Post-classical history

The Expansion of Crusading


The Albigensian Crusades 1209–29

On 24 June 1213, in a field outside the walls of Castelnaudary, between Toulouse and Carcassonne, Amaury of Montfort was knighted by Bishop Manasses of Orléans. Amaury’s father, Simon of Montfort, commanded the forces summoned by the pope in 1208–9 to extirpate heresy in Languedoc and dispossess its adherents, promoters and protectors. He now insisted the reluctant bishop ‘appoint his son a knight of Christ and personally hand him the belt of knighthood’. In a very public show, Amaury was presented by both his parents:

they approached the altar and offered him to the Lord, requesting the Bishop to appoint him a knight in the service of Christ. The bishops of Orléans and Auxerre, bowing before the altar, put the belt of knighthood round the youth and with great devotion led the Veni Creator Spiritus.

‘A novel and unprecedented form of induction into knighthood’, some said.1

The Castelnaudary ceremony distilled many of the elements that distinguished the twenty years’ war sponsored by the church and fought between the Dordogne, Mediterranean and Pyrenees. It represented, in a ceremony previously uncommon so far south in France, the rededication of the Montfort clan to Pope Innocent III’s vision of holy violence by creating almost a fresh category of knight, dedicated to Christ’s war yet without the religious vows of the military orders. It signalled an alien cultural imposition, witnessed by two northern French bishops and an army almost exclusively containing warriors, like the Montforts themselves, from north of the Midi, conquerors who brought their own churchmen, laws, hierarchy and military self-sufficiency. Simon claimed, by right of conquest and ecclesiastical sanction, to be ruler of large swathes of Languedoc. At Castelnaudary, Simon demonstrated that his dynasty had come to stay, a message underpinned by memories of the startling military victory Simon had won on those same fields two years earlier against the forces of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, whose lands and titles Simon was seeking to appropriate. The knighting emphasized the sanction of orthodox religion in the exercise of political authority, a crude identification of church and secular power that disconcerted the bishop of Orlé ans. Castelnaudary showed how Simon specifically identified his and his family’s mission as holy. The primacy of the anti-heretical message that had inspired Innocent III to call for a crusade in 1208–9 was increasingly drowned out by the secular implications of Simon’s conquests: the political reorganization of Languedoc. The Castelnaudary rite consecrated a new religious cause, that of Montfort authority.


18. Languedoc, France and the Albigensian Crusade

The knighting of Amaury formed part of the campaign of conquest and destruction that had begun as a crusade to crush the Cathars and their protectors in 1209.2 The fighting lasted until the Treaty of Paris in 1229 confirmed the annexation of Languedoc by the French crown. With Simon of Montfort’s holy war ending in violent death outside the walls of Toulouse in 1218 and Amaury’s subsequent failure to make good his father’s claims, the Montfort rights and ambitions were adopted by their overlord, the king of France, in 1224, on political as much as religious grounds, heresy surviving better than did the counts of Toulouse or the viscounts of Béziers and Carcassonne. The sweeping away of the ancien régime in south-west France stirred anger and nostalgia at the time but much more since. The crusades that assisted the process attracted condemnation as cynical frauds, a hostile English monk pointedly calling the invasion of the south by Louis VIII of France in 1226 a ‘bellum injuste’.3 The theme has echoed down the centuries. Later criticism of the Albigensian wars has tended to the sentimental and unhistorical, as have assessments of the virtues and open-mindedness of the heretics. Faith, bigotry and atrocities were the prerogatives of all sides. Heresy was not a yardstick of southern liberality and sophistication, even if certain aspects of heretics’ behaviour appeal to modern audiences, such as their acceptance of women in roles of authority or their vegetarianism. Languedoc social structures and culture did not depend upon heresy nor were they defined by it, even where they sustained it. The Albigensian crusades failed in their objective of eradicating heresy while succeeding in reordering political society and the local Catholic church. This failure paved the way for the introduction of the Inquisition, which, through reason and judicial process not the arbitrariness of the sword, achieved what eluded the crusaders, the destruction of heresy.

Church-approved violence against heretics could claim a tradition reaching back to Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century and found renewed justification from twelfth- and early thirteenth-century canon lawyers. The novelty of the Albigensian crusades lay in the church’s recruitment of an international force rather than rely on local secular Christian rulers to combat heresy, and the application to the campaigns of the privileges of Holy Land penitential warfare. It also exposed a ready acceptance by churchmen of allowing lay powers to kill heretics more or less at will, an eagerness reined in by the calmer procedures of the Inquisition after the wars ended. The exploitation of these wars by Simon of Montfort and the Capetians did not pass unnoticed by Innocent III and his successors. Yet, to dismiss the Albigensian crusades simply as ideologically corrupt or cynically manipulative is to adopt the position of the pacifist heretic Peter Garcias of Toulouse, who was reported in 1247 as fulminating against the crusades because ‘God desired no justice which would condemn anyone to death’. ‘All preachers of the Cross are murderers; and the cross which preachers give is nothing than a bit of cloth on the shoulder’.4 Many Catholics disagreed. It is also clear that adherents of heresy were equally willing to take the physical fight to their attackers.

The Albigensian crusades violently altered the political destinies of Languedoc, its social structures as well as religious and cultural orientation. They have been accused of the wilful destruction of a uniquely vibrant and tolerant culture. However, given the wealth of the region, its weak political and ecclesiastical authorities, its ties with neighbouring rulers of church and state, and its strategic importance at the hub of a circle uniting north Italy, the Ebro valley, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it is in every way unlikely that the fate of early thirteenth-century Languedoc would have been ignored by its distant and not so distant overlords, the kings of France, England and Aragon and the emperor. Their involvement was anticipated rather than created by the pope’s concern with the enfeebled state of the Languedoc church and the threat, as he saw it, to its survival and to that of the whole Catholic church from a particularly robust and attractive heresy.


Near the heart of the Christian religion sits the problem of suffering, traditionally interpreted as a consequence of sin, of the fall of man as described in the Book of Genesis and, therefore, of the existence of evil. Both the Creation stories and experience of the material world suggested to Christians that evil existed in terrestrial matter, the city of Man, in contrast to paradise, the city of God. Much of the reform initiated within the western Catholic church from the eleventh century had been directed precisely at mitigating some of the implications of this by developing explanations, mechanisms, sacraments and devotional practices through which the consequences of inevitable sin could be alleviated, its penalties satisfied or purged and heaven attained. The penitential strand in crusade ideology and its plenary indulgence formed part of this process, as did the Fourth Lateran Council’s acceptance of individual oral confession and transubstantiation in 1215 and the thirteenth-century elaboration of a coherent doctrine of purgatory and a Treasury of Merits endowed by God to save souls.

While going some way to assuage the anxieties of the faithful, this concentration on the redemptive sufferings of Christ exposed a central conundrum of belief. Christ the Son could save from sin the world created by God the Father. If the material world was sinful, it was still by definition the creation of an eternal, omnipotent and presumably loving God. Some devout and godly people found (and find) the orthodox Christian explanations for this problem of evil opaque, evasive and unconvincing. This was not a new phenomenon in the twelfth century, but the added concentration by orthodox Christians on the corruption of the world and the implications of sin and evil may have lent added encouragement to those who sought alternative and more satisfying doctrines. The vita apostolica trumpeted by reformers, not least Innocent III’s own teams of licensed preachers, explicitly condemned many of the church’s temporal accretions. More fundamentally, the sharp distinction between the spiritual and temporal spheres that lay at the heart of the Gregorian reformist critique highlighted the eternal paradox of God and Matter, the presence of evil in a world created by a beneficent Deity. Incentive to question belief and practice followed perennial orthodox interest in the nature and immanence of God,expressed by theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury, preachers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and generations of academics at the university of Paris. This was matched by official concern with the state of the church and its ministers, constantly lashed by the criticisms of Gregorian papal reformers. By challenging traditional assumptions and structures and by posing fundamental questions about the nature of the church and the place of religion in society, Catholic reformers, while engineering a transformation in their church, indicated paths that led away from disciplined uniformity. Heresy, defined as systems of belief unacceptable to prevailing ecclesiastical authority, flourished as the church’s leadership proclaimed first principles; as Gregory VII commented, ‘Christ did not say I am Tradition but I am the Truth.’ Radicalism rarely flows along neat channels. Heresy became reform’s inescapable companion in the search for solutions to these central issues of faith and observance. The western medieval church’s age of reformation c.1050–1300 was therefore also its great age of heresy.5

Some heresies sprang from academic debate and hardly left the lecture room; others from evanescent personality cults; others from wider social dissent and alienation. Many shared an element of biblical fundamentalism; all a rejection of church authority in favour of direct personal or communal appreciation of scripture and faith outside official norms, mediation and control. Often flourishing in areas of weak or disputed secular and ecclesiastical authority, few regions of western Christendom escaped entirely as church leaders strove to maintain control lest reform turned to licence and destroyed the institution it was intended to improve. Even traditional, conservative and closely governed England attracted its small crop of heretics in the 1160s.6 Boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy could be narrow and shifting; passage between the two was frequent, despite the apocalyptic rhetoric of mutual hate and demonization. Most heretical groups succumbed rapidly after the removal of a charismatic leader or through the customary factious divisiveness of the righteous. However, some established lasting identity in distinct theologies, liturgies, literature and organization. The most successful such group to challenge the institution as well as the theology of the Catholic church in this period were the Cathars, whose success in promoting their solution to the problem of evil in the area nominally under the rule of the counts of Toulouse provoked the Albigensian crusades.

The word Cathar derives from the Greek katharos meaning clean or pure. The central insight of the Cathars explained the existence of evil as the result of creation being determined by two principles of Good and Evil. The Cathars were thus dualists, but, in common with the seventh-century eastern Christian dualist sect of Paulicians, Christians, unlike non-Christian dualists such as the Manichees and Gnostics of the late classical world. For Cathars, the material world was logically the creation of an evil creator, not the Good God, whose realm was of the spirit. Two identifications of this evil creator were proposed by different Cathar traditions. The so-called mitigated dualists saw the evil creator as a fallen angel, Satan, who had seduced numbers of the eternal angelic souls in heaven and imprisoned them in material bodies. Alternatively, according to the more extreme or absolute dualists who dominated western Catharism from the later twelfth century, the material world had been created by an co-eternal power of evil, in some texts Lucifer’s or Satan’s father, into whose material human bodies of fallen angels the Good God had breathed divine life. In both versions, the goal of man was escape from the material body though the ceremony of consolamentum (from the Latin for comforting). Ultimately, when all the angelic souls of humans had been released to rejoin their guardian spirits in heaven, the two worlds of Spirit and Matter would be restored to their entirely separate spheres. Given the burden of sin in the world, the journey of some souls to the consolamentum could involve periods locked in other material objects and animals.

Cathar theology accepted parts of the New Testament and a few passages of the Old while radically reinterpreting them. The Catholic doctrine of the Trinity was rejected as, inevitably, was the Incarnation, although a reordered trinitarian hierarchy seems to have been accepted. By definition, God could not become material, and therefore the Crucifixion and Resurrection could not have occurred, except perhaps in some metaphorical or symbolic show in the spiritual world. The rejection of Catholic sacramental teaching was, consequentially, absolute. One appeal of Catharism may have lain precisely in this challenge to the increasingly prescriptive penitential and sacramental systems imposed by the church and the consequent perception of its growing intrusion and financial profiteering in social and private life. Cathars followed the Donatist heretics of the early church in arguing that the spiritual power of priests and the efficacy of their ministry depended on their own moral state, which made their own priestly hierarchy vulnerable to the slightest charges of hypocrisy, backsliding or corruption. Once again, this addressed current orthodox concerns. Gregory VII himself had flirted with similar ideas. Given the paucity of surviving Cathar texts, unmediated by hostile interpreters or the judicial formulae of the Inquisition, aspects of their theology and mysticism remain obscure, but its themes ran parallel to the concerns of orthodox theologians with sin, the means of salvation and the sacraments. In many respects the asceticism of the Cathars, the flight from the secular, the awareness of the snares of materialism and the sense of the reality of evil mirrored Catholic spirituality. The segregated Cathar communities of men and women found echoes in monasticism. Like Catholicism, Catharism was ‘a written church’, literate, founded on liturgical as well as theological and mystical texts.7 Unlike another tenacious contemporary heresy, the scriptural fundamentalist Waldensians, Catharism was not a discarded offshoot of the Catholic church but an independent Christian denomination whose theological antecedents and continuing intellectual affinities lay with similar churches in the Byzantine Balkans rather than in the west. Nonetheless, the flourishing of Catharism, even if in an apparently remote orbit, occupied part of the universe of western religious, intellectual and cultural revival and expansion known to historians as the Twelfth-century Renaissance.

The structure of the Cathar church reflected the rigorous austerity of its theology. Most adherents were unprepared or unable to comply with the denial of materialism and human comforts prescribed for the full initiates. The church was organized into dioceses, each led by a bishop and two assistants, called elder and younger ‘sons’, who constituted the order of episcopal succession, supported by deacons. Perfecti or perfectae, men and women who had taken the consolamentum, acted as the church’s priests, also known asBoni Homines, Good Men, sometimes itinerant, sometimes living communally in segregated houses, sometimes distinguished by the dark cloaks they wore as a sign of their status of purity. Major decisions affecting the church were discussed at diocesan or provincial councils. Before the beginning of the crusades in 1209, when such encounters began to court arrest, imprisonment or death, formal disputations were often conducted with Catholic preachers, another sign that the Cathar church was far from a nest of bucolic sectaries ministered to by an obscurantist order of hedge priests. There were numerous halls of residence for perfecti, and extensive networks of formal and informal study groups of believers, involving men and women of all social classes. There were even special Cathar cemeteries. Of central importance to the spread of informed belief, and to the impression of a genuinely popular as well as sophisticated religion, were the vernacular Cathar translations from Latin of religious texts, especially of the Vulgate version of the Bible and the Cathar liturgies.

The attraction of Catharism to women is well attested, if equivocal. Although child bearing was considered evil, the Good God made no discrimination between the souls of men and women. Nature was diabolic, so women were no more so than men. Cathar women could, like their Catholic equivalents, preside over religious communities, except that they were able to attain the ranks of the perfects/priests that were denied Catholic nuns and abbesses. However, the undisguised Cathar hatred of female bodies spoke of entrenched misogyny. Perfectae were not permitted to act as deacons, ‘sons’ or bishops, nor were they customarily engaged in hearing confessions or giving the consolamentum without a perfectus present. Nor, it seems, were Cathar women, even perfectae, much engaged in transmitting or even reading texts, an activity which seemed, accidentally or not, a masculine preserve. The Cathar hostility to procreation, specifically pregnancy, may well have dissuaded lay women from believing: pregnant women were denied the right to receive the consolamentum, in theory even if in extremis during labour. Modern feminists see Catharism as actually off-putting for most non-aristocratic women because of the desexualized existence of perfectae, the ubiquitous condemnation of all carnality, the inequalities in hierarchical opportunities and the belief that salvation abolished sexual difference.8

Lay Cathars, the large majority, were known as credentes, believers, who supported the perfecti financially and materially, and expected to receive the consolamentum when nearing death, a procedure reminiscent of Catholic extreme unction and the popular practice of deathbed admission into a religious order. On one occasion, a donor to the abbey of St Sernin in Toulouse was received into the order on his deathbed only for it to be discovered after his burial that he had also received the consolamentum, a neat double indemnity that revealed the Cathar habit of outward or occasional conformity, a trait that greatly worried the Catholic hierarchy. In this case the corpse was quickly dug up and burnt.9 While dual allegiance may have been prudent or simply sociable, it indicated how Cathars could coexist with a Catholic society, as did evidence of genuine conversions of the devout on both sides of the religious divide. Heresy and orthodoxy shared interests, anxieties and learning. In the 1170s, two perfecti were converted to Catholicism and promptly preferred to canonries in Toulouse. Two other thirteenth-century perfecti became prominent Dominican inquisitors into former associates, Rainier Sacconi in Lombardy, who composed an important description of his previous faith, and the brutal Robert le Bougre, i.e. the Bugger or Bulgar, a reference to where it was thought Catharism originated. Traffic also passed in the opposite direction. Theodoric, a leading Cathar theologian who disputed with Catholic preachers in 1207, had once been a canon of Nevers.10


Dualist Christianity in western Europe almost certainly derived from Byzantium, specifically the dualist Bogomil church (named after its founder) established from the early tenth century in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Thrace. Although the evidence is patchy, uncertain and much contested, while some Bogomil evangelists probably visited the west in the early years of the eleventh century, their greatest impact only began a century later, borne on the newly vitalized trade routes linking eastern and western Europe. One source of this proselytizing may have been the dualist church set up by western settlers in Constantinople in the years following the First Crusade. This distinct ‘Latin’ dualist community probably provided western converts with Latin translations of the Greek Bogomil texts including the consolamentum ritual and the New Testament, collated with the Vulgate.11The first unequivocal signs of recognizably Bogomil/Cathar beliefs in the west date from the mid-twelfth century. Their geographical spread, including the Rhineland, Champagne, Lombardy and western Languedoc; institutional organization as early as the 1140s in Cologne, Champagne, and later Languedoc; as well as subsequent rapid expansion to Lombardy and Italy indicate the presence of well-grounded networks of evangelism. The initial Cathar conversion of Lombardy may have come from northern France and the Rhineland rather than directly from Bulgaria, Thrace or Constantinople, but the early leadership in the west seem to have remained in close touch with the mother churches to the east. By the 1170s at the latest, Cathar bishops had been established in ‘France’ (i.e. northern France), Albi and, probably, Lombardy. In common with elements of the Bogomil church, which was also in the process of evolving its doctrines, these western Cathars espoused mitigated, not absolute, dualism. With the conversion of the western Cathars to absolute dualism, the heretical church, especially in Languedoc, came more clearly into historical focus – and into the line of concerted orthodox Catholic fire.

At some date either in 1167 or, more likely, between 1174 and 1177, a council of western Cathar perfecti and perfectae was held at the village of St Félix de Caraman south-east of Toulouse. An earlier Languedoc Cathar assembly had been held in 1165 at Lombers south of Albi, where heretics held a futile theological disputation with local Catholic partisans. The St Félix gathering attracted an international attendance, including the Cathar bishops of ‘France’, Lombardy and Albi as well as members of the churches of Carcassonne, Agen and Toulouse. A representative of the Cathar church of Constantinople, papa Nicetas, persuaded the assembly to adopt absolute dualism, established three new dioceses, of Carcassonne, Agen and Toulouse, and consecrated their new bishops as well as reconsecrating the bishops of France, Lombardy and Albi and giving all a renewedconsolamentum. Nicetas had previously converted the Lombard church to absolute dualism on his way to Languedoc. The theme of his address to the St Félix assembly emphasized the importance of unity, a necessary reminder in the face not just of the incipient fragmentation and factionalism of religious groups but also of the split in dualist ranks between Nicetas’s own absolute dualist church of Thrace and Constantinople and the continuing moderate dualism of the Bulgarian Bogomils. Almost immediately, the Italian dualist church was divided by a mission from the Bogomil Petrach.12 However, the Languedoc churches remained united and thrived.

By the beginning of the thirteenth century there may have been between 1,000 and 1,500 perfecti in the region centred on the area between Toulouse and Carcassonne but stretching north to the Lot valley and the Cahorsin and south to the Pyrenean foothills.13 The number of credentes is impossible to gauge accurately, partly because of the nature of the surviving records but partly because their faith only revealed itself unequivocally through receipt of the consolamentum, by its nature often a hurried private ritual conducted at the bedsides of the sick and dying. More generally,credentes merged into a wider spectrum of response to Cathar belief, from the commitment of the perfectus, lay belief, general sympathy and familial or social contact through hedging religious bets and indifference to distaste, suspicion, opposition and persecution. The fact that each Cathar diocese of Languedoc geographically covered a number of Catholic ones, while reflecting cheaper running costs, may indicate a relatively limited scale of adherence. Languedoc did not become a Cathar province. Donations and recruits to Catholic religious orders continued, the heretics operating as just one of a number of manifestations of piety and religious enthusiasm. The suggestion that Catharism somehow especially embodied a distinctive Languedoc culture is fanciful. For instance, none of the great magnates and few if any of the local troubadours, however critical of the church authorities, were heretics. At least two prominent troubadours, Bertrand of Born and Fulk of Marseilles, became monks, Fulk ending as the anti-Cathar bishop of Toulouse. However, the Cathar church retained hierarchy, structure, organization and funding even beyond the period of the crusades. The raw numerical strength may have been less significant than the quality and social status of many believers and the implications of the mere existence of these organized radical anti-clerical beliefs. The nature of Cathar threat perceived by the Catholic authorities was famously indicated by a knight, Pons Adhemar of Roudeille, in 1206 or 1207. In reply to Bishop Fulk of Toulouse asking why he did not expel heretics from his lands despite admitting the superiority of Catholic theology, he confessed ‘we cannot; we were brought up with them, there are many of our relatives amongst them, and we can see that their way of life is a virtuous one.’14

The prevalence of heresy in Languedoc should not, therefore, be exaggerated. Neither should the geographical, political or cultural identity of the region be assumed. Although it is now fashionable to talk wistfully of the lost glories of Occitania, the land where people spoke the langue d’ocincluded such diverse regions as the Limousin in the north, the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south and the Alps in the east, the wastes of the Camargue in the Rhône Delta, the volcanic outcrops of Le Puy, the Massif Central, the Provençal hills and the commercial Mediterranean towns of Narbonne and Montpellier. Even within the part of region more commonly now understood as Languedoc, roughly from the lower Garonne and Dordogne valleys eastwards and southwards to the Pyrenees, Mediterranean and Rhone valley, largely associated, often very tenuously, with the county of Toulouse, geography contradicted politics. Toulouse, although less than 100 miles from the Mediterranean, sat on the Garonne, whose waters flowed into the Atlantic, for much of its course though lands ruled by the Angevin kings of England, who, until the early thirteenth century, as dukes of Aquitaine controlled most of the region from the Loire to the Pyrenees as well as Normandy and Anjou. The twelfth-century counts of Toulouse had to resist Angevin attempts at domination and continued to hold the Agenais as an Angevin fief. Much of the region to the south and east of Toulouse, which drained into the Mediterranean, looked more to Catalonia and Aragon than northern France or even northern Languedoc; the king of Aragon was overlord of the viscounts of Béziers and Carcassonne, as well as parts of the Gévaudan and the Pyrenean counties such as Foix and Comminges. East of the Rhône in Provence, suzerainty lay with the distant German emperor.

The term ‘Albigensian’ (literally ‘of’ or ‘from Albi’, a cathedral city on the river Tarn forty miles or so north-east of Toulouse) to describe the Cathars of Languedoc is something of a misnomer. Despite the earliest Cathar diocese being based there, the heaviest concentration of Cathars existed further south. The name ‘Albigensian’ gained wide currency only after the crusades had begun with the northern invaders, possibly because their first target in 1209 was Raymond Roger Trencavel, lord, among other places, of Albi. Innocent III used the term only once. Its use by the French conquerors illustrated their ignorance of the land they annexed.15 Until the Albigensian crusades, little integration of southern and western Languedoc into the kingdom of France was apparent. Just as the victories of Philip II of France against King John in the early years of the thirteenth century reoriented the political direction of north-west France, so the victories of Simon of Montfort and later Louis VIII under the banner of the cross determined that the French crown would have direct access to the Mediterranean and the surrounding region would look to Paris and the Seine not Barcelona or the Ebro. Within this region, the Cathars prospered in only a relatively small area, their presence increasingly peripheral to the wider political conflict that their armed suppression provoked. The Albigensian crusades settled the fate of nations more readily than it did the destiny of souls or faith.

The health of the Cathar church in Languedoc rested on weak or competing political authority; a feeble and impoverished church hierarchy; and a failure of cooperation between church and secular lords. To this could be added a lack of centres of Catholic learning. It was no coincidence that the university of Toulouse was only founded as part of the settlement that ended the crusades in 1229 in preparation for the judicial eradication of heresy. In northern France and western Germany, secular authorities were persuaded by active and well-funded bishops that heresy posed a threat to social as well as religious order. By contrast, in Languedoc local lords were alienated from the church, especially with the influx of reform-minded Gregorian churchmen, over control of church tithes and first fruits, the bulk of which tended to remain in the hands of laymen, with a smaller proportion left for parish clergy and nothing for the bishops. Bishop Fulk of Toulouse complained that on entering office in 1205 he found his revenues amounted to ninety-six sous; he could not afford to protect his train of mules in public and was confronted by creditors in his own chapter house.16 Lay appropriation of ecclesiastical funds not only weakened the church, it denied any material incentive for the local lords to succour it.

Attempts by the church or magnates to impose social or religious discipline sat ill with an aristocratic culture that militated against hierarchical control in favour of clannish independence. The structure of rural aristocratic society was characterized by what contemporaries described asparatge.17 Literally, this meant the free right to one’s inheritance. Perhaps almost 50 per cent of lands in the Toulousain were held as allods, owing no dues to a lord. Freedom was a feature of rural as well as urban society, where towns, even parts of towns, insisted on separate autonomy and rights. Vassalage was weak, especially compared with parts of northern France or England; military obligations rare. Equality, not subservience, typified how relations between lords and tenants were conceived. Knighthood denoted status and a mutually respectful position at a lord’s court rather than a niche in a pyramidal social hierarchy. If paratge implied independence from external pressure on the disposal of lands it also protected the rights of all possible heirs within the family, which led to a sharing of fiefs. Primogeniture had not come to dominate Languedoc inheritance customs as it had further north. One consequence of partible inheritance was the proliferation of co-lords; at the extremes dozens at one time.18Another was the preservation of the inheritance rights of women, which were being sharply eroded further north. While the economics of partible inheritance and paratge encouraged infra-family cohesion, they discouraged wider social cohesion.

However, contemporaries in Languedoc seemed to invest the paratge system with almost transcendent cultural significance as a symbol of nobility, of the free customs of a whole society and of a system of aristocratic life, from courtly entertainments to independence, knightly generosity, personal honour and public morality. His enemies depicted Simon of Montfort as deliberately trying to destroy this world of paratge.19 Yet, while some have seen in paratge the principle of personal freedom, it might just as well be held responsible for noble selfishness, which produced a failure of public law and order. Violence between the clan groups of Languedoc may have been petty but it could be vicious; the sight of so many small castles perched on their neighbouring crags still provides evidence of this insecurity. Landholders felt little obligation or loyalty to their nominal overlords. As a direct consequence, to maintain and impose authority, great magnates had to resort to hiring mercenaries, an unpleasant feature of Languedoc life that drew condemnation from the Third Lateran Council in 1179.20 The absence of peace in Languedoc formed one of the twin themes of crusade propaganda, which frequently described the conflict as the negotium fidei et pacis, the business of the faith and of peace. The inability of the count to impose order exposed the feebleness of the episcopacy and encouraged the flourishing of heresy.

The patronage of Catharism by local noble families proved crucial to the heretics’ success and represented one of the Languedoc heresy’s most distinctive features. Elsewhere, from Bulgaria to Italy and France, Germany and Flanders, popular heresy appeared particularly attractive to urban artisans and the rural poor. Yet despite Cathar communities in Toulouse and the much smaller towns such as Béziers and Carcassonne, urbanization in the areas of Languedoc most affected was limited. There was little or no heresy in Narbonne, the second great city of the region. Rural Catharism revolved around the small castles, fortified villages and households of the local nobility, whose adherence to the radical faith was eased by the sophisticated literary cosmology imported by Nicetas from Constantinople, which was not predicated on hierarchical social or economic tensions or guilt. Lords had much to gain from opposing Catholic assertion of financial ecclesiastical rights and from the Cathars’ absolute, rather than the Catholics’ conditional, separation of church and state. In return, support from social leaders afforded Catharism material protection and financial support; physical centres for study and proselytizing; and networks for the transmission of the faith both laterally, through extended aristocratic family contacts, and vertically, to the servants, tenants and peasants of the lords. One of the common accusations levelled against Catharperfecti was that they preyed on the vulnerable – the sick, dying or anxious – with promises of unconditional salvation through the consolamentum in return for gifts and legacies of money and property. True or not, the financial viability of the Cathar church, which distinguished it from other heretical sects, including the smaller Waldensian community in the region, probably depended less on deathbed larceny than well-heeled patrons.

The patronage of the nobility politicized the Languedoc Cathars, encouraging a political response: war. Although there is no evidence that the greatest magnates, such as the counts of Toulouse or the Trencavel counts of Albi, Béziers and Carcassonne, were heretics themselves, Cathar perfectiwere to be found in some of the grander local aristocratic families. As early as 1178, Raymond V of Toulouse was lamenting ‘the plague of infidelity’ that had claimed ‘the most noble of my lords’ and many of their followers.21When inheriting his title as a child, Viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel (1194–1209) had been placed under the protection of a patron of heretics, Bernard of Saissac. Count Raymond Roger of Foix (1188–1223) earned an evil reputation among Catholic observers for his depredations against local monasteries and churches, on one occasion slaughtering monks who had been disrespectful of his perfecta aunt, Fais of Dufort.22 The count’s wife and sister were also perfectae, although his anti-clerical behaviour probably had more to do with money and jurisdiction than faith. The mother and two of the sisters of the wealthy and powerful Aimery, the lord of Lavaur and Montréal west of Carcassonne, were Cathars who established a flourishing house for perfectae at Lavaur. The family castles became centres of extensive networks of Cathar perfecti, credentes and sympathizers, provoking the ferocity following Simon of Montfort’s capture of Lavaur, the ‘synagogue of Satan’, in May 1211. Aimery was hanged; eighty of his knights were put to the sword and between 300 and 400 Cathars burnt. Aimery’s sister, the perfecta Girauda, lady of Lavaur, was flung screaming into a well and rocks thrown on top of her.23However, the atrocities at Lavaur contained a political purpose and message. Aimery’s power had already been severely undermined by the crusader invasion; his knights were regarded by Montfort as traitors, regardless of their devotional practices; the butchery served to discourage further resistance to the northern conquerors. The intimate association of secular lords with heretical networks put each in additional jeopardy from an adversary as intent on subjugating lordships as in eradicating error. Heresy in Languedoc had been recognized as a problem for over sixty years before the start of the Albigensian crusades. The iconoclastic anti-sacramentalist Peter of Bruys enjoyed some notoriety before his execution at St Gilles in 1131. In 1145, Bernard of Clairvaux conducted a concerted and apparently successful preaching campaign in pursuit of Henry the Monk, an itinerant anti-clerical Donatist who had established a base in Toulouse after a long career evangelizing in western France. By 1178, the rise of Catharism sufficiently alarmed Raymond V of Toulouse for him to appeal Louis VII of France and Henry of Marcy, abbot of CÎteaux for help. Although this may have had as much to do with Raymond’s problems with the Trencavels, in whose lands the heretics prospered most, as with his dislike of heresy, it shows there was no inevitable anti-crusading alliance of Languedoc nobility with heresy. After all, Raymond’s father had gone on the Second Crusade and his grandfather Raymond IV had been one of the heroes of the First.24 In response to Raymond V’s appeal, a combined force of soldiers and preachers arrived to conduct inquiries at Toulouse, exposing and punishing a few local heretics. Abbot Henry excommunicated two prominent Cathars, including Bernard Raymond, Cathar bishop of Toulouse. In 1179, Canon XXVII of the Third Lateran anathematized heretics and, significantly, those protecting or conversing with them and called for military action, which would earn participants two years’ remission of sins and church protection equivalent to that for Jerusalem crusaders.25 In pursuance of this canon, in 1181, Henry of Marcy, now a cardinal, led an army into Languedoc and besieged Lavaur. Local discretion prevailed. Lavaur submitted. The two Cathar leaders Henry had encountered in 1178 publicly converted and were rewarded with canonries in Toulouse.26 The expedition went home. In contrast with 1209, there was no thought given to replacing the local ecclesiastical or secular authorities in the pursuit of heresy, merely providing assistance and a slightly menacing incentive to act.

While the activity of 1178–81 led nowhere, church policy towards heresy was clarified in Lucius II’s decree Ad abolendam (1184), which provided for convicted heretics to be handed over to the secular authorities for punishment, unspecified.27 Yet in Languedoc, Catharism became, by the early years of the thirteenth century, so rooted ‘that it could not easily be dug out’,28 a process assisted by limp ecclesiastical control and absentee bishops. Until the accession of Innocent III in 1198, the main Catholic vigour in the area seemed to have been reserved for the patronage of Cistercian monasteries. The new pope adopted a typically active if cerebral approach. As early as April 1198,29 Innocent despatched his confessor to investigate and followed this with a series of legatine missions, in 1198, 1200–1201 and 1203–4. The pope’s alarm seems to have grown as he became aware of the ineffectiveness of his legates’ preaching and disputations, the full extent of the crisis in Languedoc and the strength of Catharism not just in southern France and Italy but throughout the Balkans as well. He began a radical overhaul of the Languedoc episcopacy and urged his legates to a more aggressive stance. In 1204, when adding Abbot Arnaud Aimery of Cîteaux to his fellow Cistercians Master Ralph of Frontfroide and Peter of Castelnau, Innocent offered Holy Land indulgences to those who ‘laboured faithfully against the heretics’.30 In tune with his crusading policies elsewhere, Innocent was moving towards a military solution. This was encouraged by the stalling of his latest legatine mission, apparently through the indifference or obstruction, as the legates saw it, of the secular rulers such as Raymond VI of Toulouse (1194–1222). A fresh approach in 1206–7 adopted by new recruits to the preaching campaign, the Spanish Bishop Diego of Osma and his canon Dominic Guzman, achieved little.31 They travelled as if in mirror image of perfecti, in simple clothes, walking barefoot along the footpaths and byways to a series of disputations with Cathar leaders. Although this later bore fruit in the creation of Dominic’s Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, immediately it produced no tangible reversal of the heretic tide. Still less did it deal with the problem of the Cathars’ powerful protectors.

Local solutions, as envisaged in 1179 or even by Innocent III himself as late as 1204, had not worked. Unlike Peter II of Aragon, who took measures against heretics in his realm, the count of Toulouse appeared unwilling or unable to act in the church’s interests. This problem was compounded by the poor relations that developed between Raymond and the legates, one of whom, the brusque Peter of Castelnau, made himself extremely unpopular with local opinion.32 To force the issue, the legates excommunicated Count Raymond in 1207 and 1208, draconian action that merely served to expose their impotence. If Raymond refused or was unable to take measures against the heretics, some external force would be required to compel or replace him. In 1205 and 1207 the pope attempted to interest Philip II of France in intervening. On the second occasion, in a letter of 17 November 1207, Holy Land indulgences were offered. Implicit was the pope’s recognition that the enemies of such a campaign stood to be disinherited and their lands confiscated. Not even this incentive could attract Philip, who argued that he was busy enough defending himself from his enemies John of England and Otto IV of Germany, awkwardly one of Innocent’s protégés. The pope’s own strategy was still hedged with qualifications: ‘we want you to bear in mind’, he told the French king, ‘the needs of the Holy Land, so that no aid is prevented from reaching her’. However, Innocent’s attitude towards the Cathars and their supporters was ominously clear: ‘wounds that do not respond to the healing of poultices must be lanced with a blade’.33 Almost immediately, the pope was presented with a perfect casus belli. On the morning of 14 January, the legate Peter of Castelnau was assassinated on the west bank of the Rhône north of Arles, ten miles from the abbey of St Gilles, by a servant of the man with whom the legate had held a fierce row the previous day, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse.34


The murder of Peter of Castelnau failed to elevate the victim to sanctity, even the pope admitting to the absence of customary martyr’s miracles.35 Otherwise it matched the more famous death of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 in propaganda value and easily outstripped the Canterbury martyrdom in direct political consequences. News of the assassination was taken to Rome by Peter’s fellow legate, Abbot Arnaud Aimery, who convinced Innocent of Count Raymond’s complicity. The count was excommunicated, and, on 10 March 1208, Innocent III delivered a fulminating call to arms. The culprit was unequivocally identified as the ‘changeable, crafty, slippery and inconsistent’ Raymond. Full Holy Land indulgences were promised the ‘knights of Christ’. Innocent’s language avoided compromise. ‘According to the judgement of truth we must not be afraid of those who kill the body’, so ‘the strong recruits of Christian knighthood’ must attempt ‘in whatever ways God has revealed to you to wipe out the treachery of heresy and its followers by attacking the heretics with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, that much more confidently than you would attack the Saracens because they are worse than them’. Even if he repented, Raymond’s penalty should be the confiscation of his and his followers’ lands. ‘Catholic inhabitants must be put in their place.’36 Combining religious conquest with political annexation complicated this new papal holy war. By legitimizing land grabbing, Innocent invited exploitation by acquisitive adventurers he proved characteristically powerless to restrain.

The new crusade was regarded as an extension of the previous legatine missions, recognized by the appointment of Arnaud Aimery as chief propagandist and recruiting agent. The theoretical justification rested on subtly different bases than the Holy Land crusades even if the rhetoric evoked similar images and the privileges tapped identical spiritual aspirations. Greater emphasis was placed on the crusade being a just as well as holy war, a slant made easier by the material crimes of heresy and murder. In his bulls of 10 March 1208, Innocent set out the juridical argument for violence against the heretics as a form of defence both spiritual and material: ‘the perverters of our souls have become also the destroyers of our flesh’. Raymond VI was an excommunicate and a murderer. In a manner impossible when tackling Islam, the Cathars were portrayed as ‘rebels’ against Christ and His church, their heresy ‘treachery’, in that legalistic sense ‘worse than Saracens’. These are categories of just war, increasingly familiar to contemporary canon lawyers and, as Innocent hinted, more amenable to explanation than the transcendent demands of holy war. Revenge was common to both – vengeance for the death of legate Peter but more fundamentally vengeance for the insult to Christ. The full panoply of vow, cross, plenary indulgence and temporal privileges were deployed, a logical extension of twelfth-century precedents, such as Canon XXVII of the Third Lateran Council, as well as patristic theory derived from Augustine of Hippo. The crusade was being applied to a just war to restore the order of Christendom.

As such the Albigensian crusade displayed familiar features to emphasize Innocent III’s conception of the universal embrace of holy war. The plenary indulgence and cross, absent in 1179, were prominent. Crusade temporal privileges were insisted upon and the crusade leaders attempted to impose sumptuary rules on their followers.37 A Burgundian benefactor to the Cluniac monks in 1209 was recorded as joining the Albigensian campaign for the traditional reason of ‘the remission of my and my parents’ sins’. In a charter in favour of the abbey of Cluny, Odo III duke of Burgundy, the grandest of the 1209 recruits, is described as ‘crucesignatus contra hereticos Albigenses’.38 Sympathetic contemporary chroniclers refer to the crusaders generically as peregrini, pilgrims, although the object of any penitential pilgrimage is hard, if not impossible, to identify. During the fighting at the sieges of Lavaur in 1211 and Moissac in 1212, the crusader army clergy sang the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, which became the crusaders’ anthem.39 The crusades’ opponents were ‘enemies of Christ’ to the recruited as well as the recruiters and war propagandists. To his enemies, Raymond was ‘the cruellest persecutor of Christ’. Innocent and preachers, such as James of Vitry and the Englishman Robert of Curzon (Courçon), succeeded in creating an atmosphere of spiritual crisis and crusading duty. Within a few years a crusade preaching manual in England was including uplifting stories of heroic deaths in Languedoc to set beside the deeds of Holy Land martyrs.40 According to James of Vitry, his pet holy woman, Mary of Oignies, was a great enthusiast for the cause, experiencing visions showing Christ’s care for the fate of Languedoc and, usefully for recruiters like James, angels lifting the souls of dead crusaders ‘to heavenly bliss without any purgatory’.41 This congruence with Holy Land wars of the cross was reinforced by the presence in the ranks of the Languedoc crucesignati of veterans from other crusades, including four prominent Fourth Crusade dissidents at Zara in 1202–3 – Abbot Guy of Les Vaux-de-Cernay, Enguerrand de Boves and Simon and Guy of Montfort – and the inveterate crucesignatus Leopold VI of Austria, who was recruited in 1210, as were the brothers Philip bishop of Beauvais (who went again in 1215) and Count Peter of Dreux, who had seen service in Palestine on the Third Crusade. Other recruits later joined the Spanish crusade against the Almohads in 1212, led by the Languedoc legate Arnaud Aimery. Such international experience of crusading lent flesh to Innocent’s ideology of almost eternal armed struggle against the spiritual and material forces of evil.

The regularity and persistence of this preaching sustained an atmosphere of immediate spiritual crisis. One unexpected and not entirely welcome response later became known as the Children’s Crusade (discussed in the next chapter). Stirred by the claims of the dangers besetting Christendom, a series of revivalist penitential processions in northern France converged on St Denis in the summer of 1212, calling for general moral reform, a clear echo of the papal programme of reform. The heretic scare and the annual round of preaching and cross-giving contributed to the sense of alarm. A Norman chronicler suggested that many of those who marched were later recruited to the Albigensian crusade.42 The war against heresy formed an important religious as well as political context for the Fourth Lateran Council announced by Innocent in 1213 to be held in Rome in 1215, the council’s third decree expressly dealing with the Albigensian crusades, which were equated with aiding the Holy Land.43

However, not all the language or practice of the Albigensian crusades replicated Holy Land models. The euphemism of ‘the business of faith and peace’ represented a more temporal legalistic slogan than ‘the business of God’ or other tags attached to the eastern campaigns. Fighting within Christendom, for most within their own kingdom, with authorized territorial profit held particular repercussions. To cement local support in Toulouse, Bishop Fulk instituted the White Confraternity, a militia aimed at combating heresy and usury (a very Innocentian combination). Members received the cross and remission of sins so they would ‘not be deprived of the indulgences which were being granted to outsiders’. Although reflecting civic identity as much as piety, and challenged by a rival Toulouse association called the Black Confraternity, Bishop Fulk’s association possessed sufficient cohesion and commitment to supply troops at the siege of Lavaur in May 1211.44

The Albigensian crusades were the first great political as well as anti-heresy crusades, aimed as much against Christians as against heretics. Participants understood that the Languedoc war, however equal in merit, was not the same as the Jerusalem war. There was almost no military involvement by the military orders, despite their strong presence in the area. Wars in Languedoc were easier to fight than in Palestine, more accessible, less physically demanding, less time-consuming. The 1208 offer of indulgences invited a rather casual approach, if not blatant abuse. Recruits showed little commitment or staying power, judging a brief appearance in the field adequate to gain spiritual reward, and perhaps hoping for a share of the clerical taxes being raised for the project. The latter was not forthcoming, many crusaders probably reckoning that the war in fact offered them no profit, only loss, and, until the 1220s, served the material interests solely of the Montforts. By the autumn of 1210, the legates had become seriously alarmed that indulgences were distorting the military viability of the operation. Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay, nephew of Abbot Guy, wrote a detailed and well-informed contemporary account of the crusades, often as an eyewitness. He recorded the measures taken to mitigate the problem:

the papal legates, aware that most of the crusaders were somewhat lukewarm in their enthusiasm for the campaign and perpetually anxious to go home, had laid it down that the indulgence promised to the crusaders by the pope would not be granted to anyone who failed to complete at least one full period of forty days in the service of Jesus Christ.45

This contractual finesse to the indulgence became a unique central aspect of the Languedoc crusades. It did not always work. In the autumn of 1210 the bishop of Beauvais and count of Dreux’s army abandoned the siege of Termes to return north before their forty days were up.46 Paradoxically, the legates’ attempt to stabilize Montfort’s reinforcements merely had the effect of institutionalizing an inconveniently brief period of frontline duty, especially awkward in a war characterized by lengthy sieges rather than lightningchevauchées. The problem was exacerbated by Montfort’s chronic lack of funds preventing him hiring crusaders to remain. By 1226, the forty-day term was being claimed by the count of Champagne, eager to leave the siege of Avignon, as a right, ‘de consuetudine Gallicana’, according to Gallic/French custom.47 A later thirteenth-century preaching anecdote detailed how one knight struck a bargain that he would only extend his forty days’ service for another forty if Archdeacon William of Paris, who usefully doubled as crusade preacher and Montfort’s chief siege engineer and tactician, would grant the second plenary indulgence the crusader felt he was earning to his deceased father. A dream confirmed the ruse worked.48

Such spiritual bargaining, while of interest to schoolmen, had little place on the campaigns against the infidel. Nor did it feature in Innocent’s original scheme. Just as he could not have foreseen the diversion of his 1198 crusade, so the pope could not have prophesied in March 1208 how this new crusade would develop. It is likely Innocent anticipated a sharp policing operation that would remove the protectors of heresy and install a rigidly orthodox Catholic secular regime that, with the cooperation of a newly invigorated episcopacy, would proceed to extirpate the heresy and exterminate the heretics. The failure of the crusade to complete a quick conquest led to a laborious struggle almost for each valley and strongpoint. The crusade’s political dimensions competed with religious certainties. Before the battle of Muret in 1213, after four years of the crusade, when Simon of Montfort’s troops faced an army led by the Spanish crusading hero Peter II of Aragon, a recent ally of some of those now ranged against him, the bishop of Comminges was recorded as having to reassure the Montfortians that he would stand surety for the promise of martyrdom to those who, having confessed their sins, fell in battle.49 Only a few months earlier Innocent III had temporarily ended the general offer of crusade indulgences to those who helped Montfort conquer the county of Toulouse.50 As a war against Christians, enemies could become allies and vice versa, without clear lines of conflict much beyond the ambitions of Simon of Montfort. The war was more or less continuous for over a decade, but its status as a crusade was not. After the initial euphoria of victory in 1209, while rhetoric gained recruits from the north, it failed to hold them for long or lift the operation in the south far above a regional power struggle. When his new-won political rights were at stake, Montfort fell out even with his former leader Arnold Aimery, over jurisdiction in Narbonne, to whose archbishopric the abbot had been elevated in 1212.51 In Languedoc, Innocent III’s perception of holy war as a constant necessity imposed compromise with the integrity of the ideal itself.

The focus of Arnaud Aimery’s recruitment in 1208 was northern France. From his own province of Burgundy among the first to be signed up were Duke Odo and Hervé count of Nevers. By contrast, Philip II was concerned at the pope’s attempt to confiscate the fiefs of his vassals and, in the process, reduce the pool of soldiers available for the king’s wars. Philip had not successfully resisted Innocent’s interference in his conflict with King John of England over the Angevin lands in northern France in 1202–4 only to allow the pope to parcel out lands in the south. Neither, until the Angevin struggle was resolved, would Philip dissipate his energies in Languedoc. However, he abandoned attempts to limit the recruitment of his major vassals. Philip’s response in 1208–9 fixed the subsequent Capetian position, one determined more or less openly by considerations of politics and self-interest. Even though his pious son, Louis, proved here, as in England in 1216–17, a willing military adventurer, his interventions in Languedoc, in 1215, 1219 and, as king, in 1226, were conditioned by royal security in the north and clear opportunities for dynastic advancement in the south.

Confident in the support of Odo of Burgundy and Hervé of Nevers and their promise of 500 knights, Arnold Aimery began the formal preaching campaign at Cîteaux on 14 September 1208, Holy Cross Day, six years to the day since another Cistercian general assembly had listened to Fulk of Neuilly preach the Fourth Crusade in the presence of Boniface of Montferrat. As then, the Cistercians dominated the evangelism for the Albigensian crusades, as they had for the Second and Third as well. In contrast with previous general Holy Land crusades, the area of preaching was restricted, chiefly to northern France. The count of Auvergne and the archbishop of Bordeaux also gathered an army in western France which launched a brief foray into the Agenais and Quercy in May 1209, terrorizing the Lot valley before tamely withdrawing. How far this incursion was motivated by frontier rivalry rather than enthusiasm to destroy heresy must remain obscure, although a number of heretics were tried and burnt. A similar raid into the Rouergue by the bishop of Le Puy seemed more concerned with profits from tribute than imposing religious orthodoxy.52

The main army raised in 1208–9 depended heavily on secular networks of lay and ecclesiastical lordship and financial inducement. The clerical tenth authorized by the pope was concentrated on the provinces where the crusaders came from, notably the archdiocese of Sens, while a voluntary lay subsidy was proposed for those living on the lands of the crusader nobles.53 Raising troops was left to the lay leaders. The future leader, Simon of Montfort, was recruited by Odo of Burgundy, with ‘substantial gifts’ with more to follow when Simon agreed.54 The lay commanders’ underwriting of the enterprise invited division, especially as it transpired during the 1209 campaign that the immensely grand duke of Burgundy and parvenu opportunist count of Nevers detested each other to such an extent that it was daily expected that either might resort to murder.55 Disunity on crusade was perhaps normative. However, the Albigensian campaigns proved especially vulnerable to squabbles among its short-stay generals.

The search for an acceptable lay leader foundered on Philip II’s repeated refusal to countenance his own or his son’s involvement, especially once he learnt of an anti-French alliance early in 1209 between John of England and his nephew Otto IV of Germany, both of whom held overlordship claims to different parts of Languedoc. However, Philip, still mired in marital problems that had aroused the censure of the pope, needed to maintain some association with the crusade to safeguard his interests. At an assembly at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne on 1 May 1209, in the presence of Arnaud Aimery, Odo of Burgundy and the counts of Nevers and St Pol, Philip reiterated his inability to campaign in person, although he promised a royal contingent. By emphasizing that the French crusaders undertook the campaign with their king’s approval, Philip implicitly reserved the right to intervene. Any rearrangement of Languedoc’s tenurial structure would require royal approval, offering the French king further opportunities to assert his suzerainty throughout his kingdom.

The absence of an uncontested lay leader left the nominal command to Arnaud Aimery, who appeared wholly unabashed by the task. The main expedition mustered at Lyons on 24 June 1209 and set out down the Rhêne at the beginning of July. By this time the whole strategic context of the expedition had been thrown into confusion from which it never properly emerged. The expected target, Raymond of Toulouse, suddenly became an ally, no doubt to the relief of those of his vassals and close relatives who were marching with the crusaders. After trying desperately to shore up his diplomatic position and failing to persuade his nephew, young Raymond Roger Trencavel viscount of Albi, Béziers and Carcassonne to make common cause against the invaders, Raymond VI opened negotiations with the pope. Innocent was disinclined to cancel the crusade even if Raymond submitted and equally unwilling to compromise the work of his legate Arnaud Aimery. Nevertheless, he despatched two new legates to impose conditions for Raymond’s submission and readmittance into the church. At St Gilles on 18 June, Raymond accepted a long list of grievances against him, agreed to surrender certain lands, and was scourged by the legate Milo before being paraded half-naked before the coffin of the murdered Peter of Castelnau. On 22 June, Raymond took the cross, aligning himself with the invaders while securing the church’s protection from them. From St Gilles, Raymond hurried north to meet the advancing crusaders at Valence.56

Cheated of their expected victim, the crusaders turned their attention to the Trencavel lands, incontestably riddled with heretics, even though the young and engaging viscount himself was recognized as orthodox. This made little difference. The crusade needed an enemy; Raymond of Toulouse short-sightedly promoted an opportunity to destroy a troublesome vassal while escaping attack himself. Viscount Raymond Roger’s attempt to deflect his fate by submitting to Arnold Aimery was brushed aside; the legate’s Christian lexicon seemed to lack charitable forgiveness. Advancing from Montpellier, the crusaders entered Trencavel territory on 21 July. Raymond Roger fell back before them, leaving Béziers at their mercy. On 22 July, the crusaders began to dig in outside the walls of Béziers. The bishop of Béziers attempted to persuade the citizens to hand over or abandon the heretics in the city, of whose names he claimed to have a list. His overtures were rejected. The inhabitants believed their defences and food supplies would withstand assault. Reinforcements were expected. There were probably at most only 700 heretics in a population of 8–9,000. Béziers saw the besiegers in political and military, not Christian, terms; their city and their independence were being attacked. This, they reckoned, accurately as it turned out, the sacrifice of a few eccentric neighbours was unlikely to alter. However, the offer made by the bishop formed a crucial element in Catholic apologetics for what followed. The Christians of Béziers had placed themselves beyond the pale of humanity by consciously rejecting the bishop’s terms and choosing to harbour and sustain heretics. In the words of the legates’ subsequent report to the pope, their blood was on their own heads.57

Even so, Catholic reports on the sack of Béziers were keen to emphasize that the attack was not led by the nobles and knights but by the servientes, sergeants, and the unarmed mass of camp-followers, a reversal of social norms suggesting literary uneasiness with events. Whoever began the attack, it seems most of the army joined in to make it quick, ruthless and devastating. The legates laconically recorded ‘our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age’.58 The citizens appear to have panicked and put up little resistance. In a later, possibly apocryphal, anecdote, when asked by priests how they could distinguish whom to kill, Abbot Arnaud Aimery, worried lest heretics escaped by pretending to be Catholics, ordered, ‘Kill them. The Lord knows who are his own.’59 Even the crowds who sheltered in the main churches were not spared. The legates estimated that 20,000 died in the carnage and called it a miracle.60 The true figure was almost certainly far less. The massacre may have been premeditated. Rumours suggested that discussions at the papal Curia in 1208 had authorized the destruction of any who resisted the crusade. The Navarrese cleric William of Tudela (d. c.1213), who composed a Provençal verse account of the early stages of the Albigensian crusades, noted that the crusade leaders decided to make examples of the inhabitants of any town taken by storm pour encourager les autres. ‘They would then find no one daring to resist them, so great would be the terror produced… that is why the inhabitants of Béziers were massacred; they were all killed, it was the worst they could do to them.’61

In that respect, the massacre at Béziers initially worked. Narbonne immediately sent in its unconditional submission and the army met no resistance as it advanced towards Carcassonne, as the countryside, towns, villages and castles were evacuated by terrified locals. In the longer term, however, the sack of Béziers hardened Languedoc opposition to the invasion across religious divisions. Thereafter adherence or opposition to the crusaders was determined largely by secular considerations. The chief religious element in the campaigns of the following two decades found expression in periodic military atrocities and regular mass execution, usually by burning, of captured heretics. However, despite the gaudy rhetoric of holy war and Simon of Montfort’s carefully constructed reputation as a warrior of Christ, between his appointment as crusade leader in 1209 and death in 1218, Cathars were hardly his main target. Most of the places where Cathars are known to have lived he left untouched, and at only a small minority of the castles and towns Montfort captured was the presence of heretics recorded.62 As Béziers demonstrated, strategy rested on realpolitik, not religion.

Béziers set the tone for what developed into one of the nastiest of medieval wars, partly because of the high stakes of dispossession and conquest, partly because of the collapse of social order and erosion of the rule of civil law in a region that became a perpetual war zone. The religious gloss wore thin. In May 1213, Innocent III admitted that ‘their protectors and defenders… are more dangerous than the heretics themselves’.63 Little trust existed between opponents as surrender terms were breached. Guerilla warfare and local exploitation of the absence of settled political authority spread violence far beyond the paths of the main campaigns. The presence of mercenaries, a staple of Languedoc warfare for decades, ensured that many engagements ended with the slaughter of defeated troops, despised as paid soldiers. Stubborn garrisons received little mercy. Massacres became regular events, from most of the inhabitants of the modest castrum of Les Touelles near Albi (January 1212) to the 5,000 civilians despatched at Marmande on the Garonne in the Agenais in June 1219 by the army of Prince Louis of France after the town had surrendered.64 Captured heretics went to the flames. The first was burnt without trial on Simon of Montfort’s orders at Castres in August 1209.65 Thereafter, the holocaust flickered intensely rather than raged across the province. At Minerve in July 1210, Abbot Arnold Aimery tried to scupper a negotiated surrender, so keen was he to make sure the heretics burnt; at least 140 of them did. Over 300 perfecti were burnt at Lavaur in May 1211 and at least sixty at Les Casses a few days later, places, the great historian of the Inquisition H. C. Lea memorably remarked, whose names ‘suggest all that man can inflict and man can suffer for the glory of God’.66 The relative dearth of such horrors as the war dragged on might indicate a lack of persecuting zeal on the part of the invaders or the chroniclers’ growing indifference.

Atrocities were not the sole preserve of the crusaders. At the end of 1209, Giraud of Pépieux had captured the castle of Puisserguier from the crusaders. At the approach of Montfort he abandoned the place, burying alive the captured sergeants under debris in the moat. He also had two of Montfort’s knights blinded and mutilated. At about the same time, William of Rocquefort, whose brother was the bishop of Carcassonne, murdered the abbot of Eaunes and a lay brother apparently ‘for no reason except they were Cistercians’. During the siege of Moissac in September 1212, the defenders regularly mutilated crusaders’ corpses. Bernard of Cazenac and his wife Elise – a ‘second Jezebel’ – conducted a reign of terror in the Dordogne valley in the years to 1214, including leaving 150 mutilated men and women in the Benedictine abbey of Sarlat with hands cut off, feet amputated or eyes put out. Elise specialized in removing women’s thumbs to prevent them working and ordering the nipples of the poorest peasant women to be ripped off. Behind such lurid sadism lay a sustained attempt by this local noble couple to preserve their independence. One critic of the invaders portrayed Bernard as an epitome of chivalry.67 The ‘business of faith and peace’ managed, if only temporarily, to brutalize a society that had not been exactly peaceful and harmonious before. Under the cover of war, when allegiances could shift with ease and rapidity, and with the region full of dispossessed nobles (known as faidits), lawlessness could prove the best source of profit. Two Montfort loyalists in the Toulousain, Foucard and Jean from Berzy in the Ile de France, tortured, starved, degraded and extorted money from prisoners of war on a regular basis as an adjunct to their normal pursuit of sustained banditry. As a later pro-crusade commentator from the area they ravaged acidly remarked: ‘they did not perform the tasks for which they had come originally; the end did not match the beginning’.68 Others might argue it did precisely that.


The initial phase of the crusade that had begun at Béziers ended when Carcassonne surrendered on 14 August 1209 after a fortnight’s siege. The international significance of these events was recognized by the brief appearance in the crusader camp of Peter II of Aragon, the nominal overlord of the Trencavel lands. The crusaders’ decision to spare Carcassonne the destruction of Béziers was prompted not by humanity but by a realization that whoever was to inherit the lordship of the area needed to rule more than ruins and smouldering charnel houses. The inhabitants of Carcassonne were expelled and Viscount Raymond Roger deposed and incarcerated, to die in prison of dysentery three months later. Some felt outrage at his fate; the Dauphinois troubadour Guillem Augier lamented what he saw as his murder.69 The viscount’s removal proved highly convenient for the crusaders as they redrew the political map of the region.

The first step came within days of the occupation of Carcassonne with the election of Simon of Montfort to rule the Trencavel lands. By no means the first choice, Odo of Burgundy and Hervé of Nevers having declined, Simon became the secular leader of the crusade. A self-righteous, sanctimonious prig, Simon possessed qualities, lineage and reputation far beyond his modest lordship of Montfort l’Amaury in the Ile de France. A bull-like man of great physical presence, like many successful leaders he boasted a mane of lustrous hair. His single-minded piety and unusually strict personal morality were matched by remarkable military skills: tenacious on campaign, resourceful in logistics, audacious in battle, inspiring to his followers, ruthless to his enemies. Without him, the war could have foundered through rivalry, lack of men and money, awkward terrain and stubborn opposition, all of which Simon managed to scramble though and ultimately surmount often by sheer determination. His principled stance at Zara in 1202–3 and subsequent crusading in the Holy Land established his credentials for self-confidence, conviction and commitment. Before 1209, he had held a vicarious claim to the English earldom of Leicester through his mother. By 1210, his exploits in the south had gained such prestige for him to be discussed as a possible replacement as king of England. His appointment as ruler of the Trencavel lands, by 1210 accepted formally by Raymond Roger’s widow and son, subtly changed the nature of the crusade.70 While the enterprise continued to be promoted by the church in northern France, Germany and the Low Countries as a holy war, in Languedoc the conflict became increasingly an assertion of one lordship over another, of powerful centripetal authority over a traditionally fissiparous and independent nobility, and of dispossession and land seizure. The casus belli of heresy lent a sharp edge to rhetoric and occasionally action, but Simon of Montfort, however sincere an ‘athlete of Christ’, fought to establish a realm on earth.

The Albigensian crusades fell into four distinct phases; the annexation of the Trencavel lands (1209–11); the conquest of the county of Toulouse and the Pyrenean counties (1211–15); the revival of southern resistance (1216–25); and the Capetian conquest (1226–9). Not all the fighting could be classed as crusading, and the full panoply of the war of the cross was temporarily suspended in 1213.71 Nevertheless, the tinge of holy war coloured the entire conception and operation of the war, even though its aims revolved around a series of essentially secular objectives. As a major political enterprise, the wars sucked in those with rights in the area. The king of Aragon, no friend to heretics but fearful of a new Montfortian power in the region, intervened diplomatically for years before he tried to assert his interests against the crusaders by force in 1213. He was defeated and killed at Muret by people with whom he had been closely negotiating only a few months earlier. In 1214, King John of England toured northern Languedoc as part of his campaign to regain his ancestral lands lost to Philip II of France in 1204. As overlord of the Agenais, he received the homage of locals at La Réole in April and visited Périgord the following August. John had no wish to see a strong pro-Capetian Montfort principality dominating his southern frontier. Direct confrontation was usually avoided, but in the summer of 1214 Montfort’s assault on Marmande on the Garonne was resisted by a garrison of John’s troops commanded by Geoffrey of Neville, one of the king’s chamberlains.72 It is likely that had John been more successful in defending his French lands in 1202–4 or in trying to retrieve them in 1214 he would have intervened more aggressively in Languedoc. In such ways, the Languedoc war touched on the politics of most of western Europe. Philip II’s victory over Otto IV of Germany and his English allies at Bouvines in July 1214 secured Montfort’s hold in the south almost as certainly as the victory at Muret a year earlier.

At every stage, the fighting revolved around sieges, the physical seizure of territory, valley by valley, castle by castle. There were very few pitched battles; Castelnaudary (1211), Muret (1213), Baziège (1218). A key figure in Montfort’s entourage between 1210 and 1214 was Archdeacon William of Paris, his siegecraft expert, quartermaster, engineer and designer of siege engines. Montfort was constantly short of funds. Church taxes failed to cover expenses. Revenues from the conquered land fell short of requirements. Montfort ran the crusade on a shoestring; at the siege of Termes in 1210 it was said he was ‘beset by extreme poverty’ and short of food.73 Booty thus remained an important element in the crusades’ viability, especially as ravaging was precluded in lands under Montfort’s control. In 1216, to pay for his siege of Toulouse, Montfort levied a tribute on his Languedoc lands hoping to raise 30,000 marks, earning a rare rebuke from a local chronicler that he was ‘blinded by money’.74 The crusade was habitually short of manpower. Each winter’s preaching effort produced only a trickle of grand recruits who usually stayed for the barest minimum period of under six weeks regardless of the military situation. When the French contingent abandoned Montfort during the siege of Termes in 1210, the crusaders were only bailed out by the subsequent arrival of a company of Lorrainer infantry.75 Recruitment attracted individuals from across north-western Europe and as far east as Austria, but little continuity was effected, squabbling was endemic, commitment was consistently feeble. Montfort was often reduced to relying on a very small cadre of household knights; apparently only thirty knights remained in the autumn of 1209.76Only a clear tactical sense, driving optimism, careful harbouring of resources and the divisions among his opponents saw Montfort through. The effort was complicated by the fast cross-currents of local allegiances and shifting perceptions of advantage. The war was never as simple as a northern invasion of the south yet increasingly at the higher levels of society it appeared to be, as the numbers of dispossessed and outlawed faidits grew. Securing the acquiescence or loyal submission of the local baronage proved elusive, hardening the cultural, linguistic and hence political barriers. Repeated betrayals persuaded Montfort of the intrinsic untrustworthiness of the people of Languedoc, one of whom commented that he ‘began to eschew association with knights who spoke our tongue’.77

The parting of the ways had come early in 1211, when, in the face of deliberately excessive demands by the legates, Raymond VI had refused to be reconciled with the crusaders, who promptly turned the war of the cross against the county of Toulouse, signalling a contest for the future of the whole of the region. At the same time Peter of Aragon, having failed to broker a compromise between Raymond, Montfort and the legates, reluctantly accepted Montfort’s homage for the Trencavel lands. This final split with Count Raymond had been long prepared. The count had withdrawn from the crusader army at Carcassonne in August 1209 and had been re-excommunicated the following month. The central issue, according to the legates, concerned the count’s refusal to persecute the Cathars, while Raymond saw his authority being compromised by the punitive demands of vindictive churchmen. The pope was far more prepared to allow Raymond’s reconciliation than his legates, who displayed almost visceral hatred of the count. Repeatedly, papal compromises foundered on the rock of legatine intransigence. Montfort, sensing his own advantage, backed the legates.

After the last Trencavel lands had been subdued in May 1211, Montfort turned his attention to Raymond’s county of Toulouse and the Pyrenean lands of his allies, the counts of Foix and Comminges. Although unable to capture Toulouse, because of an insufficient number of troops, Montfort defeated a Toulouse – Foix army at Castelnaudary in September 1211 and the following year made sweeping gains from the Agenais to the Pyrenees. To show his confidence in the permanency of the northern French settlement, in December 1212, at an assembly of his lay and ecclesiastical followers at Pamiers, he issued statutes regulating the government of his conquests.78 These secured the rights of the church and insisted on the strict obedience to public and tenurial comital rights, including military service from his vassals. Clear distinctions were drawn between ‘French’ and locals: heiresses could marry the former freely but the latter only with Montfort’s permission. Treatment of heretics and former heretics was specified, as were regulations concerning inheritance and the economy. The underlying colonial purpose emerged in a codicil to the statutes Montfort added regarding the customs to be observed by those to whom he had given property, the incoming barons, knights, burgesses and peasants, who were guaranteed the ‘usages and customs observed in France around Paris’. Although still technically only viscount of the former Trencavel lands, Montfort’s Pamiers statutes were clearly intended to apply to all his conquests.

Early in 1213, a combination of neat diplomacy by Peter II of Aragon with Innocent III’s desire to promulgate a new, general Holy Land crusade briefly threatened Montfort’s authority. Failing to overcome the settled refusal of the legates to accept reconciliation and an end to the war at a council at Lavaur in January, Peter succeeded in persuading the pope that Montfort and the legates had exceeded their brief. In a series of letters dated 15–17 January, Innocent cancelled the granting of crusade indulgences, effectively ending the crusade, and ordered Monfort to return the lands of Foix, Comminges and Béarn to their rightful rulers (all vassals of the king of Aragon) and insisted that Raymond’s lands and rights be restored. His previous doubts over the crusaders’ motives now crystallized into harsh words directed at Arnaud Aimery and Montfort: ‘you have extended greedy hands into lands which have no ill reputation for heresy… you have usurped the possessions of others indiscriminately, unjustly and without proper care’.79 This diplomatic coup encouraged Peter to break with Montfort and the legates, taking Toulouse, Foix and Comminges under his protection. However, in May, Innocent, now fully apprised of what had happened at Lavaur, after intense lobbying by Montfort and the legates revoked his letters of January. This did not revive the crusade on quite the same basis as before, as in April, Innocent’s great bull Quia Maiorlaunching the new Holy Land crusade restricted indulgences for the Albigensian crusade only to those living in ‘Provence’, i.e. Languedoc.80 The general uncertainty was compounded when Louis of France took the cross in February 1213, presumably unaware of the papal cancellation.

The diplomatic manoeuvres of the first half of 1213 ended with at least partial vindication for Montfort, witnessed at Amaury’s knighting in June. They left Peter of Aragon, if he wished to influence events and prevent Montfort’s annexation of south-west France, no option but war. His defeat and death at Muret on 12 September appeared to some providential.81 A much smaller force under Montfort had seized their chance and through bold, well-disciplined action had routed a larger, complacent enemy. God had spoken. Peter lay dead on the field, his infant son a hostage and his ally Raymond VI in flight, to Spain and then England. Yet the consequences were more equivocal. While Montfort, with new recruits from the north, tightened his grip towards the Dordogne valley in 1214, Innocent III tried once more to broker a settlement based on justice, not force. A new legate, Peter of Benevento, secured the release of the child King James of Aragon and the absolution of Raymond VI. However, the count’s lands were administered by Montfort, who ignored attempts at compromise. In January 1215, a large church assembly at Montpellier, presided over by Legate Peter, recommended that Montfort be chosen as ‘chief and sole ruler’ of all the count of Toulouse’s lands. However, Montfort remained unpopular: at Montpellier he narrowly avoided assassination by disaffected citizens.82

The Montpellier decision required papal ratification. The dispossessed, led by Raymond VI and Raymond Roger of Foix, who had been deprived in 1214, took their case to Rome, where their fate would be decided at the general church council. Montfort’s position was recognized by Louis of France, who, free since Bouvines from the threat of John and Otto IV, visited Languedoc from April to June 1215 in fulfilment of his 1213 vow. His large and distinguished army conducted a triumphal tour, rather than a crusade, seeing no military action but demonstrating, for the first time, active Capetian overlordship of the region. With such powerful support, it came as a surprise that the Montfort cause had such a stiff challenge at the Lateran Council in November, a reflection of the unease felt by the curial lawyers at Montfort’s and successive legates’ pugilistic exercise of church authority. The count of Foix, a vituperative but effective debater, at least in one sympathetic poet’s imagination, challenged the legitimacy of the transfer of power as well as impugning the motives and methods of Montfort, the papal legates and the crusaders.83 He clearly had some effect as the pope ordered the return to Raymond Roger of lands occupied by the invaders. However, with the county of Toulouse, the logic of Innocent’s previous acquiescence produced a judgement in favour of Montfort, except the pope reserved the comital lands east of the Rhêne in Provence to be held by Montfort in trust for Raymond’s young son, the future Raymond VII.84

As in 1209, 1211 and 1213, no sooner won than victory slipped from Montfort’s grasp. Although he received Philip II’s investiture of the Languedoc counties at Melun in April 1216 and managed by the end of that year to have secured control over the troublesome Toulouse, rebellion, led by the younger Raymond, had already begun to sap his control. Montfort’s failure to relieve Raymond’s siege of Beaucaire in August 1216 encouraged further insurrection across the south. As well as the presence of a large pool of disinherited noblemen who knew the people and the country, later pro-crusade commentators pointed to the unpopularity of Montfort’s subordinates fuelling discontent. ‘They held the land for their own satisfaction, not for the purposes for which it had been acquired, or in Christ’s interests, but for their own ends, slaves to lusts and pleasures’.85 The Montfortians steadily lost ground as the dire cycle of violence and hard campaigning renewed itself. Despite increasing depression recorded by a writer close to his entourage, Montfort slogged on, notching significant successes without managing to prevent Raymond VI and his son re-establish a political presence across the county. The French monarchy gave no help to its new vassal, being distracted by its adventure in 1216–17 to place Prince Louis on the English throne. In September 1217, Raymond VI re-entered Toulouse, restricting the Montfortians to the citadel of the Narbonnais castle on its southern wall. Montfort began yet another siege of the city. Despite reinforcements arriving in January 1218, little progress was made. After nine months, the city, fearful of massacre, showed no signs of capitulation. The deadlock was resolved on 25 June. While inspecting forward siege engines, Montfort was struck on the head by a stone thrown from one of the city’s mangonels, operated, some said, by women, crushing his skull. He died instantly, one of the most revered and reviled men ever to have fought for the cross.86

The removal of Montfort shifted the balance of power. Encouraged, young Raymond took the offensive, defeating the crusaders at Baziège late in the year. Pope Honorious III read the auguries and renewed the crusade indulgences in August 1218. A counter-offensive in 1219 led by Louis of France, who had again taken the cross in November 1218 and remained allied to the surviving Montfortians, captured Marmande on the Garonne in June with Montfort’s son and heir Amaury, before laying siege to Toulouse. However, on 1 August, Louis abandoned the struggle, returning to France, as one writer laconically and perhaps without irony remarked, ‘after continuing his crusade for the required period of service’.87 It is hard to see in this foray much more than Capetian flag waving to remind whichever side emerged triumphant of where the ultimate suzerainty lay.

Louis’s withdrawal from Toulouse exposed the full weakness of the Montfortians, dependent on French royal indifference and a pope engaged in prosecuting the crusade in Egypt (1218–21). The main support came from the largely new southern episcopacy, who owed their places and revived finances to the crusade. Amaury of Montfort, lacking his father’s ability, could do little to prevent the unravelling of Simon’s achievement. The clerical tenth proposed in 1221 to assist him provoked fierce resistance.88 By 1222, the year he died, Raymond VI had recovered most of his lands, mainly though the efforts of his son, who succeeded as Raymond VII (1222–49). Foix retained its independence. Even the Trencavel lands reverted to the control of Raymond (1209–47), son of the dispossessed Viscount Raymond Roger. A truce was agreed between Amaury of Montfort and Raymond VII in 1223. The following year Raymond entered the Monfortian stronghold of Carcassonne while Amaury resigned his claims to Louis of France, now Louis VIII. The Albigensian crusade seemed over and lost.

This did not suit Louis VIII, who saw Languedoc not only personally as unfinished business but as part of the wider problem of Capetian control of south-west France, the more urgent since the annexation of Poitou from the king of England in 1224 and the French failure to hold on to Gascony in 1225. Louis managed to get a papal legate to reject Raymond VII’s attempts to get his titles recognized as legitimate at a council in Bourges in December 1225. Both sides prepared for war. Honorius III once more cranked up the machinery of the crusade at the French clergy.89 Unlike his father, Louis had no qualms in embracing the status of crucesignatus. As his son Louis IX was to do to even greater effect, Louis sought to identify his kingship and dynasty with a holy mission, to the advantage as he saw it of both church and state. A pall of legitimacy was lent the new crusade by the undeniable recrudescence of heresy in Languedoc in the wake of the Montfortians’ defeat. King Louis took the cross in January 1226 and marched south in June. Despite a long and costly siege of Avignon (10 June–9 September), which ended in a negotiated surrender, Louis’s passage through Languedoc was largely unopposed. Although Raymond persisted in refusing homage, most lords submitted. Louis died on his way back north on 8 November, probably of dysentery, but this time a fortuitous death did not reverse the trend of events.

In a series of brutal campaigns in 1227 and 1228 led by Humbert of Beaujeu, backed by a nascent network of local Capetian administrators and agents, the annexation of Languedoc was completed. Politically, Raymond VII had nowhere to turn. In January 1229 he agreed terms at Meaux, ratified at Paris on 12 April, when the count underwent public penance in return for reconciliation with the church and his new overlord. The Treaty of Paris ended the Albigensian crusades.90 Raymond retained some lands but crucially his inheritance was to pass on his death to his daughter Jeanne, who was to marry a Capetian prince. Languedoc’s independence was ended. Despite rebellions by Raymond Trencavel in 1240 and Raymond VII himself in 1242, the decision of Meaux/Paris was not reversed. On Raymond’s death in 1249, his lands passed to his son-in-law Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of Louis IX. When he and Raymond’s daughter Jeanne died in 1271, Toulouse was united with the French crown. The Treaty of Paris had summed up the paradox of the Albigensian crusades. Ultimately of radical political effectiveness, in their prime declared objective they failed. At Paris in 1229, Raymond VII promised to prosecute heretics, precisely what his father had been accused of failing to do twenty years before.


With the Treaty of Paris the religious and political future of Languedoc was freed from the association with crusading. The revival of Catharism in the 1220s that coincided with the decline of Montfortian power was checked and reversed through the concerted efforts of the new mechanisms of the Inquisition.91 Established from 1229, and spearheaded by the Dominicans, the Inquisition in Languedoc operated as a series of essentially ad hoc diocesan judicial inquiries. Although standard procedures of investigation, evidence, examination and sentencing were developed, the Inquisition did not become the sinister bureaucratic institution of repression of legend. Its lurid later reputation was largely a creation of the Spanish Inquisition of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century and disapproving Protestant polemicists. The object of each Inquisition was, as its name suggested, to discover who were heretics and to eradicate disbelief by persuasion and reconciliation. Although the accused were prevented from knowing the identities of witnesses, they were permitted to mount a defence. Torture was rare and unsophisticated. Reason, not terror, was the inquisitors’ weapon. A university was founded at Toulouse in 1229 to underpin the ideological basis of the Catholic mission. The combination of new pastoral methods; effective, professional preaching; the dissemination of the systematic moral theology of the schools; and the simplicity and directness of the friars who largely conducted the Inquisition combated Catharism at every level, intellectual, parochial and personal. The punishments reflected the purpose of evangelism. The vast majority of those found guilty of heresy received non-custodial penances. Contumacious or obstinate offenders could expect prison. Only a tiny minority of convicted heretics were handed to the secular authorities to be burnt at the stake. One calculation from hundreds of penalties imposed in mid-thirteenth century Languedoc estimated that death sentences made up 1 per cent, imprisonment 10–11 per cent; the rest lesser penances, including the compulsory wearing of a cross to denote a former heretic. Out of 930 sentences presided over by Bernard Gui, the Dominican inquisitor in Carcassonne from 1308 to 1323, author of a famous inquisitor’s manual, made notorious by Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, only forty-five carried the death penalty, less than 5 per cent.92 Given the prevalence of capital punishment in other areas of justice, this may not appear especially brutal.

As between 1209 and 1229, the greatest violence was provoked by an alliance of religion and politics. The infamous burning of over 200 perfecti at the fall of Montségur to royal troops in March 1244, including Bertrand Marty, the Cathar bishop of Toulouse (1225–44), came in retaliation for the assassination of two chief inquisitors at Avignonet, twenty-five miles south-east of Toulouse, in May 1242. However, the context for the nine-month siege of Montségur was the rebellion of Raymond VII in 1242–3 in alliance with Henry III of England and dissident Poitevins. The protection afforded the Cathars by the lords of Montségur epitomized resistance to the new Capetian and Catholic order. The holocaust of March 1244 spoke not of the Inquisition but the methods inherited from Simon of Montfort.93 The difference lay in the increasing inability of Catharism to sustain such losses to its institutional leadership. Here, in undermining the patronal organization and public networks of heresy, the crusade had contributed directly to the weakening, if not to the eradication, of the Cathars. After the bonfires and dispossessions of 1209–11, Catharism was denied open civil expression, forcing it on to the defensive. With the coalition of church and Capetian state, Cathars were under constant attack, as were their lay sympathizers and protectors. However popular Catharism had been, the decapitation of an effective diocesan structure ensured a slow decline, especially marked after 1250. The Cathars possessed less and less political, social or even ideological protection against the inquisitors and their ecclesiastical and secular allies. Furtive, beleaguered and increasingly seeming parochial, obscurantist and unfashionable, the failure of the brief revival in the Pyrenean foothills in the early fourteenth century to capture the support of the social elites sealed its fate. A flurry of inquisitorial action snuffed it out.94 By the 1330s, Languedoc was free of organized Cathar heresy.

The political legacy of the Albigensian crusades was less equivocal than the religious, suitably for a series of military campaigns in which the secular repeatedly dominated the spiritual. This is not to decry the sincerity of those who saw themselves as soldiers of Christ, nor of those laymen and clerks who genuinely feared the cancerous growth of heresy. However, it remains inescapable that the Albigensian crusades failed to destroy heresy while succeeding in annexing Languedoc to the Capetian dynasty. This may not have been the intention of the crusaders of 1209, yet Innocent III had persistently tried to involve Philip II, recognizing the force of using a strong state to recreate a strong church. It is equally apparent that this new order established the necessary conditions in which heresy could be destroyed. To the committed, this may mitigate the religious failure of the Albigensian crusades.

The crusades did not destroy a region. The economy of Languedoc proved very resilient.95 Once the fighting was ended, prosperity returned. What was lost was religious and political pluralism, always hard to sustain, not just in thirteenth-century Europe. The career of Oliver, heir to the Corbières lordship of Termes, famously charted the process.96 Termes had been a Cathar centre lost to the crusaders in 1210. By the early 1220s, Oliver had regained it after submitting to Capetian authority in 1219. However, throughout the 1220s, Oliver supported Languedoc resistance, first Raymond Trencavel, then, after 1226, Raymond VII of Toulouse, while retaining close links with Cathar perfecti. Despite losing Termes and being forced to renew fealty to the French king in 1228, Oliver continued to oppose the new regime and the Inquisition from his vertiginous stronghold of Queribus, north of Perpignan, which became a refuge for Cathars and other political dissidents. After joining the revolts of 1240 and 1242, Oliver was excommunicated. Reconciliation with the Capetian authorities ironically only came with his agreement in 1247 to join Louis IX’s crusade to Egypt. Many Languedoc rebels, including Raymond VII, found the Holy Land crusade imposed as a penance. Oliver seems to have taken to it. He stayed east until 1255 and returned to Outremer in 1264, 1267–70 and, in 1273–4, as commander of the French garrison at Acre, where he died in 1274. The quid pro quo for his service was the return of lands in Languedoc and his and his family’s absolute loyalty and orthodoxy: no more independence in politics or religion. Oliver’s late devotion to holy war suggests a fluid but serious piety grounded in the reality of temporal opportunities. Not a pacifist, he serially supported two highly contrasting strands of thirteenth-century belief, Catharism and crusade, each determined by conflicting political allegiance but indicating that the contending ideologies reflected a shared cultural desire for active religious purity.

Oliver was not alone among Cathar sympathizers or even credentes in taking the cross as a positive sign of reconciliation with the church. However, such a path was denied the hapless Raymond VI, one of the most excommunicated men of the middle ages. His fate was to find himself in an impossible position. Unable to mount effective diplomatic or military resistance to his enemies, neither could he achieve what they asked of him even if he had been disposed to do so. The contrast with his father Raymond V’s attempt to suppress the Cathars in 1179 probably lay not with Raymond VI’s personal religious tastes; he was an active patron of the Hospitallers. Rather, by his accession in 1194, the Cathars had become too entrenched socially as well as religiously. Short of a disruptive and devastating conquest of his own lands, for which he had neither the appetite nor the resources, it is hard to see what Raymond could have done to appease Innocent III’s implacable legates and their military enforcer Montfort, who, in any case, was after Raymond’s lands. The personal bitterness directed at Raymond is difficult to understand; his iconic significance less so. He was the epitome of the fautor, the heretic’s accomplice. As such, there appeared no forgiveness, even beyond the grave. In 1222, Raymond had died technically excommunicate, prevented by his final stroke from making oral confession to the abbot of St Sernin.97 His body, covered in a pall provided by the Hospitallers, was refused burial. Despite repeated appeals by his son and numerous ecclesiastical inquiries, his coffin remained unburied in the precincts of the Hospitaller house in Toulouse, where it was still to be seen over a century later, the shrouded body half-eaten by rats. By 1515, the worm-ridden coffin had collapsed in pieces and the bones had gone, except for the skull. This was kept by the Hospitallers, who, as late as the 1690s, used to show it off to the morbid and the curious.98 There was something appropriate in this exhibition of antiquarian bad taste. The gruesome relic represented both the eternal vengeance of a church so badly rattled that it could not forgive or forget and the only too obvious corruption of the flesh. A Cathar might have drawn a succinct moral.

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