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Les châteaux Cathares



“Kill them all and let God sort them out”.

Fighting words indeed, allegedly uttered by the Papal legate Arnaud Almaury prior to the massacre at Béziers, the start of a crusade against the Cathars which ultimately led to the massacre of approximately half a million inhabitants of the Languedoc Roussillon region. 

So who were the Cathars and why was the Catholic Church out for blood? With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that c'était joué d’avance*. The Cathars were a religious group who appeared in France in the 11th century. It is believed their ideas came from the Byzantine Empire (modern-day Turkey and Bulgaria) and travelled to France via northern Italy. They represented a threat to the all-powerful Catholic Church as their philosophy gained ground and was tolerated or even accepted by many Catholics in the Languedoc region. While the Roman Catholics believed in one all-powerful God, the Cathars had a dualistic approach to religion, believing there was a good God who had created all that was immaterial (good, permanent and immutable) and a bad God who was the god of all material things, including the world and everything in it. They believed this bad God had captured souls and imprisoned them in ‘tunics of flesh’ (i.e. the human form) through conception. The only way to escape the mortal coil and enter heaven was to become a Parfait or Parfaite (Perfects, or those who lived irreproachable lives) and thereby avoid reincarnation. They therefore believed that all non-procreative sex was better than procreative sex, believed in contraception, masturbation, euthanasia and suicide. They did not eat meat, believed in the equality of men and women and possibly worst of all, refused to pay tithes to the Catholic Church. The stage was therefore set for a bataille royale*, which indeed came to pass. Pope Innocent III called for a formal crusade, and the slaughter began.

Since the Cathars were well-liked amongst the populace of Languedoc, they were often given refuge in the hilltop châteaux* scattered around the Languedoc region. These châteaux, often built on the top of escarpments and mountains and believed to be impenetrable proved not to be so. Over a period of two generations, starting in 1208, more than half a million people were killed, and not all of them were Cathars. Such was their popularity, it was often difficult to distinguish between true Cathars and Cathar sympathisers, many of whom were members of the Catholic Church, resulting in Arnaud Almaury’s famous, if bloody-minded, proclamation.

Les Chateaux Cathares, some of which have been restored, are firmly on the tourist trail in the region now known as Occitanie, an eerie reminder of the crusades of the Medieval Era.


*it was a foregone conclusion | *battle royal | *castles | *