A BITTER ERA WHICH CHANGED THE LANGUEDOC IRREVOCABLY
Nowadays Cathar Country pretty much equates with the Departement of the Aude. Indeed it has in recent times attributed to itself the appellation of ‘Pays Cathare’ which first announces itself to the visitor on the terminal buildings at Carcassonne airport, and is repeated on many road-side signposts.
Many of the notable Cathar sites are to be found in the Aude but historically the Cathar heresy, as it was referred to by the Papacy seven to eight hundred years ago, spread throughout the Languedoc. Many scholars and historians, for instance, refer to the neighbouring Ariege, especially the county of Foix as being a significant focal point of Catharism.
Historical records point to evidence that the belief migrated from the Middle East to Eastern Europe before gaining ground in what is now Germany and establishing other strongholds in this part of France and in Northern Italy.
The Languedoc was the scene of many disputes between the various medieval Kingdoms and Dukedoms, both French and Spanish, which then made up this area. Fortresses were constructed as border outposts frequently changed hands as conflicts ebbed and flowed. Almost all of the these strongholds, whilst occupied and defended by the Cathars and all too frequently witness to unimaginable atrocities and bloody massacres, were never actually built by them.
Nevertheless they are stunning edifices and testament to the extraordinary tenacity and breath-taking skill which it must have taken to build them on seemingly inaccessible mountain tops and ridges. Any or all of them are well worth a visit, even the few which never witnessed action during the Albigensian Crusade, but which thanks to a shrewd marketing device on the part of the tourist authority of the Aude are packaged as part of the Cathar experience.
Of those latter castles two of the most striking are Arques; just a short distance along the D613 from Couiza, and Puilaurens, about a thirty minute drive from Couiza and just off the D117 from Quillan in the direction of Perpignan. It is especially stunning when viewed, floodlit, from the valley below on summer evenings. Puilaurens did at one time number Cathars amongst its occupants but fortuitously only at a period when it was under the occupation of the Spanish Dukedom of Aragon, thereby ensuring protection from their French persecutors.
THE ALBIGENSIAN CRUSADE AND THE INQUISITION
The Languedoc with its 11th and 12th Century traditions of high culture, tolerance and liberalism became a natural magnet for the tenets of Catharism. By the 13th Century it was arguably the predominant religious belief of the area supported by peasant and nobleman alike; a situation that inevitably provoked conflict with the established Church of Rome, not to mention the envy of the nobility in Northern France. The Languedoc of this era was a considerably larger region than that of the present day Languedoc- Roussillon and one of its principal towns, and therefore correspondingly prominent Cathar strongholds was the town of Albi, in the present-day Tarn. Hence the term Albigensian Crusade.
All the elements then were in place which led to the initiation of the crusade against the Cathars by Pope Innocent III in June 1209. Such was the ferocity of the conflict that it is claimed that 500,000 men women and children; Cathar and Catholic alike along with Cathar sympathisers were slaughtered in the first twelve months. Even allowing for a larger Languedoc of that time, given the totals and density of population of the corresponding area even up to the modern era these numbers almost suspend belief. Even if contemporary accounts may have inflated the figures, plenty of evidence exists to suggest that by any reckoning the slaughter was on a substantial scale.
The crusade against the Cathars lasted twenty years but the persecution against, and the subsequent ‘Inquisition’ of the Cathars persisted for a great deal longer. As late as 1328, a full century and more after the calling of the crusade, it is alleged that 510 Cathars were walled up alive in the Cave of Lombrives on the order of the Inquisitor Jacques Fournier, who later became Pope Benedict XII. This was the last recorded mass atrocity of the era. An era which left the hitherto enlightened and wealthy Languedoc in ruins both economically and socially; its culture and even its language of Occitan becoming more and more side-lined.
NOTABLE CATHAR PLACES OF INTEREST
- BEZIERS: The first major encounter of the Albigensian Crusade. In July 1209 the crusaders sacked and looted the town where there were about 200 Cathars living alongside a much bigger and largely sympathetic Catholic population. It was reported that Arnaud Amoury, one of the crusade commanders, when asked by one of his men how he might distinguish a Cathar apart from the population at large replied: ‘Kill them all – the Lord will know his own’. In the church of St Mary Magdelene alone 7,000 men, women and children were put to death and reportedly not a single person survived a massacre which saw 20,000 put to the sword.
- CARCASSONNE: Although inescapably associated with Catharism because of the supportive stance of its Viscount, Raymond–Roger Trencavel, Carcassonne nevertheless emerged largely unscathed from the conflict. A fifteen day siege ended when Trencavel was taken captive during a truce and the Cathars amongst the populace were allowed to leave unmolested.
- BRAM: Another siege which illustrated the cruelty of the crusaders. Many of the defenders taken captive after the siege ended in success for the crusaders suffered horrific mutilation. Men had their noses and lips cut off and their eyes gouged out. It is entirely reasonable to assume that many succumbed to their injuries. However a hundred of those that did survive, led by one man who was spared the sight in one eye were ordered to march, single file to Lastours. A warning to that town’s occupants of the consequences of offering succour to the Cathars.
- MINERVE: Captured in 1210 after a six week siege 150 Cathar men and women were burned alive after refusing to denounce their faith.
- TERMES: In the same year the Chateau was captured after a four month siege.
- LAVAUR: Captured in 1211, amongst other atrocities 400 Cathars were burned alive.
- PEYREYPERTUSE: This most inaccessible of castles, perched 800 metres on top of a mountain ridge and boasting more than a kilometre of battlements nevertheless surrendered to the crusaders without actually coming under attack in 1217. It can be a dangerous place to visit if a thunderstorm is threatening!
- MONTSEGUR: First unsuccessfully besieged in 1241. Besieged again it in 1243 fell in March 1244 after ten months. Around 225 captured Cathar ‘Parfaits’ (Holy Men) were burned alive. Incidentally much of the speculation surrounding the mystery of Rennes le Chateau arises from the claim that three Cathar ‘Parfaits’ slipped through the cordon of besieging crusaders in the final hours preceding the fall of Montsegur and they and their ‘secret’ made their way to the Aude hill-top village above Couiza. (A story for another time!)
- QUERIBUS; The final stronghold of the Cathars, the occupiers left in 1255 without offering any resistance ahead of the opposing forces’ arrival.
- VILLEROUGE TERMINES: Although armed resistance was at an end by this time Catharism had nevertheless maintained a presence into the 14th Century. The last known ‘Parfait’ in the Languedoc was burned alive here in the Chateau in 1321.
More research will readily throw up quite a few more sites associated with this monumentally horrific, but essentially fascinating episode in medieval history. One thing you can be sure of is that lots of them are within striking distance of our home in Couiza.