In the middle of the twelfth century—1167—in the hamlet of Saint-Fеlix-Lauragais next to Toulouse in the south of France, there occurred an event which, to a great extent, predefined the spiritual development of Western Europe; namely, the Cathedral of ‘the pure’, known as Cathars, or Albigensians, after the name of the town of Albi. The bishops of the Cathars existed practically in all the cities of France, Italy, Germany, and Flanders, and the main one was Bogomil Papa Nicetas, the bishop of Eastern Flanders and Lombardy who originated from Bosnia.
Today, researchers cross swords as to whether the Cathars originated from the Bogomils or were the successors of authentic Western European heresies. In those times, such a dispute was hardly appropriate. In the heart of Western Europe, dualistic movements, which under the influence of Nicetas and other Bogomil preachers were structured into a Gnostic religious system, could form in a natural way.
How did people in those times view the surrounding world? What did they feel and how did they perceive reality?
The scene of life that was unwrapping before them was wretched and measly, a mixture of rejection and disappointment. Genuine zeal had become a thing of the past. Christian virtues and compassion, commandments, and humility were all but forgotten. God had left this world; the second coming of Jesus had never happened. The Church had turned into a harlot giving herself to every tyrant who had the audacity and charge to dominate it—German emperors, French kings and barons. The crusades for the liberation of the Holy Sepulcher degenerated into wholesale robberies and pogroms with the rape of women, blazing cities and fetid corpses on the roads. The knights, instead of turning the sword against the Turks, committed atrocities in Northern Italy, Eastern Europe and Byzantium. Learning hid in the secluded huts of hermits who tried to save their souls; the monasteries turned into Sodom and Gomorrah, where perverted sensuality, hypocrisy and petty intrigues ruled.
This was a pointless palaver in a world full of physical and moral monstrosity, fanatical preachers and predators of all kinds—greedy, sly, unscrupulous, and lewd—daring to swear on Jesus’s name. It was a masquerade of disguised nonentities—Popes, kings, earls, and bishops. Those who called themselves Christians tore and tormented the bodies of their nearest and dearest, dishonoured them, and trampled over their souls. It was a “vale of suffering” – but a vale created by the hands of people.
In this case, who owned these temples that blessed evil? Why was the world so inconsolable, rigid, and incorrigible in its sin? Was it a divine creature or the parody of God? Could matter, with its vices and inferiority, have anything in common with spirit? Or was it the spawn of other sinister forces? Did the reason for human misery lie in original sin or in an intricate idea of Satan?
The answers the Albigensians gave to these questions did not differ from those of the Bogomils. They believed that the material world, including the human body, belonged to the devil, and the spirit belonged to God. Likewise, they were convinced that the soul was the hostage of matter, and a release occurred through the rejection of vulgar passions and desires. The world was hell, and humankind in that world were helpless toys of blind forces. The task of the spirit enslaved by the matter was coming to know light, maximal abstinence and compassion, and support of loved ones. The Cathars preached Docetism (Jesus was the spirit who adopted a human form and descended to tell the souls of the chosen ones about a cosmic drama); among the evangelists, above all they valued John the Baptist, and among the Apostles, above all they valued Paul. They rejected the mystery of marriage, baptism of water, and the Eucharist. They associated the Jewish Jehovah with Satan, at the same time considering the Old Testament prophets, who preached the spiritual ideal, the messengers of the Supreme God. They called themselves the ‘Good Men’ (‘Good Christians’).
Admission of and absolution of sins before death and elevation to the highest order were practised by the Cathars by way of putting the Gospel and hands on the chest (a sacrament known as consolamentum) of the believer. It should be only a mature person who realized the meaning of his actions. Finally, in the same way, they saw the Church as the weapon of sinister forces inculcating haughtiness, self-conceit, greed for possessions and gold—all under the guise of fake humility.
A key distinction from Bogomil beliefs was the Albigensians’ faith in reincarnation.
Here it is worth going back 13 centuries to the beginning of the first millennium. In Eastern Gnosticism, among the Mandaeans; in hermetic teachings like the Corpus Hermeticum; among the Christian Gnostics of the Naaseans, who were considered fans of the Serpent, the idea of reincarnation is clearly traced.
The path of salvation passes through the temporal and spatial series of “generations” (eons). The divine soul enters the world to go through a long, confusing and difficult path, full of pain of loss and loneliness. Soul loses and regains her memory; is reborn, enduring the hardships of life in new material incarnations.
At the end of this path, soul finds rest in the Pleroma, the divine fullness.
“In that world [of darkness] I dwelt thousands of myriads of years,
and nobody knew of me that I was there. . . .
Year upon year and
generation upon generation I was there, and they did not know about me that I dwelt in their world”, – narrates “Ginza Rba”, The book of Mandaeans.
“The way that we have to go is long and endless”…
…“How wide are the boundaries of these worlds of darkness!”.
The same theme of overcoming countless worlds of darkness is heard in the Corpus Hermeticum:
“You see, child, how many are the bodies through which we have to pass, how many are the choirs of daimones, how vast the system of the star-courses [through which our Path doth lie], to hasten to the One and Only God.”
Naasen Psalms talk about the “labyrinth of evils” that the soul goes through in its endless journey:
“Having once strayed into the labyrinth of evils,
The wretched [Soul] finds no way out. . .
She seeks to escape from the bitter chaos,
And knows not how she shall get through”.
Finally, in the same Naasen Psalms, Jesus confesses: “All the worlds shall I journey through, all the mysteries unlock.”
From here, apparently, the Cathars drew inspiration. According to their views, the particles of the divine world—the souls of the chosen taken captive by the demiurge—passed a long chain of incarnations alternatively incarnating into the poor and the rich, the successful and the miserable, men and women, the crippled and warriors, sinners and the righteous, Christians and the adherents of different faiths to eventually achieve the ultimate knowledge and acquire the long-awaited freedom in the kingdom of spirit. Childbirth, according to their doctrine, allowed celestial souls to obtain a temporary shelter to realize their purpose. The death of the material world would become the end of the cycle of their incarnations.
Besides, the worldview of the Albigensians is characterized by several unique and important moments for us.
Firstly, the Gnostic systems that existed throughout the centuries primarily generally differed in their extraordinarily careful, even touching, compassion for living life—not to kill a living being, not to cause pain to animals, and all the more not to torture or hurt one’s nearest and dearest. These are all characteristics of the Manicheans and the Paulicians, the Bogomils and of course the Albigensians.
The killing of living beings was strictly prohibited, the consumption of meat was condemned (especially for the chosen, known as perfects), and executions were abolished.
Knowing this, to recognize “the heretic”, the Inquisition would demand of him to wring the neck of a chicken. The Cathars had no leniency for the crimes or payoffs like the indulgence – the consequence of murder, mutilation and insult was the banishment from community.
The second factor is a unique tolerance that was so unusual, not only for the Middle Ages but for human history in general. In these movements we almost never encounter male chauvinism, so typical of the monotheistic religions. The Cathars actually endowed women with full equality, allowing them to occupy the highest positions in the hierarchy of the Albigensians—‘the perfect’ (perfects).
The same attitude applied to the representatives of religious minorities such as Catholics and Jews. Long before the beginning of the era of freedom and enlightenment, in Languedoc, Lombardy, and Toulouse, the Cathars established peace and an atmosphere of lenient tolerance for their spiritual opponents. The Church put yellow crosses on the Cathars and yellow stars on the Jews, having anticipated the idea of selection. They burned heretics in fires, tortured, banished, and demonized all who did not share their beliefs. During their rule, the Albigensians did not create anything like the Inquisition or force anyone to adopt their beliefs; neither did they hound and humiliate those outside their own communities or agree to the bashing of the dregs of society. The subconscious fear of strangers was alien to them because a stranger was no more than the bearer of divine spirit in a slightly different and maybe uncustomary shell than the one they wore themselves. Attachment to life with impending doom, pointless circumambulation, cold void, and worthlessness united in their eyes all people, irrespective of what they thought and believed in.
While in all European states and dukedoms the Jews remained for centuries the people of second-rate quality, and worse yet, the devil’s helpers and the accursed nation, in the lands of the Cathars they were equal among all. In his book A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, the historian Henry Charles Lea discusses the freedoms that were used by ‘the sons of Moses’ in the South of France, unprecedented in Europe not only in the twelfth century, but in all the forthcoming ones, including the Enlightenment. (1) The Jews were allowed to own land allotments; they were free to choose any profession, including public service; they held honorary posts; and most importantly, they were not perceived as fundamentally flawed, vicious people doomed to suffering as the Church dogma kept maintaining. ‘Southern France was almost the only stronghold of religious tolerance as … the very idea of religious persecutions was completely alien for the Cathars,’ Lea wrote.
This is to be expected. What does it matter in which body a soul resides if the human body is ‘the dungeon of evil’ by definition? Can there be an advantage of one torture chamber over another, one dirty vessel over another? In any case, these vessels will be broken, and the origin of torment—‘the Creator’s closet’—destroyed.
What does it matter about people’s delusions if the people are no more than delusions themselves? What does it matter how they believe in their God and what prayers they offer up to him if this God is a fallen angel, the origin of chaos, temptation and suffering? Can human beings who know the true price of this frail world blame the miserable in their suffering and limitations?
The third and no-less-significant point was that the dualists were a lot more rational than their enemies. They rejected miracles, omens, resurrection of the dead, prejudices, superstitious beliefs, and saints. They did not believe in sacrament or the worship of graves and icons. For them the conversations about ‘the devil’s scheming’, incubi, and succubae were as absurd as the world itself ultimately was the devil’s spawn. The Cathars could not use the expression ‘it’s the devil’s work’ because, since all physical and material nature was derived from the devil as it is, humankind should have realized this bitter truth. Unlike other Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they did not or could not believe that the Creator intervened in the business of His creations every minute, punishing, helping, blessing, warning, comforting, and being otherwise involved. The very thought that the prayer containing a plea to stop a drought would touch the Almighty and impel Him to pour rain on the ground was laughable for them. The one who created hell and gave rise to the abyss under the name of the material world could not feel any compassion for His victims by definition. And His interference itself into the business of humans was devoid of any meaning. The residence of evil was created so intricately and carefully that it did not require the constant presence of the Creator.
Jean Duvernoy (2), the most influential modern researcher into the Cathars’ history, brings as an example the sermon of the Cathar perfect Pierre Authie. Typical for the Albigensians, it was mentioned in the records of the Bishop of Pamiers Jacques Fournier’s Inquisition. (3) Pierre Authie spoke disingenuously of the naive concepts of Christians and ‘the care of Holy Father’: ‘It was not God who gave you a good harvest but the fertilisation and watering of the ground,’ he wrote. (4) ‘Why are you lying prostrate before this statue? Did you forget that it was Man who took a piece of wood and carved it with the help of iron tools?’ he said in an attempt to bring pious Catholics to reason. (5).
Fourth, condemning and despising idleness in all its manifestations, from aristocratic dalliance to monkhood, the Albigensians preached labour and diligence. ‘They do not eat their bread in idle comfort but work with their hands and live off their efforts,’ a contemporary wrote about them.
Finally, the last point: The adherents of Gnostic movements understood human nature a lot better than other Christians did. Unlike Catholics, the Bogomils and the Cathars did not take the monastic vows in their youth; neither did they give their children away to monasteries because they realized that sexual desire in the young years is so powerful that it suppresses all spiritual aspirations and, if not realized, can morph into the most despicable perversions. They would practice abstinence only when mature in age, after experiencing the joy of making love and creating families.
But the main factor differentiating the world of Gnostics from that of their neighbours was that the dualism in the perception of the world led not to the spiritual dissention, but to harmony—individual and, subsequently, social. People felt a part of the brotherhood-sisterhood of the chosen without the division into religion, appearance, sex, race, and origin. People were hostages among other hostages of the triumphant evil, neither worse nor better than the rest. This combination—aversion to the world and concurrent quiet, unrevealed delight coming from belonging to the higher pure origin—gave rise to intense joy, sombre composure, contempt for life, and anticipation of speedy parting with ‘the worn shell’ of a body.
The Cathars, like other Gnostics before them, did not leave the world as monks. They remained secular, not to improve the world, like Francis of Assisi, but to evoke it from their hearts. Like the bee—their symbol—they gathered bitter honey of knowledge from the inflorescences of the spirit growing from the depths of rotting matter.
They created a world in which internal freedom reigned because there was no need for an external one. Unlike other Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they did not have the problem of being tempted by the world because the world for them was not a mystery or a blessing; neither was it part of God’s kingdom; rather, it was the emanation of darkness. They reached harmony, balance, and tolerance at the expense of intolerance for the one who created this house of darkness, imposed on it its own laws, and controlled it. ‘We are not of this world, and the world is not for us, but let us know what you know and love what you love,’ sounded the prayer of the Cathars.
The Cathars rejected any political structures with their inevitable system of suppression, power, and urge to dominate. Their world opposed human passions and all things irrational inherent to humankind that made people their slaves. They were ‘not of this world’ and, therefore, doomed.
The annihilation of the Albigensians is well-known. The third Council of the Lateran of 1179 legitimized the future massacre and a famous appeal, ‘Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own’ (‘Cædite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius’), of Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric, later archbishop of Narbonne, forever embedded the true image of the Church. Reprisals against the Cathars became the first-ever European genocide in history carried out on a religious basis.
The papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was destined to play in this drama the role of Ernst vom Rath (6) whose murder became the pretext for the Night of Broken Glass in Germany in 1938. The messenger of Pope Innocent III in Toulouse de Castelnau began removing from all posts the representatives of the Church sympathizing with the Cathars and then cursed Earl Raymond VI of Toulouse for his sympathies with heretics. Enraged, Raymond VI threatened de Castelnau with repercussions and ordered him out of the county, but a few days later in Rome, de Castelnau was murdered by a knight who was allegedly close to Raymond. De Castelnau was declared a martyr, and 1209 became the starting point of the Albigensian Crusade—the first crusade directed against, not Saracens and ‘non-believers’, but against the Church’s own subjects in the very heart of Europe.
Unlike the what happened to the Paulicians and Bogomils, the military reprisals of the Cathars and the ensuing slaughter occurred practically unhampered. On the one hand, the northern French knighthood had a more organized and stronger army; on the other hand, the Cathars did not have allies as the Paulicians had and could not hide in an inaccessible mountain fortresses as the Bogomils had. The crusaders, headed by Simon IV of Montfort, as skillful in the art of war as he was inhuman and deceitful, encroached upon Southern France, torching its cities and destroying all those hiding behind the fortress walls. In the Battle of Muret, de Montfort crushed the army of Raymond VI, which far exceeded his own in number, leaving no hope to the Albigensians. This was followed by a massive organized massacre carried out with a level of violence unheard of previously in the Old World. The Albigensians were persecuted and hunted down like animals. Many were stabbed to death, especially in Bеziers and Marmande. Attackers did not shun any monstrosities. The majority of Bеziers citizens were blinded, women were raped, and children murdered. Others were burned in huge bonfires, especially in Minerve and Lavaur (around four hundred people were burned in Lavaur alone).
‘Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex,’ Amalric wrote to Pope Innocent III after the massacre in Bеziers.
The Holy See gave carte blanche to massacres; moreover, religious fanaticism was reinforced by trivial mercantile promises: the Church transferred the lands taken from the Cathars for eternal use to the greedy barons of Northern France and Wallonia.
Power in Occitania was divided between the royal Lily and the inquisition headed by the Dominicans. Long before the yellow stars were placed on the Jews by Nazis, the Church put yellow crosses on the Cathars, throwing into bonfires not only secret heretics but also the unearthed remains of the deceased. The Holy Inquisition called this atrocity ‘the Holocaust desired by God’.
The drama of the castle at Montsegur was the climax in which two thousand people were burned in a gigantic bonfire at the foot of the castle, and the castle itself was destroyed. Bonfires in Verona and Florence were the end of these atrocities in this, probably the most dramatic and bloody history of European Middle Ages; the spirit was finally broken by the triumphant matter.
Legend has it that a few perfects managed to flee from Montsegur through the underground tunnels and take with them some valuables, either jewellery or the sacred Gnostic scrolls, but all the efforts to solve the Cathars’ mystery (if there was any such thing) ended in failure.
There is also the reverse side of the Albigensians’ tragedy. It is in countless speculations, at times curious, often repulsive. They did not have anything to do with the truth, although they intrigued and stirred up the ignorant and the mystically inclined minds. The truth is that the Cathars were the last representatives in the world of the Gnostic Manichaean School. After them, the religion of dualism, the idea of contraposing the demiurge and the Divine Spirit left history and mass consciousness, remaining the fate of lonely thinkers. Surreptitiously, it continues to influence Christianity and Judaism, Middle Age mystics, scholastics, and philosophers, but ceases to exist as a standalone religious-philosophical school with its own postulates, principles, and outlook.
Nevertheless, right now, in the voids and spiritual ruins West, the Gnostic ideas and the worldview of the Cathars can find a “second life”, and perhaps a more successful one…
- Henry Charles Lea (1825–1909) was an American historian who focused on church history in the later Middle Ages and on the Spanish Inquisition.
- Jean Duvernoy (1917–2010) was a French medievalist and translator who studied the Waldensians and Catharism.
- Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers (1280–1342) is known for his Inquisition records, which survived in the Vatican Archives after he was elected Pope as Benedict XII. He was the third Avignon Pope.
- Sermon of Cathar Perfect Pierre Authie (Inquisition records of Jacques Fournier)
- Sermon of Cathar Perfect Guillaume Belibaste (Inquisition records of Jacques Fournier)
- The pretext for the mass reprisals against the Jews—the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), which took place 9-10 November 1938, was the murder in Paris of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, by a Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan.
Author of “Gnosticism through the Prism of the Third Millennium: Or between God and the Creator” Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.