The Cathars, a mysterious gnostic cult of the Middle Ages. Part I

Article by: Julian Ochoa

Europe during the middle ages is thought to have been a period of very little innovations, however from the 9th until the 13th century southern France was a center of trade and progress. At the center of the driving force of this progress was a Christian denomination, that was in a precursor to the protestant movement, the Cathars, or the good Christians as they called themselves were a beacon of light in an age dominated by the catholic church and its vassal kingdoms. In the first part of this post, I will speak about the history of the Cathars. Firstly I will speak briefly about why I decided to speak about the Cathars. Secondly, I will give a recount of the historical period in which the Cathars existed, what world events were happening at the time. And lastly, I will deliver the historical account of the Cathar’s existence in Europe.

My interest in the Cathars started when I bought one of those popular books occult books sold in all bookshops; it was a Pro-Christian book explaining the occult and groups that had Non-christian views about the world. The Cathars called my attention as they were victims of the inquisition. Having grown in a Catholic country the age of inquisition was portrayed as an epoch of cleansing that Christendom had to go through to get rid of pagans, idolaters and all sorts of heretics or freethinkers. I shelved the topic for many years until a few years ago I read The Holy Grail and later on the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. I searched on the internet a bit on the Cathars but I could not find anything profound until recently when I was recommended to read a book by Arthur Guirdham called Cathars and Reincarnation. At first, I thought it was going to be a silly book, by someone claiming to be a Cathar. The book was about Guirdham’s work as a psychiatrist in England dealing with a group of patients that had dreams and visions about events and places they knew not about all related to the Cathars in France. When I finished the book a new interest awoke in me about the Cathars.

Tobias Churton highlighted that Catharism has attracted many people’s minds by having apparent connections to the Holy Grail, King Arthur, Pagan Gnosis, The descendants of Christ, the knight’s templar, the Rosicrucians, the Ark of the covenant, UFO’s, The theosophical society, Ancient Egypt and Atlantis.

Drawing of the “Holy Grail”

The emergence of the Cathars 

When the Cathars emerged in Southern France in the 11th century, 1000 years had already passed since Christ had existed as the Nazarene in Judea. 700 years had passed since Rome abolished the worship of several Gods and adopted Christianity as the state religion, “the universal church”. This event occurred in several meetings the most famous of them being the Nicaean council, which met in Nicaea Turkey, where hundreds of bishops met to decide what gospels to allow into the New Testament and what ideals the church stood for.

Any writings or groups that were excluded from this council were made heretics and persecuted or driven underground. Among the groups excluded were the Gnostics. The Gnostics were different groups that lived around Judea, Egypt, Rome and some parts of southern Gaul, these groups differed in beliefs and their accounts of the Christs teachings were totally different from what was decreed at the Nicaean Council, some gnostics were not Christian, but followed different spiritual beliefs.

The Cathars existed from the 11th to the 14th century. This period is commonly known as the high middle ages. By the 11th century, the barbarian invasions had finished and Christendom was spreading across all of Europe. The moors were stationed south of Spain and remained there until the late Middle Ages. The Christian crusades to the holy land started in the 11th century and lasted until the late middle ages. The knight templars were founded as an order in 1119 and most of its knights were exterminated after Friday the 13th 1307. It is said that the Knights Templar were the secular faction of the Cathars hence why they suffered a similar fate to the Cathars.

The name Cathar comes from the Greek word Katharos, signifying “unpolluted”. The Cathars were also known as Manichaeans, followers of the prophet Mani. Mani was a Persian Gnostic teacher of the 3rd century who thought that the world was created by a lesser god, who had fallen from God’s grace. The Cathars were also known as the Albigensian, after the town of Albi located north of Toulouse. They were named after this town for the inquisition focused its major offensive on the Cathars in the south of France in the areas of Toulouse and Carcassonne. In fact, when the Catholic Church launched its crusade against the Cathars it called it the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars did not call themselves by any of these names, but as the good men and good women or the good Christians.

As mentioned above the Cathars belief system has been correlated to those of the Manichaeans, but the Cathars never mentioned the prophet Mani or prophesied to believe in his system. In fact, they used to consider themselves real Christians. Their system is more closely related to the Christian Gnostics who existed 800 years earlier. It is thought that Catharism entered Western Europe by way of Eastern Europe, from Bulgaria where a group called the Bogomils practiced and believed similar ideas to those of the Cathars. The Bogomils can be traced back to a Gnostic/Manichean group from Armenia called the Paulicians who were persecuted by the Christian Church for their heretical beliefs.

The Cathars belief system was based on the four gospels of the Christian church, however, they differed from the church because they did not believe in the sacraments of the Catholic Church, in fact, they only had one sacrament. The Cathars believed in Jesus, but not in the same way as the Catholic Church did. The Cathars believed that Jesus never existed in the physical level, but that he was a projection of the cosmic Christ, therefore he could not have lived an earthly life, or even resurrected as the church claims Jesus did.

This belief alone was enough to anger the church. However the Cathar belief system was far more complex, it also refuted the God of the Old Testament, stating that this God could not have been a good God for God would not have created this material world to make us suffer. Therefore for the Cathars, there were two Gods, the god that created the material world and the GOD that created the spiritual universe, this view of the world is related to the Gnostic and Manichaean dualist view of the cosmos and its creation.

The Cathar social structure had several circles, one of the sympathizers, another of the followers and the inner circle of priests called the Parfaits the perfected ones. Men and women were allowed into this circle, women were given equal rights, this group was the most devoted of the Cathars. The parfait’spracticed, asceticism, vegetarianism, non-violence at the same time they had a worldly life. In fact, most parfaits before entering the sacred order had families and lived like a common person would, once they had acquired these experiences they were allowed to become parfaits.

A group like this was certainly not going to survive in medieval Europe. Its views, rejection of the Catholic Church, permitting women to be priestess, and its ever-growing economic and philosophical influence enraged the church, in 1208 under Pope innocent the III the Catholic Church declared war on the Cathars. By the summer of 1209 the Crusaders had assembled in the north of France, an army of 10,000 – 30,000 knights descended into southern France, in what was the first Christian crusade against other Christians, and was also the beginning of the Christian Inquisition.

Fort: Montsegur

The final blow the Christian Crusaders had stricken upon the Cathars

It was the year 1242; the crusade had been going on for almost forty years. The Last Bastion of the Cathars in France was in Languedoc near the town of Carcassonne at a fort called the Montsegur. Montsegur was located at the top of a mountain 1200 meters high. It was an impenetrable site, there were two forms of entry, one was through the main entrance, which was difficult to get through due to the natural terrain that gave an advantage to the defender from ensuing troops.

The second entry was on the east side of the mountain which was an entry that could only be scaled and was used by the Cathars to bring in goods to sustain the siege. The siege of Montsegur lasted 1 year, the longest siege in the Albigensian crusade; the other Cathar pockets of resistance fell through faster than Montsegur. There were about 500 people inside Montsegur. 200 were women and children, 200 were parfaits, and there were only 100 knights to defend the fort. Outside the fort, the Crusaders were numbering at 10,000 and had access to relief and supplies to last a long period, where as the Cathars inside the fort were slowly straying without supplies.

On the Christmas Eve of 1243 a few crusaders entered the fort through the east side of the mountain, killed the guards, and facilitated access to the fort, they passed the first moat of the fortress. By March of 1244, the fort fell into the hands of the besiegers. The Cathar Knights and the common people that survived were interrogated and later on joined the 200 parfaits at the stake. All Cathars refused to repent and submit to the church believing that if they did they would be giving themselves into Satan; therefore death was a better solution as it would liberate them from this material world.

Cathars burnt at the stake.

What was the impact of the Cathars as a group in southern France?

The high middle ages were a time where the Catholic Church was very powerful, but not very spiritual. The Catholic Church demanded from all landlords’ money for their profits and vast lands as a path to heaven. There was great poverty across Europe and the church was the only entity that had mass control over Europe. Southern France at the time was a great crossroads of trade and ideas, all that came from Italy, the Mediterranean to Britain and Scandinavia passed through southern France, in the years that the Cathars grew, the economy of southern France grew as well and so it attracted attention not only of people that wanted to go there for trade but it attracted the attention of the church. The church sent spies to survey Cathar influence and it found that where the Catholic Church failed the Cathars triumphed. The Catholic Church on the one hand charged landlords for money whereas the Cathars thought spirituality without any cost. On the other hand, the Catholic Church always imposed its views of God and how to live in the world, and this was not so popular in southern France where a prosperous economy and a more liberal Catharism gave the opportunity to men and women to take the spiritual path without so many constraints. Women especially had the freedom to explore spirituality without the patriarchal oppression of the Church. The Cathars went as far as to worship the feminine side of GOD through the image of Mary Magdalene.

Moreover, the Cathars did not have a religious structure which allowed Cathars to have their own set of beliefs and understanding of the cosmos. Under the Cathar influence, Southern France was a Liberal Economic zone which had slipped from the hands of the Catholic Church, and it had to be subdued or it would have become a greater threat than the Moors in Spain as Pope Innocent the III said when he declared war on the Cathars.

The Albigensian crusade killed in a period of 40 years 500,000 people in just southern France, the Last Cathar to have ever lived was burnt in the 14thcentury. The thirst for dominance and wealth provoked the church to react with boldness to the rising Cathars. The heresy of the Cathars, cannot be measured with the slaughter that the Church unleashed upon them, its worth to remember that when the witch hunt was on its way a knight asked his commander Arnald-Amalric whom he should kill in the city of Beziers and, Arnald responded: Kill them all, God will look after his own. The Cathars are only known for being heretics, but as explained their heresy was simply to think differently and to allow women to take an equal role in society. It is said that a troubadour sang after the crusades that the Cathar land will once again flourish in 700 years.