The heretics of Languedoc 3

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.

Calvin: a chapter in the terrible history of Christianity 7

Beyond a certain point it is hardly possible to discern degrees of evil or degrees of cruelty. And yet I think it may be said of Jehan Calvin, dictator of Geneva in the sixteenth century, that he was more appallingly cruel and more intensely, intrinsically, through-and-through evil than other great persecutors, dictators and mass murderers of history. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Torquemada are the very names of evil, so what was it about Calvin that can distinguish him as specially terrible in his own nature than even any of these?

He oppressed the subjects of his dictatorship unremittingly and mercilessly; but so, you say, did the others. Not content with killing his enemies, he prescribed extreme tortures for them while they survived to suffer them; and yes, so did the others. But – and here we come to the nub of the case – Calvin was different in that he (often, if not always) personally specified the torments for the particular victim. He gave thought to the minutiae of their sufferings. All the others, even Catholic Inquisitors like Torquemada, issued general orders for terrorizing, torturing, killing. Calvin gave a personal service, tailoring his cruelty to his individual prey.

And that’s not all that distinguishes him among human monsters. Consider this: he was squeamish. He could not stand the sight of blood. He was afraid of pain. He felt horror at the thought of physical suffering – so he made thinking about it into a spiritual exercise, to strengthen by self-inflicted agony, as a monk does with a hairshirt, his resolve to do what was hardest for him in the service of his God. He ordered the infliction of agony, then meditated on the process, imagining it as fully as he could. He nourished his spirit on visions of torture.

This he did in private. The spiritual discipline he forced himself to undergo did not impel him to the prison and the public square to witness the torments and killings that he prescribed. He never attended a racking, a flogging, a breaking on the wheel, a burning to death. That far in the service of his God he would not push himself.

This grooming of his soul by inflicting suffering on others, did not replace general orders of oppression. He gave those too. He instituted a totalitarian reign of terror. He was as convinced a collectivist as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the rest. He would allow “no liberty, no freedom of the will, for [a] man could only misuse such privileges. … [He, Calvin] must frighten him … until he unresistingly accepts his position in the pious and obedient herd, until he has merged in that herd all that is individual within him, so that the individual, the extraordinary, vanishes without leaving a trace.”

So wrote Stefan Zweig in his devastating dissection of Calvin and Calvinism, The Right to Heresy. He goes on:

“To achieve this draconian suppression of personality, to achieve this vandal expropriation of the individual in favour of the community, Calvin had a method all his own, the famous Church ‘discipline’. A harsher curb upon human impulses and desires has hardly been devised by and imposed upon man down to our own days [pre-Second World War]. From the first hour of his dictatorship, this brilliant organizer herded his flock … within a barbed-wire entanglement of … prohibitions, the so-called ‘Ordinances’; simultaneously creating a special department to supervise the working of terrorist morality … called the Consistory [which was] expressly instructed to keep watch upon the private life of every one in Geneva. … Private life could hardly be said to exist any longer … From moment to moment, by day and by night, there might come a knocking at the entry, and a number of ‘spiritual police’ announce a ‘visitation’ without the citizen concerned being able to offer resistance. Once a month, rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, had to submit to the questioning of these professional ‘police des moeurs’. “

The moral police poked into every corner, examined every part of every house, and even the bodies of those who lived in it. Their clothes and shoes, the hair on their heads, was inspected. Clothes must be dark and plain; hair must not be artificially curled.

“From the bedroom they passed on to the kitchen table, to ascertain whether the prescribed diet was not being exceeded by a soup or a course of meat, or whether sweets and jams were hidden away somewhere.”

They pried into bookshelves – only books approved by the Consistory were permitted.

“The servants were asked about the behaviour of their masters, and the children were cross-questioned as to the doings of their parents.”

Visitors to the city had their baggage examined. Every letter, in and out, was opened. Citizens could not write letters to anyone outside the city, and any Genevan permitted to travel abroad was watched in foreign lands by Calvin’s spies.

Spying became universal. Almost everyone, in fear of being thought heretical in the least degree, and to prove himself clean and upright, spied on everyone else.

Whenever a State inaugurates a reign of terror, the poisonous plant of voluntary denunciation flourishes like a loathsome weed … otherwise decent folk are driven by fear to play the part of informer. … After some years, the Consistory was able to abolish official supervision, since all the citizens had become voluntary controllers.”

As far as he could, Calvin put an end to pleasure. Music – except for what Calvin deemed to be sacred – was forbidden. So was dancing, skating and sport. Theaters and all other public amusements including popular festivals, were prohibited. Wheeled carriages were not allowed. People had to walk to wherever they needed to go. Guests at family celebrations, even weddings and baptisms, were limited in number to twenty. (The names parents could give their children had to be from an approved list.) The red wine of the district could be drunk in small quantities, but no other alcohol. Innkeepers were not allowed to serve their guests until they had seen them saying their prayers, and had to spy on them throughout their stay and report on them to the authorities.

Punishments included imprisonment in irons, hanging, decapitation, burning to death.

“Everything was forbidden which might have relieved the grey monotony of existence; and forbidden, of course, was any trace of mental freedom in the matter of the printed or spoken word.”

The first thought,” Stefan Zweig declares, “of any one of dictatorial temperament, is to suppress or gag opinions different from his own.”

One man who dared to argue with Calvin was a Spaniard named Miguel Servetus. A child of the Reformation, he innocently thought he could express his own boldly Protestant opinions. He thought Calvin was the very man to hear him expound his personal interpretations of Holy Writ. He could not have been more mistaken. For having the effrontery to send them to him, Calvin had the man thrown into prison. “For weeks … he was kept like a condemned murderer in a cold and damp cell, with irons on his hands and feet. His clothes hung in rags upon his freezing body; he was not provided with a change of linen. The most primitive demands of hygiene were disregarded. No one might tender him the slightest assistance.”

Finally, for daring to disagree with Calvin, Servetus was condemned to death by the dictator’s order. The death Calvin chose for him was “roasting with a slow fire”.

‘The prisoner was brought out of prison in his befouled rags. … His beard tangled, his visage dirty and wasted, his chains rattling, he tottered as he walked. … In front of the steps of the Town Hall, the officers of the law … thrust him to his knees. The doomed man’s teeth chattered with cold … In his extremity, he crawled on his knees nearer to the municipal authorities assembled on the steps, and implored that by their grace he might be decapitated before he was burned, ‘lest the agony should drive me to repudiate the convictions of a lifetime’. This boon was denied him. Relentlessly, ‘the procession moved on towards the place of execution. … The wood was piled round the stake to which the clanking chains had been nailed. The executioner bound the victim’s hands. … The chains attached to the stake were wound four or five times around it and around the poor wretch’s wasted body. Between this and the chains, the executioner’s assistants then inserted the book and the manuscript which Servetus had sent to Calvin under seal to ask Calvin’s fraternal opinion upon it. Finally, in scorn, there was pressed upon the martyr’s brow a crown of leaves impregnated with sulphur. … The executioner kindled the faggots and the murder began.

“When the flames rose around him, Servetus uttered so dreadful a cry that many of the onlookers turned their eyes away from the pitiful sight. Soon the smoke interposed a veil in front of the writhing body, but the yells of agony grew louder and louder, until at length came an imploring scream: ‘Jesus, Son of the everlasting God, have pity on me!’”

Needless to say, neither Jesus nor an everlasting God did anything to relieve the roasting man.

‘The struggle with death lasted half an hour. Then the flames abated, the smoke dispersed, and attached to the blackened stake there remained, above the glowing embers, a black, sickening, charred mass, a loathsome jelly, which had lost human semblance. …

“But where was Calvin in this fearful hour? … He was in his study, windows closed. … He who had really willed and commanded this ‘pious murder’, kept discreetly aloof. Next Sunday, however, clad in his black cassock, he entered the pulpit to boast of the deed before a silent congregation, declaring it to have been a great deed and a just one, although he had not dared to watch the pitiful spectacle.”

To this day, Jehan Calvin is regarded as a great Christian whose teaching continues to shape the lives of millions of citizens in the Western world through the Presbyterian and various “Reformed” churches. People are no longer burnt to death for disagreeing with the master. But dictatorship, in the name of similarly dogmatic collectivist faiths, is not absent from the modern world, not even from America now, in 2010. A much vaster community has fallen under an organizer of dictatorial temperament. His consistory has made it plain that they wish to control what you eat, how you live in your homes, and what you say. Children are being urged to impress the leader’s messages on their parents. The names of those who disagree with him are blackened, and the silencing of broadcast dissent is openly advocated.

What should be done about it? There are conservative voices maintaining that the way to resist incipient totalitarianism is to “return to Christian values”.

Our hope is that this reminder of how Christian values affected life in the past may serve not only as a cautionary tale against collectivism and dictatorship, but also as a rebuttal of the idea that Christianity can be a counterforce against them.

Jillian Becker   April 25, 2010