D 8 March 2022     H 17:30     A terrificator     C 0 messages

A gentle people whose theology brought death to them.

On a sunny June morning, I sat atop a high wall on the ruined castle of Montségur in Southern France, my feet dangling over the edge. Before me lay the narrow pentalon of the fortress’inner courtyard. Despite the summer warmth, it was easy to conjure up the gloom of medieval Decembers inside that clastrophobic keep. Floating in the sky a the apex of a pinnable of gray limestone, Montségur seems to breathe adamantine inaccessibility.

On my left, 500 feet below, a group of schoolchildren had spread out their picnic on the edge of a field blazing with with dandelions. The carefree music of their voices wafted up to me. It seemed unlikely that the youngsters knew much about that meadow, whose ancient name, Prat dels Crematz, means "Field of the Burned". There, one March day in A.D. 1244, knights of the French army built a huge pure of brush and wood; then they led more than 200 chained prisoners from the castle down to the pyre and burned them alive. The victims were Cathars, nonviolent Christian heretics whose apostasy had consulsed Europe for half a century. They went to their deaths not so much in terror as with an eerie serenity.

To the average American, the Albigensian Crusade, if the term calls up anything at all, isbut a musty vapor from some forgotten history lesson. To the inhabitants of Languedoc, the green and craggy winegrowing region that sprawls across southwestern France, the crusade frorms a keystone of cultural identity. But for that bitter and protracted ware -the only crusade ever declared by the pope against Europeans- Languedoc might today be an independent country. Its people might speak occitan, not French, and troubadour poets might still sing of their love for unattainable ladies.

Like the Manichaes whom Saint Augustine combated at the end of the fourth century, the Cathars were dualists holding that all things on Earth were evil, the creation of the Devil, who, in the strict version of the faith, was an eternal and powerful as God. Cathars rejected the Old Testament, whose wrathful Jehovah was actually Satan in desguise. They rejected the Catholic sacraments, including baptism at birth, marriage, confession and the Eucharis. Since all matter was evil, Cathars refused to believe that Christ has ever assumed a human body; his apparent incarnation was an illusion used by God to instruct the faithful. The only prayer Cathars said was the Lord’s Prayer, which they recited as aften as 40 times a day.

All men and women were composed of a corrupt body; a spirit, which alone could find heaven, and a soul that, "suspended between two abysses,’ sought to unite with the spirit while being sorely tempted by the flesh. The Cathars were divided into an elite, called "parfaits", or "perfects", "and a larger population of mere "croyants", or "believers". To become a "perfect" required a novitiate in austerity lasting as long as three or four years, capped with a formal ceremony called the consolamentum, a kind of baptism by book and word rather than by water. The perfects refused to eat meat or any other food, such as cheese or effs, that was a byproduct of animal procreation. They could never touch women.(There were many female perfects, who made equivalent vows, and who had equal status with the male perfects). The perfects resolved never to lie, and to face death without fear. "There is no more beautiful death than that of fire", they assured one another.

Until persecution made disquise essential, the perfects wore a long black robe under which he hung a parchment copy of the Gospel according to John from a leather belt. The perfects were full-beared and wore their hair long (women has to hide their hair). They traveled about the countryside in pairs, never alone, for safety but also to keep watch upon one another. Ordinary believers could lead lives of normal sensuality, but near the end had to take the consolamentum. There sometimes followed a process called endura in wich the fresh convert deliberately starved to death.

The Cathars were drawn to southwestern France because of the region’s tolerance for unorthodox ideas. By the 12th century, Languedoc had become, in the words of one scolar "in many respects the most civilized part of western Europe". The city of Toulouse was more opulant and more intellectually advanced than Paris. Troubadours poets were engaged in the heady tast of inventing the lyric poetry of the Renaissance. The Occitan language was regarded by literate Europeans as superior to French or Italian: dante originally planned to write the Divine Comedy in that tongue. The rigid feudalism of the north did not hold sway in Languedoc, where peasants often owned their own land. In the 12th century, France was far from the unified country we know today: its king ruled a territory only one-tenth the size of the modern France. The Count of Toulouse, as the most powerful lord in Languedoc, was virtually a king in his own right.

Alarmed by the rise of the Cathars, a series of 12th-century popoes set out to stop them. Their remedy was to send the best Catholic orators to Languedoc to preach the truth. The first emissary was no less a figure than Saint Bernard, who packed the cathedral at the city of Albi but failed to convert more than a handful. THe preching crusade gave way to a series of detates between Cathar and Catholic spokesmen. THese wildly popular frays lasted as long as eight days. Led by such eloquent perfects as Guilabert of Castres, the Cathars gave as good as they got.

In 1198, Innocent III, who would come to be regarded as the greatest of medieval pontiffs, was elected pope. Relentless in his determination to wipe out the Cahars heresy. Innocent began snarling at the heels of the Languedocian nobility who sheltered Cathars. His main target was Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. A sensual, cultured man, Raymand would manage to steer his ship of state through a 20-year narrows of treacherous shoals.

The Saint War againt Southwestern European began: catholic monks roamed the northern roads of France, offering the papal indulgence of remission of all sins for 40 days’s service in the holy war against the Cathars. An army of northerners more than 15,000 strong, swelled by German mercenaries, gathered in Lyon. As religious leader of the crusade, Innocent appointed the abbot Arnald-Amaury, an ambitious fanatic who had no qualms about killing heretics.

Led by a ragtag mob of camp followers and servants, the crusaders burst through the town gates and unleashed a riot of murder and looting. In the middle of the massacre, it was reported, Arnald-Amaury was asked how the soldiers could distinguish heretics from Catholics. "Kill them all," he replied; "God will recognize his own."

Terrified by the horrible news of the destruction of the city of Béziers, other towns surrendered without a fight. Raymon VI dared not openly support the defenders, let alone ride at their head. Already excommunicated by the pope, he was forcede to undergo a humiliating public flogging in hopes of retaining his title as Count of Toulouse. Simon de Montfort, was elected by his peers as head of the army. At the city of Lavaur, Simon ordered 90 captured knights hung; when the gibbet broke under the weight of the first, he impatiently put his captives to death by sward. After his passage, in South-West of France remained only fire, blood, death and skulls. By the end of 1212, Simon has conquered virtually all of Languedoc.

Till the XXIst century, the memory of these depredations is bitter and vivid in Languedoc today. The ruins of more than 50 of the Sanctuaries of the Cathars stand today. They are callad the "vertiginous fortresses", for in their rude defensive isolution they remain the most spectacular medieval ruins in France.

To seek out these monuments to an extinguished faith is to make a Cathar pilgrinage. Wandering across the splendid landscape of Languedoc today, you are constantly nudged by inklings of the Cathar past. Millions of natives still speak again Occitan; it is taught in many schools, and if you linger on a park bench in Toulouse or Albi, you can eavesdrop on oldsters conversing in their ancient tongue. There are even indicationsof a new regional militancy, like that of Catalonia in Spain: spray-paint graffiti on highway sings that demand the indigenous tongue: "En Oc!".

Yet much about the Cathars remains mysterious. In its extirpating fury, the church burned, along with the herectics, every piece of Cathar writing it could find. We know the Cathars wrote bookds, but we are left with mere fragments of their thoughts.

An enigma, then -all the more so for the gulf that yawns between their bleak yet optimistic asceticism and modern notions of heaven and earth.
Yet the Cathar presence haunts Languedoc still, nowhere more vividly than in the stern ruins that crown its starling peaks. There the wind whistles through gaping archways, the sun slants across broken towers, intimating a world of redeemed and perfect spirit that we shall never see.

The last Occitan Cathar was burned at the stake in 1321, yet resentment still smolders in Languedoc.

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