The Albigensian Crusade…a bleak moment in Christian history when intolerance led to the extirpation of good people


How can people kill in the name of faith? And why can’t we outgrow it?

The Albigensians were a group of people so named because they lived in and around the town Albi in Southwestern France.  The entire region, indeed, was populated by the “Albigensians”.  Geographically this area was spread from the City of Tours all the way across the Pyrenees and into Northeastern Spain, to the area around Barcelona.

This was the homeland of the people known as the Cathars.  The Raymonds and the Berenguers were the Counts that ruled these lands, from Toulouse and Barcelona, respectively.

The time is the early 13th Century, 1200 AD.  The Cathars were Christians, but their system of beliefs threatened the Catholic Church and the Pope.  Today we know the area they lived as the Languedoc.  It was a wealthy region, and no longer under the domain of the King of France, having been ceded in a treaty a few hundred years before.  The challenge to the church gave the King of France the opening he needed, a chance to subjugate this rich and sprawling land, expanding his territory and power, and Pope and King launched the Albigensian Crusade, a Christian Crusade against fellow Christians which resulted in genocide, the extermination of a people and their religion.

What was it about the Cathars that so threatened the Papacy?  Well, they denied the Papacy (they did not believe that a priest had any business between a believer and God); the Catholic Church (as corrupt and profligate); and the Sacrament (a ceremony that provides Divine Grace was against Catharism—anything physical was corrupt).  To the Pope, this was heresy.  Getting rid of them would mean getting rid of the greatest threat to their power to have emerged.

The Cathars conception of God was different.  Drawing on elements of Gnosticism (Ancient Greek), and connected through these teachings to elements of Persian and Indian thinking (Buddhism), it was a very accessible and increasingly popular movement.  They regarded God as neither male nor female.  Did someone say non-binary?  [I wrote about God as non-binary here].  Their conception of the physical world was that it was inherently sinful.  They regarded Jesus as a prophet (just as the Muslims do).  But most importantly, they believed that the individual has a personal relationship with God, and does not require the intercession of a priest.  Wow!  There goes the church and its elaborate system of patronage.  The Cathars believed in humility and eschewed earthly possessions…and their ceremonies were a bit like Quaker ceremonies—people gathered in a circle, together in community, communing with the Divine.

The Cathars discouraged sex even in matrimony.  Chastity!  Oh, bliss.  They did not conceive of God as an angry, punishing God, but rather one of purity and love.

The Cathars believed in reincarnation.  They believed that we would be re-incarnated over and over again, as either man or woman, until you managed to live a life free of sin.  A bit like some Eastern religions.  Women were also full participants in the religion, and also served as priests.  A papal delegation sent to debate the Cathars found that women were amongst those who spoke on behalf of the Cathars.  It was said that this so scandalized the Catholic monk in charge, later the founder of the Benedictine order, that it inspired the Inquisition.  Ironic that one of the holiest of Catholic orders was founded in bloodlust, patriarchy, and dogma.  The extirpation of the Cathars was the genesis of the Inquisition within the Catholic Church.  And it worked.

For these beliefs their lot was to be wiped out.  And both Pope Innocent (What an apt name!) and King Philip II asked for anyone to come join a Crusade against the Cathars, offering blessings, money, and land for those who joined the fight.  Over a period of 40 years in the early 1200’s, the Cathars were put to the stake, and burnt in the thousands—men, women, children.  Entire cities were wiped out.  They were completely wiped out.  The Raymonds were also wiped out, dispossessed of their lands, and eventually killed off.  Though they were not Cathars themselves, the Raymonds protected the Cathars, and for that, were all killed just as their people were.

I also feel that the action of Pope and King against the Cathars was symbolic of patriarchy vs. egalitarian society. It was certainly a perpetration of violence against women, as there were many women murdered and branded as heretics during the process. I am also fascinated by the hateful Simon de Montfort, who led many of the raids against the Cathars, and at whose hands much blood was spilt. You see, not just then, but at other times in history, his descendants played an active role in harassing other ancestors…and I wonder if we play out these existential struggles in ways that we simply don’t understand. This concept was brought home to me in discovering a hated colleague at work was a descendant of de Montfort…can we ever escape the past?

The Cathar story is tragic and fascinating.  It has also been largely written out of history.  How many of you have heard of them before?  Even students of European history hear of the Cathars more as a footnote.  And this brings me full circle.  [Previously touched on here].  My system of beliefs is one that has morphed only moderately over my life.  The things I believed as a child in terms of the spirit world, God, and more generally about existence, reincarnation, equality, organised religion…and now, even, as an adult, the importance of spirituality, and the fact that my life is essentially chaste (yes, the erotic plays a large role in my life, but is one of communication and connection rather than one of conquest and consummation) makes my thoughts turn to the Cathars.  Is faith genetic?  Is the way we believe something that we are born with?

I turn to questions such as these in the knowledge that my mother’s family had its origins with the Cathars.  And I wonder, how did I end up with so many of the same beliefs given that nothing in my environment would have guided me this way?

Just as I “know” that I was born non-binary, I also “know” of the spirit connection to the natural world.  This is not learned but felt.  Our souls have an agenda, and that is something we are born with.  Whether we achieve it is something else.

And I also know that D/s is opening my eyes to my own spirituality once again.  These are things that were lost to me in life—things I no longer listened to, because to my younger self, they were too much, too strong, and I wasn’t ready.  Now I am ready.  I wonder what I am going to hear.

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