The area governed by the Counts
of Toulouse and their vassals covers a large part of modern
France - almost a third of it. Throughout much of that area lie
the ruins of castles that gave shelter to the Cathars in the thirteenth
century and were besieged, often several times.
There are few material vestiges of the Cathars. Mainly, this is
because they rejected and despised all material possessions. They
had no church buildings, no chapels, cathedrals or abbeys. They
has no gold chalices, no crosses, no reliquaries, no bejewelled
mitres, silk robes or fine paintings or sculptures. They did have
houses and cemeteries, but none of them survive. Their houses were
pulled down, Baptised Cathars were burned alive. Their ashes were
scattered in rivers to preclude even the possibility of their remains
becoming holy relics. If they were already dead and buried, their
bodies would be exhumed, and burned by the Inquisition.
Cathar towns like Fanjeaux have lost their city walls and many
of their buildings. This leaves precious little to see. Cathar documents
exist, but they are scattered around the world, from Paris to Dublin
and the Vatican archives. Castles where Cathars sought refuge are
mostly destroyed, often replaced by later French castles that are
themselves in ruin. The one castle that could lay claim to being
a "Cathar Castle" in the sense that it was fortified specifically
to protect Cathars (Montsegur) was destroyed by the French and replaced
by a new Royal castle, only the ruins of which survive.
If you know where to look (and Tourist Offices will be of little
help here) you can still find chateaux that date from the Cathar
period. And there are other vestiges too. Houses of the Inquisition
have survived, as have cathedrals and churches where the Counts
of Toulouse were flogged for their Cathar sympathies, the Abbeys
where the Albigensian Crusade was planned. Cistercian, Dominican
and Franciscan Orders still survive. There are also monuments to
fallen Kings and crusaders, memorials to Cathar "martyrs",
archaeological digs, the sites of various massacres, and so on.
There is even a surviving castle that hosted a Cathar Council.
Not to be underestimated are many other survivals from the Middle
Ages that we take for granted: the spectacular Pyrenees, vast forests,
thousands of miles of trails the Cathars walked, the plants and
animals they knew, the mountain air they breathed, the early morning
mist flowing like water from one valley into the next that they
too must have seen.
We even have their language, which was then called Roman,
and which the French later called the Langue d'Oc, poets
called Provençal, and modern scholars call Occitan.
Not least is their enduring memory in the Languedoc: the of the
flag of the medieval Counts
of Toulouse flies everywhere throughout their ancient territories.
Locals still recite from memory the scathing Occitan assessment
of the hated Simon de Montfort from the contemporary Song of
the Crusade. The Counts and their Cathar vassals are still remembered
and locals affirm that "You are not altogether dead as long
as someone remembers your name".
Today, there is a thriving Cathar tourist industry. Many communes
own the ruins of the local castles and charge a small fee for entry.
For your entry fee you get a small brochure, usually available in
(imperfect) English, generally concentrating on the architecture
rather than on history.
If you are interested in visiting Cathar sites in the Languedoc,
you basically have two options:
- Read some good books on the subject, buy a map and spend a week
or two travelling around. You will need your own transport (horse,
cycle, motor cycle or motor car). If you have a few months you
could even walk, as the Cathars did.
- Find an organised tour, run by someone who knows the subject.
Beware that there are very few organisations offering solid information
about the Cathars and lots offering an assortment of "spirituality":
holistic healing, reincarnation, mysticism, conspiracy theories,
esoteric history, shamanism, mystery religions and so on.
For recommended books to read to get the most out of your visit,
click on the following link for a recommend
list of books in English
The webmaster offers personally conducted week-long guided tours
each year. Click
here to visit the Cathar Country Website for more information.
First page of Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews
- Cathar Bible in Occitan, from Lyon