The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Spectacular Death of the Medieval Catharsby Stephen O'Shea
Chronicles the life & death of the Cathar movement, led by a group of heretical Christians whose brutal suppression by the Catholic Church unleashed the Inquisition.
Chronicles the life & death of the Cathar movement, led by a group of heretical Christians whose brutal suppression by the Catholic Church unleashed the Inquisition.
New York Times
- Walker & Company
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Languedoc and the Great Heresy
Languedoc's patchwork of olive groves and vineyards stretches from the sea to the mountains, an arc of hard-won prosperity reaching from the salty mouth of the Rhône to the lazy flood of the Garonne. The land, scorched by the sun and scoured by the wind, seems created for a tale of sudden change. In the reedy marshes of the Mediterranean coast stand the cities of Nîmes, Montpellier, Béziers, and Narbonne, already lively outposts of empire when the centurions of Rome called the area the provincia Narbonnensis. By the time of the Cathars, these centers of rough civility had long since come in out of the night of chaos following the collapse of the classical world. Their dockside warehouses overflowed anew with wine and oil, wool and leather; their richer townspeople, clad in costly silks and brocades, traded with their counterparts in Spain, Italy, and beyond.
The warm littoral plain of the traders quickly gives way to more rugged surroundings. Close to the shore rise the bleached heights of the Corbières, a range of limestone peaks that stretches inland to the south of the River Aude. The summits of these mountains, now crowned with ruined castles, were ideal for watching the tramp of armies in the river valley below. There, in the Aude's rumpled geometry of field and village, ranks of cypress trees compete with grapevines in giving order to the landscape. Far away to the north loom the rocky plateau of the Minervois, its parasol pines teetering over steep ravines, and the Montagne Noire (the blackmountain), a brooding forested prominence that lies across the countryside like some great beached whale.
Beyond the turrets and ramparts of Carcassonne, some forty miles from the coast, the Corbières and the Montagne Noire disappear, and the earth fans out into a succession of gentle ridges. In the summer, the land bakes and the cicadas sing; irregular swatches of cultivation soften the long hogbacks in the rolling panorama. This fertile area comprised the heartland of Catharism. In such towns as Lavaur, Fanjeaux, and Montréal, dualism won its largest following.
To the west of these sleepy settlements lies the broad rich plain of Toulouse, leaden green in the heat. The great city, surpassed in size only by Rome and Venice in the Latin Christendom of 1200, sits on a bend of the River Garonne as it uncoils slowly on its long journey to the Atlantic. The river rises far in the south, in the rock and snow that separate France from Spain. The bleak black majesty of the Pyrenees marks the limit of Languedoc with a towering finality. It was within sight of their summits that such outposts as Montségur and Montaillou witnessed the ultimate stages of the Cathar story.
Wedged between more celebrated cousinsto the east, Provence; to the west, Aquitaine; to the south, Aragon and CataloniaLanguedoc has never been redeemed from its original sin of sheltering heresy. Incorporated by force into the kingdom of France as a result of the Albigensian Crusade, the region took generations to rediscover the nascent nationalism that northern knight and Dominican inquisitor first aroused, then crushed, in the thirteenth century. Today, it is still more an imaginary construct than a cohesive entity. It doesn't exist as a full-fledged nation or province, all of which suits its role as standard-bearer of the Cathar invisible.
Even its name reflects the chimerical. Languedoc is a contraction of langue d'oc, that is, the language of yesor rather, the languages in which the word yes is oc, not oui. The patois of Paris and its surrounding Ile de France eventually evolved into French; the languages of oc, or Occitan and its related dialectsLanguedocien, Gascon, Limousin, Auvergnat, Provençalwere far closer to Catalan and Spanish. Over time Occitan was decisively exiled to the outermost fringes of the Romance conversation, and the butter-smooth tongue of the French northerners came to dominate Languedoc. Yet the memory of the displaced idiom abides, if only in the twangy way French is now spoken in the south. Whereas the hubbub of café debate in say, Normandy, sounds like a mellifluous exchange between articulate cows, the tenor of the same discussion in Languedoc is akin to a musician tuning a large, and very loud, guitar. This, the echo of old Occitan, can be heard everywhere.
It was in the Occitan language that troubadour poetry first flowered in the twelfth century. In the fields and groves of Languedoc, love was discovered and the erotic rekindled. Jongleursthe performers of troubadour workssang of a coy, courtly game of deferred pleasure, exalted sublimation and, ultimately, adulterous fulfillment. The idea of fin'amors was a fresh, heady breeze of individual transcendence imbued with the spirit of medieval Languedoc. While beyond the Loire and the Rhine noblemen were still stirred by epics about the viscera dripping from Charlemagne's sword, their counterparts in the sunny south were learning to count the ways. The ethos of amorous longing, so much at odds with the mix of rapine and piety that passed for normal behavior everywhere else, gave a different cast to Languedoc's life of the mind.
The region's distinctiveness showed up elsewhere during this period. In the coastal cities, the Jews of Languedoc were inventing and exploring the mystical implications of the Kabbalah, proving that spiritual ferment was by no means confined to the Christian majority. In the more material world, the burghers of Languedoc were wresting power from the feudal families who had ruled the land since the time of the Visigoths. Money, the enemy of the agrarian caste sysem, was circulating again, as were ideas. On the paths and rivers of the Languedoc of 1150, there were not only traders and troubadours but also pairs of itinerant holy men, recognizable by the thin leather thong tied around the waist of their black robes. They entered villages and towns, set up shop, often as weavers, and became known for their honest, hard work. When the time came, they would talkfirst, in the moonlight beyond the walls, then out in the open, before the fireplaces of noble and burgher, in the houses of tradespeople, near the stalls of the marketplace. They asked for nothing, no alms, no obeisance; just a hearing. Within a generation, these Cathar missionaries had converted thousands. Languedoc had become host to what would be called the Great Heresy.
* * *
The small town of St. Félix en Lauragais, huddled on its prow of granite in a sea of waving green, teemed with visitors in early May of 1167. From the windows of their hostelries, the newcomers could look out over fields of spring wheat and be thankful for the felicity of a time without famine. Not that they thought the good god had had a hand in such material good fortune, for the guests of St. Félix were dualist grandeesheresiarchsfrom distant lands. They had gathered here to talk, openly, without fear of persecution or contradiction, at a great conclave in the castle of a local noble. It was the first and only meeting of its kind, a Cathar International of spiritual dissent. The Catholic bishop in his palace in Toulouse, a day's ride to the west, would not have received an invitation.
The townspeople no doubt greeted the robed heresiarchs by bowing deeply and reciting a prayer that asked for assurance of a good end to their lives. This ritual, known as the meliorameteum, marked the supplicants as believers in the Cathar message. These believers, or credentes, were not, properly speaking, Cathars but rather sympathizers who bore witness and showed deference to the faith. The credentes had to await a future life to accede to the status of the Cathar elect.
Throughout Languedoc the believers overwhelmingly outnumbered the holy few, whom the Church would later label the Perfectas in perfected, or fully initiated, heretics. It was the Perfect, the black-robed visitors to St. Félix, who were the true, seditious Cathars. An austere class of monks-in-the-world, the Perfect showed by example alone that there was a way out of the cycle of reincarnation. Their holiness made them living saints, equal in stature, in the view of the credentes, to Jesus' apostles. Having arrived at the last phase of worldly existence, the Perfect prepared for a final journey; their lives of self-denial ensured that at their death they would not return. Rather, their imprisoned spirit would at last be freed to join the eternal, invisible Goodness. Eventually, all people would be among the Perfect, in the sere and spartan waiting room of bliss. In the meantime, the simple Cathar believers could conduct themselves as they saw fit, but it was best to follow the teachings of the gospels: Love your neighbor and the peace that goodness and honesty bring.
The Perfect in St. Félix acknowledged the homage of the credentes with a ritual response to the melioramentum. Normally, the utterances would have been exclusively in Occitan, the lingua franca of the rolling farmland in which St. Félix was just one of many small settlements. But, given the uniqueness of the occasion, some of the Perfect answered in the langue d'oïl, the ancestor of French. A certain Robert d'Epernon, leader of the Cathar faith in northern France, had come to the meeting along with several of his fellow Perfect. The melioramentum response was also given in the tongue that would mature as Italian. This was spoken by a Milanese gravedigger named Mark, one of the pioneers of Catharism in Lombardy, where the growing towns were wracked by strife between the pope and the Germanic emperor. In this year of 1167, the towns and the papacy founded the defensive Lombard League to thwart the designs of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In the cracks caused by this power struggle, the heretical faith of Mark and his fellows was allowed to flower.
Mark had come to St. Félix as an escort. Nicetas, his traveling companion, spoke Greek, a language not heard in these peasant surroundings since the local Latin gentry recited it in their literary academies some 800 years previously. Nicetas, whose identity has never been fully established, was most probably the bishop of Constantinople for the Bogomil faith, a dualist creed that had arisen in eastern Europe when a tenth-century Macedonian monk known as "Beloved of God" (Bogomil, in Slavonic) started spreading the good-and-evil news. Dualism, a metaphysic known to Christianity since the gnostics of antiquity, had a following in several lands controlled by the Byzantine Empire. Although mystery surrounds the genesis of the Cathars, it is reasonable to assume that the Bogomils may have initially acted as mentors to the Western heresy, especially as the contacts between Greek East and Latin West increased after the turn of the first millennium.
As a heresiarch from the East, Nicetas brought an impressive pedigree of dissent to the meeting in St. Félix. One of his predecessors, a certain Basil, had openly tried to convert the Byzantine emperor to the ways of dualism in the year 1100. The emperor was not amused, and Basil the Bogomil was burned for his temerity just outside the hippodrome of Constantinople. For the Cathar Perfect, however, the martyrdom suffered by the Bogomils, no matter how glorious, mattered less than the conduit of legitimacy they represented.
Through Nicetas's fingers passed the power of the consolamentum, the sole dualist sacrament. It transformed the ordinary believer into one of the Perfect, who then, in turn, could "console" others ready to live their final, holy life. Baptism, confirmation, ordination, and, if received at death's door, extreme unction all rolled into one, the consolamentum entailed the laying-on of hands and repeated injunctions to live a flawlessly chaste and ascetic existence. The Perfect had to abstain from any form of sexual intimacy, pray constantly, and fast frequently. When allowed to eat, they had to avoid all meat or any byproduct of reproduction, such as cheese, eggs, milk, or butter. They could, however, drink wine and eat fish, as the latter was believed by medieval man to be the product of spontaneous generation in water. One slip in this strictly enforced regimenbe it as minor as a nibble of veal or a stolen kissand the status of Perfect vanished. The backslider had to receive the consolamentum again, as would all others whom the imperfect Perfect had "consoled" in his or her career. The Catholic precept of ex opere operato, non ex opere operantis ([grace] results from what is performed, not who performs it), through which a sacrament remains valid no matter how corrupt its celebrant, was rejected out of hand by the Cathars. The consolamentum had to be immaculate.
For the Perfect in St. Félix that day, there was no ecclesiastical hierarchy, no church as such, not even a building or chapel. The northern French Cathars would have shrugged at the laying of the cornerstone of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral four years earlier. To the dualists, the continuity of the consolamentum from the time of the apostles was the invisible edifice of the eternal, literally handed down from one generation to the next as a kind of supernatural game of tag. The sacrament was the lone manifestation of the divine in this world. The Cathars believed that Jesus of Nazareth, an apparition rather than a gross material being, had come to Earth as a messenger carrying the dualist truth and as the initiator of the chain of the consolamentum. The Nazarene's death, if indeed he did die, was almost incidental; certainly it was not the unique redemptive instant of history as proclaimed by the Church.
The Perfect maintained that the cross was not something to be revered; it was simply an instrument of torture, perversely glorified by the Roman faith. They also looked on aghast at the cult of saintly relics. Those bits of bone and cloth for which churches were built and pilgrimages undertaken belonged to the realm of matter, the stuff created by the evil demiurge who fashioned this world and the fleshy envelope of the human. He had created the cosmos, tempted the angels out of heaven, then trapped them in the perishable packages of the human body. What counted, in the greater scheme of things, was only one's spirit, that which remained of one's nature as a fallen angel, that which remained connected to the good. To think otherwise was to be deluded. The sacraments dispensed by the Church were nothing more than codswallop.
The pious outlaws of 1167 referred to the majority faith as "the harlot of the Apocalypse" and "the church of wolves." Not for them Rome's claims to temporal and spiritual preeminence. It had been ninety years since Hildebrand, the Tuscan radical elected as Pope Gregory VII, pronounced papal supremacy over all other powers. Kings, bishops, cardinals, and princes had been bickering ever since. Three years after the meeting at St. Félix, the thuggish confidants of Henry II of England broke into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Thomas Becket, the archbishop who defied the royal demand to bring felonious priests to trial in secular courts. The assassination would be medieval Europe's most notorious, but for the Cathars the act, aside from its abhorrent savagery, was totally without further meaning, having occurred in a void. There could be no legitimate kingdom, or church, of this Earth; thus the array of legal arguments presented by both Church and Crown amounted to utter casuistry.
The credentes were told to ignore other yarns spun in Rome. Catharism held that man and woman were one. A human being had been reincarnated many times overas peasant, princess, boy, girlbut again what counted was one's divine, immaterial, sexless self. If the sexes insisted on coming together and thereby prolonging their stay in the world of matter, they could do so freely, outside of marriage, yet another baseless sacrament invented by a priestly will to power. The so-called Petrine commission, by which the pope still claims authority through direct descent from the apostle Peter, could also be ignored. The most fateful pun in Western history"You are Peter, on this rock [petra] I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18)failed to edify the Perfect. For them, the pope teetered atop a rickety fiction, his pronouncements a perpetual source of pointless mischief. The mania for crusades, begun in 1095, was a recent example. The journey to Jerusalem, with swords shamefully raised against other hapless prisoners of matter, had to be renounced for the journey within. All violence was loathsome.
There can be no doubt that these men and women of St. Félix were well and truly heretical, by every definition except their own. Nicetas would "reconsole" some of them who had journeyed there from Champagne, Ile de France, and Lombardy, so that they could be absolutely sure of their otherworldly credentials. To them, he was not a pope, or even a bishop in the traditional sense, but just a distinguished elder who had received the consolamentum properly and who should thus be treated with respect. Individual Cathars had their differencessome were more radically dualist than othersjust as Catharism did not completely dovetail with Nicetas's Bogomil creed. But that hardly mattered. The news of St. Félix's extraordinary days of May proved something else, something far more disturbing to the exponents of orthodox Christianity. The heretics were now united in a novel, ominous way.
* * *
Prior to the meeting in 1167, heresy had seemed a sporadic affair, launched by charismatic loners taking advantage of a continent-wide upsurge in religious longing. Throughout the twelfth century, there were calls for a clergy more responsive to the spiritual needs of the growing towns. Religion was becoming personal again, and ephemeral messiahs and cranky reformers sprouted like weeds in an untended garden.
In Flanders in the 1110s, a certain Tanchelm of Antwerp rode roughshod over wealthy prelates, attracting an army of followers who, it is said, revered him so much that they drank his bathwater. Peasant Brittany fell under the sway of an illiterate visionary named Eudo. His disciples sacked monasteries and churches before he was declared a lunatic and thrown in prison. Nearby, in Le Mans, France, a wayward Benedictine monk called Henry of Lausanne profited from the bishop's absence to turn the whole town into an anticlerical carnival. When the bishop returned and at last managed to reenter his city, the voluble Henry took to the road and headed south, accompanied by a retinue of smitten women. One commentator noted, in the lively metaphorical idiom of the day, that Henry "has returned to the world and the filth of the flesh, like a dog to its vomit."
Tanchelm, Eudo, and Henry could at first be shrugged off by the Church as merely misguided in their enthusiasms. After all, orthodoxy had its own eccentric firebrands in this heyday of spiritual exaltation. The unkempt Robert of Arbrissel, a monk the equal of Henry for his preaching prowess, padded around in a skimpy loincloth wowing and winning female followers before finally being prevailed upon to found an abbey for women and men at Fontevrault, in the Loire Valley. Another, Bernard of Tiron, was so given to producing and inducing fits of weeping that his shoulders were said to be perpetually soaking.
These men gradually gave way to less conciliatory preachers. Peter of Bruis unleashed an orgy of church pillaging and crucifix burning reminiscent of the iconoclasts of Byzantium. Like the Cathars, he was dismissive of Church wealth and the imagery of the cross. Unlike the Cathars, Peter was careless. At a bonfire of statuary near the mouth of the Rhône on Good Friday of 1139, he turned his back one time too many, and some enraged townspeople tossed him into the flames. More alarming yet was Arnold of Brescia, a former student of the great Peter Abelard. A rabble-rouser determined to save the Church from itself, Arnold proclaimed Rome a republic in 1146 and chased the terrified pope from the city. It would take eight long years before Nicholas Breakspear, the sole Englishman to be the pontiff, could move back to his residence at the Lateran Palace, thanks to the self-interested help of Emperor Barbarossa. Arnold was duly arrested, strangled, and burned, and his ashes were thrown into the Tiber, so that none of his large Roman following could start a cult with his corpse.
Yet even these extreme instances of Church-baiting could be ascribed, charitably, to an excess of reformist zeal. Such was patently not the case with the Cathars. They stood aloof from orthodoxy, and, as soon became obvious, they did not stand alone. Whereas there were few with enough physical stamina to live as Perfect, there were credentes by the thousands.
* * *
In 1145, the influential Bernard of Clairvaux traveled to Languedoc to put the fear of God back into the followers of Henry of Lausanne. Mystical, anorexic, brilliant, eloquent, and polemical (he penned the sick dog trope cited earlier), Bernard was the greatest churchman of the century, a monk who was feared, admired, and obeyed more than any mere pope of the time. He proceeded in quiet triumph, feted and flattered everywhere as he wrested a few people away from Henry's histrionics of protest. But Bernard was no fool; he sensed that there were other, more serious subversions afoot. At Verfeil, a market center northeast of Toulouse, the unthinkable occurred. Mounted knights pounded on the doors of the church and clashed their swords together, rendering Bernard's sermon inaudible and turning his golden tongue to dust. The great man was laughed out of town.
Once safely back home in his monastic cell in Champagne, Bernard recovered his voice and sounded the alarm. A prodigious letter writer, the great man informed his correspondents that what had previously only been suspected was now confirmed: Down-to-earth reform was being supplanted by the metaphysical rebellion of heresy. Like thunderstorms on a hot and unsettled summer's day, dualists were sighted everywhere in western Europe. England, Flanders, France, Languedoc, Italyno place seemed safe for the traditional Christian faith. In Cologne, Germany, in both 1143 and 1163, fires were lit under the feet of dualist believers, and a German monk who witnessed their torment labeled the unfortunates Cathars.
Understandably, the dualists were given to discretion. In 1165, several were brought before an audience in Lombers, a town ten miles to the south of Albi. In attendance were six bishops, eight abbots, the viscount of the region, and Constance, a sister of the king of France. Everyone in Lombers on that day knew that there was dry wood in the vicinity.
The Perfect, led by a certain Olivier, were cagey enough to cite the New Testament at soporific length. Wisely, they did not state that they entirely rejected the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, in keeping with their belief that the somewhat headstrong god described therein was none other than the Evil One, the creator of matter. In this, they rejoined the gnostics of antiquity. As for Jesus of Nazareth, they avoided saying that he was a mere apparition, a hallucination who could not possibly have been a being of flesh and blood. Thata heretical opinion known as Docetismwould have constituted a whopping contradiction of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation and given them away immediately.
Eventually, the Cathars at Lorubers were flushed out on the question of oath taking. Citing Christian Scriptures, they said it was forbidden to swear any oath whatsoever, which was a red flag in a society where sworn fealty formed the Church-mediated bond of all feudal relations. This aversion to oaths was a hallmark of Cathar belief, a logical extension of the clear-cut divide they saw between the world of humanity and the ether of the Good. When the role of the Church in the world was evoked, the veil dropped entirely, and Olivier and his fellow Cathars attacked the bishops and abbots at Lombers as "mercenaries," "ravening wolves," "hypocrites," and "seducers." Although offensive in the extreme to the churchmen, leveling such charges may have secretly pleased the assembled laity, who harbored no great love for the tax-gathering clergy. In the end, despite the universal sentiment that Olivier and his friends were heretics, everyone was allowed to go home unharmed. The lord of Lombers no doubt sensed that it would be impolitic to put local heroes to death.
The memory of that showdown was only two years old when the Cathars gathered in St. Félix, some thirty miles south of Lombers. Nicetas and the assembled Perfect, unmolested and unafraid, undertook the task of organizing the growing faith. Cathar dioceses were drawn up, and "bishops"coordinators rather than feudal overseers like their Catholic counterpartswere appointed or confirmed. We know the names of the men in charge of the Cathar homeland: Sicard Cellerien got Albi; Bernard Raymond, Toulouse; Guirald Mercier, Carcassonne. Quietly, without the theatrics of earlier heretics, the Cathars were laying the foundations of a revolution. After St. Félix, the greatest fear of the orthodoxthe rivalry of a powerful counter-churchcame closer to being a reality.
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