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The Cathars:  Where did Catharism come from ?

From a few certain pieces of evidence and a mass of circumstantial evidence, it seems likely that Catharism represented a very ancient Dualist belief from the East. 

Perhaps the easiest way to trace the origins of the Cathar Church is to work back from the Languedoc.  Catharism appeared in Western Europe in the eleventh century.  Cathars beliefs seemed to have popped up around the same time in many countries, not only the Languedoc but also France, the Netherlands and various German states.  They almost certainly spread from Northern Italy, carried by travellers, merchants and probably Cathar preachers - Parfaits.  Certainly the Cathar Church was already well established in Northern Italy.  (This Occitan speaking area would later provide a refuge for Cathars from the Languedoc obliged to flee their homeland during the Cathar Wars (or Albigensian Crusade).


How did the Cathar Church get to Northern Italy ?  It came from the Balkans, around the area we know as Bulgaria.  This area was part of the Byzantine Empire at the time, and imperial records mention the Dualist heresy.  A priest called Bogomil was recorded as having introduced this so-called heresy, which explains why believers were called Bogomils.  (The Cathars never called themselves Cathars or talked about Catharism.).  Bogolism became influential in Bulgaria during the reign of Peter the First (927-928).  The religion flourished in the Balkans for centuries, until it was wiped out by (or incorporated into) Islam after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  A Bogomil bishop is known to have attended a Cathar Council in the Languedoc.

The next question is how the religion got to Bulgaria.  The answer is that it probably spread from the Eastern Part of the Byzantine Empire to the Western Part.  It may have originated in a form of Manichaen belief, itself a melange of Persian Zoroastrianism and early Christian Gnostic dualism.  Early Christianity possessed three main strands: the Jewish one (led by James, Jesus' brother), the Pauline one (created by Paul himself and now represented by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches), and the Gnostic one (at least some of whom followed St John, the disciple).  It is well within the bounds of possibility that Catharism represented this early tradition.  Certainly the Cathars favoured the John Gospel over all other scripture.

Many clues in Cathar belief and practice point to extremely early origins (they often retained early Christian beliefs and practices that other strands of Christianity abandoned). Medieval chroniclers seems to have been aware of the antiquity of Cathar belief. As Walter Mapp writing around 1182 says:

Everywhere among Christians they have lain hidden since the time of the Lord's Passion, straying in error.

Walter Mapp was the Chancellor of the Bishop of Lincoln. Here he is referring to "Publicans or Patarnes", names by which Cathars were known to Roman Catholic authorities. The quotation is from his "Courtier's Trifles, De nugis curialium edited by Montague R James (Anecdota oxoniensa..., medieval and modern series, XIV (Oxford, 1914) pp 57-59. English translation from Wakefield & Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages, §42B, p254.

Click on the following external link for more on Manichaeism and Bogomilism



You can join small exclusive guided tours of Cathar Castles
led by an English speaking expert on the Cathars
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Selected Cathar Castles. Accommodation provided. Transport Provided.

Cathar Origins, History, Theology.
The Crusade, The Inquisition, and Consequences

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