Montségur chateau. Photo credit: Dominique Viet
On the night of March 16, 1244, in the Province of Languedoc, France, four clerics and their guide slipped out of the Montségur fortress and rappelled hundreds of feet down the sheer west face of underlying hillock for which it was named, carrying a treasure on their backs. They were Cathars, whose stronghold had capitulated two weeks before to a far superior force. But the nature of the treasure they carried is unknown. Through the centuries, legends have held that it may have been the Holy Grail, of which the Cathars were believed to be the custodians.
The four clerics were fleeing persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. Toward the end of the 12th century, Catharism had become the leading populist faith of Languedoc, supported by the nobility as well as by the common people. That displeased the Church, which sought means of suppressing it. Inconveniently, the Cathars were Christians. But they weren’t Catholics. Their faith was based on events before the Catholic Church set its dogma (see box). So the Church claimed they were heretics and invoked two suppressive strategies.
First, in 1184 the Church instituted the Inquisition in Languedoc. In 1232, Pope Gregory IX assigned the conduct of inquisitorial procedures to the Dominican Order. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV specified that the procedures could include torture, at which the Dominicans became formidably innovative.
Second, military force was brought to bear. In 1209, Pope Innocent III mounted the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Unlike the other Crusades that were European military incursions in foreign lands, it took place in Europe. Before its first engagement, the siege of the city of Béziers on July 22, Arnaud, the Abbot in command, was asked how the Crusaders could tell Cathars from Catholics in the city. He replied: “kill them all; the Lord will recognize His own.” The Crusaders obeyed. At the end of the day, Arnaud wrote to Pope Innocent III: “Today, your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age or sex.”
The next engagement was the siege of Carcassonne, which was well fortified and resisted two weeks longer in August. The people of the city were spared, but were forced to leave wearing only their underclothing. The following June, the equally well-fortified town of Minerve was attacked. It resisted fiercely for six weeks but fell on July 22, after its main well was destroyed. The Cathars were given the option of reverting to Catholicism. Most did. The 140 who didn’t were burned at the stake.
That left three Cathar strongholds, all high on ridges. Peyrepertuse was surrendered in 1240 without a battle. Montségur withstood a siege of nine months before capitulating in March 1244. A small fort at Queribus fell quickly in August 1255. The few remaining believers then grouped in the mountain village of Montaillou, where they surrendered in 1324. It had taken the Church 140 years to vanquish the Cathars.
Despite its suppression, Catharism exists today, in writings, associations, music and well-maintained historical sites. Yet much remains unknown, because most of the Cathar writings were destroyed during the Inquisition and Crusade against them. So the mystique persists, leading to speculation in modern non-fiction (“Holy Blood, Holy Grail”) and fiction (“Da Vinci Code”) on the events of their time. A mountaineer visiting the sites in the foothills of the Pyrenees might wonder about other matters. The fort at Queribus is particularly intriguing, as three of the four approaches to it would classify as technical climbs in the mountaineering lingo of today.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where we works as a translator. A natural scientist by education, Brady takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.