille humani generic (1231).
The first permanent tribunal of inquisition functioned in Occitania in 1233 or 1234. In 1233 Gregory IX ordered friars sent to the archdioceses of Bourges, Bordeaux, Narbonne, and Auch to aid the bishops there in their fight against heresy. Accounts for inquisitorial proceedings in Toulouse and Albi during this period have survived. Local protests against the inquisitors began shortly thereafter, and the townspeople of Narbonne reacted violently during the years 1234 to 1237. Dominicans were expelled from Toulouse in 1235, but the people of the city continued to suffer persecution from 1237 to early 1238. Occitan nobles defied the French twice more, in 1240 and 1242, but were unsuccessful in both attempts. Meanwhile the inquisitors renewed their activities at various sites with fierce determination from 1241 onward. Acts of resistance to the inquisitors continued, and some were murdered at Avignonet in 1242. But the last strongholds of Cathar sympathizers were soon to fall: Montségur in 1244 and Quéribus in 1255.
Under Innocent IV's papacy (1243–1254), earlier procedures of inquisition were melded into the formalized office, the "inquisitor of heretical depravity." Pope Alexander IV granted inquisitors broader powers in 1256. Although heresy was waning, the inquisitorial commissions continued, examining earlier proceedings and opening posthumous investigations. The inquisition found new interrogants when a revival of Catharism took place in Occitania during the early fourteenth century, after the return from Italy of a Cathar preacher named Pierre Authié. Bernard Gui, a Dominican, was appointed inquisitor in Toulouse from 1307 to 1324. Jacques Fournier, a Cistercian who would become Pope Benedict XII (1334–1342) residing in Avignon, served as inquisitor from 1318 to 1325, and he left extensive registers recording interrogations. The year 1321 marked the burning of the last known Cathar perfect, William Bélibaste, in the town of Villerouge-Termenès.
However, medieval dissidence regained force during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some groups, such as the Lollards, claimed the right of all Christians to participate in the apostolic life. Others, like the Free Spirit heresy, rejected the hierarchical structure and domination of the Roman church. The Lollards, like the Cathars, rejected images; furthermore, they saw the propagation of the faith as the responsibility of all believers, as did the Hussites in fifteenth-century Bohemia.
Sixteenth-century reformers challenged some of the same issues argued by medieval dissident groups, notably the role of sacraments; the role of the saints and the dead; the role of and responsibility for evangelism; and issues of lay and clerical morality. During the Reformation, churches that held views espoused by some medieval dissidents, including the Cathars, were established, but not without considerable bloodshed.