The Cathari—Were They Christian Martyrs?
“SLAY them all; God will recognize His own.” On that summer day of 1209, the population of Béziers, in southern France, was massacred. The monk Arnold Amalric, appointed as papal legate at the head of the Catholic crusaders, showed no mercy. When his men asked how they were to distinguish between Catholics and heretics, he reportedly gave the infamous reply quoted above. Catholic historians water it down to: “Do not worry. I believe very few will be converted.” Whatever his exact answer, the result was the slaughter of at least 20,000 men, women, and children at the hands of some 300,000 crusaders, led by prelates of the Catholic Church.
What brought about this massacre? It was just the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade that Pope Innocent III had launched against so-called heretics in the province of Languedoc, south-central France. Before it ended some 20 years later, possibly one million people—Cathari, Waldenses, and even many Catholics—had lost their lives.
Religious Dissent in Medieval Europe
The rapid growth of trade in the 11th century C.E. brought about great changes in the social and economic structures of medieval Europe. Towns sprung up to house the growing number of craftsmen and tradesmen. This provided scope for new ideas. Religious dissent took root in Languedoc, where a remarkably tolerant and advanced civilization prospered as nowhere else in Europe. The city of Toulouse in Languedoc was the third richest metropolis in Europe. It was the world in which the troubadours flourished, some of whose lyrics touched on political and religious subjects.
Describing the religious situation in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses states: “In the 12th century, as in the previous century, the morals of the clergy, their opulence, their venality, and their immorality, continued to be called into question, but it was principally their wealth and power, their collusion with the secular authorities, and their servility that were criticized.”
Even Pope Innocent III recognized that the rampant corruption within the church was to blame for the increasing number of dissident, itinerant preachers in Europe, particularly in southern France and northern Italy. The majority of these were either Cathari or Waldenses. He berated the priests for not teaching the people, saying: “The children are in want of the bread that you do not care to break for them.” Yet, rather than promote Bible education for the people, Innocent claimed that “such is the depth of divine Scripture, that not only the simple and illiterate, but even the prudent and learned, are not fully sufficient to try to understand it.” Bible reading was banned to all except the clergy and then permitted only in Latin.
To counteract the itinerant preaching of the dissidents, the pope approved the founding of the Order of Friars Preachers, or Dominicans. In contrast with the opulent Catholic clergy, these friars were to be traveling preachers commissioned to defend Catholic orthodoxy against the “heretics” in southern France. The pope also sent papal legates to reason with the Cathari and try to bring them back into the Catholic fold. Since these efforts failed, and one of his legates was killed, supposedly by a heretic, Innocent III ordered the Albigensian Crusade in 1209. Albi was one of the towns where Cathari were particularly numerous, so church chroniclers referred to the Cathari as Albigenses (French, Albigeois) and used the term to designate all the “heretics” in that region, including the Waldenses. (See box below.)
Who Were the Cathari?
The word “cathar” comes from the Greek word ka·tha·rosʹ, meaning “pure.” From the 11th to the 14th century, Catharism spread particularly in Lombardy, northern Italy, and in Languedoc. Cathar beliefs were a mixture of Eastern dualism and Gnosticism, imported perhaps by foreign traders and missionaries. The Encyclopedia of Religion defines Cathar dualism as belief in “two principles: one good, governing all that was spiritual, the other evil, responsible for the material world, including man’s body.” The Cathari believed that Satan created the material world, which was irrevocably condemned to destruction. Their hope was to escape from the evil, material world.
Cathari were divided into two classes, the perfect and the believers. The perfect were initiated by a rite of spiritual baptism, called consolamentum. This was performed by the laying on of hands, after a year’s probation. The rite was thought to release the postulant from Satan’s rule, purify him from all sin, and impart the holy spirit. This gave rise to the designation “perfect,” applied to the relatively small elite who acted as ministers toward the believers. The perfect took vows of abstinence, chastity, and poverty. If married, a perfect had to leave his or her partner, since the Cathari believed that sexual intercourse was the original sin.
Believers were individuals who, while not adopting an ascetic life-style, nevertheless accepted Cathar teachings. By kneeling in honor of the perfect in a ritual called melioramentum, the believer requested forgiveness and a blessing. To enable themselves to lead normal lives, believers contracted with the perfect a convenenza, or agreement, providing for death-bed administration of spiritual baptism, or consolamentum.
Attitude Toward the Bible
Although the Cathari quoted the Bible extensively, they viewed it primarily as a source of allegories and fables. They considered that the greater part of the Hebrew Scriptures came from the Devil. They used parts of the Greek Scriptures, such as texts contrasting the flesh with the spirit, to buttress their dualistic philosophy. In the Lord’s Prayer, they prayed for “our supersubstantial bread” (meaning “spiritual bread”) instead of “our daily bread,” material bread being a necessary evil in their eyes.
Many Cathar teachings were in direct contradiction to the Bible. For instance, they believed in the immortality of the soul and in reincarnation. (Compare Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Ezekiel 18:4, 20.) They also based their beliefs on apocryphal texts. Nevertheless, insofar as the Cathari translated parts of the Scriptures into the vernacular, to a certain extent, they did make the Bible a better-known book in the Middle Ages.
The perfect considered themselves the rightful successors of the apostles and, consequently, called themselves “Christians,” emphasizing this by adding “true” or “good.” In point of fact, however, many Cathar beliefs were foreign to Christianity. While the Cathari did recognize Jesus as the Son of God, they rejected his having come in the flesh and his redeeming sacrifice. Misinterpreting the Bible’s condemnation of the flesh and the world, they considered all matter to stem from evil. They therefore maintained that Jesus could only have had a spiritual body and that while on earth he merely appeared to have a fleshly body. Like first-century apostates, the Cathari were “persons not confessing Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.”—2 John 7.
In his book Medieval Heresy, M. D. Lambert writes that Catharism “replaced a Christian morality by a compulsory asceticism, . . . eliminated redemption by refusing to admit the saving power of [Christ’s death].” He considers that “the true affinities of the perfect lay with the ascetic teachers of the East, the bonzes and fakirs of China or India, the adepts of the Orphic mysteries, or the teachers of Gnosticism.” In Cathar belief, salvation was dependent, not on the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but rather on the consolamentum, or baptism into the holy spirit. For those thus purified, death would bring about a release from matter.
An Unholy Crusade
The common people, weary of the clergy’s extortionate demands and rampant decadence, were attracted by the way of life of the Cathari. The perfect identified the Catholic Church and its hierarchy with “the synagogue of Satan” and “the mother of the harlots” of Revelation 3:9 and 17:5. Catharism was prospering and supplanting the church in southern France. Pope Innocent III’s reaction was to launch and finance the so-called Albigensian Crusade, the first crusade organized within Christendom against people who claimed to be Christians.
Through letters and legates, the pope harassed the Catholic kings, counts, dukes, and knights of Europe. He promised indulgences and the riches of Languedoc to all who would fight to stamp out the heresy “by whatever means.” His call did not fall on deaf ears. Led by Catholic prelates and monks, a motley army of crusaders from the north of France, Flanders, and Germany headed south down the Rhône Valley.
The destruction of Béziers marked the start of a war of conquest that consumed Languedoc in an orgy of fire and blood. Albi, Carcassonne, Castres, Foix, Narbonne, Termes, and Toulouse all fell to the bloodthirsty crusaders. In such Cathar strongholds as Cassès, Minerve, and Lavaur, hundreds of the perfect were burned at the stake. According to the monk-chronicler Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay, the crusaders ‘burned the perfect alive, with joy in their hearts.’ In 1229, after 20 years of strife and devastation, Languedoc came under the French Crown. But the slaughter was not yet over.
The Inquisition Strikes the Deathblow
In 1231, Pope Gregory IX instituted the papal Inquisition to lend support to the armed struggle.* The inquisitorial system was at first based on denouncements and duress and, later, on systematic torture. Its aim was to eradicate what the sword had been unable to destroy. Inquisition judges—mostly Dominican and Franciscan friars—were answerable only to the pope. Death by burning was the official punishment for heresy. Such was the fanaticism and brutality of the inquisitors that revolts broke forth in, among other places, Albi and Toulouse. In Avignonet, all the members of the Inquisitorial tribunal were massacred.
In 1244 the surrender of the mountain fortress of Montségur, the last refuge of numerous perfects, sounded the death knell for Catharism. About 200 men and women perished in a mass burning at the stake. Over the years, the Inquisition ferreted out the remaining Cathari. The last Cathar was reportedly burned at the stake in Languedoc in 1330. The book Medieval Heresy notes: “The fall of Catharism was the prime battle-honour of the Inquisition.”
The Cathari were far from being true Christians. But did their criticism of the Catholic Church justify their cruel extermination by so-called Christians? Their Catholic persecutors and murderers dishonored God and Christ and misrepresented true Christianity as they tortured and slaughtered those tens of thousands of dissenters.
For further details on the medieval Inquisition, see “The Terrifying Inquisition” in the Awake! of April 22, 1986, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., pages 20-3.
[Box on page 28]
Toward the end of the 12th century C.E., Pierre Valdès, or Peter Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons, financed the first translations of parts of the Bible into various local dialects of Provençal, the vernacular language spoken in southern and southeastern France. A sincere Catholic, he gave up his business and dedicated himself to preaching the Gospel. Disgusted with the corrupt clergy, many other Catholics followed him and became itinerant preachers.
Waldo soon encountered hostility from the local clergy, who persuaded the pope to ban his public witnessing. His reported reply was: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Compare Acts 5:29.) In view of his persistence, Waldo was excommunicated. His followers, called the Waldenses, or the Poor Men of Lyons, zealously strove to follow his example, preaching two by two in the homes of the people. This resulted in the rapid spread of their teachings throughout southern, eastern, and parts of northern France, as well as northern Italy.
In the main, they advocated a return to the beliefs and practices of early Christianity. They challenged, among other teachings, purgatory, prayers for the dead, worship of Mary, prayers to the “saints,” adoration of the crucifix, indulgences, the Eucharist, and infant baptism.*
The teachings of the Waldenses sharply contrasted with the non-Christian dualistic teachings of the Cathari, with whom they are often confused. This confusion is primarily due to Catholic polemists who deliberately attempted to identify Waldensian preaching with the teachings of the Albigenses, or Cathari.
For further information on the Waldenses, see the article “The Waldenses—Heretics or Truth-Seekers?” in The Watchtower of August 1, 1981, pages 12-15.
[Picture on page 29]
Seven thousand died in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Béziers, where crusaders massacred 20,000 men, women, and children