The heretics of Languedoc 7

Next in our occasional series on lost and obscure religions comes Catharism. (Our choice of which to write about and when depends to some extent on chronology, but also on whim.)

The name “Cathar” derives from the Greek word for “pure”: catharos.

The sect arose (not exclusively, but most memorably to history) in the Languedoc in southern France (the land where the word for “yes” is “oc”).  “Cathars” was the name bestowed upon them by the Catholic Church. They called themselves simply “Christians”, “Good Christians”, “Good Men” or “Good Women”. They were opposed to the Catholic Church as ardently as the Church was opposed to them.

The cult stemmed from the Balkans (see our post on the Bugomils, Hot in the land of Hum, October 14, 2010). Bugomil and Paulician missionaries brought it to Western Europe. And the Crusades had more than a little to do with the spread of eastern doctrines into the West.

In the Languedoc, the first Cathars were tradesmen and artisans, mostly weavers.  Nobility joined the sect later than townspeople and peasants.

Because the Catholic authorities believed that the town at the center of French Catharism was Albi – when in fact it had no center – they called Catharism “the Albigensian heresy”.

It was a form of Gnosticism. One typically Gnostic aspect of it was its discouragement of procreative copulation. Because of this, it has been conjectured by numerous historians that Courtly Love (love between a man and a woman which excluded sexual intercourse), a cult contemporaneous with Catharism and celebrated by the troubadours, arose directly out of it.

The Cathars were first recognized by the Catholic Church to be an organized heresy around the year 1030, but it wasn’t until 1208 that it sent an army to the Languedoc to wipe out Catharism. The campaign was called the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars resisted, and the Catholic forces, under the command of Simon de Montfort, took decades to accomplish their aim.

Like the Manicheans (see our post, Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010 ) and their offshoots (including the Paulicians and Bugomils), the Cathars believed that Two Principles govern the universe: Good and Evil.

They identified the Jewish God, Jehovah, with the evil principle, the Devil. They also called him “The King of the World”.

There was a division among the Cathars into two main sub-sects: the Dualists and the Monarchists.

The Dualists, more closely adhering to the Iranian Gnosticism of Mani, believed that Evil is co-eternal with Good.

The Monarchists believed that evil came into being with the fall of an Angel who became the Evil God, and that he will be overcome, and evil destroyed, when the material world comes to an end.

The Dualists believed that the material world is entirely the work of the Evil God, the Monarchists that the Evil God created it out of material already existing. Some Monarchists held that the Evil God had the Good God’s permission to create it. All agreed that matter is evil; that the Evil God imprisoned man in his creation; that men and women are made of base matter, but each has a spark of divinity in him or her.

And all believed that between the Good God in his highest heaven and the lower world, are sequences of Aeons (for an explanation of which see our post, Valentinus, February 14, 2011). The chief of these is the Don, or Christ, who was sent in “a moral casing” to earth, to combat the Evil God and redeem all the sparks which belonged to, and originated from, the celestial sphere and return them to where they belonged.

They all believed that Christ had not been human. A divine being could not be clothed in such base matter as flesh, because it is evil.

The Dualists held that, therefore, the “Christ-Aeon”, being wholly divine, had only seemed to be crucified (a theory known as “docetism”).

The Monarchists, or at least some of them, believed that a few of the elements of which this world is made came from the Good God, so a divine being could enter matter, and seem to be human, in order to dupe the Devil and rescue the scattered fragments (or “sparks”) of the good.

The Virgin Mary was not important. To some she was an Aeon through whom the Christ-Aeon passed when descending. To others she was a mere woman whom Christ had used as a conduit for his emergence into this world. He entered her through her ear, and came out the same way.

This world is the Devil’s domain. It is Hell. The body will remain in this world, and if  a person lives sinfully, which is to say, too “materialistically” (ie comfortably), he (or she) becomes ever more entangled in matter, too bound to the earth for the spark within him to escape. He will live other lives on this earth, perhaps in the form of an animal. Any animal may be a reincarnated human being with a holy spark in it, and this was a reason why meat-eating was forbidden.

To bring new life into the world by having a child was  to embed oneself very deeply in this Hell. So the Cathars deplored marriage and reproduction.

Sexual intercourse was strongly discouraged, and this in itself was a heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The Church alleged that the Cathars did not live chastely, however, but indulged in forms of sexual activity that did not carry the risk of reproduction. The Church Fathers had accused Gnostic sects of the second century, which had been against child-bearing for the same reason, of holding orgies in which they indulged in perverse sexual practices. But orgies among the Cathars would seem to be inconsistent with their rejection of pleasure.

They were extreme puritans, but they did not refuse all sexual activity. They used  various forms of contraception, and may have gone in for pregnancy-avoiding sexual practices such as the Bugomils did. Consistently with their beliefs, they admitted that casual debauchery was preferable to marriage, as marriage regularized the practice of sexual intercourse.

Life on earth, they believed, was to be endured because it is the state in which purification must be accomplished. A Cathar’s ideal life was  lived chastely, abstemiously. He practiced self-denial, eschewed pleasure. The purer the life he led, the more his spark of the divine was likely to ascend to the celestial sphere when he died.

Like many Gnostic cults before them, the Cathars recognized three grades of human beings.

The bulk of mankind were Hylics, of the earth earthy, strongly bound to this evil  material world.

Among Cathars, the elect of the human race, the faithful fell into two grades.  The Psychics, also called the Believers, and the Pneumatics, also called the Perfects.

From among the Perfects were selected a Bishop, a Filius Major, a Filius Minor, and Deacons to serve and assist them.

The Cathar ritual of worship was simple. They had no churches. Daily, in a house of one of the faithful, they would gather round a table. Bread and wine were blessed by the most senior Perfect or Believer present. (This had nothing to do with the Catholic rite of the Eucharist, which the Cathars abominated.) All then said the Lord’s Prayer, standing. Then they seated themselves and the bread and wine were distributed among them.

Entrance to the sect was through a rite called the Covenenza.  The candidate undertook (made a covenant) to honor and serve the Perfects.  From then on he was eligible for the next rite, the Consolamentum, which wiped out all sin and by which he would become a Perfect.

A prolonged fast prepared the candidate for the Consolamentum, or Baptism of the Holy Spirit.  At the ceremony he promised never again to eat meat, eggs, cheese or “any food except from water (so fish were allowed) and wood (plants)”.  He promised never to lie, or to make oaths, or carry out any lustful act. He would remain completely celibate.  And he promised never to “go about alone” when he could “have a companion”, and never to denounce or abandon the faith for fear of water or fire or any other form of torture and death.

Then the witnesses and the postulant would kneel, and the ministrant would place the St John Gospel on the postulant’s head and recite its opening verses.

The new Perfect was then invested with a sacred “thread” which he had to wear for the rest of his life (a tradition descended from the Manicheans, who had received it from Zoroastrianism). The thread or cord was tied round the body, probably as a symbol of carnal restraint.

The ceremony ended with the Kiss of Peace. The men would kiss each other, and the women would kiss each other. As they were forbidden to kiss a member of the opposite sex, the men touched the women on the elbow.

A final rite was called the Endura.  He who submitted  himself to it could choose to become a Confessor or a Martyr. If he chose to be a Confessor, he would neither eat nor drink for three days. If he chose to  be a Martyr, he would never take food or drink again, but fast and thirst to death.  So long drawn out and intense would the agony of this be, that the Martyr was permitted to cut his life short by other means. And it was considered a kindness if someone close to the dying Martyr killed him. Both suicide and euthanasia were morally acceptable in that circumstance.

The Cathars held out against the Crusaders until 1244.  (Simon de Montfort was killed in battle at Toulouse in 1218 – his head shattered by a stone flung from a piece of artillery called a stone-gun, worked by a group of Cathar women.) The Cathars’ last stand was on Montsegur, a great rock of a mountain, where they were embattled and besieged. There they held out for ten months, but finally surrendered. Most of the survivors agreed to abjure their faith and embrace Catholicism, and had their lives spared. Three or four Perfects escaped. But the rest, about two hundred men and women, chose martyrdom and were burnt to death en masse, on a huge pyre enclosed by a roughly erected palisade at the foot of the mountain.

It was to counter Catharism that the first inquisition was established by the Church in the Languedoc in 1184. As a permanent institution, the Inquisition became the torturing arm of the Catholic Church. From the 13th century the Dominican Order was in charge of it. It still exists, though it no longer officially tortures people physically, or burns them to death. In the early 20th century it was given the new name “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office”, changed again in 1965 to “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”. In 1981, Joseph Ratzinger – the present Pope, Benedict XVI – became its Cardinal Prefect.