A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In late June 1209, responding to Pope Innocent III's call, an army assembled at Lyon. The soldiers were promised remission of their sins--the same indulgence earlier crusaders had received as they set out to fight in the Holy Land. This crusade, however, was aimed at heretics known as Cathars in the Languedoc region of southeastern France. Suppression of the heresy was marked by more than a century of violence, atrocities, and the birth of the Inquisition.
When we visited last June, the Cathar country seemed a fairy-tale landscape dotted with castles, cathedrals, vineyards, and vestiges of ancient towns. At its heart lies Carcassonne, whose well-preserved "old city" has become a major tourist attraction. Archaeologists and preservationists are now replacing with red tiles on a gentler pitch the slate shingles and pepper-pot roofs of the towers, mistakenly "restored" in the 1840s. The adventurer, soldier, and scholar T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, included illustrations of the fortifications in his senior thesis on crusader military architecture at Oxford.
A monk whom Cathar missionaries had tried (and failed) to convert explained the meaning of Cathar as pure, deriving the word from the Greek katharós. They were, indeed, often seen as pure, and so presented themselves to the public, in contrast to the Catholic clergy, many of whom in the Languedoc were considered even by the pope to be corrupt and uncaring. The Cathars believed there were two gods, an evil God of Darkness who created the world and all that is visible, and a good God of Light, who created the spiritual, unseen things, including souls and good angels. It followed for Cathars that the God of the Old Testament, who created the world, was Satan, and that the human body, a creation of Satan, was therefore evil and should receive as little as possible to sustain it; only the soul within was from the God of Light, and its release from the body was a prospect of joy.
Despite the crusaders and the deaths of many Cathars, the heresy continued. Finally, in 1233, the church established a new apparatus for the systematic discovery and punishment of heretics, the Inquisition. Some Cathars took up arms, some converted to Catholicism, others fled the country or sought refuge wherever it might be found. The castle of Montségur, on a remote and precipitous hilltop at the edge of the Pyrénées, refurbished by its owner in 1204 to serve as a gathering place for Cathars, became a favored refuge. When it was finally taken in 1244, some 200 Cathars were immolated. A museum houses artifacts found at the site, including everyday objects used by those in the castle and the village below it, as well as remains of two people believed to have perished in the siege.
There were other remote castles farther east. Peyrepertuse, one of the largest, surrendered in 1240. From its ramparts visitors may look across a valley to Quéribus; perched on a pinnacle of rock, it seems impregnable. It was the last Cathar stronghold to surrender, in 1255. The Inquisition continued until the end of the century, and the end of the Cathars. The castles remain to mark their passing.
James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. The author thanks Lucy, Don, and Rae Wiseman for conversations on the spot about the Cathars in the Languedoc.