Travel: Cathar Coun­try Robert Fox

Robert Fox ex­plores Cathar coun­try, where a re­li­gious cult that in­spired Dan Brown was vi­o­lently re­pressed in the 13th cen­tury

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Robert Fox stayed at Ho­tel Moderne et Pi­geon, Li­moux; dou­ble rooms £90; www.grand­hotelmod­ernepi­geon.fr. Flights from Stansted to Toulouse by Ryanair from £45 re­turn

Cat­alo­nia’s bid for in­de­pen­dence from Spain has dom­i­nated the head­lines for months. Less well known are the 125,000 Cata­lan speak­ers around Per­pig­nan in French Cat­alo­nia, across the foothills of the eastern Pyre­nees. And then there are the Oc­c­i­tans, the hun­dreds of thou­sands of speak­ers of Oc­c­i­tan, in Spain and France – who take their name from the an­cient Ro­man prov­ince of Aqui­tania.

The Cata­lans and Oc­c­i­tans are joined by bonds of kin­dred and lan­guage – part of the Provençal that Dante saluted as one of the seven great lan­guages of his world.

On a visit in the glo­ri­ous weeks of early Oc­to­ber, it was in­ter­est­ing to note the dif­fer­ent ap­proaches of the Cata­lans

and the Oc­c­i­tans of Langue­doc and Rous­sil­lon to free­dom, in­de­pen­dence and do­ing their own thing. In Langue­doc, they seem to be try­ing to work things their way within the sys­tem, and there is not as much out­right decla­ma­tion of ‘ Vive l’oc­c­i­tanie li­bre’ as I en­coun­tered here 30 years ago.

The spirit of de­fi­ance is en­shrined in the story of the great Cathar heresy. This per­vaded the re­gion, from the Rhône val­ley to be­yond the Pyre­nees, from the

early 12th to the 14th cen­tury – when it was erad­i­cated by an al­liance of the pa­pacy, the In­qui­si­tion and the French crown.

At its height, Catharism was an al­ter­na­tive faith and way of life, with its own bish­ops, preach­ers, mass con­gre­ga­tions and re­mark­ably egal­i­tar­ian ap­proach to life, sex, and man­ners.

It was a mass cult in which the Gospel was preached and dis­cussed in the ver­nac­u­lar, the Langue d’oc (which lent its name to the Langue­doc re­gion), among lit­er­ate and semi-lit­er­ate peas­ants, and noble men and women. It was prop­a­gated by rene­gade clergy and an en­light­ened elite of shep­herds and crafts­men, weavers es­pe­cially.

Fol­low­ing the trail of the Cathars

‘Catharism had a re­mark­ably egal­i­tar­ian ap­proach to sex and man­ners’

and their mon­u­ments, a ghostly pres­ence at best, has be­come a craze for hip­pies and seek­ers af­ter an al­ter­na­tive life­style. The moun­tain cas­tle of Montségur, where Cathars came to a bru­tal end in 1244, has re­cently be­come a sec­ond Stone­henge for al­ter­na­tive pil­grims.

‘Wel­come to Cathar Coun­try,’ say the tourist signs when one en­ters the val­ley of the Aude. It’s not an of­fer to be sneezed at. The abbeys, cas­tles and mon­u­ments make a be­guil­ing trail for the ca­sual vis­i­tor and tourist. They are dis­played with care and sub­tlety – from the towns such as Car­cas­sonne, Nar­bonne and Béziers to the fast­ness cas­tles of the

Cathars’ last stand at Montségur, Puiv­ert or Quéribus.

The best place to start is Car­cas­sonne, the fortress cap­i­tal of Count Ray­mond Roger of Tren­cavel, cap­tured and sacked in 1209 by Si­mon de Mont­fort, 5th Earl of Le­ices­ter – the aveng­ing thug of the cru­sade against the Cathars. It lives up to its fame as the iconic, me­dieval, for­ti­fied city of west­ern Europe – and it re­sists the worst ex­cesses of Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion. The mu­seum in­side the ci­tadel is a well­bal­anced ex­po­si­tion of the town’s his­tory and strate­gic im­por­tance since the Ro­mans and Visig­oths.

Not to be missed, too, as a per­fect over­ture to the Cathar saga is the Cis­ter­cian abbey of Font­froide (founded in 1093), deep in its wooded val­ley near Nar­bonne.

The high point, in ev­ery sense, on the trail of the mys­te­ri­ous Cathars is the ru­ined cas­tle of Montségur, a rock sen­tinel that looks across to the high points of the Pyre­nees. It was here that sev­eral thou­sand Cathars were driven by the pa­pal, royal and French forces in 1243. They en­dured some eight months of siege through a mis­er­able win­ter, be­fore some of them had had enough and sought safe pas­sage. The hard core of the Cathars re­fused to re­nounce their be­liefs – more than 200 were burned alive on a mas­sive pyre below the cas­tle in a space known to this day as the meadow of the mar­tyrs.

It is a steep climb to the top of the cas­tle and its keep pre­car­i­ously bal­anced on a sin­gle lump of rock. Here, the spir­its of the Cathars touch the soul of even the most cyn­i­cal vis­i­tor.

Who were the Cathars, and what re­ally was the code by which they lived and died? By 1160, the Cathar be­lief had mass sup­port. The fun­da­men­tal think­ing was based on Manichean and Gnos­tic

teach­ing from the an­cient East: the bad world was cre­ated by the ma­te­rial, earthly de­ity and the heav­ens by the good, spir­i­tual God.

The best guide to the Cathars’ his­tory and his­tor­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy is The Al­bi­gen­sian Cru­sade by Jonathan Sump­tion, now of the Supreme Court. He traces the cam­paigns against the Cathars, be­gin­ning in 1209 with the Al­bi­gen­sian Cru­sade, and end­ing in 1321. Es­sen­tially it is a war by the Pope and the kings of France to gain con­trol over the freespir­ited Langue­doc, its way­ward Cathars, and a tur­bu­lent and bloody-minded lo­cal aris­toc­racy. The re­sult was that, by 1321, Langue­doc had be­come part of feu­dal France; and the power and dura­bil­ity of the In­qu­si­tion pi­o­neered against the Cathars was es­tab­lished for 600 years.

In 1308, ev­ery adult in the up­land vil­lage of Mon­tail­lou in the Ariège was

ar­rested, in an In­qui­si­tion drag­net op­er­a­tion. The trial be­gan nine years later, with a scratch team of scribes and un­em­ployed priests writ­ing 538 tes­ti­monies, pre­served in the Vat­i­can. We hear the Cathars speak about their world.

In 1975, the his­to­rian Em­manuel Le Roy Ladurie pub­lished Mon­tail­lou,

vil­lage oc­c­i­tan de 1294 à 1324, an aca­demic anal­y­sis and best­seller. The book is a sort of me­dieval Archers, with more sex, heresy and at­ti­tude.

To­day, me­dieval Mon­tail­lou is a clus­ter of ru­ins. Fol­low­ing its demise, the Cathar story be­comes more le­gend than fact – even be­ing hi­jacked by Nazi pro­pa­ganda as an el­e­ment of the Aryan myth. Tales per­sisted of a fab­u­lous Cathar trea­sure be­ing spir­ited away just be­fore the ter­ri­ble end of the siege in Montségur in 1244.

This was most bril­liantly ex­ploited by François-bérenger Sau­nière, an Arthur Da­ley of Catholic priests at the turn of the last cen­tury, who sug­gested, but never ex­plic­itly stated, that the trea­sure had turned up in his par­ish at Rennes-leChâteau in Langue­doc.

He turned the le­gend into an in­dus­try, spend­ing huge sums on ex­pand­ing his do­main in the vil­lage – earn­ing a de­frock­ing in the process – and mak­ing it a place of pil­grim­age. The story was that, in among the loot, was the Holy Grail, used at the Last Sup­per, pre­served and then lost by Christ’s al­leged prog­eny. The idea was ex­trav­a­gantly in­ter­preted by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

To­day, vis­it­ing Rennes-le-château is a rather creepy ex­pe­ri­ence, though the fare and hos­pi­tal­ity is ter­rific at L’antre-temps, a bistro hard by the church. Rennes has one of the best views of the Cathar coun­try of the lower Aude and the Ariège.

Across the vine­yards and fields, with the Li­mousin and Charo­lais cat­tle gleam­ing in the au­tumn sun, there is a strong sense of a re­gion and peo­ple that are cer­tain of their own in­de­pen­dence and iden­tity. Paris and Brus­sels are far away. The only time I saw the EU flag was its dis­play by law on an hô­tel de ville.

The light­ness and free­dom was summed up by Pierre Maury, a shep­herd who tes­ti­fied to the In­qui­si­tion at Mon­tail­lou: ‘I earn my money and my for­tune my­self; and I mean to spend them as I like. I will not give them up for you or any­one else, be­cause that way I ac­quire many peo­ple’s friend­ship.’

‘The story was that in among the loot was the Holy Grail, used at the Last Sup­per’

Car­cas­sonne, the Cathar fortress cap­i­tal, in Oc­c­i­tanie, south-west France. It was sacked in 1209 by Si­mon de Mont­fort

Cathars’ last stand: the cas­tle of Montségur fell in 1244 af­ter a nine-month siege

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