The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars 
by Stephen O’Shea.
Profile, 333 pp., £7.99, May 2001, 1 86197 350 0
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The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars 1290-1329 
by René Weis.
Viking, 453 pp., £20, November 2000, 0 670 88162 7
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The medieval Cathars have often been thought of as distinctively Southern French. In fact, they are first securely documented, and named, as a distinct group in the mid-12th-century Rhineland. These Cathars were probably directly influenced by 11th-century sectaries in the Byzantine Empire – one suggested derivation of ‘Cathar’ is from Greek katharós, ‘pure’ – and in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were almost certainly more Cathars in Italy than Southern France. But it was, uniquely, the Cathars of the Languedoc who were denounced as heretics so dangerous, so devilish – another possible derivation of ‘Cathar’ is ‘cat’s bum kisser’, that is, one who participates in obscene rites with Satan in the form of a cat – that the Papacy launched against them first a Crusade, then the Inquisition; and within a century the last Cathars in France had been brutally stamped out. Dissident, persecuted, but effectively forgotten, except by a few ecclesiastical polemicists, from the 14th century to the 19th, the Cathars have since acquired a spurious reputation as pacifist, feminist and libertarian, appealing, as such, to a range of modern nonconformists and romantics, above all in France.

The Cathars’ heresy was dualist: they solved the problem of theodicy – how to square a good God with a world full of evil – by denying the omnipotence of that God, instead teaching two principles, one of light, responsible for the divine spark in every person, the other of darkness, responsible for the corrupt material world and the evil in it. Though Cathars were inspired by the first chapter of St John’s Gospel, used the Lord’s Prayer and called themselves Christians, their beliefs meant denying Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death. Among a number of unorthodox groups in the 11th and 12th-century West, they were the only ones with such a blatantly heretical Christology. This wasn’t the only reason they were identified as the most serious threat to the Catholic Church in the central Middle Ages. Unlike other heretics (but like the Catholics), Cathars were divided into a small leadership of celibates who preached and performed rituals, and a very much larger group of believers. Strictly speaking, the only true Cathars were those in the first category: they had undergone a ritual, the consolamentum, that released the spirit from its material casing, and thereafter lived ascetic lives, were called ‘perfect ones’ (perfecti), and could administer the consolamentum to others. Those who believed in Cathar teachings, but had not yet been ‘consoled’, were called believers, were not bound to special asceticism, but would hope to be consoled on their deathbeds.

Catharism thus had the functional equivalent of a professional priesthood and a laity. It also had a territorial organisation, first documented in 1167, of dioceses, and within each diocese a small hierarchy. A final stabilising feature was a body of doctrinal and ritual texts, and documents that, among other things, defined the boundaries between dioceses and recorded the Cathar hierarchy. The Catholic Church was thus confronted by an anti-type. If these were Catharism’s strengths, its weaknesses, as typically with sects, were its tendency to split vertically between different leaders who often discredited each other by accusations of sexual misconduct, and its dependence on the support of local elites.

Historians of Catharism face huge problems of evidence. For the 12th century, virtually all we have are brief, highly derogatory accounts by Catholic clergy, and the prohibitive legislation of Catholic church councils. The sociology of early Catharism is obscure, with individual conversion experiences completely undocumented – contrast the otherwise comparable early Quakers in 1650s England. Catharism, like early Quakerism, was not homogeneous: it presumably appealed in different ways to merchants, or country landowners, artisans or peasants, men or women. Among likely ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors were a generalised anticlericalism directed, above all, against the fiscal exactions of the Church in an increasingly monetised economy; admiration for the pure life of the ‘Perfect’; attraction to the commonsensical elements in some Cathar teaching.

In the 13th and early 14th centuries, the picture is transformed by the survival of Inquisition records, some long in print. This material, patchy though it is in terms of time and space, comes in what is, by the medievalist’s standards, vast quantity. It is precisely dated, personalised and localised, and in palaeographical terms not difficult to read. Yet ‘reading’ it qualitatively to recover people’s lives and religious experiences is very hard indeed. In Montaillou, Village occitan (1975) Le Roy Ladurie made pioneering ‘anthropological’ use of an inquisitor’s records to put one small place under the microscope but, curiously, his primary focus (despite the subtitle of the English translation, Cathars and Catholics) was neither on the inquisitorial process nor on heresy. Anthropologists nowadays worry as much as oral historians do about how to interpret what they’re told – and as Natalie Davis noted in a review of Montaillou, Ladurie’s key witnesses were nothing if not fine conteurs.

There’s a world of difference between the modern informant in the village and the medieval suspect under interrogation in the inquisitor’s court. Much of the historiography of Catharism since the 1980s has taken a Foucauldian turn. The inquisitorial context and the technology of power loom large. The focus has been on the political enterprises, of Church and State, which permitted and required the production of the records, and on that two-way process of production itself. Still, this material enables sociologically-minded historians to glimpse something of Catharism as lived. It was an ongoing local phenomenon resting on social relations of lordship and dependence, and, fundamentally, on households. Allegiances within those structures determined whether travelling Perfect were given houseroom. Families, clients, dependants and social inferiors followed the lead of superiors. At household level – and hospitality was a household matter – personal choices operated, significantly including those of women. It’s no coincidence that women were frequently interrogated on suspicion of harbouring Perfect, or that their testimonies often included detailed accounts of meals prepared and eaten. Yet in terms of belief, Catharism, contrary to modern myth, offered women little. Its tenets were profoundly misogynistic (a mixed Cathar gathering mocked a pregnant girl as ‘having a devil in her belly’), and female Perfect, though they existed, were few, and had nothing like equal status with their male counterparts.

The Lauragais, a region to the south-east of Toulouse, has been called Catharism’s epicentre. It was hardly 50 km across. Politically, its strongholds were key points in the territory nominally belonging to the counts of Toulouse, but the local lords, like the ruling oligarchy of the city of Toulouse itself, frequently resisted the counts’ efforts at control. The Lauragais is exceptionally well-documented because a large dossier was compiled by inquisitors who were busy there in the 1240s. Neither in the Lauragais, nor in Toulouse itself, are Cathars likely to have constituted a majority of the population. Even in Béziers, where the Trencavel viscounts allegedly protected a nest of heretics, the Catholic bishop could, in 1209, come up with a list of no more than 220 Cathar believers, out of a total population of perhaps eight or nine thousand. People who listened sympathetically to Cathar teachings were as keen as most other contemporaries to secure salvation, and comfort in the hour of death. Many people evidently did not perceive two starkly opposed belief systems. They revered right-living preachers, whether Cathar or Catholic; and in the matter of salvation, they wanted belt and braces, or hedged their bets – like the man who on his deathbed requested the Cathar consolamentum, but had arranged for his exequies and commemoration at a Cistercian monastery. Battle-lines drawn up by theologians were probably unrecognisable, or immaterial, to many believers. Like the rest of medieval Europe, the Languedoc was always a world of small worlds.

Yet bigger worlds, larger concentrations of power, intruded and imposed themselves. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-29), so-called because Albi was thought to be a hotbed of heretics and because Pope Innocent III had authorised a war for the Faith within Christendom instead of beyond it, was an intrusion by Northern Frenchmen that differed from those of the Angevins and Aragonese in the 12th century only in being more brutal and sustained, and having permanent effects. The heart of Stephen O’Shea’s book is the story of this Crusade. A non-specialist addressing non-specialists – he frankly describes ‘the latest scholarly tome’, Malcolm Lambert’s excellent The Cathars (1998) as ‘for the stouthearted only’ – he writes with a great deal of historical understanding and brio.

Among the Northerners a leader emerged in the summer of 1209, Simon de Montfort, summed up by O’Shea as ‘a minor noble . . . a respectable if shabby presence in the silken company of his betters’. For better or worse, these were men on the make, determined, necessarily, as O’Shea sees, to destroy the hereditary landowning rights of the nobility. When Béziers fell, in the first major encounter of the Crusade, on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, 1209, all the inhabitants were slaughtered: this was the occasion when the abbot of Cîteaux infamously urged the Crusaders on with ‘Kill them all! God will know his own.’ The ferocity of resistance had more to do with an indigenous elite’s defence of its inheritances, lordships and dynasties than with any pre-existing sense of regional identity. The epicentre of heresy did not coincide with the area of Occitan culture. A liking for troubadour songs, after all, could be found in Poitou, the Limousin and Catalonia. Yet the entente between the Northerners and the Catholic hierarchy ensured that the effect of the Crusade was to arouse more Southern sympathy, or at least non-opposition, towards Catharism.

O’Shea devastatingly exposes the political interests of the Crusaders, the recurrent manifestations of their hypocrisy, the acts of horrific violence perpetrated on fellow-Christians as well as on heretics. None of this was specific to war against heretics, of course. Nor, to be sure, were Cathar believers any gentler in their behaviour towards their Crusader enemies. (Pacifism was for Perfect only.) In contrast to the ‘science’ of sieges, and O’Shea is a real connoisseur of this subject, ‘pitched battle had all the finesse of a freight train.’ Simon de Montfort, ‘brilliant, brutal’, emerges as a charismatic leader, driven by the dynastic interest and religious zeal typical of French nobles of his time. Even O’Shea’s large sympathies dwindle, though, when he describes the impact on the South of the French monarchy, as from the mid-1220s onwards it finally chose to reap what Simon and company had sown. In April 1229, Count Raymond VII of Toulouse was forced to do public penance in Paris, then made to agree to a grossly unequal treaty whereby Toulouse itself and 30 of the Count’s strongholds, nearly half of them in the Lauragais, were to be garrisoned by royal troops at Raymond’s expense; and henceforth no one suspected of heresy was to hold any administrative post in Crown service.

In November, at a church council in Toulouse, new machinery was put in place to tackle heresy. Lay people were ordered to inform on heretics, and to assist in their prosecution and persecution. The homes of suspected heretics could be commandeered and their property sequestered; those of convicted heretics were to be destroyed and their inheritances confiscated. A Perfect who voluntarily confessed had to move to a ‘Catholic’ town, where he would have to wear two conspicuous crosses on his clothing. Individuals were thus to be isolated, and communities systematically destabilised through the sapping of the bonds of trust that had hitherto held people together. By 1233, the Papacy had appointed professional Dominican investigators in the Languedoc; by 1244, a manual of procedure had been produced for inquisitors – it included the specification that the crosses on the penitent’s clothing were to be yellow.

O’Shea sees contemporaries as having been struck by something ‘new and malevolent’ in the tactics of the inquisitorial courts, aimed as they were at ‘transforming a weary Languedoc into a land of turncoats and quislings’. The anachronism is vivid but misleading: the Languedoc was no more an independent country now than earlier, while inquisitors, however reliant on political support, were never mere agents of a secular state. If O’Shea’s judgment occasionally seems uncertain, he focuses on points that are significant and problematic. I am unconvinced that the urban authorities’ manipulative attitudes to Jews in Toulouse and Narbonne ‘signalled the dawning of a freer, or at least more freewheeling, society’, or that anything resembling ‘protofeminism’, let alone a ‘tentative parity between the sexes’ can be associated with the Cathars, or, again, that ‘the god deserving of Cathar worship . . . simply didn’t care if you got into bed before getting married, had a Jew or a Muslim for a friend, treated men and women as equals.’ Yet these are propositions that make you think – and think comparatively, too, which is always a good thing.

If Cathar protofeminism and antinomianism are myths, what’s left of the ‘revolutionary’ in O’Shea’s title? The ‘life’ of the Cathars was in practice socially conservative, posing no threat to the order of household or local community, as they quietly proselytised, found protectors among the powers that were, and adjusted, for a while successfully, to the pressures of war. Only the Church, and more particularly its bishops, were threatened by the Cathar gentry’s refusal to extend economic support, and that brought little change to longstanding conditions in the Languedoc. As for the ‘death’ of the Cathars: two hundred Perfect perished in the flames after the fall of the fortress of Montségur in 1244; others fled to Italy. In most of Catharism’s old Languedocian stamping-grounds, however, persecution had sufficed to bring former believers, or their descendants, back within the Church’s fold. The nobility and gentry of the region came to see their futures, now, in the promising ambit of the French monarchy. Noting that the last of the Trencavel viscounts ended up as a minor landowner near his family’s old stronghold of Béziers, O’Shea neglects the representativeness of this trajectory. Olivier, scion of the lords of Termes who had supplied several generations of Cathar believers and Perfect, finally took service with St Louis in 1247, in return recovering one of the family’s castles, Aguilar, though not Termes. Olivier was buried with the Cistercians at Fontfroide. Without such protectors, the Cathar cadres could not survive. Erstwhile believers trimmed their sails to the new wind. This was no ‘death’, let alone a revolutionary one, but a classic case of adaptation and survival – the survival, that is, of the individuals and families, not of Catharism.

The ‘story of the last Cathars’ of René Weis’s title was less a continuation than an echo of what had once been. Weis’s is a worm’s eye view, his focus spatially and chronologically tight. The setting is the far South-West, the Pyrenean regions of Foix and the Sabarthès. Here, between the late 1290s and 1310, two brothers, who had received their training as Perfects in Lombardy, embarked on what was to be the last Cathar missionary enterprise. Politics, as ever, was crucial to even momentary success. But now the political was very small-scale compared with O’Shea’s big picture. Nor does Weis make much attempt to provide a wider context: despite the book’s title, for instance, he does not explain the origins of the legislation about yellow crosses (and where but here is ‘the yellow cross’ ever referred to in the singular?). Much of the action is played out in and around a single village, Montaillou, where Weis depicts the Clergue family as microcosmic medieval versions of modern Sicilian godfathers, playing a double game vis-à-vis Catholics and Cathars, and growing rich on protection money.

Weis, unlike O’Shea, has pretensions to original research, yet his reported hours in the Vatican Library seem to have yielded no substantial new findings. He has a good deal to say about his journeys by car and on foot, and bases his map of Montaillou on his personal inspection of what’s still visible on the ground. His story is really one of organisational ‘death’. Catharism’s last defences, already debilitated, could not withstand the determined onslaught of a series of three fanatical and well-organised inquisitors. Their sledge-hammer smashed the nut. Yet the exceptionally detailed records of this process, revisited by modern scholars, have given the last of the medieval Cathars, and Montaillou, a kind of immortality. Without systematic persecution, the sect might have survived in a twilight zone, and faded away unnoticed, like the last of the Muggletonians (once the Quakers’ rivals) in the 20th century.

The authors of these books have two things in common, both with important implications for how we know the past. First, Weis consistently, and O’Shea occasionally, buy into the notion that knowledge about the Cathars has been preserved by social memory continuously from the 13th century to the present, and ‘still survives’, or ‘is known to this day’ in the heads and conversations of our own contemporaries in ‘Cathar country’, the Cathars’ ‘descendants’. Second, both writers are keen for us to know that they know their Languedoc, or Occitania: they vividly evoke, Weis with particular insistence, their personal memories of drives and treks that opened up a land and its medieval past to their inquiring gaze. To be fair, both also scrupulously investigate the written evidence, and Weis has personally read medieval manuscripts. Yet the impression remains that knowledge comes from soaking oneself in local terrain and local memories. History by osmosis.

O’Shea also follows another track. He knows that his subjects called themselves not Cathars but Christians, and referred to their pays not as Occitania but in terms of local places and lordships. He quotes Hume – ‘the past has no existence except as a succession of present mental states’ – and his final chapter, ‘In Cathar Country’, explores a series of 19th and 20th-century fabrications originating in the brains of men with some antiquarian knowledge and much commitment to political agendas and, in some cases, to the making of money. Here as in so many other parts of modern Europe, fantasies about the Middle Ages were blended with regional aspirations, and the regionally specific was then offered up to the emergent nation-state. In the Languedoc (like Occitania, an elastic term, as the maps in these books show), inventions ranged from Napoléon Peyrat’s Cathar-inspired republicanism to Frédéric Mistral’s discovery of Occitania, to the Cathar-Aryans spun by myth-makers of the Third Reich and, in O’Shea’s phrase, ‘a cottage industry of former Vichy collaborators’, to various pseudo-historical confections which might indeed have been (O’Shea again) ‘thoroughly entertaining’ had they not contributed to recent holocausts of cult members in the Old World and the New – under the auspices, notably, of Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate movement and the Order of the Solar Temple. The ‘social memory’ of locals in several southerly French regions is part trickle-down from the writings of 19th-century coteries, part construct of 20th-century regional politicians, journalists and heritage industrialists. A regional conference on the Cathars in 1996 attended by leading French scholars featured a banquet of Perfects’ terrine, Montségur cheese and Cathar cake. This may seem as innocuous as the 20th-century British retro-chic Raphael Samuel describes in Theatres of Memory. But search the Internet on Cathars (I looked at only a handful of the 5790 web-pages), and material that would clearly interest historians of modern and contemporary culture can only be described as depressing for a historian of the Middle Ages. For so much of the vast amount produced on the subject shows ignorance of what historians have written, especially in the last thirty years. The commoditised fiction of tourism-driven heritage rather than history, of the Catharama and the Torture Museum, eclipses the hard-won findings of academic research. The case is not unique; but few historical fields can have suffered quite such a discouraging fate in the 20th century.

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Vol. 23 No. 13 · 5 July 2001

Lytton Strachey wrote a brilliant, error-laden essay on the Muggletonians in 1924. He wondered if any were still alive. If they were, he said, it was because in England heretics were tortured ‘not to death, oh no! – but to some extent’. J.L. Nelson (LRB, 7 June) argues that, ‘without systematic persecution’, the Cathars too might have ‘survived in a twilight zone and faded away unnoticed, like the last of the Muggletonians’. ‘Historians of Catharism,’ she writes, ‘face huge problems of evidence.’ But this is not a problem for historians of Muggletonianism, now that the sect’s archive has been deposited in the British Library. I am working on a history of the sect from its origins in 1652 to the death of the last Muggletonian in 1979. Three hundred years is a long time to survive, even in a ‘twilight zone’, and we now have access to information that might help us account for it.

William Lamont
University of Sussex

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