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
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