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In this extract from his guidebook, Declan Lyons gives a little background to the Cathars – signs of whom still exist along the Canal du Midi cycle route.
When driving towards southern France, motorway signs announce that you are entering the Cathar country.
Catharism was a 10th-century dualist religion with its roots in Christianity. Cathars could not reconcile the world’s evil with a just and good God; they believed that evil must come from an evil God who controlled the material world, while the good God was responsible for the spiritual one. These beliefs were similar in part to those of the earlier Gnostics.
The Cathars prayed and fasted regularly. They shunned meat, eggs and dairy foods; they ate fish, oil, vegetables and fruit. On fast days they took bread and water. The local population in southwest France admired the Cathars’ piety and contrasted it with the indulgent lifestyle of the Roman Catholic clerics.
The Church became increasingly concerned about the growth in adherents of counter-religions, who were branded as heretics. In 1056 Pope Victor II excommunicated (expelled from the Church) heretics and their accomplices, and the Church ordered the burning of heretics throughout the 12th century across Europe.
Lotario Conti, a student of theology and canon law, was elected pope in ad1198. The 38-year-old chose the name Innocent III. He was greatly concerned about the spread of heresy – particularly in the Languedoc – and issued a decree legalising the seizure of heretics and property belonging to their supporters. He then put pressure on Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, to act against the Cathars.
In January 1208 Raymond VI met the pope’s legate, Pierre of Castelnau, to persuade the latter to revoke an excommunication pronounced against him (Raymond VI had refused to support Pierre’s campaign against the Cathars). The meeting between the two men was acrimonious. The following day some of Raymond’s men attacked Pierre of Castelnau’s party as they prepared to cross the Rhone, and killed the legate. Pope Innocent III used the murder as a pretext for declaring a crusade against Raymond and offered his lands as booty. The pope put his legate, Arnaud-Armaury, a former abbot, in charge.
A crusader army of 50,000 men reached the region in June 1209. They headed west from Valence (sparing Montpellier as a Roman Catholic city) and set up camp in the abandoned town of Servian, near Béziers. Béziers refused to give up 210 named Cathars, and so the crusaders breached the defences and began sacking the town. The townspeople crowded into churches and the crusaders, acting on Arnaud-Armaury’s dictate to ‘kill them all, God will know his own’, slaughtered every man, woman and child; it is estimated that they butchered up to 20,000 people.
The crusaders moved swiftly from Béziers and took Carcassonne. Simon de Montfort (who was grandfather of the Simon de Montfort who called the first English parliament) was appointed crusade leader and he picked off the towns in the surrounding countryside. His campaign was cruel and vindictive. The crusaders’ major victory came at Muret in September 1213 on the banks of the River Garonne. Poor generalship and the death of King Pedro II of Aragon, intervening on behalf of Raymond (who was his son-in-law and vassal) gave Simon de Montfort the day.
The campaign continued as the forces of the crusades tightened their hold on the lands in the south. The pope appointed the Dominican order as inquisitors to root out the remaining heretics. The Cathars fled to isolated mountain forts – these falling one by one over the following century – until the last known Cathar was burnt at the stake in 1321.
The guidebook to Cycling the Canal Du Midi is out now, published by Cicerone.