Heresy and Heatstroke in Carcassonne

One day… I met my brother-in-law, Guillaume Buscailh, on the way to my parish church.

‘Where are you going?’ asked Guillaume.

‘I am going to church.’

‘What an excellent ecclesiastic you are!’ answered Guillaume. ‘You would do just as well to pray to God in your own house as in the church.’

I answered that the Church was a more suitable place to pray to God than in one’s own house.

Then he simply said to me: ‘You are not of the faith.’

(Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324)



On Thursday we visited the old fortified city of Carcassonne. This is something I wanted to do because of its link to the Cathars, a heretical sect that flourished in the area in the eleventh century (the area even advertises itself as ‘Cathar country’ on tourist brochures). Although my research interest is the Waldensians rather than the Cathars, the two movements grew up at the same time (around the eleventh century) and had a lot in common. Both sprang into existence as a reaction against corruption in the increasingly wealthy Church and they both advocated apostolic poverty, rejected the adoration of saints and denied that priests were necessary to worship. Both sects revered shaggy wandering preachers (the Cathars parfaits, the Waldensians barbes). The most important thing they shared, though, was that the Catholic Church condemned them as heretics.

I first met the Cathars through a book called Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village by historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. The book’s major source was the Fournier register, a set of records from the inquisition into heresy run by Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers between 1318 and 1325.  Fournier (later Pope Benedict XII) interrogated hundreds of people and had transcripts recorded of each interrogation. The records are so detailed that Ladurie used them to construct a convincing and fascinating picture of day-to-day life in this tiny village. In his chapter ‘Religion in Practice’, for example, he describes the popular understanding of Christian dualism:


“For both Catharism and folklore, nature and matter were not and could not be the work of the good God. It is the devil and not God who makes the plants flower and bear grain, said an inhabitant of Ax-les-Thermes (i.283). Arnaud de Bédeillac told his fellow-citizens, under the village elm (iii.51, 60), ‘The trees come from the nature of the earth and not from God.’ One snowy day, at noon, around the fire, Aycard Boret of Caussou told his friends (iii.346-7), ‘The weather, following its course, causes cold and the flowers and the grain; and God can do absolutely nothing about it.’”


A century before Fournier’s interrogations, the Cathar movement was very powerful in Occitanie and the Catholic Church’s attempts to stem its growth had repeatedly failed. When Innocent III ascended the papacy in 1198, he was determined to suppress the dissenters and began urging local princes to take a stronger line against the heretics.


The Albigensian Crusade

In 1208, after one of Pope Innocent’s legates was murdered in Occitanie, he upped the ante. Enlisting King Philip II Augustus of France, he launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars and their protecting lords. It was called the Albigensian Crusade from the erroneous belief that the centre of Catharism was in the town of Albi.

The Crusade was partly motivated by political considerations.  Local lords wanted to maintain some independence from the French King. The principal opponent to the Crusaders, for example, was Raymond-Roger Trencavel, the viscount of Béziers and Albi, Carcassonne and the Razèz. Many of his subjects were Cathar and he relied on his Jewish subjects to run Béziers so even though he himself was Catholic, he adopted a laissez-faire attitude where religious belief was concerned. Thanks to this tolerance, the Cathars had managed to establish bishoprics in Albi, Toulouse, Agen and Carcassone.

One of the Crusaders’ most brutal actions was the massacre at Béziers in 1209. A contemporary’s claim that 20,000 people died, is probably not accurate, but it does suggest the unusual ferocity of the attack. Amalric wrote that no one was spared and that the whole city was killed and then burned. Caesarius of Heisterbach wrote about twenty years afterwards:


“When [the troops] discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot ‘Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.’ The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied ‘Caedite eos. Novit enim Cominus qui sunt eius – Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His’ (2 Tim. Ii 19) and so countless number in that town were slain.”


Simon de Montfort, appointed leader of these Crusades, was famously ruthless, burning 140 Cathars in the village of Minerve. After taking prisoners from the village of Bram, he (reportedly) had their eyes gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off. One of these prisoners was blinded in one eye so that with the other he could lead all the other poor maimed prisoners to the next village, Lastours, as a warning to them about what was in store.

The next major target after Béziers was Carcassonne, which was now overflowing with terrified refugees. The Crusaders arrived on August 1, 1209 and by August 7 they’d cut the water supply. Raymond- Roger tried to negotiate but he was captured and died soon afterwards in prison. Carcassonne surrendered on August 15. The people were not killed but forced to leave, naked or at least partially stripped.


The fourteenth century Chronique de France (Chronique de St Denis), British Library, Royal 16, g VI f374v. The leading crusader can be identified by his coat of arms as Simon de Montfort .


Soon after the fall of Carcassone, other towns in the area surrendered without a fight. By 1215, Simon had taken most of Occitanie.

It was an uneasy victory, though, because the southerners strongly resented the brutality with which they had been treated by the Crusaders. A rebellion against the invaders crystallized around Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, and his son, and they recaptured much of the lost territory.  The new King Louis VII eventually restored northern control over the region in 1226 and the younger Raymond accepted a peace treaty willing all his ancestral land to the royal house of the Capetians at his death.

Although the Albigensian Crusade failed to abolish the Cathar heresy, it transformed the hierarchical system; the country was now ruled by lords who were willing to cooperate with the Catholic Church. Crucially, this meant that everything was in place to make the subsequent Inquisition a success.


The Inquisition in the Languedoc


Dream of Pope Gregory IX with St. Francis of Assissi by Giotto


In 1227, Pope Gregory IX appointed a number of papal legates and sent them into the Languedoc with special prosecutorial powers. They offered cash bounties to anyone who was willing to denounce a Cathar but, naturally enough, people were unwilling to snitch on their friends. In 1233, Pope Gregory created a task force recruited from Dominican monks whose purpose was the total suppression of Catharism. He installed these inquisitors in Albi, Toulouse and Carcassonne.

Their methods are nicely summarized on the History Times History blog:


These inquisitors were experts in breeding an atmosphere of terror and suspicion, were excellent administrators and record keepers, and were not prone to showing any mercy. They were, unsurprisingly, despised by the Cathars and their sympathisers, and also by the local clergy, as they were backed directly by the Pope, so could ride roughshod with impunity over the local religious administration. The way it worked was that the inquisitor would arrive in a town or village with his clerks and armed guard and set up shop. After a swift consultation with the local churchmen, the inquisitor would then summon all men over the age of fourteen and women over the age of 12 to make a profession of orthodox faith. Any person who did not comply was put first in the queue for questioning. Any Cathar Perfect caught up in the proceedings would always the first to be winkled out, as the swearing of oaths was against their beliefs. The rest of the population was then read a sermon that exhorted them to examine their lives for any potentially heretical activities and gave them a seven day period of grace in which to denounce themselves or their neighbours. The inquisitors had a wide range of offenses in their armoury to prosecute people with, including being a Cathar Perfect, an offence which always attracted the death penalty, protecting a Perfect, giving the melioramentum when meeting a Perfect, being a witness the Cathar ritual of the consolamentum, or simply not being prepared to grass on your friends. The only way to prove decisively to the Inquisition that you had forsaken your heretical activities and associates was to name names, the more names the better, as the Inquisition was putting together an exhaustive register of all the Cathars and their sympathisers who had managed to survive in the Languedoc.


By the time Fournier became pope in 1334, Catharism was virtually eliminated.


Pope Benedict XII, formerly Jacques Fournier.


Our Field Trip to La Cité

This summer is quite hot in Europe. People have been keeling over all the way from Birmingham to Bulgaria, crops look set to fail and the river water is even getting too warm to use as a coolant in nuclear power plants. You might not think apocalyptic temperatures provide the best conditions for visiting a medieval city, but my view is they make the experience even more authentic. Apart from the medieval preoccupation with End Times, the early thirteenth century ushered in a period of dramatic climate change.

Anyway, the train was beautifully cool and comfortable.  The coastal landscape around Montpellier and Sete was flat and marshy, with lots of reedy plants and waterbirds. As we headed inland, past Béziers and Narbonne, the land became drier, with more farms, orchards, vineyards and rugged outcrops—ideal castle territory.

When we got to Carcassonne station there was a useful city map in the station foyer that traced the route to La Cité, the medieval town. Off we trudged and after a good thirty minutes of walking, we’d traversed the modern city centre, located ‘Old Bridge Row’, crossed the bridge, climbed a steep hill and arrived at the drawbridge dripping with sweat.



As you can see, the view of the fortress from the bridge is imposing. Carcassonne is the largest medieval walled city in Europe. It doesn’t look quite as it did in the Cathar’s heyday in the twelfth century, though. When France took over after the Albigensian Crusade and during the 100 Years War, it improved the fortifications by building a second wall on the outside and by digging a dry moat around it. What’s more, it was given a big facelift in the 19th century when it was restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

Our first stop, after getting cold drinks, was The Museum of the Inquisition. I was hoping for more detailed information about the people and events of the Crusades—I thought that Europeans took local history pretty seriously and there would be stuff not available in books. However, the sign to the museum gave us pause—it was a painting of an armored hand pointing along a narrow street with the words in Hammer-House-of Horror font ‘TORTURE MUSEUM’.

“I don’t know about this,” said John.

“Oh come on,” I said.

“Have a nice visit,” the blonde woman at the ticket booth leered.

So we went in and the first thing we saw a fashion mannequin dressed in a black robe with some black wool stuck haphazardly to her upper lip to indicate a moustache. This was supposed to represent some Dominican monk or other who was supposed to have been particularly cruel. Thereafter were some torture instruments in glass cases alternating with erotic nineteenth-century etchings of plump, naked young women undergoing various trials and tribulations. All in all, there was a strong sense that this was less of a genuine attempt to grapple with Cathar heresy and more of a half-hearted attempt to titillate the public with inquisitorial S&M.  Disappointing!

Then we queued to see the ramparts but that failed to eventuate due to an unfortunate incident that necessitated our speedy retreat from the medieval city.

Back in the modern city, we wandered around until it was time for our train to leave. It was about 35 degrees Celsius in the shade and none of the establishments had air conditioning.