Carnage in the name of God

The Perfect Heresy: the life and death of the Cathars by Stephen O'Shea (Profile Books, £15, 333pp); The Yellow Cross: the story of the last Cathars by René Weis (Viking, £20, 453pp)
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The Independent Culture

A hot July morning in 1209: the northern French army was massing outside the walls of Béziers in the Languedoc, now in southern France. Its purpose: to destroy the heretics. One soldier asked the obvious question. How were they to distinguish between heretics and true believers, Cathars and Catholics? The papal legate, Abbot of Cîteaux and head of the Cistercian Order, Arnold Amoury, gave him the infamous reply which has echoed down 800 years: "Kill them all; God will know his own."

A hot July morning in 1209: the northern French army was massing outside the walls of Béziers in the Languedoc, now in southern France. Its purpose: to destroy the heretics. One soldier asked the obvious question. How were they to distinguish between heretics and true believers, Cathars and Catholics? The papal legate, Abbot of Cîteaux and head of the Cistercian Order, Arnold Amoury, gave him the infamous reply which has echoed down 800 years: "Kill them all; God will know his own."

The entire population of Béziers died that day, men, women and children, many of them while seeking sanctuary in the church of St Mary Magdalene during a mass; it was her feast day. And so began the Albigensian Crusade, one of the most disgraceful acts of religious persecution ever.

Historians are divided on whether Arnold Amaury actually uttered those words; they were written down in a (favourable) account 30 years later. But there is no doubt that, at the end of that day, he wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Nearly 20,000 of the citizens were put to the sword, regardless of age and sex. The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous."

The slaughter by sword and fire continued for 35 years, its initial and most vicious phase led by a minor Norman lord, Simon de Montfort - whose namesake son would later set in motion what would become the English parliament. To gain their crusaders' indulgence - remission of their sins, plus whatever plunder they could get - Northern French lords put in 40 days' military service, the origin of the word "quarantine". They were ruthless. Both the Cathars and the entire flowering of Languedoc culture were wiped out during the crusade, which culminated in the siege of the mountain fortress of Montségur in 1244.

For nearly 40 years, the classic work on the Albigensian Crusade has been the translation of Zoë Oldenbourg's Massacre at Montségur. There have been several good academic studies, but until now no popular history of the crusade in English - which makes Stephen O'Shea's The Perfect Heresy all the more welcome.

This is a thorough and extremely readable account of the entire crusade. The "Perfect" of the title refers to the Cathar leaders, the equivalent of priests, who - astonishingly for that age - could be male or female. O'Shea explains the background and beliefs of the Cathars: their dualistic version of Christianity taught that all matter was created by an evil God, that Jesus was a spiritual being rather than an incarnate one, and that our material bodies contain a spark of the divine.

Ordinary believers, credentes, lived normal lives, but the Perfect avoided having sex and eating meat. When believers were near death, they would be given the consolamentum, a blessing which ensured their going straight to heaven instead of having to be reincarnated again. One reason that Catharism took such a strong hold was the very visible contrast between the godly Perfect and the ostentatiously wealthy and often dissolute clergy of the Catholic Church.

The word Cathar is usually said to come from the Latin cathari meaning "pure ones". O'Shea quotes the more recent belief that the name was actually an insult applied by the Cathars' enemies, and came from a German word suggesting that, as part of their supposedly offensive rituals, they kissed the backside of a cat.

Similar negative propaganda was later used against the Knights Templar. The most common Catholic accusation against heretics was that they practised sodomy; an earlier version of the Cathars were the Bogomils from Bulgaria, and the French for Bulgars, bougres, gave us the word "bugger".

The Perfect Heresy brings to startling life the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade, such as the appalling spectacle of 100 men stumbling 25 miles from one town to another, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Their eyes had been gouged out, their noses and upper lips hacked off; the first in line had been left with one eye to see his way. They were Simon de Montfort's warning to the Cathar defenders of the ironically named fortress of Cabaret.

O'Shea quotes a contemporary chronicler's damning obituary on de Montfort: "if by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths... by setting fires... by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above."

Catharism sprang up again 100 years later, a little to the south, in and around the Pyrenean village of Montaillou. It was made famous by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's 1978 book, based on the meticulous registers of the Inquisitors sent to root out every suspected heretic. A Spanish priest, Domingo de Guzmán, had tried to convince the Cathars they were wrong through argument. His followers became the Dominicans, and Pope Innocent put them in charge of his newly-created Inquisition, with consequences which would continue for centuries. The best-known Inquisitor at Montaillou, Jacques Fournier, went on to become Pope Benedict XII.

In The Yellow Cross, René Weis retreads the same ground as Ladurie, in far more detail. Too much, in fact; the book drowns in it. Weis deliberately relates the lives of the Cathars and their neighbours as a continuous narrative, a story with a host of colourful characters.

He contrasts his approach with that of Ladurie, who "provided trenchant analyses of the socio-economic politics" of the area: "But his work on family, home, marriage and sex inevitably involved a degree of conceptual abstraction which submerged the individual in the tribe, when it is precisely the irreducibility of the men and women of the Registers which makes them address us with such freshness from those ancient pages."

Perhaps so; but it was this very analysis, in chapters like "Body language and sex", which made Ladurie such a good read. Weis, a professor of English at University College, London, forgets that social reportage needs analysis or, at the very least, some sort of commentary in order to draw significance and meaning from the story - to make it more than just a string of bare facts. For academics, The Yellow Cross will be a useful addition to Cathar scholarship; for anyone else it is heavy and sadly ungripping.

But for anyone interested in medieval history, or the less edifying aspects of Christian history, O'Shea's The Perfect Heresy is a splendid and - despite its awful subject matter - an enjoyable read. It brings the Cathar people and their land into brilliant living focus.

* David V Barrett's book 'The New Believers' is published this month by Cassell

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