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By Mr. Simon J. Kyte on 8 May 2007
Format: Paperback

Catharism represents a 200 year challenge to Catholicism. Its success was probably down to its support from the aristocracy of Southern France which allowed it to develop a formalised administrative structure in contrast to similar heresies in the Rhineland or Flanders where there were particular class group, such as textile workers, who formed the base of heretical movements. As a theology it was grounded in dualism but initially this was a mix of absolute and mitigated dualism. The shift to absolute dualism came in the late twelfth century with the St Félix-de-Caraman Council. After this theological paradigmatic shift Catharism and Catholicism failed to find any common ground and in 1209 Pope Innocent III decided that force was the only option to counter it.

Dualism in eastern Europe has a long history stretching from Greek Gnosticism to the Bogomils. Its history in the west is far shorter. Nicetas was in Lombardy when he convinced `a certain bishop named Mark’ who was already at the centre of a heresy across much of Northern Italy. Together they travelled to St Félix. Italian Catharism seems to have splintered with the news that Simon the Drugunthian, who had consecrated Nicetas, may not have been celibate.

Entry into the Cathar elite was via a ceremony inherited in large part from the Bogomils – the consolamentum. Being more exposed to theological arguments and having more contact with the Bogomil east, most Cathar theological texts actually come from Italy rather than France. `The Secret Supper’ predates the Nicetas mission, was probably a Bogomil text and described Satan as the original regulator of all things who sat alongside the Father. Too greedy, he was cast out but not without taking one third of the angels with him. God forgave him and Satan created the material world with his dominion supported by Enoch and Moses. God sent Christ to expose that Satan was not the one true god which he claimed to be. The Virgin Mary was not a mortal; she was the angel of the Lord. To counter Satan sent his angel, Elijah, in the guise of John the Baptist. This is the moderate dualist position. On account of the Fall from grace the Catholic Church found some common ground.

One of the earliest theologians to reject the above was Desiderius – the first sign of a potential break between the theology of the Bogomils and the developing Cathar movement. However, the real prime mover is the writer of `The Book of Two Principles’, assumed to be John of Lugio. Lugio’s book suggests that Catharism was now forging its own ideas in which each `principle’ had existed for eternity and each had created its own world.

`La Gleisa de Dio’ expected chastity of the perfecti, promoted abstention from meat, eggs, cheese and chicken, and taught its adherents to refuse to lie, kill or take oaths. It also rejected the Catholic concepts of contrition and confession, playing down sin before the consolamentum. Cathars ate fish – perhaps because they believed that transmigration of souls was limited to warm-blooded creatures. Eggs were also incriminated as being `begotten of coition’.

There are extensive chapters on how the Cathar movement was stifled. The Albigensian Crusades handed out the right to occupy land seized from the Cathars; the Pope always interested primarily in dividing the aristocracy of the South. However, the massacre of Béziers and the seizure of Carcasonne in August 1209 would not undermine Catharism in the way that a tedious war of attrition against the political infrastructure would. However, after 1209 the Cathar movement was fundamentally changed; its confidence replaced by defensiveness.

The renewed crusade in 1210-11 picked off the castra of the local nobility one-by-one but the territory of Raymond Roger de Foix proved more difficult. Montfort attempted to attack Toulouse but abandoned the siege. In 1212 however, reinforcements were brought in from across Europe. Montfort’s position throughout was affected by papal vacillation as the Pope himself was subject to competing influences. The French Crown became involved and Beaujeu’s attacks on the Toulousan hinterland brought Raymond VII to the Treaty of Paris in 1229. The murder of inquisitors at Avignonat sparked the iconic attack on Montségur in 1243-44 which pulled the plug on Cathar supporting infrastructure.

The book also goes into reasonable detail on the Autier Revival and its support from Bernard of Taix. When the Autier brothers made the decision to journey to Lombardy many wondered if they had leprosy or whether they were leaving as criminals. Their return in 1300 was even more subtle. However, they were still denounced by William Déjean – although he was later thrown off a cliff never to be found. The extension of the heresy in the 1300s was far further into the mountains but it was never based on a firm foundation. The likes of Bernard Gui were therefore able to pick it apart. It is possible that some of the Cathars fled to join the Alpine Waldensians in a region through which they had often trekked between southern France and Lombardy and both La Gleisa de Dio and Glosa Pater suggest mitigated dualism and the former has eschatological themes in line with Joachimite ideas. The fact that Waldensian ideas are not discussed is, in my opinion, one of the book’s weaknesses.

There is also a chapter on the Cathar influence on twentieth century thinking: on Simone Weil and Otto Rahn and on the relationship between Catharism and the Occitan identity – including the Félibrige movement to promote Occitan and the `vulgarisation’ of Catharism. At the back is a dazzling list of sources and suggestions for further reading, chronologies of the crusade and a selection of maps. All in all, well worth the rather extortionate price for anyone who wants to learn about the Cathar `heresy’. (Please note here that it appears to be far cheaper on Amazon!) In spite of my interest in history, I found the theological sections more interesting than all the military and political details.