The heretics of Langue­doc

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

It isn't recorded what Guil­laume Bélibaste, the last Cathar ‘Per­fect’, thought as he slowly burned to death at the stake, but given his be­liefs, it was prob­a­bly some­thing like, ‘thank god!’. Now, this isn't be­cause Bélibaste liked the idea of such a death, but rather be­cause he, like the other Cathars, saw any­thing phys­i­cal as as­so­ci­ated with evil, even his own body. Your flesh was a prison for the per­fect soul, stuck in a world cre­ated by an evil god and only re­leased in death. If you'd lived a per­fect life, your soul went straight to heaven. If you hadn't, you'd be rein­car­nated. It says a lot about life in the 14th cen­tury that to this Chris­tian sect rein­car­na­tion was a worse threat than hell.

In­trigued by this un­usual me­dieval re­li­gious move­ment, now wiped from ex­is­tence, I'd trav­elled to the Pays Cathare, ‘Cathar Coun­try’, as it's ad­ver­tised by the French tourism au­thor­ity, in the Aude De­part­ment of Langue­doc-Rous­sil­lon, just north of the Span­ish bor­der. In the 12th cen­tury, when Cathar be­liefs first be­came pop­u­lar, this area hadn't yet fallen un­der the con­trol of the French crown and re­mained di­vided up among the Count of Toulouse and his vas­sals, and the King of Aragon and his vas­sals. Even be­fore the Cathars, this re­gion, mainly left to its own de­vices, had a rep­u­ta­tion for lib­eral sym­pa­thies. And it wasn't just among the com­mon folk; the Count of Toulouse, Ray­mond VI, one of the most pow­er­ful men in the re­gion, was twice ex­com­mu­ni­cated by the Pope. Tow­ing the Catholic line wasn't the re­gion's strong suit.

To­day of course, ‘Cathar Coun­try’ is very much a part of France, but over the past 25 years or so, the tourism de­part­ment of Langue­doc-Rous­sil­lon has re­al­ized the ben­e­fits of play­ing up this un­usual and ul­ti­mately rather vi­o­lent side of their lo­cal his­tory. De­spite the Cathars be­ing wiped out, many dur­ing a bloody cru­sade and the rest dur­ing an equally bloody In­qui­si­tion, the re­cent resur­gence of in­ter­est in Cathar his­tory among tourists has put these per­se­cuted heretics back on the cul­tural map. At first it seems an odd thing for a tourist au­thor­ity to pro­mote as the French crown, sup­ported by the Pope, played a ma­jor role in mur­der­ing an es­ti­mated half a mil­lion peo­ple (it's a bit like try­ing to sell a house on the ba­sis that a mur­der hap­pened there). But it's per­haps a re­flec­tion of the south s con­tin­u­ing sep­a­rate iden­tity, now chan­nelled through the Cathars as the em­bod­i­ment of re­sis­tance; a pious sym­bol of in­di­vid­u­al­ity for all of France and the world to see.

Car­cas­sonne – A fairy tale city with a bloody past

With a small air­port and well con­nected by mod­ern high­ways, the world her­itage site of Car­cas­sonne is a con­ve­nient en­try point into the Cathar world. The his­toric ci­tadel – la cité, as it’s known – with its dou­ble en­clo­sure wall and 52 tow­ers, many topped by witch-hat roofs, is end­lessly de­scribed by travel writ­ers as straight out of a fairy tale. And it's true, the witch-hat roofs are to­tally make-be­lieve, they were in­vented dur­ing the 19th cen­tury restora­tion works by ar­chi­tect Eugène Em­manuel Vi­ol­let-le-Duc (the tur­rets orig­i­nally had flat roofs). Nev­er­the­less, la cit s sil­hou­ette is so mes­mer­iz­ing that no one cares. By the time you've walked across the pretty stone bridge, pen­e­trat­ing its per­fectly pre­served dou­bleen­clo­sure walls, and joined its bustling me­dieval streets, you're hooked. Real? Fake? Who cares? Cer­tainly not the thou­sands of tourists which de­scend on la cit each day. Street af­ter street of­fers up sou­venir stores, cafes, hotels, and restau­rants with court­yards il­lu­mi­nated by gen­tly twin­kling fairy lights. Tourists from across the world mill around, lick­ing ice creams, car­ry­ing plas­tic swords and brows­ing me­dieval-themed stores for equally plas­tic shields and helmets to com­plete their faux-me­dieval look. Nearly ev­ery restau­rant of­fers cas­soulet, the lo­cal stew, and one cav­ernous sweet store sells all kinds of cho­co­laty goods be­neath its me­dieval arches. I won­dered if this is how la cité felt in the Mid­dle Ages: bustling, rum­bling with chat­ter and filled with peo­ple ei­ther try­ing to make a liv­ing or just pass­ing through.

I headed through la cité's nar­row and crowded me­dieval streets for the 11th cen­tury Château Com­tal. Sur­rounded by a dry ditch, this was the main noble res­i­dence in the cas­tle at the time of the Cathars, and I'd hoped to learn more about them there. From the Chateau's court­yard

I be­gan my tour, pass­ing through plain stone cor­ri­dors and cham­bers with elab­o­rate columned win­dows and in­for­ma­tion pan­els, each ex­plain­ing in great de­tail the cas­tle's ar­chi­tec­ture and re­con­struc­tion work. It's a delight to ar­chi­tects I'm sure (if you've never heard of Vi­ol­let-le-Duc, you won't be able to for­get him af­ter­wards), but I was sur­prised by how lit­tle in­for­ma­tion was ded­i­cated to the cas­tle's daily life; there was barely a men­tion of the Cathars and their as­so­ci­a­tion with Car­cas­sonne – con­fus­ing, given the lo­cal tourist in­dus­try's in­ter­est in push­ing this an­gle. So let me fill in the blanks. If you were to travel back in time to the early 13th cen­tury, whilst wan­der­ing the (no doubt dirt­ier and less ice cream dom­i­nated) streets, you d find that Car­cas­sone s main tourist draws – Chateau Com­tal and the Basil­ica of St Nazaire and St Celse – were al­ready built and dom­i­nat­ing the ci­tadel. At some point, min­gling amongst the crowds, you'd no doubt bump into men wear­ing black robes who called them­selves bons hommes ‘good men’. These are bet­ter known as ‘Per­fects’, peo­ple who'd taken the sole Cathar sacra­ment: the Con­so­la­men­tum. This could only be un­der­gone once, and was be­lieved to re­move all sin from the per­son, al­low­ing the soul to head for heaven rather than rein­car­na­tion at death. For this rea­son, most lay Cathars – peo­ple classed as ‘or­di­nary be­liev­ers’ – nor­mally un­der­went the rit­ual and be­came ‘per­fect’ on their death beds, when no fur­ther sin could be com­mit­ted (this had the un­for­tu­nate side ef­fect that some were ‘helped’ along the way af­ter the rit­ual was com­plete even if they were, like the old man in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, ‘get­ting bet­ter’). But the most se­ri­ous Cathars un­der­went the rit­ual much ear­lier, pledg­ing to never sin for the rest of their lives and be­com­ing teach­ers in the com­mu­nity. Cara­cas­sonne, like other places in the south of France, was a haven for these heretics as the lo­cal no­bles re­fused to ex­pel or pun­ish them for their be­liefs, de­spite fre­quent grum­blings from the Catholic Church.

As well as be­liev­ing in rein­car­na­tion and only hav­ing a sin­gle sacra­ment, the Cathars held many other be­liefs that put them at odds with the

Catholics. For one, they treated women as equals and al­lowed them to be Per­fects, be­cause there was the pos­si­bil­ity of rein­car­nat­ing as a woman. They also re­fused to eat meat, again be­cause of the pos­si­bil­ity of rein­car­na­tion, but also be­cause the phys­i­cal world was im­bued with sin. They re­jected all oath-tak­ing and tithe pay­ments, both im­por­tant to the Catholic Church, and hated sym­bols, in­clud­ing the sign of the cross, which they as­so­ci­ated with tor­ture. All pro­cre­ation was frowned upon be­cause the out­come was another poor soul trapped in a phys­i­cal form in a sin­ful world, and they re­jected wealth too, pre­fer­ring to live a sim­ple life of teach­ing and beg­ging.

As you'd ex­pect, the Catholic Church wasn't pleased with this grow­ing move­ment of tithe­do­dg­ing Chris­tians who cam­paigned against wealth, sym­bols and rit­u­als, lacked a cen­tral lead­er­ship and be­lieved in equal­ity be­tween men and women, so they did ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to try and dis­suade peo­ple from join­ing its ranks. They had lit­tle suc­cess un­til a pa­pal legate was mur­dered en route to Rome af­ter ex­com­mu­ni­cat­ing the Cathar sym­pa­thiser Ray­mond VI of Toulouse. Ray­mond was blamed for the death, giv­ing Pope In­no­cent III the ex­cuse needed to launch a cam­paign against him, and by ex­ten­sion the Cathars; the en­su­ing cru­sade, known as the Al­bi­gen­sian Cru­sade (af­ter the French city of Albi where many Cathars lived), lasted 20 years from 1208 to 1229 and was pri­mar­ily led by knights from north­ern France. The Pope sweet­ened the deal by of­fer­ing the cru­saders the right to con­fis­cate any lands con­quered, turn­ing this re­li­gious war into one of in­va­sion; the re­sult was that Langue­doc's own Catholics ended up fight­ing side by side with the Cathars against the cru­saders in a des­per­ate bid to pre­serve their ter­ri­tory and iden­tity.

The cam­paign s first atroc­ity hap­pened at Béziers, about 80 km east of Car­cas­sonne. On 22 July 1209, ter­ri­fied Cathars and Catholics alike were hid­ing in the church of St Mary Mag­da­lene, when cru­saders broke down the doors and dragged them out­side to be slaugh­tered; when asked how to dis­tin­guish Cathars from the Catholics, Ar­naudA­maury, com­man­der of the cru­saders, replied, ‘ Kill

them all, the Lord will recog­nise His own’. Hav­ing mas­sa­cred thou­sands, the cru­saders then burnt

the city and con­tin­ued to­wards Car­cas­sonne, which at this time, like Béziers, was the prop­erty of Vis­count Ray­mond-Roger de Tren­cavel, a vas­sal of Toulouse, whose fam­ily had ear­lier built many of the main tourist draws in la cité. In Au­gust 1209, the cru­saders be­sieged Car­cas­sonne and cut off its wa­ter sup­ply, forc­ing Ray­mond to ne­go­ti­ate its sur­ren­der. Leav­ing the city's pro­tec­tive walls be­hind (and prob­a­bly walk­ing past the spot where the tourist in­for­ma­tion stand is to­day), Ray­mond be­lieved him­self to be un­der ‘safe-con­duct’, but the cru­saders took him pris­oner and he died shortly af­ter­wards. Over the next 20 years fight­ing con­tin­ued and Langue­doc fell un­der the au­thor­ity of the French crown.

Ex­pect­ing the French In­qui­si­tion

The Cathars were forced into hid­ing, lead­ing to an in­qui­si­tion be­ing formed in 1234. Car­cas­sonne, pre­vi­ously a haven for Cathars, now be­came a place of tor­ture (there's even an over­priced In­qui­si­tion mu­seum there to­day, where you can see some of the tor­ture in­stru­ments used and some man­nequins in un­for­tu­nate sit­u­a­tions). Many Cathars cap­tured in the sur­round­ing towns were brought to la cité and locked in ‘The Wall’, a prison with two sec­tions: ‘le mur large’ for nor­mal heretics, and ‘le mur strict’ for the more se­ri­ous of­fend­ers like the Per­fects. Placed in irons in a tiny space, with only stale bread and wa­ter, those in ‘le mur strict’ didn't sur­vive long.

To gather up Cathars, In­quisi­tors reg­u­larly turned up in vil­lages (af­ter - sur­pris­ingly po­litely - giv­ing ad­vance no­tice) and ex­pected peo­ple to make an oath to the Catholic Church or vol­un­teer their hereti­cal crimes (and while you're at it, why not vol­un­teer the names of a few other lo­cal of­fend­ers too ). Nat­u­rally, if you failed to come for­ward or re­fused to pledge an oath, you were thought to be guilty and ques­tioned fur­ther. And if

you did ad­mit to be­ing a Cathar and freely gave up your be­liefs, you were forced to wear yel­low crosses on your clothes for the rest of your life, which had to be vis­i­ble when­ever you went out­side. Faced with such tac­tics, many Cathars took refuge in re­mote moun­tain fortresses, built ear­lier to de­fend the bor­der zone be­tween Aragon and France. To­day, many of these cas­tles still stand as ru­ins on the peaks of the rugged moun­tains south­east of Car­cas­sonne, and pro­vide the per­fect set­ting to ex­plore the story of the Cathars fur­ther.

The ‘Mys­ter­ies’ of Rennes-le-Château

The next day, leav­ing Car­cas­sonne, I drove south, briefly stop­ping at Pieusse, a small and quiet vil­lage, where a squat cas­tle, dec­o­rated with red Toulouse crosses, stood in its own square. Pri­vately owned and closed to the pub­lic, it's ap­par­ently the only ‘Cathar Cas­tle’ to have been rel­a­tively un­mod­i­fied in the suc­ceed­ing cen­turies and so pro­vides an in­sight into the cas­tles the Cathars them­selves in­hab­ited. Af­ter­wards, con­tin­u­ing south, the road flanked by vine­yards at im­pos­si­ble slopes, the tree-cov­ered hills be­came steeper and taller as I en­tered the moun­tain­ous re­gion. Near the town of Couiza, a large casino whizzed by, seem­ing rather out of place among all the rus­tic charm, and a def­i­nite no-no among the Cathars.

My next tar­get was Rennes-le-Château where a me­dieval cas­tle, now long since van­ished, once stood. On the peak of a steep hill reached by a wind­ing, nar­row road the tiny vil­lage is best known be­cause of its as­so­ci­a­tions with all man­ner of con­spir­acy the­o­ries built around a (fic­ti­tious) trea­sure said to have been dis­cov­ered by lo­cal priest Bérenger Sau­nière in the 19th cen­tury. Now it's true that Sau­nière had ac­cu­mu­lated sur­pris­ing wealth for a man in his po­si­tion, and un­sub­tly used the money to ex­pand his es­tate and ren­o­vate the lo­cal church, but his sud­den in­flux of cash is most prob­a­bly due to his il­le­gally charg­ing the faith­ful for masses (for which he was later sus­pended from the priest­hood). Nev­er­the­less, add a dash of Tem­plars and the Holy Grail to the hid­den trea­sure story, a pinch of the (fic­ti­tious) se­cret so­ci­ety known as the ‘Pri­ory of Sion’, and a char­ac­ter named Sau­nière in Dan Brown's

Code, and you're as­sured of a steady stream of pack­age tourists whose coaches some­how man­age to reach the ded­i­cated vis­i­tor car park with­out ca­reer­ing down the sheer hill­side.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the lo­cals have heartily em­braced this es­o­teric con­nec­tion. Ev­ery el­e­ment of the small Church of Saint Mary Mag­da­lene ap­par­ently has a ‘se­cret mean­ing’ (though the red devil sup­ported font is rather un­ex­pected). Bookshops sell­ing New Age tomes stand near the An­gel Art Gallery, Shop and Tea Room, while the house of Bérenger Sau­nière is now a mu­seum with a gift shop sell­ing all sorts of Rennes-leChâteau-themed goods, in­clud­ing comics in var­i­ous lan­guages about Sau­nière and the vil­lage's sup­posed mys­ter­ies. Nearby, a large beige boul­der lies on its side, sur­rounded by a wooden bar­rier and iden­ti­fied as a pre­his­toric mono­lith where hu­man sac­ri­fice ‘likely’ oc­curred. The en­tire vil­lage econ­omy seems built on things that might have hap­pened, yet al­most cer­tainly didn't.

Nat­u­rally, the Cathars have be­come wrapped up in many of the con­spir­acy the­o­ries sur­round­ing Rennes-le-Château. Dur­ing the years of the in­qui­si­tion, their moun­tain strongholds fell one by one. The fortress of Peyreper­tuse, a long, thin cas­tle perched atop a craggy hill­top, sur­ren­dered with­out a fight in 1240. And in 1244 one of the most im­por­tant Cathar cen­tres, Montségur, fell af­ter a 10 month siege. Any­one un­will­ing to con­vert to Catholi­cism was burned to death, and records show that there were so many vic­tims – more than 200 – that the knights had to build a com­mu­nal pyre to ac­com­mo­date them all. Be­fore the cas­tle fell, how­ever, the story goes that a few Cathars es­caped with a trea­sure and it is this, some ar­gue, that Bérenger Sau­nière dis­cov­ered, ex­plain­ing his fab­u­lous wealth. Just maybe it's true. But prob­a­bly not!

The fi­nal siege: Quéribus

As I fol­lowed the road past the vil­lage of Cu­cug­nan, where a pretty wind­mill stood prom­i­nent above the vil­lage, the ru­ined fortress of Quéribus dom­i­nated the moun­tain sky­line like a gi­ant s fist rest­ing on a dis­tant peak. It drew closer as the kilo­me­tres fell away, and af­ter another wind­ing and nerve-wrack­ing as­cent, from the car park, a trail led ver­ti­cally to the ru­ins, the wind whoosh­ing around my head. It was here, to this iso­lated peak, which is the high­est in the area, that the re­main­ing Cathars fled af­ter the fall of Montségur. It held strong through a siege in 1248, but fi­nally sub­mit­ted in 1255, be­com­ing the last of the Cathar fortresses to fall. The fort's com­man­der, Chabert de Bar­beira, a Cathar sym­pa­thiser who'd lost all his land in Langue­doc dur­ing the cru­sade, now had to re­sign his po­si­tion in ex­change for his free­dom. Mean­while, many of the Cathars once again fled rather than be taken pris­oner, head­ing south into Aragon.

Di­vided into three en­clo­sures, Quéribus' mod­ern ap­pear­ance owes much to mod­i­fi­ca­tions made af­ter the time of the Cathars, but its most im­pres­sive cham­ber re­mains the 14th cen­tury Salle du Pilier within the well-pre­served don­jon. This tall and dark space, am­pli­fy­ing and echo­ing ev­ery foot­fall, was orig­i­nally di­vided into two lev­els by a wooden floor and is dom­i­nated by a cir­cu­lar pil­lar reach­ing up to ribbed ceil­ing vaults. From this dra­matic room, I as­cended a stone stair­case to the don­jon's roof, over 700 m above sea level, and looked out across the hills. If the cas­tle had changed, the view re­mained roughly the same as in Cathar times. The rocky peaks of the FrenchPyre­nees were in the misty, blue-tinged dis­tance. The great plains be­low, stretch­ing in all di­rec­tions, were pierced by tiny roads, pick­ing wind­ing routes through the forests, oc­ca­sion­ally dark­ened by the pass­ing shad­ows of clouds. I tried to imag­ine hid­ing on this re­mote rock in the Mid­dle Ages and the feel­ings of the Cathars as they stared into the dis­tance, un­sure of their fu­ture.

Vis­it­ing Bélibaste

Which brings us back to Bélibaste. From Quéribus I back­tracked, join­ing a road head­ing north

to­wards the cas­tle at Viller­ouge-Ter­menès. This cas­tle – square, with round tow­ers at each cor­ner, the type you might have built out of Lego as a child – has dom­i­nated the area since the 13th cen­tury and un­like all oth­ers in the re­gion, had been par­tially re­stored and in­cludes a mul­ti­me­dia ex­pe­ri­ence. As a sucker for this type of thing, I knew I'd en­joy my time there.

The ex­pe­ri­ence be­gan in the car park, where the first of a se­ries of in­for­ma­tion pan­els took me on a jour­ney around a church­yard, past the beige and grey stone build­ings of the vil­lage, and to a small cafe, di­rectly in front of the cas­tle. A dog fol­lowed me the en­tire way, hop­ing for food, but gave up as I en­tered the dark tun­nel lead­ing to the cas­tle's sun-drenched court­yard. From here, one route led to the ticket of­fice, shop and ex­hi­bi­tion, the other into a me­dieval-themed ro­tis­serie.

The now fa­mous Guil­laume Bélibaste grew up in Cu­bières as the son of a wealthy farm­ing fam­ily. But his life changed for­ever some­time in 1305-1306, when he killed a farmer at Viller­ouge-Ter­menès af­ter get­ting into a fight. The Arch­bishop of Nar­bonne, who also held ju­ris­dic­tion over Cu­bieres and Viller­ouge-Ter­menès, found Bélibaste guilty, but be­fore he could be pun­ished he fled, leav­ing his wife and child be­hind. In hid­ing, Bélibaste was con­vinced to be­come a Cathar Per­fect, an au­da­cious move for a man al­ready on the run, and ended up be­ing ar­rested by the In­qui­si­tion and im­pris­oned at Car­cas­sonne. Soon af­ter, show­ing an al­most in­nate skill for sav­ing his own skin, he es­caped his prison and fled south to Cat­alo­nia, even­tu­ally find­ing his way to Morella and a com­mu­nity of Cathars in 1314.

There, be­hav­ing in a rather un-Per­fect man­ner, he took a mis­tress and fa­thered a child, but con­tin­ued to teach Cathar ways and ad­min­is­ter the sacra­ment of con­so­la­men­tum. This con­tin­ued un­til Ar­naud Si­cre, a man pro­fess­ing to want to learn Cathar ways, con­vinced Bélibaste to re­turn with him to Langue­doc. In re­al­ity, Si­cre was work­ing for the In­qui­si­tion, and handed Bélibaste over to the au­thor­i­ties in ei­ther March or April 1321. There was no es­cape for Bélibaste this time and he was burned later that year at the place of his ear­lier crime, Viller­ouge-Ter­menès. He is the last known

...over the past 2 5 years or so, the tourism de­part­ment of Langue­docRous­sil­lon has re­alised the ben­e­fits of play­ing up this un­usual and ul­ti­mately

rather vi­o­lent side of their lo­cal his­tory

Cathar Per­fect.

The ex­pe­ri­ence in­side the cas­tle re­con­structs Bélibaste's trial and in­volves videos and man­nequins dressed in pe­riod cloth­ing, speak­ing through your au­dio guide. For the most part, this all works quite nicely, though one room, in which a man­nequin in me­dieval cloth­ing crouches watch­ing a video of the trial on an old TV built into the floor is a lit­tle out of place. As a re­con­structed cas­tle much of the in­te­rior is bare, with only the wooden ceil­ing and the odd flour­ish of painted dec­o­ra­tion on the beige walls to pro­vide some colour; still, some painted scenes do date to the cas­tle's early life, in­clud­ing one of no­bles din­ing to­gether, and oth­ers that sim­u­late cour­ses of stone blocks (ap­par­ently trendy at the time).

Af­ter recre­at­ing Bélibaste's story, the tour ends with a de­scent into a dark dun­geon tower, where stone benches ad­join shield-shaped win­dows. Per­haps this is meant to give you an in­sight into Bélibaste's fi­nal days, long­ing for free­dom, star­ing out at the green fields, but the au­dio guide dwells on the tasty food you can eat in the me­dieval ro­tis­serie now that your tour's over, some­thing cer­tainly out of Bélibaste's reach.

Given his con­duct in life and the strict­ness of Cathar be­liefs, if rein­car­na­tion as pun­ish­ment is pos­si­ble, it surely hap­pened to Bélibaste. And if not, and some­how his soul did be­come per­fect and trav­elled di­rectly to heaven, he'll nev­er­the­less con­tinue to ex­ist on earth among the man­nequins of Viller­ouge-Ter­menès as the least per­fect Per­fect to get his own two-floor mul­ti­me­dia ex­pe­ri­ence. I'm un­sure whether he'd have liked this fate. Cer­tainly Cathars were ex­pected to es­chew the glitz and glam­our of the sin­ful, phys­i­cal world and would prob­a­bly have re­garded their mod­ern rein­car­na­tion, aimed in part at gen­er­at­ing tourist rev­enue, as dare I say, un­godly.

But for us im­per­fect souls, if the cheesy tourist shops of Car­cas­sonne, the so-called ‘mys­ter­ies’ of Rennes-le-Château, and the pic­turesque ru­ins of the moun­tain fortresses help to shine a light on the hor­rors of a pe­riod long ig­nored, surely this can only be a good thing. For Cathar his­tory, maybe rein­car­na­tion isn't so bad af­ter all.

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