Because the nobility of the Languedoc tolerated the heresy, it flourished there and was often referred to as the “Albigensian” heresy after the city of Albi, which was long a stronghold of the heretics (Barber, 2000) (Roux-Perino, 2006).It is hard nowadays to reconstruct Cathar theology, because we have to rely primarily upon the records of the Inquisition. Meticulous as these records tried to be, they nevertheless recorded the beliefs of people of widely differing levels of education, and many statements made before the Inquisition were contradictory.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the fundamental belief of the Cathars was that the material world was the work of the devil – i.e., that Earth was hell. Souls on Earth were “fallen angels” or the creations of the fallen angels. These souls were condemned to rebirth in this earthly hell – unless they were purified by a rite administered by a Cathar priest, one of the so-called “Good Men” or “Good Women” (Barber, 2000).
In short, Cathars believed in reincarnation, but not as a process of individual purification nor as a journey toward spiritual perfection – rather, as a hopeless cycle of damnation. Furthermore, the Cathars rejected the notion that good deeds could in themselves win a soul's release from material hell. Only the Cathar sacrament, the consolamentum, administered by a “pure” Cathar, could secure this grace (Barber, 2000).
The Cathars furthermore denied that Christ had, in fact, become flesh, been crucified, and been resurrected. Rather, they claimed, Christ remained a spiritual being, who only appeared to have taken human form and appeared to have died. Logically, the Cathars rejected the Catholic mass, because they did not believe in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. They accepted the Gospels, however, and the heart of the consolamentum was the Lord’s Prayer, with particular emphasis on the need to “forgive those who trespass against us” in order for a soul to receive forgiveness from God (Barber, 2000).
The Cathar “Good Men” and “Good Women” were believers who had taken the consolamentum and could administer it to others. They were required, if they wished to go to Heaven rather than be reborn on Earth, to abstain completely from sexual intercourse, to eat neither flesh nor fish, eggs nor cheese, and to refrain from all violence (Barber, 2000).
Most Cathars, however, were not so devout – nor so intellectual. The records of the Inquisition suggest that most Cathars had only vague beliefs, many contradictory, and certainly few people were willing to give up the pleasures of the flesh before the very last possible moment. Believers generally sought to take the consolamentum just before death, when it was no longer a hardship to abstain from sex, flesh, or violence.
The appeal of Catharism stemmed from the fact that to the poor and downtrodden of the 11th and 12th centuries the world was indeed a hellish place. Thus the Cathar explanation of man’s condition seemed more reasonable than traditional Catholic doctrine. The Church preached, in effect, that a benevolent and all-powerful God allowed for widespread starvation, sickness, natural catastrophes, and unending wars. The Cathar critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church was likewise highly popular, because the critique was largely justified – and also justified non-payment of tithes and other church taxes.
As the Church, the Inquisition, and Crusaders increasingly hounded the Languedoc to exterminate the heresy, adherence to the Cathar faith became an act of patriotic defiance as much as a matter of religious belief. Certainly among the nobility, resistance to the northern Crusaders and reluctance to support the Inquisition had less to do with theological sympathy for the dogma of the Cathars than with the desire to retain feudal independence from France and preserve a lifestyle and a culture that was unique and traditional.
The three novels of my "Tales from the Languedoc" series all deal with the Cathar heresy, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Occitan Resistance to a greater or lesser extent.