It is the 16th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1244.
Today we head to the south of France, near the Spanish border, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here, perched 3/4 of a mile up lies the location of the Cathar Castle at Montsegur. At least it was there in 1244. But, by 1244, things weren’t looking so good for the Cathari, who had been under siege for over a year by 10,000 French troops working in conjunction with Pope Innocent III to crush the rebellious Cathari and their sympathizers. Despite only numbering in the low hundreds, the Cathars could withstand eight months of bombardment and attempts to starve them out. The siege at Montsegur ended in 1244, on this the 16th of March, when about 200 Cathar leaders surrendered, willfully walked to a large pyre that had been set up, and while praying, were set on fire and killed.
Although not likely pleased with the massive death event, Pope Innocent III had called for a crusade against these Cathars (or Albigensians). We’ve mentioned this group before. They usually make the list of names when talking about Medieval sects and its homonymic two-word phrase that references the fact that Cathars believed reproduction to be inherently sinful—more on that in a bit. The Cathars were the subject of that Albigensian crusade which marked the tragedy of the Crusades being launched on internal western targets. After the Albigensian crusade, the Catholic church turned to its inquisitors to finally crush the movement.
Fun fact: The last Cathar died in August of 1321. When he died, he claimed that the Cathars would return in 700 years. Perhaps this fall, we could know a lot more about the secretive sect that so scared the church that it launched an internal crusade.
So, what do we know about these folks, and why were they considered so dangerous?
Well, we don’t know much. At least what we know about the Cathars comes from the records of the Inquisitors and official theological condemnations. There is a text, “the Book of Two Principles,” that delineates some of the Cathar’s beliefs, but the story of the Cathars is told primarily by antagonistic sources, so we should take that into account. Let’s break down what we know.
The Cathars are called Albigensians because they were concentrated for a time near Albi in the south of France. We do not know where the teachings came from, although there are suggestions that they developed in the Byzantine East. “Cathar” is a derivative of “Katharoi,” the Greek word for pure. It has also been suggested that they might come from the Bogomil sect found in modern-day Macedonia. I’m less concerned with their exact lineage in part because what we do know about the Cathars puts them in familiar territory.
The Cathars were dualists. Like Marcion, they saw the “God of the Old Testament” as vengeful, and meanwhile, in the New Testament, God was seen as gracious in the person of Jesus. But, Jesus is just “seen” to be as God. This is a redux of Docetism that says Jesus only appeared to be human. But, they say, he couldn’t be an actual human because the flesh is inherently evil. This puts them in line with the Gnostics and the Neo-Platonists, who saw salvation as a spiritual quest to leave the body and flesh behind. Because of this, they believed that reproductive relations were inherently sinful. Children were a curse, the flesh of animals should not be eaten (they were pescatarian), and the standard sacraments (with all their physicality) should be discarded. At its core, dualism is popular amongst Christians because it can answer the always vexing problem of evil. If there is a “bad” God or demiurge, then Yahweh-as-seen-in-Jesus is off the hook for the evil in the world. This, as we see, comes with a host of problems for historical Christianity. In so far as the Cathars represented a threat to the church we might understand the crusade to root out the heresy.
The siege of Montsegur has long held a place in Christian’s imagination. It is said that the Cathars had the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant at Montsegur and that in early March of 1244, they smuggled them out with the assistance of the Templars. This has made them a favorite of conspiracy theorists, especially the Nazis. But that’s a story for another time. Today we remember the tragic end to a mysterious sect, the martyrdom at Montsegur, which occurred on the 15th of March in 1244.
The reading for today is a stanza from the poem “Good is the Flesh” by Brian Wren. It seemed an appropriate thought for today.
Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the word has become.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who would have been the worst Cathar ever. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who took out a reference to Iron Maiden. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.