Religion: Massacre of the Pure
Friday, Apr. 28, 1961
"These heretics are worse than the Saracens!" exclaimed
Pope Innocent III, and on March 10, 1208, he proclaimed a
crusade against a sect in southern France that became one
of the bloodiest blots in European history.
The heretics called Cathari (from the Greek word for pure),
or Albigenses, from the town of Albi, one of their centers
in Languedoc, were stamped out in 35 ruthless years of fire
and sword. But as the centuries rolled on, they have had a
measure of revenge against the Roman Catholic Church. The
hatred generated by the crusade prepared the way for Protestantism.
And in modern France, where popular apostasy from Catholicism
is today wider and deeper than anything Pope Innocent could
have imagined, the ancient heresy of Catharism is enjoying
a remarkable revival of interest.
The long-lived tradition of anticlericalism in southern France,
which recruited the Huguenots in the 16th century and fueled
Communism in the 20th, is finding a new outlet in a spreading
bush fire of enthusiasm for the vanished sect whose 750-year-old
lost cause against the church gave anticlericalism its biggest
beachhead in France. Some 30 books have been published during
the last 15 years about their beliefs and practices and their
slaughterous persecution-most of them highly favorable to
the heretics and critical of the church. Several plays have
been written about them, and literary reviews have published
long articles. Hundreds of weekenders are climbing the 4,000-ft.
rock atop which stands Montségur, the holy citadel
of Catharism, where 300 soldiers and 200 unarmed, pacifist
Cathari stood off an army of 10,000 for ten months before
being burned at one huge stake for their "pure Christian"
How to Be Perfect. Catharism was not an isolated phenomenon.
It was part of an ancient heresy that flowed like an underground
stream beneath the surface of Christianity and burst forth
in many forms during the church's first 1,000-odd years. Gnosticism,
Manichaeanism, Paulicianism, Bogomilism and the Albigenses
all had basic characteristics in common: 1) rejection of the
world of matter as a trap imprisoning the divine "spark,"
2) the concept of the Saviour as a heavenly being merely masquerading
as human to bring salvation to 3) the elect, who often have
to conceal themselves from the world, and who are set apart
by 4) their special knowledge and personal purity (sexual
intercourse is usually forbidden as serving the ends of the
Thanks to recent research, an increasing amount is known
about Catharism. It began to spread through southern France
and northern Italy in the 11th century; as early as 1022 in
Orléans, 13 Cathari (ten of them canons of the church)
were condemned to the stake. The heresy was aided by the corruption
of the clergy of the time-against whose wenching and venality
the puritanism of the "Pure'' was an attractive contrast.
The inner circle of Cathari were the "perfect,"
who had received the "consolation"-a rite performed
by another "perfect" in the laying on of hands and
the placing of the Gospel of John on the head of the candidate.
The "perfect" eschewed sexual intercourse, taking
oaths, practicing war, owning property, eating meat or dairy
products (since they are the products of the act of reproduction).
Some of them carried their asceticism as far as the endura-suicide
by self-starvation. Most of the Cathari, however, remained
among the "believers," free to live ordinary lives
in the world in the hope of salvation without the rigor of
living as a "perfect."
The Cathari built no churches; they worshiped in private
houses without the sacraments (being material, they were evil)
or the cross (because Christ had no real body and died no
real death). They read the Scriptures-especially the Gospel
of John-listened to a sermon, said the Lord's Prayer (in native
Languedoc dialect rather than Latin) and shared a common meal.
The clergy wore black robes-until Pope Innocent's crusade
In July 1209, an army of crusaders marched down from northern
France into Languedoc and besieged the city of éeziers.
When the city fathers refused to hand over 222 Cathari heretics,
the crusaders broke in and massacred every man, woman and
child-priests included-of Béziers' 20,000 inhabitants.
Before the massacre one of the crusaders is said to have asked
his leader, Abbe Arnaud Amalric, head of the Cistercian monastic
order, how to distinguish between the heretics and the faithful.
"Kill them all," was the abbot's alleged reply.
"God will recognize his own!" From then on, the
crusade became a war without mercy, in which almost any southern
Frenchman was assumed to be a heretic. Historians estimate
the total number of casualties at 1,000,000.
A Period of Darkness. The enthusiasm of these new-style heretic
hunters is being fanned by a number of antiquarians. Dean
of them all is tall, gaunt Déodat Roche, 79, a former
magistrate of Arques, whose lifelong dedication to spreading
the Cathar gospel, organizing pilgrimages to Montségur,
and following the strict vegetarian regimen of his heretic
ancestors has earned him the nickname "the Cathar Bishop."
More active is Sociology Professor René Nelli of the
University of Toulouse ("the vicar of Catharism"),
who lectures on the subject all over France and has been commissioned
by the French government to collect relics and documents for
a Cathar museum-in the fortified city of Carcassonne.
Neo-Cathar Nelli explains the growing interest in the medieval
heresy: "First the continued retreat of Roman Catholicism.
Rome fails to answer people's questions. Secondly, the crusade's
sites are admittedly picturesque, and the drama has an appealing
epic character. Finally, we are living in a period of darkness,
anguish, desperateness, wars, massacres, torture, atomic bombs.
Isn't science itself satanic? People will talk about Catharism
more and more unless we enter a period of 50 years of peace
and prosperity. And that isn't likely."