Extract from the book ‘Travels through History : France” available here
Catharism was an austere religion following the gnostic philosophy of God and Satan as two separate beings – God was associated with purity and Satan with every aspect of evil. Catharism encouraged its followers to adopt asceticism and celibacy even after marriage. Those who wished to serve became Perfects (Parfaits) after a demanding ceremony called a Consolamentum. This ceremony was deemed unnatural by the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope issued a Papal bull decreeing it as sacrilegious. In 1095 the Roman Catholic Church started crusades in the Middle East. After the embarrassment of the 4th Crusade (1202 – 1204) that had ended in the Sack of Constantinople – which meant most soldiers on the Crusade didn’t reach The Holy Land – Pope Innocent III turned his attention closer to home and became particularly interested in the Languedoc, where some of the people practiced a separate sect of Christianity called Catharism.
I visited Montsegur to see the place where the Cathars had made their ‘last stand’ against the besieging forces of the King of France. I was also intrigued about the Cathar treasure many people believe was spirited away during the final days of the siege.
By the beginning of 1240 most Cathar leaders, and almost certainly the Cathar treasure, had taken refuge at Montsegur as the soldiers of the Albigensian Crusade had destroyed many of the other 20 castles in the region. The excuse to attack Montsegur was the assassination of two Inquisitors at Avignonet, which according to the crusaders, was undertaken by troops from Montsegur. The decision to attack Montsegur was taken at the Council of Beziers in April 1243. The siege started one month later and lasted for ten months. The defenders were hoping to hold the castle throughout the long summer and to collect water in the winter as they were convinced the attackers would lift the siege during these long cold months in the mountains. The Cathars were able to maintain communications with the outside world during the siege thanks to a number of hidden paths on the hill where Montsegur stood.
However, the Crusaders went on fighting during the winter and eventually were able to climb one of the cliffs allowing them to bombard the castle with rocks from close range. From this moment the defenders were doomed. A counter attack at the end of February met with no success. The soldiers and the Cathars in Montsegur agreed to ask for negotiations and good conditions for the soldiers were guaranteed after a strong intervention from the count of Toulouse. The castle was then left to the Cathars for a period of 15 days and no one has ever been able to explain why. On March 16th, the soldiers and their families were allowed to leave after confession. The Parfaits had the choice between adjuring their religion or being burned at the stake. All the Cathars chose to die as well as some soldiers and members of their families who first received the Consolamentum.
The south-eastern part of France has an abundance of historical interest. From the Roman theatres of Arles and Orange to the Cathar castles in the foothills of The Pyrenees there is much to see and remember.
There are mysteries too.
Why would the Roman Catholic Church create a crusade against the Cathar ‘heretics’ when these people were following such a devout life? How did the Romans build the Pont du Gard so quickly as part of a 40-mile water channel to provide water to Nimes? What did Bérenger Saunière discover in Rennes-le-Chateau that made him so wealthy?
Added to the history and the mystery are a host of natural wonders, beautiful scenery, and familiar names appearing in unfamiliar places.
As with yesterday’s tip, this is an easy recommendation. Queribus is one of the most famous ‘Cathar Castles’ in the foothills of the Pyrenees and along with Puilaurens, Peyrepertuse, Termes, and Aguilar formed the five sons of Carcassonne defensive line.
Queribus is visible on its rock pillar many miles away. It’s bigger than it first appears as some of the interior is below ground level. It’s a 10-minute uphill walk from the car park and the views in all directions are magnificent. It can be very windy up at the castle and make sure to wear shoes/boots with a good grip, especially in wet weather.
After the fall of Montsegur in 1244, many Cathars came to Queribus and would have stayed here until the fall of the castle in 1255, however unlike at Montsegur, the Cathars would have had chance to escape when the castle fell.