Like many medieval movements, there were various schools of thought and practice amongst the Cathari; some were dualistic, others Gnostic, some closer to orthodoxy while abstaining from an acceptance of Catholic doctrines. The dualist theology was the most prominent, however, and was based upon the complete incompatibility of love and power. As matter was seen as a manifestation of power, it was also incompatible with love. They did not believe in one all-encompassing god, but in two, both equal and comparable in status. They held that the physical world was evil and created by Rex Mundi (translated from Latin as "king of the world"), who encompassed all that was corporeal, chaotic and powerful; the second god, the one whom they worshipped, was entirely disincarnate: a being or principle of pure spirit and completely unsullied by the taint of matter. He was the god of love, order and peace.
According to some Cathars, the purpose of man's life on Earth was to transcend matter, renouncing perpetually anything connected with the principle of power and thereby attain union with the principle of love. According to others, man's purpose was to reclaim or redeem matter, spiritualizing and transforming it.
This placed them at odds with the Catholic Church in regarding material creation, on behalf of which Jesus had supposedly died, as intrinsically evil and implying that God, whose word had created the world in the beginning, was a usurper. Furthermore, as the Cathars saw matter as intrinsically evil, they denied that Jesus could become incarnate and still be the son of God. Cathars vehemently repudiated the significance of the Crucifixion and the Cross. In fact, to the Cathars, Rome's opulent and luxurious church seemed to them a palpable embodiment and manifestation on Earth of Rex Mundi's sovereignty.
The Catholic Church regarded the sect as dangerously heretical; faced with the rapid spread of the movement across the Languedoc region and the failure of peaceful attempts at conversion, which had been undertaken by Dominicans, the Church launched the Albigensian Crusade to crush the movement.
There is consensus that Cathars is a name given to the movement and not one that its members chose. Indeed, the Cathars had no official name, preferring to refer to themselves only as Bons Hommes et Bonnes Femmes (Good Men and Good Women). The most popular theory is that the word Cathar most likely originated from Greek καθαροί (Katharoi), meaning "pure ones", a term related to the word Katharsis or Catharsis, meaning "purification". The first recorded use of the word is by religious authority Eckbert von Schönau, who wrote regarding the heretics in Cologne in 1181: Hos nostra Germania catharos appellat ("Our Germany calls them Cathars").
The Cathars were also sometimes referred to as the Albigensians (Albigeois). This name originates from the end of the 12th century, and was used by the chronicler Geoffroy du Breuil of Vigeois in 1181. The name refers to the town of Albi (the ancient Albiga), northeast of Toulouse. The designation is misleading as the movement had no centre and is known to have flourished in several European countries (from northern Spain and Catalonia to Belgium, and from Italy to the Rhineland). Use of the name came from the fact that a debate was held in Albi between priests and the Cathars; no conclusion was reached, but from then on it was assumed in France that Cathars were supporters of the "Albigensian doctrine". However, few inhabitants of Albi were actually Cathars, and the city gladly accepted Catholicism during the crusade. This gives another theory greater weight, that "Albigensian" actually derives from two words "Albi" - meaning of light, from which we get the word "Elf" - and "Gensi", meaning "blood". Albigensian could therefore mean "Elven Blood", referring to the bloodline of the historical Jesus. This is a separate subject which can be explored in several books, for example "The Bloodline of the Holy Grail", by Sir Laurence Gardner.
It is now generally agreed by most scholars that identifiable Catharism did not emerge until at least 1143, when the first confirmed report of a group espousing similar beliefs is reported being active at Cologne by the cleric Eberwin of Steinfeld. A landmark in the "institutional history" of the Cathars was the Council, held in 1167 at Saint-Félix-Lauragais, attended by many local figures and also by the Bogomil papa Nicetas, the Cathar bishop of (northern) France and a leader of the Cathars of Lombardy.
Although there are certainly similarities in theology and practice between Gnostic/dualist groups of Late Antiquity (such as the Marcionites, Manichaeans and Ebionites) and the Cathars, there was not a direct link between the two; Manichaeanism died out in the West by the seventh century. The Cathars were largely a homegrown, Western European/Latin Christian phenomenon, springing up in the Rhineland cities (particularly Cologne) in the mid-twelfth century, northern France around the same time, and particularly southern France — the Languedoc — and the northern Italian cities in the mid-late 12th century. In the Languedoc and northern Italy, the Cathars would enjoy their greatest popularity, surviving in the Languedoc, in much reduced form, up to around 1325 and in the Italian cities until the Inquisitions of the 1260s–1300s finally rooted them out.
An individual entered into the community of Perfecti through a ritual known as the consolamentum, a rite that was both sacramental and sacerdotal in nature: sacramental in that it granted redemption and liberation from this world; sacerdotal in that those who had received this rite functioned in some ways as the Cathar clergy — though the idea of priesthood was explicitly rejected. The consolamentum was the baptism of the Holy Spirit, baptismal regeneration, absolution, and ordination all in one. Upon reception of the consolamentum, the new Perfectus surrendered his or her worldly goods to the community, vested himself in a simple black or blue robe with cord belt, and undertook a life dedicated to following the example of Christ and his Apostles — an often peripatetic life devoted to purity, prayer, preaching and charitable work, or so it was claimed. Above all, the Perfecti were dedicated to enabling others to find the road that led from the dark land ruled by the dark lord, to the realm of light which they believed to be humankind's first source and ultimate end.
While the Perfecti vowed themselves to ascetic lives of simplicity, frugality and purity, Cathar credentes (believers) were not expected to adopt the same stringent lifestyle. They were however expected to refrain from eating meat and dairy products, from killing and from swearing oaths. Catharism was above all a populist religion and the numbers of those who considered themselves "believers" in the late twelfth century included a sizable portion of the population of Languedoc, counting among them many noble families and courts. These individuals often drank, ate meat, and led relatively normal lives within medieval society — in contrast to the Perfecti, whom they honored as exemplars. Though unable to embrace the life of chastity, the credentes looked toward an eventual time when this would be their calling and path.
Many credentes would also eventually receive the consolamentum as death drew near — performing the ritual of liberation at a moment when the heavy obligations of purity required of Perfecti would be temporally short. Some of those who received the sacrament of the consolamentum upon their death-beds may thereafter have shunned further food or drink in order to speed death. This has been termed the endura. It was claimed by Catharism's opponents that by such self-imposed starvation, the Cathars were committing suicide in order to escape this world. The consolamentum was a one time sacrament. Having received it, a dying person who showed signs of rallying would sometimes be smothered with his pillow in order to ensure his salvation. Other than at such moments of extremis, however, little evidence exists to support such Cathar practices more generally.
The God found in the Old Testament had nothing to do with the God of Love known to Cathars. The Old Testament God had created the world as a prison, and demanded from the "prisoners" fearful obedience and worship. This false god was in reality — claimed the Cathari — a blind usurper who under the most false pretexts, tormented and murdered those whom he called, all too possessively, "his children". The false god was, by the Cathari, called Rex Mundi, or The King of the World. This exegesis upon the Old Testament was not unique to the Cathars: it echoes views found in earlier Gnostic movements and foreshadows later critical voices. The dogma of the Trinity and the sacrament of the Eucharist, among others, were rejected as abominations. Belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, resulted in the rejection of Hell and Purgatory, which were and are dogmas of the Catholic faith. For the Cathars, this world was the only hell — there was nothing to fear after death, save perhaps rebirth.
While this is the understanding of Cathar theology related by the Catholic Church, crucial to the study of the Cathars is their fundamental disagreement with both the Christian interpretation of the Doctrine of "resurrection" (cryptically referred to in and ) as a doctrine of the physical raising of a dead body from the grave. In the book "Massacre at Montsegur" the Cathars are referred to as "Western Buddhists" because of their belief that the Doctrine of "resurrection" taught by Jesus was, in fact, similar to the Buddhist Doctrine of Rebirth (referred to as "reincarnation"). And it was this challenge to the Christian interpretation of the Doctrine of "resurrection", echoing the original conflict between Christian theology and the Gnostics over the meaning of the Doctrine of "resurrection", that eventually led to the extermination of the sect.
Sexual intercourse and reproduction propagated the slavery of spirit to flesh, hence procreation was considered undesirable. Informal relationships were considered preferable to marriage among Cathar credentes. Perfecti were supposed to observe complete celibacy, and separation from a partner would be necessary for those who would become Perfecti. For the credentes however, sexual activity was not prohibited, but procreation was strongly discouraged, resulting in the charge by their opponents of sexual perversion. The common English insult "bugger" is derived from "Bulgar", the notion that Cathars followed the "Bulgarian heresy" whose teaching entailed perverse sexual activities which skirted procreation.
Killing was abhorrent to the Cathars; so too the copulation that produced enslavement in matter. Consequently, abstention from all animal food except fish was enjoined of the Perfecti. (The Perfecti apparently avoided eating anything considered to be a by-product of sexual reproduction, including cheese, eggs, milk and butter.) War and capital punishment were also condemned, an abnormality in the medieval age. As a consequence of their rejection of oaths, Cathars also rejected marriage vows. Such was the situation, that when called before the Inquisition, one accused of Catharism needed only to show that he was married for the case to be immediately dismissed.
Such teachings, both in theological intent and practical consequence, brought upon the Cathars condemnation from religious and secular authorities as being the enemies of Christian faith and of social order.
Decisions of Catholic Church councils — in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179) — had scarcely more effect upon the Cathars. When Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, he was resolved to deal with them.
At first Innocent tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the Cathar regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who venerated them, but also with many of the bishops of the region, who resented the considerable authority the Pope had conferred upon his legates. In 1204, Innocent III suspended a number of bishops in the south of France; in 1205 he appointed a new and vigorous bishop of Toulouse, the former troubadour Foulques. In 1206 Diego of Osma and his canon, the future Saint Dominic, began a programme of conversion in Languedoc; as part of this, Catholic-Cathar public debates were held at Verfeil, Servian, Pamiers, Montréal and elsewhere.
Saint Dominic met and debated the Cathars in 1203 during his mission to the Languedoc. He concluded that only preachers who displayed real sanctity, humility and asceticism could win over convinced Cathar believers. His conviction led eventually to the establishment of the Dominican Order in 1216. The order was to live up to the terms of his famous rebuke, "Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth." However, even St. Dominic managed only a few converts among the Cathari.
This war pitted the nobles of the north of France against those of the south. The widespread northern enthusiasm for the Crusade was partially inspired by a papal decree permitting the confiscation of lands owned by Cathars and their supporters. As the Languedoc was teeming with Cathars and Cathar sympathisers, this made the region a target for French noblemen looking to acquire new fiefs. The barons of the north headed south to do battle.
The Béziers army attempted a sortie but was quickly defeated, then pursued by the crusaders back through the gates and into the city. Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander, is supposed to have been asked how to tell Cathars from Catholics. His alleged reply, recalled by a fellow Cistercian, was "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius." — "Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own. The doors of the church of St Mary Magdalene were broken down and the refugees dragged out and slaughtered. Reportedly, 7,000 people died there including many women and children. Elsewhere in the town many more thousands were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. What remained of the city was razed by fire. Arnaud wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex. The permanent population of Béziers at that time was then probably no more than 5,000, but local refugees seeking shelter within the city walls could conceivably have increased the number to 20,000.
After the success of his siege of Carcassonne, which followed the massacre at Béziers, Simon de Montfort was designated as leader of the Crusader army. Prominent opponents of the Crusaders were Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, and his feudal overlord Peter II, the king of Aragon, who held fiefdoms and had a number of vassals in the region. Peter died fighting against the crusade on September 12, 1213 at the Battle of Muret.
In 1215, the bishops of the Catholic Church met at the Fourth Council of the Lateran under Pope Innocent III. One of the key goals of the council was to combat the heresy of the Cathars without explaining exactly what that heresy originated with: the Cathar's interpretation of the doctrine of the resurrection as meaning, "reincarnation".
The Inquisition was established in 1229 to uproot the remaining Cathars. Operating in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century, and a great part of the 14th, it finally succeeded in extirpating the movement. Cathars who refused to recant were hanged, or burned at the stake.
From May 1243 to March 1244, the Cathar fortress of Montségur was besieged by the troops of the seneschal of Carcassonne and the archbishop of Narbonne. On March 16, 1244, a large and symbolically important massacre took place, where over 200 Cathar perfects were burned in an enormous fire at the prat des cramats near the foot of the castle. Moreover, the Church decreed lesser chastisements against laymen suspected of sympathy with Cathars, at the 1235 Council of Narbonne.
A popular though as yet unsubstantiated theory holds that a small party of Cathar perfects escaped from the fortress before the massacre at prat des cramats. It is widely held in the Cathar region to this day that the escapees took with them le tresor cathar. What this treasure consisted of has been a matter of considerable speculation: claims range from sacred Gnostic texts to the Cathars' accumulated wealth.
Hunted by the Inquisition and deserted by the nobles of their districts, the Cathars became more and more scattered fugitives: meeting surreptitiously in forests and mountain wilds. Later insurrections broke out under the leadership of Bernard of Foix, Aimery of Narbonne and Bernard Délicieux (a Franciscan friar later prosecuted for his adherence to another heretical movement, that of the Spiritual Franciscans) at the beginning of the 14th century. But by this time the Inquisition had grown very powerful. Consequently, many were summoned to appear before it. Precise indications of this are found in the registers of the Inquisitors, Bernard of Caux, Jean de St Pierre, Geoffroy d'Ablis, and others. The parfaits only rarely recanted, and hundreds were burned. Repentant lay believers were punished, but their lives were spared as long as they did not relapse. Having recanted, they were obliged to sew yellow crosses onto their outdoor clothing and to live apart from other Catholics, at least for a while.
Other movements, such as the Waldensians and the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit, which suffered persecution in the same area survived in remote areas and in small numbers into the 14th and 15th centuries. Some Waldensian ideas were absorbed into early Protestant sects, such as the Hussites, Lollards, and the Moravian Church (Herrnhuters of Germany). It is possible that Cathar ideas were too.
Any use of the term "Cathar" to refer to people after the suppression of Catharism in the 14th century is a cultural or ancestral reference, and has no religious implication. Nevertheless, interest in the Cathars, their history, legacy and beliefs continues. The publication of the book Crusade against the Grail by a young German Otto Rahn in the 1930s rekindled interest in the connection between the Cathars and the Holy Grail. Rahn was convinced that the 13th century work Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach was a veiled account of the Cathars. His research attracted the attention of the Nazi government and in particular of Heinrich Himmler, who made him archaeologist in the SS. Also, the Cathars have been depicted in popular books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as a group of elite nobility somehow connected to "secrets" about the true nature of the Christian faith, although there is no critical proof of such secrets being kept.
The term Pays Cathare (French meaning "Land of the Cathars" or "Cathar country") is used to highlight the Cathar heritage and history of the region where Catharism was traditionally strongest. This area is centred around towns such as Montségur and Carcassonne; also the French département of the Aude uses the title Pays Cathare in tourist brochures. These areas have ruins from the wars against the Cathars which are still visible today.
Some criticise the promotion of the identity of Pays Cathare as an exaggeration for tourist purposes. Actually most of the promoted Cathar castles are later royal citadels built upon razed pre-Cathar fortresses.
A personal history of the Cathar of Carcassone at the beginning of the 13th cent., with spiritual connection with modern archeologists, is beautifully presented in Kate Mosse's book Labyrinth, published in 2005 by Mosse Associates Ltd.
/*http://www.cathares.org/ Informative site in English/French.
Cathar Museum, Mazamet, France http://www.maison-memoires.com/
Centre d'Etudes Cathares/Cathar Study Centre Carcassonne, France http://cecnelli.unblog.fr/