Your guide to the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade

Who were the Cathars, what did they believe, and why did the Catholic Church brand them as heretics? BBC History Revealed explores how the Cathars were persecuted in the Albigensian Crusade

Picture of the Battle of Beziers

Who were the Cathars? Where were the Cathars located?

Catharism was a Christian dualist movement (a religion based on a belief in two gods) that could be found across western Europe from the 11th century. The Languedoc, France, the Netherlands and various German states were among those with a Cathar presence at this time and the religion is thought to have travelled via trade routes from the Byzantine Empire.

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What did the Cathars believe? What was the Cathar religion?

According to the Cathar faith, there were two gods: a good god of the New Testament, who made the heavens and all immaterial things, including light and souls, and a bad god of the Old Testament, who had captured souls and imprisoned them in a human body. He was the god of material things, such as the world and everything in it. Leading a good life would see a soul freed from its sinful body and returned to heaven, whereas a bad life would see the soul condemned to live another life, trapped in a different body.

Another important aspect of the Cathar faith, and one that made it stand out from other Christian religions, was a special ceremony known as the consolamentum, which was usually undertaken before death, and ensured the soul would be released from the cycle of earthly imprisonment. After this rite had been performed, the individual was raised to the status of a ‘perfect’ and expected to follow a life of extreme austerity and to renounce the world. Consumption of animal flesh was forbidden, as was sexual contact.

Why were the Cathars a threat to the Catholic Church?

The Cathar religion was branded heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, and some authorities went so far as to brand them as being non-Christian. Many attempts were made to extinguish the movement, including that of Pope Eugene III in 1147, but although a few arrests were made over the years, the Church failed to eliminate the movement completely. In 1198, however, Pope Innocent III came to power, and he resolved to rid Europe of the religion once and for all.

What was the Albigensian Crusade?

Cathar influence grew in the Languedoc during the 12th century, becoming the majority religion in many areas. Preaching campaigns and public debates on behalf of the Catholic church failed to change the situation, and in 1208, after a papal legate was murdered, the Albigensian Crusade or ‘Cathar Crusade’ was launched in the Languedoc, backed by the Roman Church with promises of remission of sins and a guaranteed place in heaven. The Languedoc conflict lasted for some 20 years, with sieges launched against Béziers, Carcassonne, Minerve, Toulouse and many more towns and cities.

Indiscriminate slaughter accompanied these sieges, with an estimated 15,000-20,000 people killed during the siege of Beziers in 1209, which saw the city burned to the ground. The crusade continued until 1229.

How were the Cathars wiped out?

Although the war ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1229, Cathars were by no means out of danger. In 1234, an Inquisition was established to root out any remaining Cathars and it was this that finally crushed the movement, with those who refused to recant their beliefs hanged or burned at the stake. Those who recanted were forced to sew yellow crosses onto their clothing and to live apart from other Catholics.

Retribution was brutal. On Friday 13 May 1239, some 183 Cathar men and women were burned alive in Champagne, while between May 1243 and March 1244, the Cathar fortress of Montségur was besieged and more than 200 Cathar perfects burned on a huge fire near the foot of the castle.

Over several decades, Cathar religious texts were destroyed and with those who remained faithful to the religion forced to scatter, the movement effectively ended, with Italian Catharism also coming under pressure from the Pope and Inquisition from the mid-12th century. The Cathar legacy remained in the Languedoc, though, with descendants of Cathars – regardless of their return to the Catholic faith – often forced to live outside the town walls.

Lottie goldfinch is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed