Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cathers, Crusades, and Castles

In the 11th century AD a theology spread across Europe that challenged the dogma of the dominant Catholic Church. The roots of the theology stretched back to the dualism of some early Christian scholars, but this heresy had unique features and thrived on the corrupt state of the Church in the 11th century. The so-called Cathar heresy was particularly strong in northern Italy, in Flanders, and across southwestern France in the area where the langue d’oc was spoken and so referred to for convenience as “the Languedoc,” although this is neither a political nor contemporary term.  Because the nobility of the Languedoc tolerated the heresy, Catharism flourished there for nearly two centuries and was often referred to as the “Albigensian” heresy after the city of Albi, which was long a stronghold of the heretics.
The town of Cordes just north of Albi still retains it medieval character today. Photo: H.P. Schrader
 
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, 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, condemned to be born in mortal bodies again and again. Thus, the Cathars believed in reincarnation, but not as a process of individual purification nor as a journey toward spiritual perfection. Instead, it was seen as a hopeless cycle of damnation. Furthermore, the Cathars rejected the notion that good deeds could in themselves win a soul release from material hell. Only the Cathar sacrament, the consolamentum, administered by a “pure” Cathar, could secure this grace.
The Cathars furthermore denied that Christ had, in fact, become flesh, been crucified, and been resurrected. They preached that Christ remained a spiritual being, who only appeared to have taken human form and appeared to have died. In consequence, 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” in order for a soul to receive forgiveness from God.
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.
The appeal of Catharism stemmed from the fact that for the poor and downtrodden in the 11th and 12th centuries, the world was indeed a hellish place. Thus the Cathar explanation of man’s condition seemed more reasonable than orthodox Catholic doctrine. The Church preached, in effect, that a benevolent and all-powerful God allowed for widespread starvation, sickness, natural catastrophes, and unending wars. 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.
Because the Cathars denied the power of Catholic sacraments and priests, refused to pay tithes or other church taxes, and preached against the corruption of the Catholic Church, the Cathars posed a threat to the power of the Catholic Church. The fact that the local secular lords tolerated the heretics in their territories was a provocation to both Rome -- and Paris.
In 1208, after the murder of a papal legate by armed men presumed to be supporters of the heresy, Pope Innocent III called for a “crusade” against the Cathars, or Albigensians. The Pope offered to the knights, noblemen, and mercenaries who took part in this “crusade” the same forgiveness of sins and debts that he offered crusaders against the Saracens in the Holy Land. The following year, in 1209, a crusading army descended on the Languedoc and besieged the city of Béziers, which supposedly harbored a large population of heretics. When the city fell (rapidly due to a miscalculation on the part of the defenders), the invaders massacred the inhabitants of the city. Allegedly some 20,000 people were put to the sword, including those seeking refuge in the cathedral and the Catholic priests with them.
 
The walls of Carcassonne still seem formidable even today. Photo: H.P. Schrader
 
The invaders next laid siege to Carcassonne, the principal seat and strongest bastion of the most intransigent of the local barons, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne. After a long siege, Trencavel surrendered his own person to save the lives of the city’s residents and garrison.  The victors confined Raymond-Roger in the dungeon of his citadel at Carcassonne, where he died three months later. Meanwhile his lands and titles were awarded by the Pope to the most audacious of the crusaders, Simon de Montfort (father of the Simon de Montfort that would become so famous in English parliamentary history.)
Thus, although the “crusaders” returned whence they’d come at the end of the year, Simon de Montfort and other knights and noblemen rewarded with lands taken from defeated local lords remained in the Languedoc to enjoy the fruits of their service to the Pope and the King of France. The people of the Languedoc, however, did not submit docilely to these new lords. No sooner had the crusaders gone home, than the Occitan lords and towns rose up in rebellion.
Nor were the lords of the Languedoc without allies. The King of Aragon, Pedro II, offered his protection to them in 1212, in exchange for them paying homage to him as their overlord. Thinking the King of Spain would be more tolerant of their independent lifestyle than the King of France had proved to be –- or simply appalled by the atrocities and success of Simon de Montfort –- the bulk of the lords of the Languedoc submitted. However, King Pedro proved no match for Simon de Montfort on the battlefield; he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Muret in September 1213.
Despite this defeat, the Occitan lords and towns did not submit. Simon de Montfort was forced to fight a total of 43 sieges and battles in just 9 years. This is a clear indication of how little he was accepted in the territories given him by the Pope. During a second siege of Toulouse in 1218, he was killed – allegedly by a stone flung from a mangonel (medieval mechanical stone thrower) manned by women.
His son, Amaury, tried to continue the war, receiving support from Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII), but Amaury lacked his father’s military skills or his luck. In 1220, Guy de Montfort, Amaury’s younger brother, was killed in yet another siege, and by 1224, Amaury de Montfort had had enough. He surrendered the lands and titles for which he, his father, and his brothers had fought so bitterly for 15 years and returned to France. For a moment it looked as if the lords of the Languedoc had won.
But the Cathar heresy had not been eradicated, and this provided an excuse for a new crusade. In 1226, Louis VIII took the cross and again brought an army of northern barons and mercenaries into the Languedoc. Within 3 years, the resistance of the southern lords had been broken, and the counts of Toulouse and Foix signed treaties with the French King, now Louis IX.
This time, the Inquisition came with the invaders and established the University of Toulouse to conduct their “inquiries” into the Cathar heresy. The systematic methods of the Inquisition made it increasingly difficult for Cathars, particularly the so-called Perfects, the priests (and priestesses) of the Cathars, to survive in the towns and villages of the Languedoc. They retreated more and more to the few strongholds still defended by lords sympathetic to the heresy, notably the mountain fortress of Montsegur. In 1232, the Cathar “Bishop,” Guilhabert de Castres, declared Montsegur the “seat and head” of the Cathar Church. The castle was under the protection of the lords of Pereille and Mirepoix, two unrepentant rebels defiant of the King of France.
 
The castle of Montsegur. Photo: H.P. Schrader
 
For the bulk of the population, however, the war was lost and the Inquisition held sway through a reign of terror, while strange lords controlled the bulk of the castles and all the towns.  The sons of the local nobility, who had lost their birthright to the invaders, the so-called faydits, either sought service abroad or prepared for a final confrontation with the invaders at Montsegur.
The last armed uprising against the French was led by Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, the son of the Viscount who had died in his own dungeon at Carcassonne after surrendering to Simon de Montfort in 1209. In 1240, the younger Raymond-Roger Trencavel made an attempt to recapture his birthright by force. He was supported by many young men from disinherited families. It was some of these desperate men who, on May 28, 1242, murdered two inquisitors and some of their servants in Avignonet. It had been the murder of the papal legate, Pierre of Castlenau, in 1208 that provoked the first “Albigensian Crusade” in 1209. The murder of two inquisitors in 1242 was the final straw that that convinced the Louis IX of the need to destroy the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur.
 
Another view of Carcassonne. Photo: H.P. Schrader

In 1243, the siege of Montsegur began. By March of the next year, the garrison had suffered a number of casualties, and an outpost had already fallen to the besiegers. The defenders sought and obtained a truce. On March 16, the forces of the King of France took control of Montsegur. Two hundred and twenty men and women, some “Perfects” and some defenders who only after surrender decided to take the consolamentum, refused to abjure the heresy and were burned at the stake.

TODAY ONLY: The Disinherited, soon to be released, is set against backdrop of the Albigensian crusades. For a free review copy (pdf-file only), post a comment today including your email address.
 
Interested in the history behind good historical fiction? You’ll enjoy the following anthology of essays by authors of historical fiction: Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors.
 
 
 

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