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The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages

The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages

by Sean Martin

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Without lifting a sword, the Cathars posed a threat to Catholicism greater than the Muslims or Jews—or so the Church believed. The Cathars believed that matter was essentially evil—especially the human body—and that the material world had to be transcended through a simple life of prayer, work, fasting, and nonviolence. Though they radically departed


Without lifting a sword, the Cathars posed a threat to Catholicism greater than the Muslims or Jews—or so the Church believed. The Cathars believed that matter was essentially evil—especially the human body—and that the material world had to be transcended through a simple life of prayer, work, fasting, and nonviolence. Though they radically departed from certain traditional Christian beliefs, the Cathars still believed themselves to be the heirs of the true heritage of Christianity. They completely rejected the Catholic Church and all its opulent trappings, regarding it as the Church of Satan; Cathar services and ceremonies, by contrast, were held in fields, barns, and people's homes. The Cathars found widespread popularity among peasants and artisans. They respected women, who played a major role in the movement. Alarmed at the success of Catharism, the Church began the Inquisition and launched the Albigensian Crusade to exterminate the heresy. The Albigensian Crusade was the first Crusade to be directed against fellow Christians and was also the first European genocide. Today, the mystique surrounding the Cathars is as strong as ever. Their myths and complete history are examined here in The Cathars—the compelling true story of this once peaceful religious sect.

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The Cathars

By Sean Martin

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2014 Sean Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84344-418-3


Heresy and Orthodoxy

Catharism was the most popular heresy of the Middle Ages. Indeed, such was its success that the Catholic Church and its apologists referred to it as the Great Heresy. As the twelfth century turned into the thirteenth, it was at its zenith: Cathars could be found from Aragon to Flanders, from Naples to the Languedoc. Its equivalent of priests, the Perfect, lived lives so conspicuously virtuous that even their enemies had to proclaim that they were indeed holy and good people. The Cathars found widespread support from all areas of society, from kings and counts to carpenters and weavers. Women, never welcomed by the Church, became Cathars knowing they could earn respect and actively participate in the faith. Needless to say, this mixture of women, virtue and apostolic poverty — to say nothing of the Cathar church's popularity — did not sit well with Rome. But nor did Rome sit well with the Cathars, who believed that the Church had, in its pursuit of worldly power, betrayed Christ's message.

That Catholicism would move against the Cathars was hardly surprising; indeed, in some areas in the south of France, Cathars were more numerous than Catholics. What shocked contemporaries was not that the Pope ordered a Crusade to put the heresy down, but that the Crusaders committed atrocities of such magnitude that they are still echoing down the centuries. In the Languedoc, these crimes have never really been forgotten.

Strangely, for all its popularity, the exact origins of Catharism are unknown. It emerged at a time when the Church, and Europe as a whole, was undergoing enormous changes prior to emerging into the so-called Renaissance of the twelfth century. Although it is difficult to imagine the scale of atrocities such as Béziers, we can go some way to understanding the mindset of the Cathars' persecutors by studying the history of the Church and how heresy emerged from it. Moreover, a study of the history of the dualist heresy — essentially, the belief that the devil is as powerful as God, to which Catharism belongs — will help to set things in perspective. Like Catharism, Dualism has murky beginnings.


Dualism existed before Christianity, and may even be older than recorded history itself. The term was first coined in 1700 by the English Orientalist, Thomas Hyde, to describe any religious system which held that God and the devil were two opposing, coeternal principles. The meaning of the term evolved to include any system that revolved around a central, binary pairing (such as the mind/body split in the philosophy of Descartes, or the immortal soul/mortal body in that of Plato). Dualist strands exist in one form or another in all major religions, whether monotheistic (acknowledging one god, such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity), polytheistic (acknowledging many gods, such as Shintoism, some forms of Wicca or the pantheon of classical Greece), or monistic (acknowledging that everything — the Divine, matter and humanity — is of one and the same essential substance, such as certain schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Pantheism). For example, fundamentalist Christianity has a pronounced dualist slant in that it sees many things in the world — rock music, drugs, New Age philosophies, Hollywood blockbusters — as being the work of the devil. Likewise, extremist Islamic groups see non-Muslims as either essentially asleep to the truth, or actively engaged in undermining the religion of the Prophet. In both cases, an 'us and them' mentality prevails, from which there is only one escape route (belief in Jesus and Mohammed respectively).

Despite these varying levels of Dualism in the different faiths of the world, religious Dualism proper stands apart in positing the notion of the two opposing principles of good and evil. Within the dualist tradition itself, there are generally held to be two schools of thought: absolute, or radical, Dualism; and mitigated, or monarchian, Dualism. The Italian historian of religions, Ugo Bianchi, identified three distinct features of Dualism:

1) Absolute Dualism regards the two principles of good and evil as coeternal and equal, whereas mitigated Dualism regards the evil principle as a secondary, lesser power to the good principle.

2) Absolute Dualism sees the two principles as locked in combat for all eternity, and, in many schools, regards time as cyclical (many absolute dualists, therefore, tend to believe in reincarnation), whilst mitigated Dualism sees historical time as being finite; at the end of time, the evil principle will be defeated by the good.

3) Absolute Dualism sees the material world as intrinsically evil, but mitigated Dualism regards creation as essentially good.

The Good Religion

Zoroastrianism is usually held to be the first major world religion to espouse a dualistic view of the world. However, the Dualism present in ancient Egyptian religion predates Zoroastrianism by some centuries, if not a millennium (the exact dates of the founding of Zoroastrianism being unknown). Polarities — such as that of light and dark — are frequently found in ancient Egyptian religious thought, perhaps the best known of them being the opposition of Horus (sometimes Osiris) and Seth. In the various versions of the myth that have survived, the two gods are portrayed as being constantly at war with one another, with Seth never being able to destroy Horus (despite blinding him in one eye), but who himself is never quite annihilated either. They were known variously as 'the two gods', 'the two brothers' and 'the two fighters'. Although they weren't originally seen as good (Horus) versus evil (Seth), Seth developed trickster-type attributes and was gradually demonised until his name was virtually anathema in Egyptian religious rituals and was effectively banished from the Egyptian pantheon.

As Seth was gradually becoming depicted in ever darker colours, a dualist system that posited good against evil from its very outset was emerging in Persia. The prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) was a great Persian religious reformer who founded what he called the Good Religion, or Zoroastrianism. The dates of his mission are unclear, and Zoroaster has been placed in various epochs, from 1700 — 1400 BC to 1400 — 1000 BC or 1000 — 600 BC. Current research tends to suggest the middle dates, making Zoroastrianism the world's oldest revealed religion, a religion that 'has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith.' Zoroaster was 'the first to teach the doctrines of an individual judgment, heaven and hell, the future resurrection of the body, the general Last Judgment, and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body.' All of these ideas were to influence Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet where Zoroastrianism differs from these later religions is in its treatment of evil. In its traditional form, the faith holds that there is one good god, Ahura Mazda (the name means Wise Lord), under whom are the two equal twin forces of Spenta Mainyu (the beneficent or holy spirit) and Angra Mainyu (the hostile or destructive spirit). Although Ahura Mazda's creation is good, the source of all evil within it is caused by Angra Mainyu, who is destined to be overcome at the end of historical time, at which point eternity will begin.

Classical Zoroastrianism, however, underwent changes as the fortunes of the Persian Empire rose and fell. Over time, Ahura Mazda became identified with Spenta Mainyu, reducing the original trinity to a binary pairing. The names of the Wise Lord and his adversary also underwent transformation, being contracted to Ohrmazd and Ahriman respectively. By the time of the Achaemenid Dynasty (550 — 330 BC), Ahriman was no longer seen as being created by, and inferior to, Ohrmazd, but was now regarded as his equal.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

Zoroastrianism, in all its forms, regards the world as a battleground between the forces of good and evil, and each individual is expected to make their own choice as to which side to be on. This, together with the idea of the two principles, would later resurface in Catharism. Several other concepts that developed before the Christian era would also help to shape the heresy, namely the split between the body and the soul, and the figure of the Judeo-Christian equivalent of Ahriman, Satan.

The body/soul split, although perhaps today synonymous with Descartes10 and modern empirical science, seems to have first emerged with the cult of Orpheus in the sixth century BC, which came to play an important part in the religious life of ancient Greece. Orphism contained elements of Dualism within it, as the legendary figure of Orpheus was said to be either the son of Apollo or the Thracian king Oeagres, who was of the dynasty founded by Dionysus. Apollo, the god of order and reason, traditionally stood opposite Dionysus, the god of intoxication and ecstasy, but in Orphism, as in later Zoroastrianism, neither god prevails over the other. Unlike Zoroastrianism, however, which regards the body as the material vehicle of the soul, Orphism regarded the soul as divine and immortal, while the body was its evil, mortal prison for the duration of its earthly existence. The origins of this belief derive from the story of the child Dionysus: as the son of Zeus, the boy incurred the jealousy of the Titans, the race of elder gods that Zeus had overthrown. The Titans tempted the child with a mirror, and while he was studying his own reflection, the Titans killed and dismembered the boy. Although Dionysus is later resurrected, Zeus destroys the Titans with a salvo of thunderbolts, and it is from the remains of the elder gods that humankind is born. The physical body was held to be made of Titanic material, and therefore evil, while the soul was formed of divine Dionysian material. Orphism developed practices whose focus was the fate of the soul in the afterlife, and the Orphic initiate hoped that, by following these practices, their soul would be granted salvation in the next world and released from the bonds of matter and the cycle of death and rebirth.

Satan was originally an accusing angel in Hebrew thought, but had the good fortune, like Ahriman before him, to be promoted. In the Book of Job, the earliest Old Testament book in which he has a prominent role, Satan is one of the 'sons of God' (Job 1.6) who serve God in heaven. God asks Satan for a progress report on what he has been up to of late. Satan replies 'I have been walking here and there, roaming around the earth' (Job 1.7). God asks Satan if he has noticed the devout Job, describing him as His most faithful servant. Satan wonders if Job would still serve God if he, Job, had everything taken away from him. God concedes the point, and lets Satan descend to Earth to begin testing Job.

In a rapid sequence of calamities that could rightly be called Old Testament in their severity, Job has his donkeys stolen by Sabeans (Job 1.15), his sheep (and attendant shepherds) are suddenly struck by lightning and killed a verse later, while, in verse seventeen, Chaldeans make off with his camels. Before Job has time to react, another breathless servant comes running with news even worse: a storm has destroyed the house that Job's children were feasting in; all were killed. Job tears his clothes in grief, shaves his head and, from a position face down on the floor, praises the Lord for taking that which He had originally given.

Satan returns to heaven, and God points out to him that, despite the fact that Satan has done his worst to Job, Job's faith is unshaken. God feels that He has won the toss, but Satan, not to be outdone by his employer, asks God if Job's faith will be as strong if his body were to be attacked. Once more, God allows Satan to test Job, on the condition that he doesn't kill the poor man. This time, Satan causes sores to break out all over Job's body. Rather than seek sound medical advice, Job decides to scrape at his sores with a piece of broken pottery. Once again, Job rejoices in his suffering, and Satan retires, temporarily, from the narrative.

Satan plays the role of a trickster in the Book of Job, albeit one of a rather cruel bent. There is no doubt that he is still, essentially, a heavenly servant of some kind: if Satan is not actually doing God's bidding, then at least God seems content to let Satan get up to his tricks in the earthly realm. It is not until the Second Book of Chronicles, written sometime towards the close of the Achaemenid period (which ended in 330 BC), that Satan steps out from the shadow of the Almighty to become a force set firmly against God and His creation. He — Satan — does so in a rather interesting way, as he plays the role once taken by God Himself in an earlier telling of the story. The story in question is of the census of the tribes of Israel, first recounted in the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 24: the Lord, being angry yet again with Israel, forces David to number her peoples. David's army — who are to do the actual counting — are none too happy, but comply with their king's command. After nine months and twenty days, in which they have been all over Israel, they return to Jerusalem, the census complete. At this point, David has a crisis of conscience, and tells God that he feels that the census has been a terrible sin. Unfortunately for David and the people of Israel, God agrees. He gives David three choices to punish the sin: three years of famine; three months of running away from his enemies; or three days of pestilence throughout the land. David is unable to decide, and casts himself at the mercy of his Lord. His Lord, however, is not at His most merciful, and smites the land with three days' plague, in which 70,000 Israelites perish. When the story is retold in Second Chronicles, however, it is Satan, not God, who urges David to take the census. It makes no difference: the results are, for the unfortunate Israelites, the same.

Quite why Satan went from being an accusing angel to emerging — around the end of the Achaemenid period — as the adversary of both God and Man, is still something of a mystery. One possible explanation for this change is linked with the situation in Israel after the Babylonish Captivity ended. It has been suggested that, when the exiled tribes returned home, friction was generated between them and the tribes who had stayed; the exiles felt that it was they who were the true children of God, for they had remained true to the Torah and had suffered the punishment of exile to prove it. Matters came to a head in 168 BC, when the Seleucid ruler of Israel, King Antiochus Epiphanes, embarked on an anti-Semitic purge. Rebellion quickly spread, and when Antiochus's forces were defeated, it was the hardline descendants of the former exiles who gained control of the Temple. To them, the likes of the liberal pro-Hellenic Hasmonean dynasty were as much the enemy as the Seleucids, and it was perhaps these ongoing tensions within Israel that led to Satan, formerly one of God's angels, becoming anathematised in the same way that the hardliners were excoriating the Hasmoneans for, as they saw it, their treachery and betrayal.

Essenes, Gnostics and the First Christians

If Dualism has beginnings that are obscured by the mists of time, then the origins of Christianity itself are likewise semi-obscured by the passage of the centuries. The Cathars claimed descent from early Christianity, before the Roman Church became the religion's dominant form. Roman rule of Israel — which began in 63 BC — was facing increasing resistance from various groups within Israel. Most notable among them were the Essenes, a radical Jewish group based in the caves of Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea. It has been suggested by various writers that both John the Baptist and Jesus himself were at one time members of the Dead Sea community before beginning their respective ministries. While this is debatable, it is known that the Essenes sought to establish a new covenant with God, as they believed that Israel's sins had all but invalidated the old covenant (given by God to Abraham). According to Roman historians like Josephus and Philo, the Essenes were divided between those who had taken full vows — which involved living at Qumran and adhering to a strict life of celibacy, prayer and ritual — and those who were associate members who, while Believers, lived in towns, plied ordinary trades and married. The Cathars — like their immediate forebears, the Bogomils — would also structure their church in this way.

In further foreshadowings of Catharism, the Essenes' worldview was essentially dualist, in that they saw the world as the battleground between the forces of heaven and hell, and that man himself is the microcosm of this war: 'the spirits of truth and falsehood struggle within the human heart ... According to his share in truth and right, thus a man hates lies; and according to his share in the lot of deceit, thus he hates the truth.' They also insisted that what mattered was not one's ethnic origin — be it Jewish or Gentile — but one's morality: only the pure of heart would be saved.


Excerpted from The Cathars by Sean Martin. Copyright © 2014 Sean Martin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sean Martin is a writer, poet and filmmaker. He has written books on The Knights Templar, Alchemy and Alchemists, The Gnostics, The Cathars, Andrei Tarkovsky and New Waves in Cinema.

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