The name given to a group of radical Christian heretics who first appeared in the Byzantine Empire and later spread to western Europe, where they became a target of crusading in the course of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229).
The Cathars derived from the sect of the Bogomils, which seems to have originated in the tenth century in what is now Bulgaria. Their doctrines were founded upon the heresy of the Paulicians and the Massalians from Asia Minor, both of whom espoused dualist views about God and the nature of the world. Their ideas became widespread in the Byzantine Empire in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, despite persecution by the imperial authorities.
The spread of the heresy to western Europe was inevitable, given the growing movement between East and West of both trade and pilgrims. It is likely that the ideas spread into western Europe along the Rhine valley and thence to northern Gaul. Thence the ideas traveled south into Italy, where they became widespread in the cities of the north, and into Languedoc, where they began to make real headway in the later twelfth century. By 1165, when a debate was staged at Lombers near Albi, Cathar ideas were well established. Between 1174 and 1177 the heretics held a council at Saint-Felix-de-Caraman near Toulouse, which concerned both doctrine and organization. In 1177 Count Raymond V of Toulouse, writing to the chapter general of the Cistercians, described the doctrine of “the Two Principles” as spreading like a plague.
Contemporary commentators noted that the heresy was common among the nobility of the Languedoc, and this undoubtedly helped its spread. Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay, the northern eyewitness chronicler of the Albigensian Crusade, wrote that “the lords of the Languedoc almost all protected and harboured the heretics, showing them excessive love and defending them against God and the church” [Histoire Albigeoise de Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay, ed. Pascal Guébin and Henri Maisonneuve (Paris: Vrin, 1951), p. 5]. Some of their protectors, such as the count of Foix, were ruling princes, and there were many noblewomen among their adherents. This was a new development, since until this time in western Europe the church could rely upon rulers to support it against heretics, who were normally clerics, townsmen, or peasants. Support among the nobility helped Catharism to spread in the countryside. By the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade in 1209, the heresy was widespread across Languedoc and was strong in the burgeoning towns, many of which had their own governments and relied upon trade and the manufacture of cloth for their wealth. Here the independent and cosmopolitan nature of town life, combined with a relatively weak church presence, provided the conditions for heresy to grow. In Italy, at a period when the towns of the north were beyond papal control and also effectively outside the control of the Holy Roman Emperor, their growing independence similarly provided a benign climate for the spread of Catharism.
As a set of beliefs Catharism was far from monolithic. At a time when the church in western Europe was defining its doctrines more closely than ever before, the beliefs of the Cathars were more and more obviously heterodox, but were not uniform, simply because the leaders of the sect were quite unequipped to enforce discipline across a wide area. At the heart of Catharism was the belief in the dual nature of the ruling forces of the universe. On the one side was the God of goodness and light, on the other Satan, the god of darkness and evil: these two forces contended eternally. For some Cathars the good God was the supreme being, whose work had been subverted by Satan, but for most the physical world was something created by the evil god. It was therefore Hell, and as such a caricature of the perfect world of the spirit. For the Cathars, the separation between the world of the spirit and the physical world was absolute. It was not merely tainted by the sin of Adam, but irremediably corrupt because of its origin. This applied to everything within it, including people, whose bodies as part of the world had been created by Satan. Since Satan could not make dead things live it was clear that the souls of men, which gave their flesh life, were angels who had been seduced to rebel against God and had fallen from Heaven. Consequently the Old Testament, with its description of the Creation, was the history of the Devil’s work, and the Law of Moses was also his doing. The True God revealed himself in the New Testament, and the Gospel of St. John, with its emphasis on the importance of the Word, was particularly important to the Cathars.
This view of the world was a strategy for accommodating the gap between the individual’s experience of suffering and the explanation for that experience offered by conventional religious thought. The question inevitably raised was how a good God could allow the obvious suffering within the world to continue. The answer must be that he had no control over it. For the Cathars the physical world as a changeable, alien, and wicked place was ultimately of no consequence. Its structures were not ordained by God. Society was ultimately of no value. The Cathars, who saw themselves as saved by being outside orthodox society, were naturally nonconformists and understood persecution as a sign of their righteousness and salvation.
The belief that the world is something to be rejected in favor of the heavenly world (Lat. contemptus mundi) was a strain of thought common in orthodox Christianity, especially among the more ascetic monastics. Here, however, it signaled a desire to break with a society that was irredeemable and was to be regarded as a battleground upon which the good God fought for the souls he had lost. Since that world was Hell, it was also natural to believe that when a person died he might return to Heaven, the place to which he belonged, or return once more to the world. The Cathars therefore believed in reincarnation.
Since they saw the world as outside God’s creation, it followed that the Gospel was Good News brought from outside. Christ was not a real man, since that would imply that God had cooperated with Satan in Christ’s coming. Instead he was an angel or the Son of God, but not his equal. Above all, he was not really of flesh and blood, and hence his death was not a sacrifice as understood in Catholic theology. Men were to be saved but by following the news that he brought, which told them of their origin and how to find salvation. Catharism was therefore a religion of gnosis (knowledge or deeper wisdom) that rejected the corporeality of Catholicism; salvation meant the release of the soul from the world by becoming perfect.
The core of Catharism consisted of a group of men and women known in Latin sources as the perfecti (“perfect ones,” masc. sing.perfectus, fem. sing. perfecta), that is, those who had determined to attain salvation (the name “Cathar” comes from the Greek katharos, “perfect”). They practiced an austere way of life, often fasting and refusing to eat meat, and regarded animals as endowed with spirits. These animal spirits, they believed, might be transferred in another life to human bodies, and so killing them would be a form of murder. The perfecti were celibate, since procreation was considered as cooperation with Satan in the continuation of the world. They took no oaths, since oaths were based upon the belief that God intervenes in the world. They lived as itinerant preachers, engaged in prayer and care of the believers. They were not priests, since they did not believe in Christ’s sacrifice, but they acted as pastors for their followers. They believed that strict adherence to their practices would maintain the perfection that was necessary for salvation and that had been granted to them when they received the consola- mentum (laying on of hands by those who were already perfect), which transmitted the Holy Spirit. Failure to lead a spotless life would mean a fall from grace and loss of salvation, a situation that could only be remedied by reconsolation after a long period of abstinence and prayer. They offered those who could not attain perfection in their lives immediately the chance to be consoled on their deathbed. Such believers listened to the sermons of the perfecti, accepted bread from them at meals, received their blessing, and received penance from them for their sins.
By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Cathars of Languedoc had a counterchurch, with bishops who controlled dioceses and deacons who were perfecti and behaved much like parish priests. Many female perfectae lived in groups in convents, but those men who had no fixed responsibilities traveled incessantly, preaching where they could. They were supported and sheltered by their sympathizers, but many also had trades, especially where they were settled in communities. It was this organization that made the Cathars such a formidable opposition to the church and enabled them to survive for so long in the face of persecution. It was only after the Albigensian Crusade that the General Inquisition was organized, and it took the rest of the thirteenth century to destroy the movement.