Cathars in the Minervois

The Languedoc, as it name suggests, was not a core region of the original France. Prior to the 13th century the inhabitants of this region spoke the Language of Occitania — Occitan — the langue d’oc. As in adjacent Catalonia (the Catalan-speaking area of Spain), many road signs and town names have the local version of the name alongside the national one. Occitan was very similar to Catalan.

By the opening of the 13th century this region professed its own brand of Christianity that came to be known as Catharism, or the Albigensian heresy — after the nearby town of Albi.

The adherents, the Cathars, held to the purity and goodness of the spiritual world as against the terrestrial world that was carnal, physical and corrupt — good and evil, respectively. They denied a list of beliefs that the Catholic church held: baptism (adults lying on behalf of an insentient child), transubstantiation (the turning of bread and wine into the blood and body of Christ that is then subjected to the evils of passing through a real body), that Jesus was born of Mary (or any other woman), that Jesus died or even suffered on the cross; and so on. Catharism, as with most faiths that expouse the charity and compassion of a benevolent deity, gave rise to adherents whose absolute certainty of knowledge licensed the murder of fellow beings who were a threat to their belief system. Even these gentle people were not averse to pushing the odd informer over a convenient cliff (see the remarkable details of the 14th century resurgence in Relevant Reading).

This set of ‘Christian’ beliefs was so far removed from the Catholic Church’s version that something had to be done. “In March 1208, Pope Innocent III preached a crusade against the sect of Christians in the Languedoc.”[1]

Simon de Montfort, the leader of the crusaders, died in 1218. In 1244 the last heretic fortress, Montségur, was taken and the last heretics were burned at the stake. However, a century later the Cathars re-emerged as a viable community in a cluster of Pyrenean villages, centered around Montaillou. The rise of the last Cathars spans 1290 to 1329. The Inquisition got wind of this re-flowering of heretical activity, but needed a few decades to root them all out and put them to the flames. They even dug up the bones of long-dead Cathars and burnt them too. What makes this closing episode so fascinating is that detailed records (the dispositions of the accused and related medieval peasants as well as local aristocracy) still exist. They have provided the historian with a unique window into medieval village life — see books listed below and Relevant Reading.

The “Cathars, ‘the pure ones’, … believed in two gods, one spiritual and Good, the other earthly and Evil, and denied the reality of the Crucifixion.”[2] “Here was a dissident faith with … gentleness and the promise of universal redemption … inspired by the New Testament, and it was Christ and his Disciples whom the spiritual leaders of the Cathar church, the so-called ‘Perfects’ or ‘Good Men’, emulated.”[3] The Cathars opposed all forms of killing, and like Christ they intended to forgive those that persecuted them. “To encounter such a philosophy in the long-distant past is in itself surprising; to learn that in thirteenth-century Languedoc it inspired tens of thousands of ordinary men and women to risk their lives is astonishing.”3.

For the modern visitor to the Minervois, an abundance of ruined fortresses, often perched high on dramatic crags, is the obvious legacy of the Cathar heresy and its brutal suppression.

The ruins of Peyrepertuse Castle
The ruins of Peyrepertuse Castle

An interesing tour, easily manageable as a day-trip from Caunes, is described on the ‘Things to Do‘ page.

Indeed, the village of Caunes is still enclosed by substantial parts of the old defensive walls. According to the historical map outside the village bar, somewhere in the walls that enclose the courtyard garden of Maison du Midi a portion of this medieval wall still stands. But it would take an expert to sort out the various provenances in the hotch-potch of stone walls behind the house (see Maps – Caunes village street map).

The restored medieval Carcassonne, La Cité, is a World Heritage Site only 15-20 minutes by car from Caunes.With its towers, turrets, walls within walls, ramparts and drawbridge this fairy-tale city occupies a hill adjacent to the modern Carcassonne.Inside the maze of narrow and twisting cobble-stone streets almost devoid of vehicles is a place of great charm despite the abundance of souvenir tat on sale.The many restaurants and cafés more than compensate for the selection of plastic crusader armaments on offer.

Within 30 miles of Carcassonne,there are the walled towns of Saissac, Castelnaudary, Montréal, Fanjeaux, Minérve and Limoux, and the castles of Hautpoul, Lastours, Termes, Puivert and Aguilar.Just a few miles further the medieval fortifications of the Bastide town of Mirepoix are well worth visiting.

Just half an hour drive from Caunes brings one to Chateau de Lastours: a cluster of four ruined fortresses can be explored.

Half an hour winding up into the Montagne Noir, directly behind Caunes, the once-fortified village of Minerve (whence this area gets its name) is a dramatic sight — one ruined finger of masonry points up accusingly from this island of rock in a limestone gorge. It was the site of a siege and subsequent massacre of the Cathar inhabitants in the year 1210. Today, as then, the visitor gains access by walking across a high bridge that spans from the village to one side of the gorge.

a Limoux aperitif

On a day trip south through Limoux (the home of the excellent local ‘Champagne’ — Blanquette or Cremant) and the deep gorges towards the Pyrennees, any number of isolated crag-top fortresses can be visited.Each, however, requires a stiff walk up which probably limits the number that you might want to visit in one day. One particular trip is described under Things to do.

One and a half hours into the heart of France lies the town of Albi. Today the crypt of the massive medieval red-brick cathedral of Ste-Cécile houses a museum dedicated to a famous son of the area, the artist, Toulouse Lautrec. Albi also gave its name to the ‘heresy’ of the Cathars, the Albigensian Heresy.

The Albigensian Crusade was a time of blood and horror: sieges, massacres, burnings and countless brutal killings. Simon de Montfort led the northern barons on the 13th century crusade, and the Languedoc became a part of France.

Understandably this atrocity has attracted a number of popular histories[4]

[1] From the Historical Note to Kate Mosse’s novel, The Labyrinth (Orion, 2005). Using a time-shift device (cutting between the Albigensian crusade and modern-day archaeology), the story of the Cathars is blended with another local myth — that the Holy Grail is hidden in the Languedoc.

[2] From the Preface to Aubrey Burl’s, God’s Heretics, The Albigensian Crusade (Sutton, 2002), a reconstruction of “this agonising tragedy … in one of the loveliest regions of France.”

[3]René Weis’The Yellow Cross, the story of the last Cathars 1290-1329 (Penguin, 2000) reconstructs the story of the Inquisition of Carcassonne’s major offensive against the last small community of Cathar heretics in the remote Pyreneean village of Montaillou.

[4] In addition to those above, there is Stephen O’Shea’s The Perfect Heresy (Profile, 2001): “the story of the Cathar movement in southern France, from a revolutionary flowering to its hideous suppression by a crusade of Church and King.”

Grail Quest — In Southern France, Soaring Castle Ruins Inspire Visions Of Heretics And Poets

Jim Molnar

Seattle Times Travel Staff

From its crag, Montsegur frowned on the valley, across thorny fields, forests and deep, wild ravines. Two twisting tributaries of the Ariege sliced into a rugged tableland below; in the hazy sunlight, they seemed thrown across the landscape like tarnished silver chains.

Even more than the half-dozen other castle ruins I’d climbed to in theLanguedocregion of southernFrance, in the foothills where thePyreneesbegin rising toward the Spanish border, Montsegur seemed mysterious, a magnificently troubled place: solitary, gray, pensive.

It’s no wonder that, according to some legends, this was the castle that had housed the Holy Grail.

Assumed to be unconquerable on its 4,000-foot pinnacle (its name means “safe mountain”), Montsegur marked the last stand of one of the chief religious heresies of the Middle Ages. After a 10-month siege in 1244, more than 200 Cathars chose to be burned on great bonfires at the foot of this peak rather than recant their beliefs that the Church of Rome had condemned.

The Church considered the Cathar (or Albigensian) heresy centered here inLanguedocso threatening, not only to its authority but to the very fabric ofEurope’s feudal order, that in 1209 it had mounted a crusade against it.

Catharism was a dualistic philosophy that drew a sharp distinction between the principles of Good and Evil, light and darkness. It contended, contrary to the Church’s doctrine, that God wasn’t the sole Creator. God made the soul, the spirit, Cathars agreed; but Satan created the physical world – the flesh that imprisons and corrupts the spirit.

Ascetic and pacifist in its strictest form, Catharism condemned the Church’s accumulation of material wealth and power. And it disdained the feudal rules of duty on which both ecclesiastical and secular powers relied.

The 35-year crusade was directed byRomeand supported by the king in the north ofFrance. (In the 13th century,Franceas we know it didn’t exist.Languedocwas an independent region, part of a jigsaw of loosely allied dukedoms.) The fighting was carried out by the king’s land-hungry barons, who’d been poorly rewarded by the earlier crusades toJerusalemand were eager to claim for themselves any domains and estates they’d wrest from southern noblemen accused of heresy.

The only crusade ever unleashed on European soil was characterized by massacres of entire villages, towns and cities.

And complementing the military campaigns were persecution, trials, imprisonments and executions under the Inquisition – likewise invented, in 1198, by Pope Innocent III to suppress the Cathars.

As I stood there, the spring wind whipped Montsegur’s sheer heights like a scourge, biting into the citadel’s limestone blocks and boulders. If time had a sound, it would be this wind’s sound, a mad howl pressed into an urgent hiss.

Understand this place, it would say. Listen . . . and hear the clash of swords and the screams of the dying.

Also hear among these fallen walls the echoes of songs in this land’s ancient tongue, Occitan. The songs are those of the troubadour poets who coincidentally found their voices in this niche of the continent at the same moment of history as the Cathars.

The troubadours’ songs of courtly love, of romance and longing and passion, were buried with the Cathars, but not completely silenced.

Listen, the wind said, to the words of the troubadours’ epic “Song of the Albigensian Crusade”: “Ladoncs auziratz planher tans baros cavalers . . . Then you will hear many noble knights lament.”

Seven centuries ago, Beatrice de Planissoles, daughter of a knight and minor nobleman from the city of Foix, had lived in the chateau on a hill above the village of Montaillou, about seven miles southeast of Montsegur.

Today’s village of about 20 residents, all of whom are descendants of those who lived there in 1300, is a cluster of 15th- to 17th-century stone houses interspersed with a half-dozen modern A-frame cottages used as vacation ski retreats. It sits at the end of a narrow, tortuous road that follows the course of a frothing mountain stream through the forest.

“Modern” Montaillou lies about a quarter-mile downhill from the chateau ruins and the original town site, where only tumbled stones remain amid the foundation outlines of the old houses in the thick grass and wildflowers of a terraced hillside.

It would be an important stop for me – the climax, in fact, of my personal Grail quest to Cathar country.

By all accounts, Beatrice was a small woman, and a dark beauty. She was the young wife of the village’s chatelain (magistrate) and mistress of Pierre Clergue, Mountaillou’s randy priest – and secret Cathar.

I’d met her and Pierre and the 200 other residents of the mountain village in the pages of a book by the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “Montaillou, The Promised Land of Error.” It was their story that had brought me to this part ofFrance.

Virtually the entire community had been dragged before the Inquisition courts atCarcassonneand Pamiers, ending the last, brief renaissance of the Cathar heresy inEurope75 years after the fall of Montsegur.

The book is based on the testimony of Montaillou’s residents – the weavers and woodcutters; the farmers of barley, rye, flax, hemp and turnips; the migrant shepherds who tended flocks in the wild hill country – as chronicled by the presiding Inquisitor, Cistercian Bishop Jacques Fournier. Later, as Benedict XII, he would become Pope atAvignon.

It speaks of their religious beliefs – and of the spies, intrigues and betrayals that were part of their lives as the Inquisition hunted for heretics. Guillaume Belibaste, a Montaillou shepherd, was a perfectus or parfait (literally “perfect one” – the faith had no priests per se) and the last Cathar heretic burned for his beliefs, in 1321.

But mostly, the book draws a portrait of mountain village life at the beginning of the 14th century. The peasants told Fournier the most intimate details abaout their daily habits.

They wept more easily than we do now, men and women, in both happiness and sorrow, Ladurie writes.

In the domus, the extended household of family, friends and servants in two-room thatched ostals built of wood and stone, they slept two, three or more to a bed, usually naked, with only taboos against incest discouraging random lovemaking – with marginal success.

Sexual dalliances in hay sheds or around the courtyard dung heaps were frequent and not considered sinful if both parties participated willingly and, more importantly, found pleasure in it. Common believers, unlike the parfaits, led a “fairly agreeable life, not too burdened from the moral point of view,” according to Ladurie.

They seldom, if ever, bathed, and delousing was part of everyday social activity. Picking nits was exclusive purview of women, a service they performed for their husbands and sons and lovers, and for each other as they sat on benches outside their ostals to chat.

It was in this setting that I first pictured Beatrice, picking nits and gossiping with the serfs. Though of a higher rank than the peasants, she’d spent most of her life in the mountains and, like many among the nobility of Occitania (as the region was known then), seemed to care little about lording her rank.

When not trysting with her priest-lover, she’d spend most of her day in the village, sharing the chores and caring for the children and the elderly – perhaps humming the more familiar songs of the troubadours who probably passed through the village as they walked from castle to castle.

Who better to act as my companion, guide and muse?

Standing among the ruins of Montsegur castle, I seemed to sense her at my side. And I seemed to hear, in the wind, her voice singing the song of an anonymous trobairitz – one of the 20 women poets who, with the 400 or so male troubadours, are credited with the invention of modern verse.

“Oh,” she sang, “how I die when I remember how I was when I was young and gay, spontaneous and joyful; and when I realize how I’ve strayed from joy, my heart all but gives way to desperation.”

Cathar landscape

Much ofLanguedoc, ancient Occitania, is a sparsely populated landscape that can seem more Asian than European in its wildness.

Along its southern reaches are sharp, toothy limestone mountains pocked with caves. Their starkness is furred with forests on the lower slopes.

To the north and east, they give way to stark plateaus punctuated by a score of peaks on which castle ruins perch like eagles’ nests. Villages kneel at their base like attendants. Lastours, Puilaurens, Peyrepertuse, Queribus, Aguilar, Termes . . . all places Cathar heretics sought refuge from crusader armies, in vain.

Highway signs offer a welcome to Le Pays des Cathares, the Land of the Cathars. Ironically, the cross that gives the tourist signs a medieval flavor was a symbol rejected by the Cathars.

The narrow, empty roads I followed toward the mountains wound through swaths of rolling pasture. It was spring, and great fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed were in bloom. Neat rows of gnarled vines in countless vineyards, many no larger than several acres, projected a sense of determined but rugged order. A feeling of fierce but flexible independence.

As in Beatrice’s day, the region is known as a hotbed of progressive political thought and as a relative oasis of social and religious tolerance.

In medieval times Occitania lay on the main fabric-trading routes from thenorthern provincesof Flanders andBrittany. Not only did this put the Cathars in a strategic position to spread their beliefs (weaving was a popular occupation among the perfecti), it helped expose the region to philosophy and thought from other cultures around theMediterraneanand the Middle East.

Pre-feudal civil codes drafted by the Holy Roman emperors Charlemagne and Justinian still had force here, too; they granted women a somewhat greater degree of authority here than in the north, including the right to inherit and control property. The concept was foreign to the rest of medievalEurope.

It was no coincidence that a number of women were counted among the Cathar parfaits and the troubadours.

Perhaps nowhere else inEuropecould the philosophy of courtly love have evolved, with its new ideas about women’s status and a relatively heightened respect for their gender.

As the troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn sang: “She has merit and beauty, worth and good sense more than I could ever tell you.”

This was the land that bred not only Beatrice de Planissoles, but Eleanor of Aquitaine. And Dame Carcas . . .


Rather than a citadel on the point of a wild mountain, this place had been a center of civilization for her.

Carcassonnewas a stronghold since prehistoric times, and over later centuries was a fortress site for the Gauls, the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and Franks.

In 1209 it surrendered to the crusaders two weeks after the massacre atBeziers.Carcassonne’s lord, Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, walked from the city alone and unarmed to negotiate with the French baron Simon de Montfort, who’d commanded the crusaders atBeziers. The 20-year-old Trencavel wanted to avoid another massacre.

He was taken prisoner instead. He was thrown into prison, where he died four years later – presumably of dysentery, but more likely, historians say, of poisoning. Montfort became the new viscount ofCarcassonne.

The chronicles tell of how the army of Charlemagne laid siege to the city in the 8th century after capturing and killing its Saracen king, Balaal. Having lasted months with dwindling supplies, Dame Carcas, Balaal’s widow, finally was left with nothing to feed her people except one pig and one bag of grain.

Charlemagne pressed for surrender. Instead, Dame Carcas fed the entire bag of grain to the pig and ordered it thrown, fat and squealing, over the outer walls.

That bit of theater so disheartened the besieging army – why, the city must be brimming with food, they thought – that it withdrew.

As her enemy marched away, the lady ordered trumpets sounded from the walls and towers. Charlemagne’s soldiers whispered among themselves: “Carcas sonne (Carcas is calling)!”

For visitors to the country of the Cathars, however,Carcassonneis known primarily as the best preserved fortified city to have survived from the Middle Ages to the present. It’s the very archetype of Camelot, one might say – as a number ofHollywoodfilmmakers, in fact, have.

Its double ramparts and 26 towers, its church and many buildings behind its inner walls were fully restored in the 19th century (with a few forgivable anachronistic flourishes such as pointed tower roofs instead of rounded, Romanesque ones, as in medieval times).

Though La Cité is a living city, with more than 100 full-time residents, its primary population comprises tourists. Thousands explore its winding streets, pack its museums and shops and haunt its restaurants to experience the regional specialty: the thick, rich peasant stew called cassoulet.

In this case, being in the middle of tourist crowds was an enlightening experience for me. There’s probably no other place I could have gotten such a clear idea of the noise, the mad bustle, and the lack of privacy that residents of a medieval walled fortress must have lived with.

A twist or two

Because the armies of the Albigensian Crusade destroyed all the documents of Catharism they could find, there’s been a lot of guesswork about the heresy and its adherents – and for some wild speculation, with a splash of New Age mysticism thrown in.

Search for “Cathars” on the Internet, and you’ll find a home page or two built by organizations that claim they’re the philosophical heirs of the medieval Cathars.

And one series of bestselling books that delves into Cathar history can sometimes read like a religious “Chariots of the Gods.”

In “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and its sequels, British journalists and researchers claim that the Grail legend associated with the CatharcastleofMontsegur, as well as the Knights Templar “treasure” supposedly spirited off the mountain before it fell to the crusaders, involved proof that Christ did not die on the cross.

Rather, they contend, He escaped to Occitania and married Mary Magdalen, and their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty that united 8th-century Christendom under Charlemagne.

Not only that, but the dynasty is just waiting for the right time to re-emerge. Then, after proving its bloodlines and claiming a direct line of succession directly from Jesus, it will establish itself as the world’s greatest religious-temporal power.

No wonder, the authors say,Romeconsidered the Cathars too dangerous to be allowed to survive.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted by permission of Jim Molnar.