Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 29: The Cathars


The uncertain lights of Marcion have projected the most diverse shadows on the world and history. The frantic founder of a Church of which he claimed to be the master, Marcion imprinted on the ecclesiastic party, which appeared among his adversaries, the political will in which temporal demands folded and refolded Christianity until it fit into the Constantian mold. Mani, who came from an Elchasaite milieu, was also influenced by Marcion. Where Marcionite Churches failed because of the untenable paradox of a missionary authority that wanted to confront the absolute evil of the universe, Mani wended his way through the old Persian dualism, which was better disposed to receive it than the Greco-Roman propensity to market rationality and national security that was easily conquered by monotheism.

The Paulicians and the Bogomils formed other branches that grew in parallel to the dualism that was rooted in the separation of mankind from itself and that diffused into light and darkness, good and evil, and the spiritual and the material, the fractured unity of human life that was born from nature and that aspired to rediscover in it in a new, peaceful and creative alliance.

The Cathar movement, such as it was propagated in Northern Italy, Provence, the Rhineland region, Flanders and Champagne, originally was fostered by Bogomil missionaries. The heretic hunters were not mistaken when they called them “Bulgari” [bougres], that is to say, Bulgarians (the Song of the Crusade, V. 18, calls the Albigensians “those from Bulgaria”). The term “Cathar,” which came from the Greek word catharos (“pure”), becameKetzer (“heretic”) in German. Flanders knew them from the beginning as the “piffles” and in Gaul they were called the “weavers,” a reference to a guild that was prompted to take action against tyranny and to spread ideas of liberty.[1]

Catharism manifested itself in the current of the Twelfth Century as a new syncretism, assimilating several Christian notions and texts, but on a basis absolutely different from Christianity and a fortiori from the Catholicism of Rome.


The First Bogomil Missionaries

Singular though it was, the case of Leuthard of Vertus suggested the presence of Bogomil missionaries, wandering merchants, pilgrims, itinerant day-laborers or Goliards who were active in Western Europe. Other isolated sectarians met in Ravenna and Mainz.

Around 1018, an important group that was well established in the working-class milieus of Aquitane rejected the cross, baptism, marriage and the consumption of animal flesh. Around 1022, the population of Toulouse showed itself receptive to their influence – from whence came its reputation as an old nest of heretics that Petrus Valium claimed it was: Tolosa tota dolosa.[2]

In 1022, the Orleans affair exploded.[3] The nobles and priests of the Church of the Holy Cross, including a familiar of King Robert and the confessor of Queen Constance, professed Bogomil opinions, perhaps influenced by an Italian missionary. They held that matter was impure; and they rejected marriage, the pleasures of love, baptism, communion, confession, prayer, the ecclesiastic hierarchy and the material existence of the Christ (“We were not there and we can not judge if it is true,” they said in their confessions). Through the laying-on of hands, they purified the believer of his or her sins. The Holy Spirit then descended on him or her; from then on, his or her soul was raised up and delivered from suffering.

Denounced to King Robert, this group was placed on the pyre on 28 December 1022, following the penalty reserved by customary right for sorcerers. The chroniclers of the time assured their readers that the condemned went to their deaths laughing.

In 1025, in the dioceses of Châlons and Arras, an Italian named Gandulf incited the enthusiasm of the disinherited and the weaver-workers by preaching a doctrine in which various social themes, Bogomilism and the reforms announced by Henry of Lausanne and Peter of Bruys were mixed.[4]

For Gandulf, it was absurd to impose baptism on newborns whose reason wasn’t sufficiently enlightened to accede to evangelic life. Unworthy priests had no right to the pretensions that their responsibilities conferred upon them. The Eucharist was only a “vile negotium,” a “vile business”: how could Christ share his body of flesh, become bread, with so many faithful? Faith had little regard for the facts. The Churches were only masses of stones; the cross and the ecclesiastic hierarchy with its bells and songs merited no attention at all.

Marriage had no importance: it was only a question of making love without being saddled with an aggressive concupiscence (this position was absolutely opposed to Catharism, but, on the other hand, it ratified the emerging and ephemeral privileges of women, which were expressed in a watered-down form by courtly love).

The apostolic life consisted in living from the work of one’s own hands, not hating anyone, and loving all one’s fellows. Gerard the First, the Bishop of Cambrai and a clever man who was favorable to reform of the Church, preferred to close his eyes and, refusing to repress Gandulf, “reconciled him with the Church.”

And yet, in the same era, Terry, a hermit living in a grotto near Corbigny, in the Nevers region, made similar remarks and was burned along with two women from among his faithful.[3]

In Italy, from whence came certain agitators, Bogomilism had put down roots and engendered specific doctrines. In 1028, a community of some 30 people belonging to the nobility, and centered around the Countess of Ortes, met at the chateau of Monteforte. They formed an ascetic group whose aspirations to an evangelic Christianity assimilated the teachings of Bogomil and foreshadowed Catharism.

[In their doctrines,] Christ was not God, but the Soul of man, the beloved of God. The hidden meaning of the Bible (note that their recognition of the Old Testament separated them from the teachings of the Bogomils and Cathars) and the revelation of the Holy Spirit presided over the regeneration of each person. The new man, disapproving of all that came from this world, discovered in his virginity his most elevated ideal, the doctrine of the “pure love” (“If he is married, his should consider his wife to be his mother or his sister, and dream that humanity, like the bees, will perpetuate itself without sin”). This same doctrine was proposed in different versions by the [Benedictine] Monials of the Thirteenth Century, the erotica of the troubadours, and the Cathars.

“All goods must be placed in common; one must not eat meat; one must fast and pray constantly, vicissim,[6] day and night. One must mortify oneself to be forgiven and, as soon as natural death approaches, let yourself come to an end through its companions to achieve martyrdom and holiness.”[7] (This prescription was the same as the Cathars’ voluntary death or endura.[8])

When the Archbishop of Milan, Ariberto, undertook to pursue these people, they offered no resistance, confessed their faith and, obliged to choose between the adoration of the cross and the pyre, they willingly threw themselves into the flames, assured of another world that would liberate them from the miserable imperfections of terrestrial existence.

Other adepts of similar beliefs showed up near Verona, Ravenna and Venice. Gerard Segrado, the Bishop of Csanád from 1037 to 1046, remarked that they had many brothers in faith in Greece. They scorned the Church, the priests and their rites, and mocked the resurrection of the flesh.

Between 1043 and 1048, the agitation spread to the region of Châlons, not far from Vertus, where Leuthard had previously sowed trouble. At the time of the Council of Rheims (1049), there were mysterious assemblies of peasants who refused marriage and the pleasures of love. They practiced the laying-on of hands and refused to kill animals.

In 1051, in Goslar, the emperor condemned to the gallows those Lorrain peasants who refused to kill the chickens that the bishop of the town had presented to them as a test of their beliefs.

For almost a century, no document attested to the perpetuation of Bogomilism, which was subjected to local interpretations in its propagation in Western Europe. Either its adherents assured themselves, through an extreme prudence, of the protections of clandestinity, or the communalist insurrections gave their demands a less religious aspect.

It wasn’t until the 1140s that Byzantium’s persecution of Bogomilism pushed towards the west a new wave of believers, often identified with the Manicheans. No doubt the deplorable outcome of the Second Crusade returned to their foyers Crusaders who had become disillusioned and, since their stay in Byzantium, had become carriers of a new faith in which the powerful were identified with Satan’s henchmen.


The Second Wave of Bogomil Preaching

Towards the end of the first half of the Twelfth Century, the “novi haeretici”[9] appeared everywhere and in force. The name “Cathar” was only applied to them after 1163. The preachers, surrounded by their partisans, gave way to schools, organizations and Churches.

In 1143, in Cologne, there were many people who led the apostolic life, gloried in possessing nothing, worked with their hands and punctuated with periods of fasting and prayer an existence that was in conformity with the veritable Church, which was assuredly not that of the rich prelates. The first abominable pyres were lit for them in Cologne and Bonn.

At the same time, two brothers from the village of Bussy, Evrard and Clement, who propagated ideas of reform and purification, were delivered to Guibert of Nogent, who had them lynched and burned by his henchmen.[10]

In Périgord, around 1147, the “novi haeretici” easily seduced nobles, clerics, monks, nuns, peasants, and weavers. “In scarcely two years, the Cathar movement controlled the areas from the Rhine to the Pyrenees (...) The spark lit in the East now became a powerful flame.”[11]

The former partisans of Henry of Lausanne rallied to a Cathar bishop who preached in the region of Albi. In the north, Champagne had a [Cathar] bishop at Mont-Aimé. The gravedigger Marcus, converted to the new faith, preached in Lombardy. Wandering missionaries reached Naples and England, where around 1162 adepts were quickly put to death. On 5 August 1163, several Cathars were burned in Cologne, in front of the Jewish cemetery, at the instigation of Canon Eckbert. The scholar Hildegarde von Bingen did not disdain from denouncing them.

With the development of a veritable Church, internal dissidence and polemics grew. Western Bogomilism was grafted upon an ensemble of social demands and a kind of apostolic reform as moral practice took precedence over dogmatic questions. The gap grew wider between the Christian component of an egalitarian evangelism and a dualist religion that had nothing in common with Christianity of the Montanist type that was propagated by the currents of voluntary poverty.

The intervention circa 1167 of Nicetas, the Bogomil Bishop of the Church of Byzantium (who was close to Marcus, the deacon of the Italian Cathars), imprinted on the entirety of the movement a more exacerbated dualism: Satan, the master of an execrable world, was a divinity parallel to the God of Goodness. The entirety of the beliefs in which the majority of the Cathar communities recognized themselves thereafter composed a doctrine that was irreconcilable with the principles of Christianity. More than a heresy, Catharism showed itself to Rome with the magnitude of a competing religion, a regeneration of Manichaeism.

Nevertheless, rivalries and schisms multiplied within Catharism. The conception according to which the purity of ideas and rites depended upon moral purity constituted a weapon in the rivalries for power. The Cathars of Florence rejected Garattus, candidate for the Lombard bishopric, as well as his doctrine, because he had been caught in the company of a “star of the Shepherd.”[12] The star that Lucifer brought down with him in his fall was called a prostitute.

Furthermore, in 1178, certain bishops of Toulouse and the Aran Valley professed their Christian faith and disavowed the belief in two divinities.

Such internal dissensions surreptitiously introduced a ferment of desperation into the movement, the power of which attracted all social classes, as Arno Borst has shown:

“The archbishops of Bordeaux, Narbonne and Bourges were seriously threatened by Catharism. In the surroundings of Albi, Toulouse and Carcassonne, in Gascony, the Cathars were so numerous that the Count of Toulouse, frightened, had to intervene in 1177. The Cathars appeared in the north of France, in Bourgogne and Flanders; as well as in Nevers, Vézelay, Auxerre, Troyes, Besançon, Metz, Reims, Soissons, Roanne, Arras and other towns. In Spain, they were still rare, but one found them in England around 1210. In Germany, one encountered them all along the Rhine, in the archdioceses in particular, but also in the bishoprics along the Danube, in Passau and Vienna. But their paradise was the north of Italy, the walled-in worlds of the cities of Milan, Udine, Como and Viterbo. Towns, out-lying areas, villages and chateaux were filled with them. Everything that, near-by or from afar, had been more or less more favorable to the birth of Cathar ecumenism, now found itself implicated by the great stupefaction concerning a universal conspiracy against the Catholic Church. All of the social strata were touched by the Cathar missions. The severity of Cathar morality attracted the ruling classes; noble and princely patrons, knights, and rich and cultivated people were attracted to it everywhere. Priests and monks received and put into practice the new sacred teachings. But these were not the milieus that spread those teachings, because, at that moment, evangelic morality was no longer the fundamental preoccupation of the Cathars: Bogomil dogma had passed to the first rank. Its simple rationality particularly touched the lower classes. A gravedigger who daily experienced the destruction of matter preached in Italy. His principal theme: the Demon created the flesh. Men of letters and weavers, workers belonging to sedentary or meditative professions, followed the ruling classes; workers and unskilled laborer fell into step. A proletarian intellectualism took hold of Bogomil teachings. Despite the ‘affinity of choice’ that united the laboring classes with the most elevated layers of society, this was not a proletarian movement. It remained disparate in its social structure and, in 1125, it was still unclear which would one impose itself, the high or the low, the adepts of a simple Christianity or those of Bogomil dualism.

“The Cathars’ situation on the economic plane also rested on a contradiction. They certainly extolled apostolic poverty. Each ‘Perfect One,’ upon his entrance into the sect, had to give his fortune and his goods to the Cathar Church and satisfy his needs through the work of his own hands. The adept was poor, no doubt, but the Church was rich. In 1162 in Flanders, and in 1163 in Cologne, it offered to the Catholic prelates the spectacle of a church corrupted by money; in 1177, in the south of France, it swam in riches.

“In Rimini, as in Beziers, the Cathars offered loans. Mobs crowded around them ‘pro subsidiis temporalibus.’[13] And the heretics, who were themselves merchants, conducted their [business] affairs and the affairs of the soul in public places and at the same time. They collected gifts for their Church. They did not prohibit their adepts from practicing loans with interest; the rich believers relieved their consciences with large offerings. Once again appeared the conflict between the exigencies of Western evangelic morality and the financial necessities of a Church founded on a well-defined dogma; profiting from the confused situation that created Catharist contradictions, a precocious capitalism was instaurated.

“In politics, the position of the Cathars was not clear. Especially in the south of France, the ascetics who scorned the world were soon supported by the nobles and, at the beginning of the Thirteenth Century, almost all of the barons were adepts. Count Raymond VI of Toulouse (1194 to 1222) and Ramon Roger of Foix (1188-1223) were examples of this. Their wives supported the Cathar Church. An old aristocrat, Pontius of Rodelle, explained to Foulques, the Catholic Bishop of Toulouse: [‘]The Cathars are our parents; they live among us. Why must we persecute them?[’] But it was not simply the severe and impressive morality of the Cathars that seduced the nobility. The nobility in Provence was poor and the Cathars were the enemies of the Catholic Church, whose riches came from the lords. The Cathars did not have a political program; [but] they became the instrument of politics when they offered their alliance to the Count of Toulouse against Paris. The Pope was not completely wrong when he reproached them – he who makes a powerful person is always well made. Here enthusiastic honor and bad conscience coexisted; here the material here-below infiltrated into piety and renunciation.”[14]

The first popular and Christian reaction to rise up against Catharism would have furnished an army of great efficacy – if Church hadn’t disavowed and rejected it as heresy. Born around 1173, centered around a merchant named Peter Waldes or Waldo, the Waldensian current propagated fidelity to Catholic dogma and, at the same time, the necessity of a reform of ecclesiastic morals. Perhaps it was too late when, their opportunity missed, the popes hastened to combat the Cathars on the terrain of voluntary poverty.

When the Cathars reproached the Spanish Bishop of Osma, Diego de Acebo, for preaching amidst splendor, he chose to confront them under the [outward] appearance of poverty and humility. Dominique de Guzman and his Dominican order adopted a similar tactic. The paltry results quickly augured the inevitable recourse to the final solution.

The assassination of the papal legatee Pierre of Castelnau in 1208 by sympathizers of the Count of Toulouse and the Cathars quickly justified the necessity of offering the indispensible extension of the sword to the crucifix.

Cîteaux[15] preached the Crusade. The conflict that opposed King Philippe August to his vassal, the Count of Toulouse, added political interests to the hopes for profit and plunder that were less hazardously achieved than they were in the Saracen regions.


The End of Catharism

The violence of the Crusade against the Albigensians gave the Church a position of strength that gave it time to craftily enact reforms with which it would less and less accommodate itself. How could people so sensitive to the delights of the beyond, where the Good God reigned, not be resigned to the encounter with the brutes of the north? Even when their resistance was organized, the Cathars carried their defeat within themselves. Their goodness was founded on the renunciation of self; their love was founded on abstinence. What strength could they draw from the pleasures that were not of this world?

While extermination tightened around them, the Cathars did not tire of dogmatic quarrels. Around 1230, John of Lugio composed a vast work in Latin, in which he tried to revive the Christian tradition by finding a justification for Catharism in philosophy.

In Italy, the towns won over to Catharism were, by turns, protected or repressed according to political about-faces that, breaking or renewing alliances, incited the Emperor to fire up the pyres or extinguish them.

Languedoc succumbed in the blood (most often mixed together) of the Cathars, the Catholics and the peasants who still practiced the old agrarian cults, and in the blood of those who did not bother to believe in any dogma. But the Church carried to victory by the French [version of the] reconquesta fell into the hands of the kingdom decorated by the fleur-de-lis. For two centuries, the Church paid the price by indenturing itself to French temporal power.

Frederic II, anticipating all Roman initiatives, soon gave the force of law to the ordinances of the Council of Lateran. He decreed death by fire for all the Cathars. For him, heresy was a crime against the State; he held as heretical anyone who dared to contest his decisions, since he was the Pope.

Rome made use of the Dominicans, those henchmen dressed in monks’ habits. Languedoc particularly execrated their founder, Dominic, and his acolyte, Peter, called the Martyr, whom the hardliners succeeded in executing. In 1231, the Inquisition finally began to function. It took on and legalized the work of the heretic-hunters, who had acted almost on their own, as did Robert the Bulgarian[16] or Konrad von Marburg, torturers who organized huge burnings everywhere they went.

Around 1244, with the fall of the bastion of Château de Montségur, Catharism received the deathblow. It thenceforth perpetuated itself clandestinely, stirring up renewals of repression in 1295, when the pyre ended Peire Autier’s campaign of agitation, or in 1321, when Pastor Guillaume Bélibaste fell into the hands of the Inquisition and perished in fire. In 1340, the pyre was lit at Carcassonne for the last Cathars. They survived up to 1322 in the areas around Florence, until 1340 in Sicily, 1388 in Sienna and 1412 in Turin. (Note that the first signs of hysteria concerning the “black Manichaeism” of sorcery, which appeared in the Fourteenth Century and culminated in the Sixteenth Century, suggested a continuation of Catharism without Cathars, as well as regressions in the freedom of women and the freedom to love. Identifying the Waldensians and the Perfect Ones with sorcerers – one spoke of the “vauderie”[17] of Arras – the Church recuperated the principle of purity and, in its way, pursued the combat of the angels against the forces of evil: marginal people, Jews, and “inferior” races, all of whom were considered sectarians of the Devil.)


Dualism and Asceticism

Despite their diversity, the various local Catharisms – mind you, Albigensianism, swelled by the Crusade, was incorrectly presented as the entirety of the movement – shared certain common traits, principally linked to dualism and an ascetic rigor that composed the first Greco-Roman Christianity.

It is customary to recognize in these various Catharisms two modes of dualism. One, mitigated, conceived of a single God, the creator of all things, including, among others, the angel Satanael, who repudiated his native goodness, corrupted himself, and drew upon the matter of a corrupted world. The human soul, proceeding from two primordial angelic natures, made use (through free will) of the faculty of choosing good or evil, and thus threw itself into salvation or damnation.

This doctrine was propagated in the milieus that were attached to a certain Christian formalism.

[On the other hand,] absolute dualism broke more deliberately with Christianity and recognized two antagonistic powers, as one did in Marcionism. The material world was the work of a Bad God. The Good God engendered an incorruptible universe, that of spirits or the Spirit.

The theory of the angelos-christos resurged in Catharism. The Christ, angel of God, only possessed a spiritual body.

In his Book of the Two Principles, John of Lugio argued for the co-eternal character of the perfect world, the domain of the God of Goodness, and the bad world governed by Satan. The idea that Satan forced God to reveal the evil that was in him under the forms of the Will to Justice and the Power to Punish proceeded curiously – perhaps influenced by the Kabalistic Jewish milieus or the Passagians – from the Jewish Gnosticism attested to by [the existence of] an Essene faction. (Note that the Passagians were a Judaicized sect that appeared in Lombardy and was condemned at the Council of Lombardy in 1184. Hostile to the sacraments and the Church, this sect believed that circumcision was indispensible for salvation.)

Like Marcionism, Catharism professed an absolute refusal of nature, which was identified with evil, perversion and death. Underneath an apparent respect for life – which enjoined them from killing other men or animals, excluded theft and violence from their behaviors, and taught them to conduct themselves as fundamentally good people (traits that one found among apostolic preachers such as Gandulf) – the Cathars scorned the pleasures of existence. At the heart of a civilization in which the privileges of love and women were only timidly asserted, the Cathars condemned all amorous relations as mortal sin. Even marriage was a “jurata fornicatio.”[18] Women were to be avoided with fright. Some Cathars estimated that Satan inhabited the bodies of pregnant women.[19] Such an extreme rigor did not exist without reversals or excesses. It seems that the Catharist Bishop Philippe hazarded the idea – reprised by the Beghards of the Free Spirit – that “there is no sin below the waist.”

It is true that the believers did not fall into the constraints of the puritanism imposed on the Perfect Ones, and that they had the right to get married.

The Perfect Ones refused to swear, take oaths or sit on tribunals, because human justice was essentially diabolical. It was not permitted for the Perfect Ones to carry arms, eat meat or enjoy the least sensual pleasure.

The consolamentum, the principal ceremony and the heritage of Bogomilism, absolved all sin and initiated one into the order of the Perfect Ones.

The endura (the fast that was sometimes prolonged until to death) was a form of suicide. It was never made the object of an obligation or an incentive, contrary to the assertions propagated by the Catholics, but it did possess a certain attraction for people who were little disposed to discover the charms of the here-below.

Few Cathar texts have survived, other than the Liber de duobus principiis by John of Lugio and the Interrogatio Johannis, a gospel of Bogomil origin. Other writings circulated and were echoed in the Summa de catharis by an apostate Cathar, Rainier Sacconi. Fables that composed a veritable mythology translated the teachings of the Perfect Ones into colorful narratives (a dragon carries off angels in the folds of its tail; battle in a glass sky that breaks under the weight of demons; the theme of golem animated by Lucifer. . . .). Their influence on folklore still hasn’t been studied.


[1] C. Gaignebet, Art profane et religion populaire au Moyen Age, Paris, 1985.

[2] Translator: punning Latin for “Completely deceitful Toulouse.” Petrus Valium appears to be another name for Peter de Vaux-Sarnai.

[3] Translator: the Seventh National Council of Orleans, held in 1022 under Bishop Odolric, proceeded against the Manicheans.

[4] Stafano, Riformatori, p. 347; Illarino, Eresie, p. 68.

[5] Dupin, Histoire des controverses du XII siècle, chap. VI.

[6] Translator: Latin for “in turn” or “again.”

[7] A. Borst, Les Cathares, op. cit., p. 70.

[8] Translator: A fast or series of privations intended to purify the soul before (and often leading to) death.

[9] Translator: Latin for “new heretics,” a phrase one finds in the works of Bernard of Clairvaux circa 1140.

[10] B. Monmod, Le Moine Guibert et son temps, Paris, 1905.

[11] A. Borst, op. cit., p. 81.

[12] Translator: the planet Venus is nicknamed “the star of the Shepherd” because it can easily be seen at dawn, before the sun has risen.

[13] Translator: Latin for “temporary assistance.”

[14] Ibid., pp. 90-93.

[15] Translator: that is to say, Arnaud Amalric, the Seventeen Abbot of Cîteaux, who is infamous for saying Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. (“Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.”)

[16] Translator: a former heretic who “converted” and became a member of the Dominican Order.

[17] Translator: a term that both refers to Waldo (Valdes), the founder of the Waldensians, and witchcraft. Cf. Black’s Law Dictionary.

[18] Translator: Latin for “legalized fornication.”

[19] Ibid., p. 156.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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