Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Three



Between 1209 and 1210, the knights of the Albigensian Crusade attack the Christians of southern France

WHILE JOHN LACKLAND was refilling the English treasury, Philip II of France was carefully firming up his hold on the newly conquered lands in Western Francia. The defeat of John had almost doubled the size of his kingdom. Now he had to make marriages between his relatives and the noble families of Western Francia, give gifts of land and privilege, and mount the occasional short, sharp siege to remind his new vassals where their loyalties lay.1

In 1209, he found himself facing a new crisis—and this one had not been generated by his counterpart across the English Channel. In the south of France, in the lands between the Rhone river and the rough Pyrenees range, a heresy had grown into a way of life.

Heresy: a departure from orthodoxy that was not merely dangerous, but placed the thinker outside the gates of the kingdom of God. Heresy was more than error. Error was wrong belief; error became heresy when the believer, confronted by the Church’s condemnation, refused to give it up.

Disagreements about Christian doctrines went all the way back to the days of the apostles, when (according to the Book of Acts), the leaders of the Christian church met in Jerusalem to discuss which Jewish laws Gentile converts should follow. Afterwards, the apostle Paul himself used the decisions of this first church council to point out—rather sharply—errors in the way his fellow apostle Peter was handling himself around Gentiles.*

But he did not label Peter a heretic. For heresy to exist—not just individual error, but belief that stepped all the way outside the framework of the Christian faith—there had to be a framework.

This had been provided by the emperor Constantine all the way back in 325, when he had called all Christian bishops together at Nicaea to hammer out a creed, a statement of orthodoxy. The Nicene Creed was the first official fence built around the Christian faith to define who was in and who was out.*And the Nicene Creed, approved by Constantine, also created the ability to punish heresy with the sword. Before Nicaea, Christians could accuse each other of error all they wanted, but argument and excommunication were the sharpest swords they could wield. After Nicaea, bishops had much more power: they could ask the emperor to enforce the creed he had sponsored with political might.

Not everyone thought this was a good idea—particularly those who happened to be on the outside of the creed. Writing nearly a century later, Augustine notes that the fourth-century heretics known as Donatists complained that “the apostles never sought such measures from the kings of the earth.” But, Augustine continues, that was only because in the apostles’ day, the kings of the earth didn’t believe in Christ. Now, a Christian king could serve God “by enforcing with suitable rigor such laws as ordain what is righteous, and punish what is the reverse.” This included not just wrong actions, but wrong beliefs.

“Why,” Augustine asks, “should adulteries be punished by the laws, and sacrilege allowed? Is it a lighter matter that a soul should not keep faith with God, than that a woman should be faithless to her husband?”

It is indeed better . . . that men should be led to worship God by teaching, than that they should be driven to it by fear of punishment or pain; but . . . many have found advantage (as we have proved, and are daily proving by actual experiment) in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that they might afterwards be influenced by teaching. . . . Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return?2

In the medieval world, heretics had often been duly compelled by fear and pain. But they were not, generally speaking, punished with the sword.† The Theodosian Code of 438 made heresy an imperial crime, but most of the penalties deprived the heretics of property and certain rights; heretics could be fined or exiled, and were not allowed to serve in the imperial service. And although heretics who persisted in gathering followers and teaching them were threatened with “the sharp goads of a more severe punishment,” this was rarely carried out.3

Nor had there been, in the previous centuries, any large-scale effort to hunt down heretics and execute them. Teachers who published and gathered students, such as Peter Abelard, often drew the notice of their fellow priests, but like Abelard they were usually threatened with imprisonment and financial loss, not death.*

But in the previous century, heresies had begun to spring up, particularly across the south of Francia, with renewed vigor.

Most often, these heresies were the teachings not of academics or priests but of charismatic laypeople who gathered larger and larger popular followings. These charismatic heretics had different preoccupations, but at some point all of them made the same claim: the organized Church was fallen and corrupt and had nothing to do with true spiritual life. In Milan, a band of dissidents claimed that the Holy Spirit visited them daily, making priests and pope completely unnecessary. At Cologne, a small group of rebels against Rome began to preach that “he who sits in the Chair of Peter has lost the power to ordain,” because the papacy had been “corrupted through involvement in secular business.” In the last quarter of the twelfth century, a wandering preacher named Peter Waldo gathered an enormous following by preaching that the Church hierarchy was corrupt, that priests ought to give up their positions and work with their hands, and that it was “a bad thing to found and endow churches and monasteries.” His followers, known as the Waldensians, traveled through the French countryside, preaching a stripped-down, evangelical-style gospel of repentance: “They say,” writes the thirteenth-century chronicler Reinerius Saccho, “that the doctrine of Christ . . . is sufficient for salvation without the statutes of the church.”4

None of this was good news for the pope, but until the fall of Constantinople, the attentions of Rome had been focused farther to the east. And the locals were often tolerant of the heretics. “Why do you not expel these people and shun them?” a priest in southern Francia demanded of a local knight. “We cannot do that,” the knight answered, “for we were raised with them, and we have relatives among them, and we see that they lead honest and decent lives.”5

But with the Crusades once again failing, Innocent III was willing to look closer to home. And the heresy now flourishing in the south was stronger and more radical than any seen before. The believers called themselves the Pure Ones: in Greek, katharos; to the church they opposed, the Cathars. Cathar beliefs were complicated, and the Cathars themselves had already split into more than one sect.* But all Cathars were dualists, dividing all things in the universe into good and evil, light and dark. As their contemporary Pierre des Vaux de Cernay writes, they held that there were two creators: “. . . one of invisible things, whom they called the benevolent god, and another of visible things, whom they named the malevolent god. The New Testament they attributed to the benevolent god but the Old Testament to the malevolent god, and rejected it altogether.”6 To be pure, the Cathars resisted as much interaction with the material world as possible: they fasted, rejected sex, and suffered through marathons of prayer and meditation.

They also rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, since this required the benevolent God to tie himself to the enslaving, corrupt material world. This made Catharism a dangerous heresy; but even more dangerous, as de Cernay notes, was their attitude towards the authority of the church. “They said,” he writes, “that almost all the Church of Rome was a den of thieves, and that it was the harlot of which we read in the Apocalypse.”7

These beliefs, quietly spreading through the south since the 1140s, had found a particularly receptive home in the southern province of Languedoc, bordering the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea. Languedoc was a relatively lawless chunk of Western Francia, where the authority of the local counts was weak and the local priests were poor, uneducated, and superstitious. To the people of Languedoc, Catharism offered a new kind of power: an authority centered only within themselves, a chance to rise through the ranks of the Cathars to the shining elite ranks of the perfected.

Innocent III had not been unaware of the gathering Cathar strength. In 1203 he had sent papal representatives to Languedoc to evaluate the strength of the movement, and in 1206 he had granted the request of a local priest to be allowed to preach in Languedoc, in an effort to evangelize the Cathars back into the orthodox fold. The priest, Dominic de Guzman, hailed from just over the mountains in Castile. He believed that the Cathars could be turned back to orthodoxy, if they saw that an orthodox clergyman could also lead an ascetic and pure lifestyle; he had met the papal representatives on their journey through Languedoc and been unimpressed by their approach. They were, he thought, displaying altogether too much pride and pomp. “It is not by the display of power and pomp, calvacades of retainers, and . . . gorgeous apparel, that these heretics win proselytes,” he complained. “It is by zealous preaching, by apostolic humilty, by austerity. . . . Zeal must be met by zeal; false sanctitity by real sanctity; preaching falsehood by preaching truth.” He himself traveled through Languedoc barefoot, arguing with the Cathars one on one.8

But this humble approach made little headway, and the Cathars continued to flourish.

Meanwhile, the official representatives of the pope were experiencing the same lack of success. Finding the Cathars themselves deaf to their preaching, they traveled to Toulouse and demanded a meeting with Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse, the overlord of Languedoc.

Raymond VI, himself an orthodox Christian, was one of the powerful noblemen who had long ringed the land of the king of France and restricted his power. He was inclined to act as independently as possible. When the legates arrived and insisted on seeing him, they ordered him imperiously to take action against the heretics in his land; Raymond, set on edge by the abrasive assumption of authority, refused to listen.

At this, one of the legates, Pierre de Castelnau, summarily excommunicated him. This brought any discussion to an immediate end. Raymond dismissed the legates brusquely and shut his gates against them.

William of Tudela, who knew all the parties involved and wrote his own account of the events that followed, tells us that as the legates traveled back northwards, “an evil-hearted squire, hoping to win the count’s approval, stepped like a traitor behind the legate, drove his sharp sword into his spine, and killed him. . . . You can be sure that the pope was not pleased.”9

He was, in fact, furious. No one accused Raymond himself of involvement, but Raymond certainly expressed no sorrow over Pierre de Castelnau’s death. The growing ecclesiastical problem had now been joined by a political one.

Thanks to the resurrection of the crusading impulse, Innocent III had a solution to hand. He declared a crusade—not just against the Cathars but against the orthodox Raymond as well. All of Raymond’s subjects were absolved from their obedience to him; anyone who took up the sword against the Count of Toulouse would be given absolution of sin and all the privileges awarded to Crusaders who had made the long, dangerous journey to Jerusalem; and anyone who took wealth or property away from a Cathar could keep it.10

Once again, the idea of crusade had expanded. For the Wendish Crusade against the Slavic tribes in northern Germany, it had been puffed into a size that could accommodate war against non-Christians living in Christian lands. Now it was distended further, to encompass not only unorthodox Christians but a thoroughly orthodox brother whose only offense was his refusal to take political commands from Rome.

In the past, the pope had used spiritual weapons—excommunication and interdict—to face such defiance. Now the sword of crusade was added to his armory.

Languedoc was close, its castles were wealthy, and the prospect of gain was great. By the middle of 1210, ten thousand Crusaders strong had gathered in Lyons, ready to march south. King Philip II himself begged off, offering as an excuse the need to stay in Paris and keep his defenses against John strong. But among the Crusaders assembled at Lyons was Simon de Montfort, the dispossessed Earl of Leicester. Barred from England, he had found a new cause in Western Francia.

Raymond was stubborn, not stupid. When he heard of the huge force assembled against him, he sent the pope a message of abject repentance, and joined the Crusade himself.

The war that followed lasted twenty years. It was known as the Albigensian Crusade, a name taken from one of the Cathar sects known as Albigenses, but it was fought, wholesale, against all Cathars, all supporters of Cathars, and anyone suspected of Catharism: a vicious and indiscriminate war.

At first, the Crusaders organized under the supreme command of one of the surviving papal legates: Arnold, the Abbot of Cisteaux. He led them southward to the city of Béziers, south of Lyon, across the Hérault river. Béziers was home to both Cathars and orthodox Christians, and the bishop of Béziers (“an excellent man,” says William of Tudela) went out to remonstrate with the army. He was told that if the Catholics would “quit the city and leave the heretics behind,” they would be spared. But when he returned to Béziers with this message, the citizens refused to desert their homes. “The majority of the townspeople said . . . that the crusaders should not get so much as a pennyworth of their possessions from them,” William adds. It was clear, even across a stone wall, that the Crusaders, zealous for the cause of the Church, were not unmindful of the wealth of Languedoc.11

This presented the Crusaders with a small problem, and several of the French knights came to the Abbot of Cisteaux asking how they were supposed to tell the Christians and the heretics (bonos et malos) apart during a siege. “Kill them all,” the Abbot answered. “The Lord knows which ones belong to him.”12

Caedite eos: Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. The sentence, recorded by the scholar-monk Caesarius of Heisterbach in his Dialogue of Miracles, may not be exactly what fell from the Abbot’s lips, but the sack of Béziers that followed suggests that the order was conveyed. De Cernay tells us that when the city’s defenses were breached, “almost all” of the inhabitants were killed, “from the youngest to the oldest.” “They killed everyone who fled into the church,” William of Tudela writes, “no cross or altar or crucifix could save them . . . they killed the clergy too, and the women and the children. . . . So terrible a slaughter has not been known or consented to, I think, since the time of the Saracens.” The city burned, with many of the survivors trapped inside the flames. It was July 22, 1209.13


33.1 The Albigensian Crusade

The Crusaders then marched on towards the city of Carcassonne, arriving there on August 1 and laying siege to the walls. Carcassonne was already overstuffed with refugees who had fled into it in front of the advancing army. After just two weeks, the populace surrendered.

After Carcassonne, the Abbot of Cisteaux expressed a wish to go back to his monastery. So the Crusaders elected a new leader: Simon de Montfort, who had distinguished himself in the fighting. Innocent III confirmed the election by declaring Montfort not only general of the Crusaders but also ruler of all lands “conquered or to be conquered” during the Crusade.

Simon de Montfort, now aged forty-nine, was at loose ends after losing his lands to King John. He was “a tough fighting man,” writes his contemporary William of Tudela; tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome, says the French chronicler Pierre des Vaux de Cernay, “extremely experienced in warfare, tireless . . . and totally dedicated to the service of God.” Montfort had followed Philip II on the Fourth Crusade but had left it at Zara, when it began to lose its focus. Now Montfort became the strategist and driving force of the Albigensian Crusade and, soon, the agent of its greatest cruelties.

After wintering in Languedoc, Montfort led the Crusader armies westward across southern Francia. In the spring of 1210, he arrived at the town of Bram, protected only by a wall and single gate from attack. Inside Bram, once again, Catholics and Cathars joined to fight against the attack.

Within three days, Bram fell, and Montfort displayed for the first time the vindictiveness that would mark his campaigning. As punishment for resisting the armies of God, he ordered the eyes of the defenders put out (“over a hundred in number,” says Pierre des Vaux de Cernay) and their noses cut off.14

After Bram, a string of towns and castles fell to Crusader attack: Alaric, Termes, Lastours, and Minerve, where Monfort ordered 140 captured “perfected heretics” burned alive, both men and women.

And watching Montfort and his companions laying claim to one tract of Languedoc land after another, Raymond VI of Toulouse began to see that the Crusade would, ultimately, bring an end not just to Catharism but to his own power.


*See Acts 15, the account of the council in Jerusalem, and Galatians 2:11–16, where Paul corrects Peter’s errors in his dealings with Gentiles.

*See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 3–12.

†The Gallic bishop Priscillian, executed in 385 for teaching magic to his followers, is thought to have been the first Christian heretic to suffer death.

*An isolated execution of heretics had taken place in 1022, when a handful of men and women in Orleans, claiming secret knowledge that was available only to initiates, had been burned to death with the approval of Robert the Pious, second king of the Capetian dynasty; but this was the first official execution for heresy in over seven hundred years. In 1028, the Archbishop of Milan had offered a handful of ascetics who rejected the Church’s authority the choice between recantation and death by fire; several chose fire. Two other burnings of heretics followed, one in 1114 in Soissons and a second in 1143 at Cologne; but in both cases the heretics, after speaking publicity about their anti-orthodox opinions, were tossed into bonfires built by indignant laypeople, without the approval of the local clergy; these were more like lynchings than executions.

*Catharism was closely related to an earlier belief system preached in Bulgaria by a tenth-century priest named Bogomil. Bogomilism spread from Bulgaria down into Serbia and Bosnia, and eastward as far as Constantinople, and Bogomil missionaries traveling to Italy and Western Francia probably provided the seed from which Catharism grew. However, Bogomilism never posed a serious political threat to the Bulgarian kings, and the patriarch of Constantinople was never in a position to organize a campaign against it. The sect survived into the fourteenth century, but then seems to have disintegrated on its own. Dimitri Obolensky provides a useful and readable overview from an eastern perspective in “The Bogomils,” Byzantium and the Slavs (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), chap. 10.

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