Post-classical history


They burned them with joy in their hearts.

Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay, History of the Albigensian Crusade

After the sensational revelations of Henri de Marci’s ‘pre-crusade’ in 1181–2 we hear little more about heresy in the lands of the count of Toulouse for almost two decades. As always, the level of anxiety reflected the political preoccupations of the outsiders who expressed it. During those years the papacy was absorbed in resistance to the claims of the emperor and the communes in Italy, while the kings of England and France played out their rivalry on other stages, including the Holy Land. Soon after his election in 1198, however, Innocent III appointed as legates to the archiepiscopal province of Narbonne two Cistercian monks, Guy and his own confessor, Rainer of Ponza. They were empowered to excommunicate heretics, place lands under interdict, order the confiscation of property and correct clerical abuses. Rainer and Guy were the first of a succession of Cistercian legates to the region, of whom Peter of Castelnau, appointed in 1203, was the most energetic and uncompromising. As Innocent’s legates, they harried and replaced the senior clergy of the region, denounced its lords as protectors of heresy and occasionally and reluctantly engaged in debate with prominent good men, as the ‘heretics’ were known.

Innocent’s intention was not only to attack heretics and their supporters but also to revive catholicism through a great campaign of preaching. In 1203 he renewed that objective by appointing as an additional legate the abbot of Cîteaux himself, Arnold Amalric, and instructing the order to provide monks to accompany him. In doing so, he brought to the region a figure of legendary determination and intransigence, one of the most influential in working out its fate in the years to come.

There is no sign that the renewed evangelism was particularly effective, even when the efforts of the Cistercians were supplemented in 1206 and 1207 by Bishop Diego of Osma and Dominic Guzman of Calaruega. The newcomers, observing the failure of the well-equipped and amply provisioned entourages of the legates to undermine the influence of the good men, took to the roads barefoot and in pairs, in the apostolic tradition of their adversaries. They engaged the good men in public debate, sometimes for prolonged periods – eight days at Servian, fifteeen at Montréal – as the Waldensians and the Poor Catholics led by Durand of Osca were also doing. This was a sharp break from the Cistercian style. A precedent had been set in 1204, however, when King Pedro II of Aragon arranged for both good men and Waldensians to dispute with catholics before him and the legates at Carcassonne, and pronounced both heretical. The new approach won Dominic the admiration of his fellow catholics and made him the founder of an important and influential religious order. It is doubtful whether it had much immediate impact, however, beyond confirming to the offended Cistercians their stereotype of the region as one in which heresy was preached openly, and catholics subjected thereby to persecution.


The efforts of the legates included an ecclesiastical purge. Between 1204 and 1213 two archbishops and seven bishops were deposed or suspended as insufficiently active against the heretics, or unduly sympathetic to those who protected them. Several of them were replaced by Cistercians. This repeated the pattern set by Henri de Marci’s removal of Pons d’Arsac in 1181, of replacing local men by outsiders, on pretexts of varying plausibility as to their fitness for their positions. Innocent III promoted and justified this policy, reviling the bishops of the Languedoc as ‘dogs that no longer bark’ and denouncing their avarice, morals, slothfulness and neglect of their flocks in language that the most embittered heretic would have been hard put to match. His rhetoric was squarely in the Gregorian tradition of exploiting resentment of the shortcomings of the clergy to break down local solidarities in the interests of papal sovereignty. Innocent’s sincere personal conviction of the danger that heresy represented to the church, intensified by his ready acceptance of the reports and recommendations of his Cistercian legates, is not in doubt. Here, as in Italy, it sat comfortably with his political ambition.

Innocent’s greatest frustration in bringing the recalcitrant inhabitants of the Languedoc to heel was the indifference to his project of Europe’s secular rulers. The English kings’ long-standing feud with the counts of Toulouse had been dramatically reversed when Richard I made peace with Raymond VI in 1196 and, the following year, gave him his sister Joanna in marriage. Both Richard and his successor, John, were tied down by the bitter and eventually unsuccessful defence of their continental territories, in occasional alliance with the emperor Otto IV, against Philip Augustus of France. Philip’s own energies were also fully engaged in this struggle until he defeated these enemies in a great victory at Bouvines in 1214.

Pedro II of Aragon, the representative from 1196 of Raymond’s oldest and most persistent dynastic rivals, was more than ready to fill the gap for the papacy. (See Map 7, p. 186.) In 1198 he advertised himself as a pillar of orthodoxy by becoming the first monarch to decree burning for heretics in his own lands, though there is nothing to show that he enforced it. He sought to enhance his position in the region by marrying Maria, the daughter and successor of Count William VIII of Montpellier. William, who died in 1202, had conducted a long campaign to legitimate his sons by his second marriage and thus disinherit Maria, but Innocent refused to oblige him, even though he had recently found it possible to grant the same favour to Philip Augustus. In 1204, a few months after his marriage to Maria (handed over without demur, it seems, by her first husband, the count of Comminges), Pedro was crowned by the pope in a magnificent ceremony in Rome, swearing fealty to him and promising an annual tribute from Aragon.

It was convenient for Innocent that no small-minded consistency in the matters of matrimony and legitimacy stood in the way of his acquisition, through these manoeuvres, of a champion of the anti-heretical cause. As lord of extensive territories in the archbishopric of Narbonne, Pedro could assert the right – indeed, the duty – to enforce the decrees and decisions of the papal legates. He remained, however, the pope’s second string. In May 1204 Innocent made the first of several appeals to Philip of France to launch a crusade against the count of Toulouse, offering him the confiscated lands of protectors of heresy, and his troops the same indulgences that they would gain by service in the Holy Land. He received the reply that the king’s relations with royal vassals were none of his business, and that there was no legal basis for the action he proposed.


In 1205 Raymond of Toulouse undertook to expel heretics and mercenaries from his lands. But, understandably (we might think) anxious to avoid the threatened invasion without setting off yet another bout of internecine warfare, he did not deliver. In 1207 Arnold Amalric and Peter of Castelnau demanded that Raymond join an armed league against his own vassals, swear to keep peace with his enemies in the Rhône valley, dismiss his mercenaries and the Jewish officials on whom, like other lords in the region, he relied for much of his routine administration, and stop fortifying churches. Hypocrisy apart – for, it has often been pointed out, Raymond must have been perfectly aware that both mercenaries and the fortification of churches and monasteries were extensively used in military campaigns organised by Innocent III in southern Italy and Sicily – it is hard to imagine that Raymond could possibly have accepted such terms and defended his lands or his position, or that the legates could have supposed otherwise. He refused, and was excommunicated. This fact was to be proclaimed in churches throughout the region every Sunday until Raymond submitted. It meant that religious services were forbidden anywhere where he might be staying; his men were released from homage and his subjects from obedience; judges, notaries, even tradesmen, were forbidden to serve him.

In principle it was terrifying. In practice, as Raymond (like everybody else) knew, Philip of France had recently ignored excommunication for two years without suffering any noticeable damage. He did not know that John of England would soon do so for five, but he certainly understood that even in lands that were not alleged to be riddled with heresy the spiritual sanctions of the church were no more effective than the nobles chose to make them. But Raymond was much more vulnerable than either Philip or John (both formidably powerful within their own kingdoms) to the ultimate threat that excommunication carried of confiscation and deposition. In November 1207 Innocent once more demanded that Philip Augustus should act against Raymond. The terms on which he was invited to do so – crusading indulgences for everybody who took part, and the confiscation and redistribution of the lands and revenues of those who resisted – were also made known and available to ‘all the counts, barons and soldiers, and all the believers in Christ established in the kingdom of France’.1 To put it less elegantly, the lands between the Rhône and the Dordogne were up for grabs.

Philip’s reply was not encouraging. He could not, he said, fight two wars at once. He would undertake to campaign in the south only if the pope would ensure that the French clergy would contribute to the cost, and if he could arrange a truce with King John of England, whose allies were giving Philip serious trouble in Poitou; even then, he would return immediately if John should break the truce. Since Innocent was at loggerheads with John – would very shortly excommunicate him – over the appointment of an archbishop of Canterbury, this amounted for practical purposes to a refusal. Meanwhile Raymond VI, probably unaware of Philip’s intentions and certainly desperate to avert invasion, informed Peter of Castelnau that he was ready to surrender. They met at St Gilles-du-Gard on 13 January 1208. Raymond tried to negotiate, the legate was unyielding, and the meeting broke up with the usual illtempered exchanges.

As Peter of Castelnau was crossing the Rhône next morning, he was ambushed by an unknown knight and murdered. Whoever inspired it – and there is no reason to suppose that Raymond, after his experience of the last ten years, was so naïve as to imagine either that one legate more or less would make much difference to his situation, or that his enemies would fail to exploit all the possibilities the outrage would present – the murder of Peter of Castelnau was a disaster for the count. Innocent cried scandal to the heavens and demanded the confiscation of Raymond’s lands. Philip Augustus, pointing out that Raymond had not been convicted or shown to be guilty of any crime, including heresy, still declined to take part himself, but he could no longer prevent his vassals from answering the pope’s call for a crusade. The duke of Burgundy and the count of Nevers were quick to respond and promised five hundred knights. The crusade was formally proclaimed by Arnold Amalric at Cîteaux in September 1208, and preached throughout the winter by his monks, offering their noble hearers the remission at least of interest on their frequently substantial debts, and at best of their sins in eternal glory. Some were willing to settle for the intermediate prospect of the spoils and lands of the heretics.


In vain Raymond of Toulouse sought help at the courts of Philip Augustus and of Otto IV; in vain he knelt at Arnold Amalric’s feet to beg forgiveness; in vain he offered an alliance, or at least a truce, to his nephew and rival Raymond-Roger of Trencavel, vicomte of Béziers. By January 1209 he saw no recourse left but to send an emissary to Rome with instructions to offer the pope seven crucial castles and the county of Melgueil, and to accept any terms in return for a new, more flexible legate. Innocent appointed two, Milo and Thedisius, secretly instructing them to take their orders from Arnold Amalric ‘because the count suspects him but not you’. In June Raymond was ordered to St GillesduGard, where Milo led him, stripped to the waist, through the streets to the great church. There he was required to swear obedience to the legates in all matters and to promise redress for a long list of complaints real and alleged against him – employing Jews and protecting heretics, using mercenaries, fortifying churches and taking various exactions from them, being suspected of having ordered the murder of Peter of Castelnau. Milo wrapped his stole around Raymond’s neck and, flogging him as they went, led him on his knees the length of the church to the altar. There he was absolved, and spent the next four days giving the orders necessary to fulfil his undertakings and hand control of his territories to the legates.

It was far too late to halt the crusade, if anyone had wanted to. Even before Raymond’s humiliation at St Gilles-du-Gard an army led by Guy of Clermont and the archbishop of Bordeaux had laid siege, unsuccessfully, to Casseneuil (on the Lot north of Agen), ravaged some nearby villages and vanished from the only source that mentions it, Guilhem of Tudela’s Canzo de la crosada, as abruptly as it had appeared. The ‘many heretics’ it condemned to be burned and ‘the many fair women thrown into the flames, for they refused to recant, however much they were begged to do so’ were the first of the many hundreds who would meet that fate in the next twenty years.2 On 24 June 1209 what Arnold Amalric called ‘the greatest Christian army ever’ mustered at Lyon, from every part of France, from Germany north and south, from Provence and Lombardy – 20,000 horsemen and 200,000 others, foot soldiers, camp followers and all, said Guilhem of Tudela. The 3,000 horsemen – four times as many as Philip Augustus ever commanded – 8,000 foot soldiers and 10,000–12,000 auxiliaries and camp followers of a more sober modern estimate3 were still astonishing numbers.

Without hope of repelling such a force, the only move left to Raymond was to join it, earn the crusader’s immunity for his own lands and turn the storm against the vicomte of Béziers. Raymond-Roger, grasping at last the depth of his danger, met the army at Montpellier with protestations of innocence and regret and offered to submit on the same terms as Raymond of Toulouse had done. Arnold Amalric declined to hear him and proceeded to Béziers, which on 21 July was sacked, plundered and destroyed by fire. The entire population was massacred, including women, children and the priests of the churches in which they had taken refuge. Almost 20,000 people were put to the sword, Arnold Amalric reported to Innocent III, without regard to rank or sex or age. ‘After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burned as divine vengeance raged marvellously.’

The sack of Béziers, hailed by some as a miracle, was not planned, and in his enthusiasm the legate probably exaggerated the number of dead, by perhaps a third. The victorious commanders had been taken by surprise when, the siege barely begun, the defences were breached by a mob of servants and camp followers in spontaneous retaliation against a foolish sortie by ill-disciplined youths from the town. It must be doubtful whether the leaders could have restrained a rabble whose excitement, ambitions and appetites had been built up on the long trek from so many corners of Europe against an enemy demonised by propaganda and dehumanised by ignorance. Equally, there is no sign that they wished to do so, or that they saw the least reason to minimise the horrors, let alone regret them, after the event; no reason to think that Arnold Amalric would have disowned the words put into his mouth a decade later by an admiring fellow Cistercian, fixing his memory for posterity: ‘Kill them. The Lord will know his own.’4

The leaders quickly decided to put their triumph to maximum use.

All agreed that at every castle approached by the army a garrison that refused to surrender should be slaughtered wholesale. They would then meet with no resistance anywhere, as men would be so terrified at what had already happened. That is how they took Montréal and Fanjeaux and all that country.5

The greatest prize, Carcassonne, to which Raymond-Roger had retreated after his rebuff by Arnold Amalric, taking with him the Jewish community of Béziers, surrendered after a three-week siege. The inhabitants, heretics and all, were allowed to leave in safety after it had been decided to avoid a sack and preserve the city as the headquarters of the successor to Raymond-Roger who would be needed to rule the captured territory. Raymond-Roger himself was seized and chained, despite the safe conduct he had been promised, and died in prison three months later, to be remembered as youthful – twenty-four years old when he died – handsome, gallant and foolish, or betrayed. All that he may have been, but he was also the unfortunate legatee of the long and bitter rivalry between the counts of Toulouse and of Barcelona, now kings of Aragon, in which the Trencavel lands were strategically pivotal. There is no real reason to think that the region was especially given to heresy, but it had repeatedly been portrayed as such by those who hoped to dominate it, at least since Count Alphonse Jordan of Toulouse pointed St Bernard in that direction in 1145. The Trencavels, while no more hostile to the church than the ordinary tensions of lordship dictated, had neglected to offset this reputation by building strong links of patronage with the religious orders, notably the Cistercians.


Since none of the great lords who had accompanied the crusade felt his sins in need of further expiation, the lordship of Béziers and Carcassonne fell to Simon de Montfort, a minor lord from the Île de France with close ties to the Cistercian order, a record of military competence and unbending piety, and a claim through his wife to the English earldom of Leicester, which in due course brought fame to his youngest son. The bulk of the army, having performed the forty days’ service required to earn indulgences and seeing little expectation of further plunder, quickly faded back whence it came. Simon was left with perhaps thirty knights to defend the ruins of Béziers, the huge treasure looted from Carcassonne and the two hundred or so villages and minor castles that surrendered in the aftermath of those victories. This set the pattern of his rule. A large part of each summer’s conquests was lost or abandoned by the small force that remained when the spring flood of reinforcements mustered by ambitious lordlings and incited by Cistercian preachers across Europe ebbed with the approach of winter. Nevertheless, through ruthless singleness of purpose, abundance of energy and inspirational military leadership, greatly assisted by the divisions and incompetence of his enemies, Simon gradually imposed control.

Raymond of Toulouse, ever desperate to calm the storm by appealing to the pope’s persistent if ineffectual sense of legality, constantly hesitated to give a firm lead or to take the initiative against the crusaders. He knew that no victory could be secure so long as his lands were trumpeted through the world as fair game for outsiders. Frantic lobbying in Rome was a constant backdrop that made no practical difference to the slaughter. Innocent vacillated between the protestations of Raymond’s emissaries that he was no heretic and had done and would do everything in his power to satisfy the pope’s demands and the implacable determination of the legates – who in any case represented Innocent’s authority on the spot and interpreted it as they chose – to confiscate Raymond’slands and replace him by Simon de Montfort. It is not obvious that the excommunication, when it finally came, in February 1211, made things much worse.

Pedro of Aragon, havering between preserving his standing as a favourite of the papacy and retaining his independence as overlord of the former Trencavel lands, avoided accepting de Montfort’s homage for Béziers and Carcassonne. Simon suffered a serious reverse when Pedro found his attempts to mediate between Raymond and Innocent frustrated by the intransigence of the legates, announced that he was taking the county of Toulouse under his protection and, in September 1213, crossed the Pyrenees with a large army. Simon’s reverse became a triumph when Pedro, having surrounded the greatly outnumbered crusaders in the village of Muret but holding it unworthy of his honour to await their inevitable surrender, contrived to expose himself to an unexpected charge from the desperate defenders and was killed. By the end of the year Simon was master of the territories between the Rhône and the Garonne, apart from the important but now isolated cities of Toulouse and Montauban.


The most notorious of the events and atrocities that have given the Albigensian wars the reputation of reaching new levels of savagery and destructiveness took place during this first phase of the campaigns and triumphs of Simon de Montfort. That reputation is founded on the chillingly exuberant triumphalism with which the clerical leaders of the crusade celebrated the holocausts that they ordered, admiringly recorded by the principal catholic chronicler, Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay, and the bitter partisanship that has shaped the history and memory of these wars ever since. Above all, it is founded on the facts. The marked superiority of defensive over offensive capacity meant that campaigning turned on taking and holding strong points, not only the cities but also the fortified villages with which the countryside was dotted and the castles that provided remote, almost impregnable, refuges in the mountains. Every siege began by laying waste the surrounding countryside, burning crops, uprooting trees and destroying buildings, dykes and dams, and ended more often than not with burning and looting, and the dispersal – at best – of the defeated population. The people were, as ever, astonishingly resilient, and recovery often surprisingly rapid, but the accumulated cost in desolation and destruction of twenty years’ campaigns in which almost every settlement of any size changed hands several times remains beyond calculation.

Prolonged warfare would have brought that fate to any region that suffered it, and frequently did. This war had the additional horrors to be expected when a hugely outnumbered alien force struggled to occupy hostile and inhospitable territory. The intention of the crusaders to conquer and rule by terror, exacerbated by the mutual demonisation of ideological confrontation, was regularly re-emphasised. When Simon de Montfort took Bram in the spring of 1210, he allowed the garrison to retreat to Cabaret with all their noses cut off and all their eyes put out, except for one left to a leader, to guide them. The resisters, when they could, replied in kind. Towards the end of 1209 two Cistercians of the legate’s entourage were found stabbed to death near Carcassonne, and two captured knights were taken to Minerve, where their ears, noses and upper lips were cut off, and they were left naked, in bitter weather, to find their way back to Carcassonne. When de Montfort took Lavaur, which yielded great booty, in May 1211, the entire garrison was put to the sword to revenge the massacre of a party of crusaders from Germany ambushed on their way to reinforce Montgey. The lady of Lavaur, Girauda de Laurac, a woman ‘whose presence no one ever left without having eaten’ but reputedly a heretic or a sympathiser, was thrown into a well and crushed to death by the rocks piled on her at de Montfort’s orders. Three or four hundred presumed heretics found in the town were taken to a meadow outside the walls where ‘our crusaders burned them alive with great joy’. The same rejoicing attended the burning of sixty more at Cassès a few days later.6


In describing these holocausts Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay uses the Latin phrase cum ingenti gaudio (‘with great joy’), frequently quoted in liturgical contexts and originally evoking the biblical offering of burned sacrifices on an enormous scale at the consecration of the temple at Jerusalem (1 Chr. 29: 14). The burning had begun at Casseneuil, almost before the crusade itself, and de Montfort made a point of watching the first two people burned under his aegis at Castres, in September 1209. After the fall of Carcassonne the greatest lords and their followers had dispersed to the remote strongholds of Minerve, Termes and Cabaret, ideal bases for resistance. Minerve was the first of them to be taken, in July 1210, after a six-week siege in which both sides suffered greatly. Among the captives was a large number of heretics who had fled for safety to this apparently impregnable stronghold. What followed stamped the character of the Albigensian Crusade on every succeeding memory.

On 22 July William, the lord of Minerve, sought to negotiate an honourable surrender with Simon de Montfort. This would have meant, as at Carcassonne, allowing the occupants of the fortress to leave in safety. As they talked, Arnold Amalric and his fellow legate Thedisius arrived on the scene, and Simon promptly said that any agreement must be subject to the abbot’s approval. The abbot was not best pleased. ‘He wanted the enemies of Christ to die’, according to the wholly admiring and quite unironic Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay, ‘but as a monk and priest he did not dare condemn them to death.’7 He therefore suggested that William should write down the surrender terms he would offer and Simon those he would accept, ‘hoping that one or other of them would find the proposals unacceptable and revoke his agreement to accept arbitration’. In this way the siege would be continued to the bitter end, the defenders would meet the fate of Béziers rather than of Carcassonne, and the Lord’s, or at least the legate’s, will would be done.

William unsportingly frustrated this ruse by declaring that he would accept any terms that were required of him.

The abbot therefore ordered that all the inhabitants of Minerve, including the heretical believers, should be allowed to live, provided that they agreed to be reconciled and to obey the orders of the church. The perfected heretics would also be spared if they agreed to be converted to the catholic faith.

To this, one of Simon’s closest lieutenants, a sturdy hero of the army and ‘a noble and dedicated catholic’ named Robert Mauvoisin (‘bad neighbour’ – coincidentally or not also the nickname given to the enormous catapult that broke Minerve’s defences) objected vigorously that the army would not stand for it. He and his comrades had come to kill heretics, he said, not to let them off with conversion. Arnold Amalric reassured him. ‘Don’t worry. I believe that very few of them will accept conversion.’

It seems that Arnold Amalric had learned more about his adversaries during his years in pursuit of them than his singularly inflexible cast of mind might have led us to expect. The army entered the town. Abbot Guy of Les Vaux de Cernay, who had taken a prominent role in the siege, went to a house where a large number of heretics had gathered and tried to convert them. ‘They interrupted him and said with one accord, “Why do you preach to us? We will have none of your faith. You labour in vain. Neither death nor life can separate us from the faith we hold.”’ Guy then went to another house ‘where the heretics’ women folk were gathered, but he found the women heretics even more obstinate and determined than the men’. His efforts to win repentance were seconded by Simon de Montfort himself, who ‘as a true catholic wished them all to win salvation and come to know the way of truth’. When they declined, he had them all, ‘at least a hundred and forty perfected heretics’, taken outside the castle, to where a huge pyre had been built. ‘All were thrown on it, though indeed there was no need for our soldiers to throw them on it, since they were so hardened in their wickedness that they rushed into the fire of their own accord.’ Three women were rescued at the last moment and reconciled to the church with the remaining inhabitants of the town. Mud was shovelled over the remains of the rest, ‘so that no stench from these foul things should annoy our foreign forces’.8


The holocausts at Minerve and Lavaur were by far the largest that had happened anywhere in Europe up to this time.* It is inescapable from the exultant description of Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay that the 140 people who perished at Minerve, refusing the opportunity of recantation, did so by choice. They have left us therefore with a stark and unequivocal statement of their faith, to be set against the unrelenting recitals of their enemies upon which we otherwise depend. It was fortified, no doubt, by resentment of the invasion and the solidarity of the first stages of resistance, but still unfiltered by the perceptions and preconceptions of outsiders or by memories that had had to cope with twenty years of devastating, transformative warfare. As such, the sacrifice at Minerve is the last testament we have of the nature in this countryside before the crusade of what others described as heretical belief. But what does it say? What was it that brought these people to embrace their terrible fate?

Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay, in effect the official historian of the Albigensian Crusade, writing between 1212 and 1218 and dedicating his book to Innocent III, had no doubt. Peter was the nephew of Guy, abbot since 1181 of the Cistercian house of Les Vaux de Cernay, some 35 kilometres south-west of Paris, which had close links with the family of Simon de Montfort, the leader of the crusading army. He had accompanied Guy and Simon on the disastrous Fourth Crusade of 1203–4, where by Peter’s account they had tried to convey, at some personal risk to themselves, the pope’s unsuccessful attempt to prevent the crusaders from pillaging Constantinople.9 In 1212 Guy, an energetic preacher of the Albigensian Crusade, was appointed bishop of Carcassonne, and took his nephew with him as his personal assistant. Peter’s History is unfinished; since it speaks in the present tense of Simon de Montfort, who died in 1218, it is supposed that Peter himself died at about that time.

Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay was therefore extremely well informed about the leading personalities and events of the Albigensian Crusade, as well as being an intelligent observer and an accomplished historian. His view of the world had been moulded not only by his uncle and Simon de Montfort, both heroes to him, but also by his Cistercian vocation. He tells us nothing of his personal life beyond mentioning that Guy, like most senior Cistercians, was of noble family, but he had probably been brought up in Les Vaux de Cernay under his uncle’s direction. His description of the Albigensian heresy is obviously derived – with a generous helping of conventional monastic invective – from the account put together in the 1180s by Henri de Marci and Geoffrey of Auxerre. Its development has been traced in these pages from the time of Bernard of Clairvaux. It had been used by Eberwin of Steinfeld and others to demonise those who criticised their conduct and impugned their authority from the perspective of apostolic fundamentalism, and been placed by Eckbert of Schönau and Alan of Lille in the theological framework of scholastic disputation perfected in Paris since the 1140s. It is immediately recognisable today as the basis not only of standard textbook descriptions of the heresy but also of numerous sensational accounts of an alleged secret history of the Roman Catholic Church, of a great many novels and films and of a flourishing tourist trade in the ‘Cathar country’ of modern France.

‘The barons of the South almost all became defenders and hosts of the heretics, welcomed them to their hearts and defended them against God and the church’, Peter begins.

The heretics maintained the existence of two creators, one of things invisible, whom they called the ‘benign’ God, and one of the things visible, whom they called the ‘malign’ God. They attributed the New Testament to the benign God and the Old Testament to the malign God, and rejected the whole of the latter except for certain passages quoted in the New Testament …

In their secret meetings they said that the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified was ‘evil’; and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine, and that she was the woman taken in adultery who is referred to in the Scriptures; the ‘good’ Christ, they said, neither ate nor drank nor assumed the true flesh, and was never in the world except spiritually, in the body of St Paul. I have used the term ‘earthly and visible Bethlehem’ because the heretics believe there is a different and invisible earth in which – according to some of them – the ‘good’ Christ was born and crucified …

These people had infected almost the whole of the province of Narbonne with the poison of their perfidy. They said that the Roman church was a den of thieves and the harlot spoken of in the Book of Revelations. They ridiculed the sacraments of the church, arguing publicly that the holy water of baptism was no better than river water, that the consecrated host of the holy body of Christ was no different from common bread … that confirmation, extreme unction and confession were trivial and empty ceremonies … that holy matrimony was mere harlotry … They denied the resurrection of the body, and invented new myths, claiming that our souls were really those angelic spirits who were driven from heaven through their rebellious pride and … that these souls, after successively inhabiting any seven earthly bodies will then return to their original bodies …

It should be understood that some of the heretics were called ‘perfected heretics’ or ‘good men’, others ‘believers’ of the heretics. The ‘perfected’ heretics wore a black robe, claimed (falsely) to practise chastity and renounced meat, eggs and cheese … They also said that no one should take oaths for any reason … Those called ‘believers’ were dedicated to usury, robbery, murder and illicit love … they felt they could sin in safety and without confession and penitence so long as they were able to recite the Lord’s prayer and ensure a ‘laying-on of hands’ by their masters in the final moments of their lives.

They selected from the ‘perfected’ heretics officials whom they called ‘deacons’ and ‘bishops’, and the believers held that no one of them could attain salvation without the laying-on of hands by these clergy just before death; indeed, they considered that however sinful a man might have been, then provided he had undergone this laying-on of hands on his death-bed, and so long as he was able to recite the Lord’s prayer, he would gain salvation and (to use their own expression) ‘consolation’ to the extent that he would immediately fly up to heaven without making any reparations for wrongs he had committed …

Some of the heretics declared that no one could sin from the navel downwards; they characterised images in churches as idolatry; they maintained that church bells were the trumpets of devils; and they said it was no greater sin for a man to sleep with his mother or his sister than any other woman.10


This is what Guy of Les Vaux de Cernay believed to lie behind the obduracy of the people who were burned at Minerve. Stripped of everything that might have been only his uncle’s interpretation based on the account developed by his Cistercian predecessors, such as the description of those who chose to be burned as ‘perfected heretics’, Peter’s account still tells us a great deal. The people who had sought refuge in Minerve were known and recognisable; they could not, or would not, simply fade into the landscape as the crusading army advanced. Without speculation as to how many others might already have perished in the war or fled or taken refuge in other places, their number was not negligible: they represented, in some sense, a sizeable body of the population. Their uncompromising and unhesitating acceptance of their fate suggests, though it does not prove, acknowledgement of the obligations of public standing as well as private conviction.

This accords with the stories of recognised spokesmen for the heretics engaging in debate with catholics and Waldensians in the years before the crusade. It accords also with the memories that the inquisitors Bernard de Caux and Jean de St Pierre collected at Toulouse more than thirty years later, of the ‘good men’ (bons omes) or ‘friends of God’ (amickx de Dieu) of the Lauragais, between Toulouse and Carcassonne. Bernart Gasc, more than seventy years old in 1242, not only remembered meeting several of them in and around the village of Caraman in 1205, but as a child in Fanjeaux around 1180 had lived next door to one, Guilhem de Carlipac, who often gave him bread, wine and nuts. Guilhem de la Grassa went to live with his father, Bernart, and other good men in 1195, and himself became a good man, ‘a clothed heretic’, at some time in his adolescence; many others told similar stories. According to these memories, the good men were mostly but not exclusively noble. The extent of their goodness was carefully and exactly graded by observation, reputation and recollection, and their standing varied accordingly, but (contrary to the understandable presumption of catholic outsiders) there was no settled hierarchy among them.11

The good women (bonas femnas), at Minerve ‘even more obstinate and determined than the men’, were, according to these later memories of the time before the crusade, not exactly equivalent. They lived in seclusion in shared houses, and all of them were noble. Their status, directly contrary to what was assumed and asserted by the catholic model of ‘Catharism’, was not permanent. It not only could be, but normally was, laid aside and resumed. Girls became good women – again, ‘clothed heretics’ – a few years before puberty, were married as soon as they reached it and became good women again as matrons or widows when their years of fertility were over, now to preside over and supervise those who awaited marriage.12 In other words, whatever religious beliefs lay behind or underpinned it, this was an institution whose function was to protect the chastity of nubile females.

The imposition of comparably strict control over young women, keeping competition for them within bounds and protecting the ‘honour’ of their fathers, brothers and prospective husbands, has particularly been observed in societies where male prestige is even more than usually dependent on control over sexual access to women and the property rights associated with it. This was just such a society. Its social climate and the rhythms of its daily life were shaped by the extreme fragmentation of every kind of property and of the rights it conferred. Every strip of land, every vineyard, every mill, every olive or walnut grove, every wood and marsh, every pasture and fishpond, was parcelled and reparcelled into tiny shares, each the subject of competing claims and counter-claims, long-nourished grievances, secretly harboured ambitions. For a century or more the population had been increasingly concentrated in the fortified villages that had become so typical of the region. They were presided over by a petty aristocracy whose impoverishment by the demands of constant warfare was unalleviated by the restriction of inheritance to a single heir that had come to protect patrimonies in most of north-west Europe. Every village was shared between a myriad of petty lords – Montréal and Mirepoix each had thirty-six, Lombers fifty on the eve of the crusade – and every lord subsisted precariously on a multitude of minute, widely dispersed incomes.

In these tiny, tightly constrained and intensely competitive worlds of perhaps 200 to 500 inhabitants each, civility and survival demanded the daily observance of an elaborate and scrupulously precise code of behaviour – cortezia – to secure modesty of demeanour and the avoidance of offence, deceit and ostentation. Such were the values celebrated by the troubadours of the region, and embodied by its bons oms. It is no coincidence that the emergence of both is visible from the middle decades of the twelfth century, when the crisis of the villages, exacerbated from around 1100 by rapid inflation, became acute. On the other hand, the growing claims of the churches and monasteries represented new demands on an overburdened economy. The services they pressed more determinedly in return – for a more intrusive sacramental life and more elaborate ritual, notably through the elevation of matrimony, closer control over burial rights, the multiplication of penance and prayers for the dead – in the north suited the interests of the nobles by buttressing the elevation of the dynastic family but here ran against its grain. The religious style needed by these village lords was precisely the modest demeanour and low profile, the freedom from material and sexual demands and interests, the daily embodiment of courtesy and restraint, that the good men offered.

As we have seen in earlier chapters, it is not clear when or how the leadership of the good men crystallised, though the anticlericalism of the village lordlings had been noisily demonstrated to Bernard of Clairvaux in 1145. Bons homs had appeared as the securely acknowledged spokesmen of such lordlings at Lombers in 1165, where they publicly professed before their supporters a simple statement of Christian faith based on the New Testament and marked by the avoidance of oaths. To this we have no later addition except the assertions of their catholic enemies from outside the region. We cannot tell whether the good men were the legatees of simple country priests of the pre-reform era, or (like so many who were branded as heretics elsewhere) of apostolic preachers from beyond the region, such as Robert of Arbrissel, Gerald of Salles, Peter of Bruys or Henry of Lausanne, who had been active in the first decades of the twelfth century. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, patterns of religious allegiance and expression were evolving to fit the needs of a diversifying population. In Lombardy or the Rhineland, that was most obvious among the beneficiaries of change: craftsmen, merchants and shopkeepers, notaries. Here we see it among the casualties. Because the needs were very different, so too was the pattern. That is why the ‘heresy’ most characteristic of the region appeared to outsiders not as a recognisable, though reprehensible, variation on their own catholic faith, or even a deviation from it, but as terrifyingly, diabolically alien.


Innocent III and his legates attributed their failure to win support, or even more than minimal and reluctant co-operation, from the lords of the lands between the Rhône and the Garonne, lay and ecclesiastical, at best to indifference to heresy and at worst to belief in it or even active adherence to it. Yet that the legates were not cordially welcomed by any section of society, catholics included, is not in the least surprising. Their demands for action against heretics and protectors of heretics might occasionally offer a convenient ploy against a current rival, but in general they could scarcely appear as anything other than meddling and arrogant outsiders, ignorant of local conditions and traditions, stirring up unnecessary and indeed dangerous trouble. Much that they complained of reflected quite ordinary tensions and conflicts. In other parts of Europe, for instance, the complaint of the abbot of St Gilles-du-Gard that his territorial rights were infringed by one of Raymond VI’s fortifications would not have seemed to have any special religious significance. Similar and probably justified complaints against other great lords of the region, including the count of Foix and the vicomte of Béziers, bolstered their representation as supporters of heresy. Such incursions, and the accusations of irreligion backed up by spiritual sanctions, were perfectly commonplace – but elsewhere now less common than they would have been thirty or forty years earlier. Like so much else about this region, by the 1190s such episodes have a somewhat old-fashioned appearance. Not everywhere, to be sure, but in the best-governed parts of Europe it was now held that disputes like these ought to be settled by courts of law or by arbitration, and increasingly often they were.

Such rhetoric aside, it is not easy to estimate the extent or the depth of support for the good men, and impossible to assess how far such support entailed acceptance of their teaching, whatever it may have been. The outsiders, naturally enough, presumed that their enemies were organised in much the same way as themselves. That is not confirmed by the memories of those among whom the good men had lived before the crusade. Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay thought that the victims of Minerve were ‘perfected’ heretics, who had attained that status by means of a ritual that he called the consolamentum, as described by Eckbert of Schönau, but Guilhem de la Grassa and others, men and women, spoke only of having been made ‘clothed’ heretics. This suggests some formal occasion, certainly, but not one, as we have noticed, that necessarily entailed a permanent or irrevocable change of condition. Similarly, the inquisitors in 1246 attached great significance to body language, and to behaviour in meetings, always asking whether people had ‘adored’ the good men, and usually being answered in the affirmative. They were looking for evidence of a ritual of which they had read in their scholastic texts, called the melioramentum. Theoretically, participation in it would have placed those involved among the credentes, believers and acknowledged followers of the heresy. But those who were questioned merely described what they knew as the formal but everyday gestures of respect whose exchange was simply a matter of cortezia. If there was indeed such a category as that of acknowledged ‘believers’ in the heresy – and nothing in those recollections requires it – it was not denoted or betrayed by routine good manners.

The yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension between Occitanians and outsiders makes nonsense of the natural questions of how many heretics there were and what proportion of the population supported them. Historians have come up with wildly differing estimates, ranging from a few hundreds to many thousands of heretics, from a very low percentage of sympathisers to a very high one. This is partly, but only partly, because some count as ‘heretics’ only so-called ‘perfects’ while others include all ‘believers’ – which is akin to the difference between counting only black cats in an unlighted cellar while blindfold, or dark grey ones as well. Both procedures beg the question – that is, assume an answer to a question that has not been confronted, or perhaps even formulated – whether there was in fact any division in the society of the lands between the Rhône and the Garonne that corresponded in the eyes of its inhabitants to the distinction between catholics and heretics. To Innocent III it was so fundamental that he could not conceive of a world without it. Yet to ask how many of these heretics, however designated, there were before the Albigensian Crusade is rather like asking how many witches there were in Europe on the eve of the great witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It assumes the objective, measurable existence of a category that was actually in the process of being constructed by the interrogators themselves, and which in that process was described in language that meant different things to different people.

This is not simply a question of nomenclature, of whether we ought to speak of ‘the Provençal heretics’ (provinciales heretici), as Innocent III did, or of Albigensians, like Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay, or of ‘Cathars’ as the late twentieth century preferred. Nor is it to deny the existence of religious difference. Whatever they were called or called themselves, some people agreed with the good men and some did not. Both groups were aware of that difference between them, and aware of other such differences, for example with the Waldensians, who shared the beliefs of the catholics and opposed the heretics, but themselves were regarded by many catholics as heretics.

What is entirely lacking is any indication that within the lands between the Rhône and the Dordogne before 1209 those differences of faith or opinion either gave rise in themselves to enduring antagonism between those who held them, or corresponded to other social or cultural divisions that did so. Thus, Peter of Les Vaux de Cernay was scandalised by, and recorded as scandalous, innumerable stories that great lords of the region, and still more their wives, permitted heretics at their courts and treated them with respect. This was what brought Girauda de Laurac to her dreadful death at Lavaur. To outside eyes it was an obvious contempt of the church, epitomised in the famous reply of a catholic knight years later to the bishop of Toulouse who asked him why he would not expel the heretics from his lands. ‘How can we? We have been brought up side by side with them. Our closest kinsmen are numbered among them. Every day we see them living worthy and honourable lives in our midst.’ To the bishop this was a flagrant contempt of the many prohibitions that had been repeated with increasing force and precision, and with specific reference to this region, for almost a century past. To the knight those prohibitions made no sense, not because he was unaware of the difference between his views and those of the heretics, but because it simply did not appear to him as a division that need, or should, override the ordinary obligations and loyalties of kinship, neighbourliness and courtesy. The world as he saw it was not divided by a stark polarity between catholic and heretic, between the realm of God and the realm of Satan. It was to Innocent III and those who thought, as he did, that Manichean dichotomy had become so instinctive as to make it impossible to envisage a creation without it. They could not do other than presume that their victims were similarly afflicted.

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