The Cathars have several things in common with the Templars. They were celibate, they were accused of heresy, they were supposed to have a hidden treasure, and they were wiped out. And one thing more: they are pulled into all sorts of interesting speculations on subjects that they had nothing to do with, such as the Grail.
Who were the Cathars?
The religion contained beliefs that had been floating around for centuries, perhaps millennia. Looking at the cruelty and essential unfairness of life, some people have decided that a good god could not be responsible for such a mess. Instead of assuming that God was testing people or punishing them for their sins, these people came to the conclusion that God was not all-powerful. Some forms of this belief assumed that there must be two gods, one good and one evil, in constant battle over humanity. In religions that assumed one all-powerful god, this evil force, or the devil, was still under the control of heaven. The Cathars were among those who gave the devil a more dominant role in human fate.
The belief that the world is evil led to the belief that the evil god is responsible not just for the bad things in the world but also for the world itself. The good god rules in heaven and wishes to have human souls go (or return) there. In that case, everything that has to do with property or procreation is detestable because it just lengthens the time spent away from heaven. This means that truly devout dualists eat nothing that has been produced through sex, not meat, eggs, or milk products. At least one heretic hunter said that one way to spot them was because they were so pale.1
There were many varieties of this two-god belief. Some scholars have tried to trace the Cathars back to the early Gnostic Christians or the Manichians, a late Roman religion that fascinated Saint Augustine for a time.2 But, while some of the beliefs are similar, it’s likely that they were not directly connected.
The religion that became Catharism apparently developed in what is now Bosnia in the mid tenth century and established itself in Bulgaria. The first known preacher of a coherent theology was a Bulgarian priest who named himself Bogomil, which means “worthy of the pity of God.”3 From a sermon we have that was written against them by Cosmos, a tenth-century priest, it seems the Bogomils were one of many groups that wanted to reform the Christian church rather than secede from it. They did not venerate the cross, for why glorify a murder weapon? They pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the church authorities, something that Cosmos was forced to agree with. But he was shocked that they rejected the whole Old Testament and allowed only part of the New Testament.4
Cosmos complained that the Bogomils were falsely religious, that they were humble and fasted just for effect. They carried the Gospels with them but misinterpreted it. One of the worst of these mistakes was that “everything exists by the will of the devil: the sky, sun, stars, air, earth, man, churches, crosses: everything which emanates from God, they ascribe to the devil.”5Finally, these heretics saw no need for priests, confessing instead to each other and forgiving each other.
These two beliefs were what set the dualists apart from other Christians and it was a difference that could not be bridged.
In the mid twelfth century, there were many reform movements. Some were sanctioned by the Church and resulted in new monastic orders, such as the Cistercians and the Franciscans. Some were deemed heretical and forbidden, like the Waldensians and the Cathars. There were many in that time who were dissatisfied with what was happening in their lives and in the world. They were open to alternate beliefs, especially if these were preached using the stories about Jesus that they already knew and if they railed against the corruption of the church administration.
The religion of the Bogomils slowly worked its way into western Europe, following the trade routes through Italy, the Rhineland, and southern France, where it was only one of many that people were being presented with.
For example, in the early twelfth century a preacher named Henry came to the town of Le Mans and asked the bishop, Hildebert, for a license to preach. Hildebert granted it then left for a trip to Rome. When the bishop returned, he discovered that the people had decided to reject the clergy. He was not allowed back into his own town. Eventually, Hildebert regained control. Henry recanted his heresies and went into a monastery. But he was soon out again and off preaching somewhere else.6Apart from a strong dislike of the clergy, it’s not certain what Henry believed, but that may have been enough to make him popular.
Another man who preached for nearly twenty years (c. 1116-1136) was Peter of Bruys. He spent most of his time in the Rhone Valley, in the southeastern part of France. Some of Peter’s “heresies” resurfaced as doctrine in later Protestant churches. His main points were that infant baptism is pointless, for one must be at the age of reason to accept religion; that churches are unnecessary, “since God hears as well when invoked in a tavern as in a church”, that the cross, as an instrument of torture, should not be adored; that the Mass is not a sacrament; and that prayers and offerings for the dead are useless, for the dead are beyond human help.7
Henry never was punished. Peter tried to burn a cross in the town of St. Gilles and was instead tossed on the fire by the enraged citizens.
Peter and Henry were only two of many wandering preachers. Some of them attracted followers and formed communities. Most of them didn’t. Few ever got as far as writing down their doctrines. They were not just in the south of France but all over Europe.
The first hint that the Cathar sect of the Bogomils had come west was in the early 1140s, when the prior of a monastery near Cologne, Germany, wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux, asking him to preach against a group of heretics in the area. These had some of the practices of the Cathars, especially that of baptism of adults by the laying on of hands, rather than with water, but we don’t know enough about them to be sure.8
In 1145, Bernard went south to preach against heretics. At the time, he was concerned with the followers of Peter and Henry but he also ran across some people that his companion and biographer, Geoffrey of Auxerre, called “Arians.” He didn’t elaborate on them but the implication is that they had a belief about the nature of Christ that differed from the Church’s. He thought they were mostly cloth workers and that there “were many who followed this heresy, mostly in this city” [Toulouse].9But, as yet, the Cathars were too small a group to attract much attention.
Over the next forty years, however, the Cathar movement exploded throughout Occitania. The reasons for this have been puzzled over for centuries, for in other places they did die out after having some initial success. It seems to have been a combination of a lack of leadership in the local church, the appeal of the doctrine, the commendable behavior of the believers, and an acceptance of women on an equal footing with men. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were in the majority among the Cathars. They were allowed to become priests, and I’m sure that many thought it high time.
Unlike most of the heretical sects, the Cathars were well organized. By the 1160s they had their own priests and bishops.10 This made them far more visible and far more threatening than other heretical groups. It also meant that members were not supporting their local priests, either morally or financially.
The Cathars were divided into two groups. The majority of them were known as credentes, or believers. They tried to live a good life according to the faith, but did not practice the extreme renunciation of the flesh that the second group, the perfecti, did. As the name implies, the perfecti held themselves to a much higher standard of behavior. Their time was spent in fasting, prayer, and preaching. They were celibate and ate no meat, eggs, or cheese.
At first various orders sent preachers to the Cathars to try to convince them of their errors. Much of the information we have about them comes from arguments written by these preachers, but it is possible to figure out many of the Cathar beliefs from the rebuttals that were made. For instance, “they [the perfecti] falsely claimed that they kept themselves chaste, they sought to give the impression of never telling a lie, when they lied constantly, especially concerning God; and they held that one should never for any reason take an oath.... They felt, in truth, more secure and unbridled in their sinning because they believed that they would be saved, without restitution of ill-gotten gains, without confession and penance, so long as they were able in the last throes of death to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and receive the imposition of hands by their officials.”11
From this we can assume that they were chaste, tried not to lie, didn’t take oaths, and didn’t believe in the intercession of priests. They also had a kind of baptism, called the consolamentum, that one could take only once. As with baptism in the early days of Christianity, many believers waited until their deathbeds to take this. How many people can be certain that they won’t backslide? That’s why those who accepted the consolamentum early were so honored as perfect ones.
Finally, it was considered by the pope, Innocent III, and many others that the situation was out of control. Even the count of Toulouse, Raymond VI, was considered to be, if not a Cathar, at least a sympathizer.12 In 1208, Pope Innocent excommunicated Raymond VI and called for a crusade against the Cathars.13
The resulting war was long and terrible. At the end, the Cathars were decimated and most of Occitania was under the control of the king of France.
The last stand of the Cathars took place at the fortress of Montségur on top of a rugged mountain in southern France. A group of several hundred had held out against the French army for nearly two years. Finally they realized they would have to surrender. On March 14, 1244, the defenders of the fortress came down the steep path and calmly walked to the pyre that had been prepared for them. Over two hundred men, women, and children died in the flames, including the most important leaders of the church.
A persistent and unsupported legend holds that on the night before the Cathars surrendered and were taken to the pyre, a treasure was lowered down the cliff upon which the Cathar castle of Montségur was perched. Since it is supposed to be a secret treasure important enough to die for, with no evidence that it ever existed, of course some versions of the legend say that it was eventually given to the Templars.
Looking at the fortress of Montségur, I find it hard to imagine how large treasure chests could have been lowered down, by night, with an enemy army all around. I do find it easy to understand how the Cathers and their supporters could have held out there for so long.
So what was the relationship of the Templars to the Cathars?
The fortress of Montségur. (Sharan Newman)
A popular but deeply flawed book posited that some of the Cathars were secret Templars and that one of the Grand Masters, Bertrand of Blancfort (or Blanchefort), was a Cathar, from a Cathar family, and that the Templars provided a refuge for the Cathars.14This is footnoted(!), so I went to see the proofs the authors gave.
The first, that Bertrand was a Cathar, is based on two Templar charters from the 1130s, ten years before there is any mention of Cathars in Occitania.15Well, I thought, trying to keep an open mind, maybe the family converted early. However, when I went to look at the charters, I discovered that Bertrand of Blancfort was not in them. It was Bernard de Blanchefort, an entirely different person. They may have been related, but there is no indication of that. Also, the book that the authors used is a compilation of Templar charters from many archives. These particular ones come from the Cartulaires de Douzens, one of the earliest of the Templar commanderies in Occitania.16So I went to check that.
The commandery at Douzens has several more charters from Bernard de Blanchefort. All of them are group donations, in which Bernard is giving property along with several of his neighbors. Still, it is established that in the 1130s the family were donating to the Temple. As a matter of fact, in 1147, Bernard’s niece gave land to Douzens.17 Does that mean that the family were Templar supporters? Probably; of course, they may have just been going with the group. Does that mean that Grand Master Bertrand of Blancfort was a member of that family? No. There are a number of Blancfort/Blancheforts in France. We need more evidence.
We also need more evidence for the statement that the family was Cathar, whether or not Bertrand was a member of it. Most of the people in Occitania were not active members of the Cathar church.
What about the charge that the Templars offered shelter to Cathars? The footnote for that is “A document found in the archives of the Bruyères and Mauléon family records how the Templars of Compagne and Albedune (le Bézu) established a house of refuge for Cathar ‘bonhommes.’ This document and others disappeared during the war, sometime in November, 1942” (emphasis mine).18
Apart from lost documents that were apparently never copied, there is no evidence that the Templars had anything to do with the Cathars. They refused to fight against the heretics for the same reason that they refused to join the crusade against Constantinople or get involved in the wars of the popes. Their job was to fight Saracens and regain land for Christianity.
William of Puylaurens, a chronicler of the crusades against the Cathars, rarely mentions the Templars, but when he does, it’s always on the side of the Roman Church. When Cathar sympathizer Count Raymond of Toulouse ordered that his brother, Baldwin, be hanged, “The brothers Templar asked for and were granted possession of his body, which they took down from the gallows-tree and buried in the cloister at Lavilledieu near to the church.”19
It’s popular now to think of the crusade against the Cathars as something done by outside forces, the pope and the king of France. But it was also a civil war. Baldwin had taken the side of the Church against his brother. The Templars were on his side.
The same group of Templars also gave shelter to the bishop of Toulouse, who could not get into the city while the Cathars held it.20
It’s certain that the Templars in Occitania knew Cathars and were even related to some. Everyone was. The schism divided many families. 21 One scholar who has tried to find contacts between the Templars and the Cathars only came up with the names of three men who were tried for heresy, all after their deaths. Each had donated or sold land to the Templars of Mas Deu. Two were found innocent.22 The third man, Pierre de Fenouillet, had received the last rites and been buried at Mas Deu in 1242. At the trial, twenty years later, it was said that he was a practicing Cathar and that the Templars had allowed the perfecti to come to the commandery and give Pierre the consolamentum . Pierre was convicted; his bones were dug up and burned.23
Did this really happen? I don’t know. The Inquisition doesn’t have a great record for accuracy, but it’s possible. If it is true, does it mean that the Templars of Mas Deu were heretics? No. There are lots of other reasons why they might have allowed Pierre to be buried in their cemetery. If Pierre had been a rich patron or just a good friend, they might have looked the other way. It’s hard to refuse the wish of a dying man, especially if he’s someone you know and like.
A few years before the death of Pierre de Fenouillet, the commander of Mas Deu had been a witness for the prosecution at the trial of the Cathars.24
There is absolutely no evidence that the Templars were Cathars or Cathar sympathizers. The Hospitallers, on the other hand, are known to have taken in and protected Count Raymond VI while he was under excommunication for heresy.25
So why weren’t the Hospitallers the ones who were supposed to have helped the Cathars save their treasure? It couldn’t be because the Templars had been accused of heresy and suppressed and therefore couldn’t be questioned about it. Of course not. It is true that the charges against the Templars were written with the intention of reminding people of the Cathars, who really had been outside of orthodox belief. But there are no similarities between real belief of the Cathars and those of the Templars. Both groups were accused of worshipping a black cat. Both were accused of homosexuality, the Cathars because they preached against procreation and the Templars because they were a bunch of young fighting men who had taken vows of chastity and we all know what that leads to, don’t we?
No serious scholar has ever found a connection between them.
Cosmos, “Sermon against Bogomilism, 970,” in Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, ed. Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980) p. 109.
Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy (Cambridge University Press, 1947).
Peters, “Introduction to the Cathars,” in Heresy and Authority, p. 104.
Cosmos, pp. 112-13.
Ibid., pp. 113-14.
Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans ed. and tr., Heresies of the High Middle Ages (Columbia University Press, 1969) pp. 107-15.
Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, “Against the Petrobrusians,” in Wakefield and Evans, pp. 120-21.
Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Cistercians, Heresy and Crusade in Occitania 1145-1229 (York Medieval Press, Boydell, Woodbridge, 2001) pp. 82-84.
Geoffrey of Auxerre, “Vita Bernardi,” “ex his vero qui favebant haeresi illi plurimi erant et maximi civitatis illius.” Bernard of Clairvaux, Omni Opera, Vol IV p. 227.
Élie Griffe, L’Aventure Cathare 1140-1190 (Paris, 1966) p. 39.
Peter of Vaux-de Cernay, “A Description of Cathazrs and Waldenses,” in Wakefield and Evans, p. 239.
Joseph Strayer, The Albigensian Crusades (Michigan University Press, 1992; rpt. of 1971 ed.) p. 59.
Michael Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusades (Manchester University Press, 1997) p. 120.
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (New York: Random House, 1982) p. 70. This book needs an entire team of scholars to explain all the mistakes in it. I would be happy to volunteer to be one of them.
Marquis d’Albon, Cartulaire Général de l’Ordre du Temple 1119?-1150 (Paris, 1913) p. 41, charter no. 41, and p. 112, charter no. 160.
Ibid., and Cartulaires des Templier de Douzens ed. Pierre Gérard and Élisabeth Magnou (Paris, 1965) p. 49, charter no. A 38, and p. 164, charter no. A 185.
Douzens, pp. 180-81, charter A 207.
Baigent et al., p. 515. That’s why footnotes are so important.
W. A. Sibly and M. D. Sibly tr., The Chronicle of William of Puylaurens (Boydell, Woodbridge, 2003) p. 50.
Ibid., p. 77.
For a start on learning about Cathars, see Malcolm Barber, The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages (London: Longman, 2000); also Griffe, Strayer, Wakefield and Evans, and Peters, cited above.
Robert Vinas, L’Ordre du Temple en Roussillon (Trabucaire, Carnet, 2001) p. 113.
Ibid., pp. 113-14.
Ibid., p. 114.
Dominic Sellwood, Knights of the Cloister: Templars and Hospitallers in Central-Southern Occitania 1100-1300 (Boydell, Woodbridge, 1999) p. 110.