A Different Country? The 13th Century and Today (1)

This article was first published in New View magazine #109 Oct-Dec 2023

 “The past is a different country; they do things differently there”.

                        – L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between (1953)

This past summer my wife and I escaped the relentless eight weeks of the cool, dull, grey English “summer”, in which we rarely saw the sun, (at least where I live) and headed off to the south of France, where the temperature was rarely below 32°C while we were there. For many years we had intended to go to that region of France but time and money had never quite seemed to allow it. This year, however, turned out to be appropriate in view of recent events, which will be mentioned later. From the Channel ferry port of Caen and its memories of wartime devastation by Allied bombing and assault following the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944, we drove down to Languedoc (also traditionally known as Occitania, above) in southern France with its own tragic memories of devastation 700 years earlier that culminated in 1244 when, after a siege of some nine months, the 100 or so besieged defenders of the castle of Montségur (Mt. Secure), perched on its peak 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) high, surrendered to a 10,000-strong French royal army, and over 200 people were then burned to death. Montségur was the last stronghold of the Cathars or Albigensians (named after the city of Albi, their previous centre in Occitania), who held an unorthodox Christian faith that the orthodox Roman Catholic church regarded as a great heresy and a mortal danger.


The Albigensian Crusades

Before we travelled to Languedoc and also while we were there, we read more about the Cathars, their origins and about the Crusade that sought to destroy them. My wife had long been interested in the Cathars, and I had wanted to see Carcassonne castle since I was about ten years old.1


                                                                              Rousillon, Languedoc

The Cathars referred to themselves as ‘good Christians’, ‘good men’ and ‘good women’, or ‘friends of God’. But they were no friends of ‘the world’, which in their dualist theology they regarded as created by the Devil. Even water they held to be stained by this world and they therefore rejected baptism, along with all the Church’s other sacraments including the Mass and Transubstantiation. They also denied purgatory, prayers for the dead and prayers to saints or the Virgin Mary. Believing in reincarnation, their rather ‘Buddhistic’ aim was to escape from the wicked world as soon as possible by reincarnating as people who would become members of the Cathar perfecti. Within the Cathar faith there were three ‘grades’: the perfecti  (initiated ascetics who lived an austere life, rather similar to Buddhist monks, although the Cathar perfecti had no monasteries; they were always travelling in pairs), the credentes (believers) who lived regular lives, subscribed to the faith and supported the perfecti but were not (yet) perfecti  themselves,  and the auditores (listeners) – sympathisers. The perfectus could escape the cycle of reincarnation and return to the Light of spirit where God and Christ dwelt (cf. in the Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism of SE Asia one can only escape the world by reincarnating as a Buddhist monk and following the Buddhist Path to Nirvana). One had to avoid procreating in this ‘vale of tears’ by not engaging in sex. Following a strict pescatarian diet and believing that fish were generated spontaneously, the perfecti ate nothing that had come about through procreation. Catharism in Languedoc was a neo-Gnostic form of radical dualism that believed in a struggle between two eternally opposed gods of Light/Good/Truth/Spirit and Darkness/Evil/Lies/Matter.2

     By 1244, the Catholic Church had already spent 35 years, 20 of them on crusade, and also a great deal of money, trying to stamp out this ‘heresy’. It had encouraged the new Dominican Order, created by the Spaniard, Dominic de Guzmán, in 1203 and formally recognised by the Papacy in 1215, to try to preach the Cathars out of their ‘heresy’, which had evidently stemmed from the lands of the Byzantine Empire whose Orthodox form of Christianity the papacy also regarded as heretical. In 1204, a large army of western crusaders en route to the Holy land on the Fourth Crusade had been diverted by the Venetians, who were transporting them by sea, to destroy Venice’s trading rivals in Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. The city founded by Constantine almost 900 hundred years earlier in Byzantium now became the centre of the “Latin Empire of Constantinople” for several decades (1204-1261) ruled by western European Catholic feudal lords loyal to Rome.  Its long-term Christian religious rival in Constantinople now seemingly defeated, but under great pressure in the Holy Land following the loss of Jerusalem to Islam after the Muslim leader Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the Vatican resolved to deal with its heretics in the West before attempting to launch another crusade to recover Jerusalem. ‘Persuasion’ had not succeeded with the Cathars in Languedoc, so in 1209, after the murder of a papal legate the previous year, who Pope Innocent III suspected had been killed by Raimon VI, Count of Toulouse, the Pope summoned a crusading army of 10,000 northern knights and their feudal levies, mostly French and some Germans, Austrians and English, who intended to wipe out the Cathars physically and also help themselves to the rich territories of those nobles of Languedoc who tolerated or supported the Cathars. The army was led by the papal legate Arnaud Amalric, the Cistercian Abbot of Cîteaux, and carried out a terrible massacre of Cathars and the population of the city of Béziers. It moved on to the great walled city of Carcassonne, which surrendered after a short siege in the hot August sun, as the crusaders had captured its water supply. The leadership of the crusading army then came to be commanded by the very able but ruthless Simon de Montfort, a lord from northern France who also owned lands in England as the Earl of Leicester.

     From 1209 until the death of de Montfort in 1218 during the nine-month-long siege of Toulouse, the northern crusaders were largely successful, but the Occitanians were able to turn the tables in the 1220s. De Montfort’s son was not the military leader his ruthless father was and in 1224 he ceded to the French Crown all the lands his father had conquered in Languedoc. The King of France himself, Louis VIII, then led an even larger crusading army to Languedoc in 1226 to take control of what he now saw as his lands. He soon died but his widow and regent, Queen Blanche of Castile, pursued the crusade to a victorious conclusion in 1229.



The Inquisition

In 1233 the Church then set up the “Holy Inquisition” to root out all the surviving Cathars in the region. By 1321 it had succeeded, when the last perfectus in Languedoc, Guillaume Bélibaste, was burned at the stake. Some historians have pointed out that the papal Inquisition was established to bring legality and proper procedure into cases of heresy and that previously, secular lords or mob rule had led to people being casually condemned and murdered or burned out of hand. In his book Empires of Trust: How Rome Built–and America Is Building–a New World, published exactly 800 years after the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade, Prof. Thomas F. Madden of the private Jesuit St. Louis University wrote: “The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. …Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made heresy a capital offence”.3The Inquisitors, it is said, were able to save many accused heretics from the fire by getting them to recant and thus enabling them to ‘rejoin the community’. This is no doubt true; not all accused heretics were burned. The Middle Ages was a period when Europeans became very particular about legal process: rights, charters and documents; heresy was indeed a crime against the state, and mob rule did tend to get out of hand in an age when public executions of various kinds were, alas, also a popular form of entertainment.


                                                       Inquisitors examine a friar suspected of heresy

    But Madden was also wrong; the papal Inquisition was specifically created to suppress the Cathar faith, which the Vatican rightly saw as its chief ideological danger in western Europe at that time; the Cathars, after all, were not only as they tend to be seen by their modern enthusiasts – mostly gentle and holy incorruptible men who accepted women as perfecti  and whose exemplary ethical behaviour in contrast with that of Catholic priests and bishops made a deep impression on many Occitanians, they were also skilled debaters, in an age of public debates and theological conflict, who effectively repulsed some of the best theological minds the Catholic Church could employ against them, such as St. Dominic, and they believed that the Catholic Church was the Church of Satan and based on tricks and lies, in a world created by the Devil. They consistently attacked the luxury and corruption in the Church while at the same time advocating that procreation was a sin. The logic of their argument was therefore that human life on earth was an abomination to be endured, and Christ’s Incarnation in Jesus, they claimed, had not been physical but only spiritual. The Church’s theological argument against them was therefore soundly based. If Jesus Christ was only spirit, and the physical world was intrinsically evil, then if the Cathar faith had spread, Europeans would increasingly have come to reject life on earth itself.

Clashing worldviews

The whole situation was deeply tragic: both the Cathars and the Catholics had inherited a worldview, ancient Persian in its origins, that saw the world, indeed the universe, as the arena of a cosmic battle between Light and Dark, Good and Evil. The difference was that the Cathars had embraced a dualism that had its origins in an ancient Asian sentiment that longed for the spirit and regarded the physical plane as illusion and at worst, evil. They rejected original sin and saw the root of evil in the Devil’s act of the creation of matter itself. The Catholics by contrast, more influenced by Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, had a worldview that positively affirmed the physical world as created by God and yet saw the root of evil as man’s (or rather, woman’s) fault (original sin) in falling for the Devil’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. The problem was in people’s different understandings of their respective faiths in an age when most people no longer had any natural direct clairvoyant vision but were just beginning to think for themselves. These cognitive differences and interpretations led to increasing division but also to a corresponding psychological need for unity, or ‘oneness’ (as with Emperor Justinian’s insistence in the 6th century on one emperor and one faith in one empire) and consequent accusations that heresy would disturb that unity.

    Furthermore, since the 11th century, the Popes, who were the spiritual heirs of the Roman imperium,4 had increasingly sought to extend their own rule over the kings and princes of Europe. This drive reached a peak with the two Popes who ‘bookended’ the 13th century, Innocent III (1198-1216) and Boniface VIII (1294-1303). The latter declared in the papal bull Unam Sanctam in 1302 that since the Church is one, and since the Church is necessary for salvation, and since Christ appointed Peter to lead it, “…it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgment if it has not been good” and the bull ended: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

    However, any claim to theological correctness on the part of the Church obviously does not excuse the appalling inhumanities of the Crusades against the Cathars and the people of Languedoc by men who claimed to be Christians. Even those ‘saved’ by the Inquisition from the stake were subject to the psychological trauma of the examinations (as we know from the Inquisition’s meticulous record-keeping) and then often had to suffer cruel and humiliating punishments such as being forced to wear a yellow cross in public, being imprisoned or scourged in public at their church at regular intervals, being obligated to go off to fight the Muslims in Spain or the Holy Land etc.


Montségur today

At the siege of their last stronghold, Montségur castle, in 1244 there were some 211 Cathar perfecti within the castle. On the surrender, the perfecti walked down the steep and precarious winding path to the foot of the mountain, where they were all burned to death by the besiegers within a palisade on 16 March. 21 of the credentes in the castle, from all ranks of society and including Corba, the wife of Raimond of Pereille, the lord of the castle, and her daughter Esclarmonde, also chose to die in the flames with them. After this, Catharism went underground in Languedoc, and the Inquisition hunted down the fugitive perfecti and credentes. The last of them, Guillaume Bélibaste, was burned in 1321.5

     As we travelled around the region, the fate of the Cathars and the attitude of those who persecuted them could not but remind me of recent contemporary events. I reflected on the fact that the year 2021 came 700 years after the burning of the last Cathar perfectus in Languedoc and 777 years after the siege of Montségur.  2021 was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic event, and we all witnessed how that event caused deep dissension in society, and how those who opposed the lockdowns and/or refused the injections were insulted, ostracised, and treated as second class citizens by everyone from politicians to media figures, celebrities and comedians. Many argued they should be locked up or denied their civil rights.

    We have observed this same intransigence and intolerance towards others who think differently from us in recent years. It has grown markedly since the 9/11 event. How many times have we heard the angry words: “There is no place in our society for people who …..”? or: “I do not want to see that book/newspaper/campaign in my town!”? In the age of the Internet and social media two old sayings that many used to regard as bastions of a humane and liberal (in the true sense of the word) society seem to be fading away: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (the writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall) and “Innocent until proven guilty”. Today, it’s more likely to be: “I disapprove of what you say, and what’s more, if you try to say it, you should not be allowed to appear in public in this town/region/country!” and “Guilty as charged by media until proven innocent!” Just as the Church feared that the Cathars’ ideas would undermine society 800 years ago, so today do those who believe in the orthodoxy of the secular “church” fear that society will be undermined if ideas not supported by that “church” are even allowed to be aired in public, let alone to spread. Rather, they are either deliberately ignored or else redacted, censored, excised, deplatformed, banned. Diversity of bodies is welcome; diversity of minds is not. The church of the secular science is One and its dogmas and decrees are to be enforced.

    I recently read a review of a book about the Cathars that was published in March 2014. The reviewer, John Hopper, wrote that “the whole experience [of reading the book] is a classic illustration of the vast gulf between the medieval and modern mindset in assuming the measures that are appropriate in even a civilised society to decide which of two (or more) competing views of the world will prevail – a stark and somewhat depressing affirmation of the old adage that ‘the past is a different country, they do things differently there’”. Reflecting on the passionate disputes and fiercely intolerant attitudes in the West in the years since 2014, the destruction of people’s reputations by the mainstream media and the decay of the notion of “innocent until proven guilty”, the ‘excommunication’ from social media of people deemed contemporary ‘heretics’ and occasional physical attacks upon them, the vicious burning hatred directed against them, the lack of forgiveness or the lack of any understanding that people can change over time, the stultifying and dogmatic uniformity of opinion enforced by government,  media, and even professional academic and scientific institutions on issues such as climate change, gender, Brexit, migration, COVID-19, and the war in Ukraine – reflecting on all this, and having travelled through Languedoc this summer and familiarised myself with the history of the Albigensian Crusades, I feel that I have to question whether it is true 800 years later, that ‘the past is a different country, they do things differently there’. It may be true in some respects but it surely calls for qualification.


Black and white?

Unless one had a heart of stone, or else was a cynic who might have looked at Languedoc in terms of tourism and money, it would surely be difficult to travel around this region today and not be affected by the tragic story of the Albigensian Crusades which, even after 800 years, is still so much a part of its history. Languedoc is a lovely part of Europe, and before the Albigensian Crusades of 1209-1229, it was a very independent-minded, prosperous, cosmopolitan and cultured region, with stronger cultural and linguistic ties to Catalonia and Aragon than to France. But the crusades led to its eventual acquisition by the French Crown later in the 13th century, and the province never really recovered from the trauma of what was a kind of rape by the crusaders from the north. In the French state it became a backwater, economically depressed and politically suspect; resentment smouldered and in later centuries the region became a hotbed of Protestantism.

    But the issue, as ever, is not black and white. It is not a case of Cathars good and Catholics bad or vice versa. Indeed, many Catholics in Languedoc, including those in the nobility, tolerated or supported the Cathars. While many individual Cathar priests were genuinely holy men, which is what made them attractive to the people of Occitania at a time of much obvious corruption and self-indulgence in the Church, Cathar theology was a strange combination of views and practices which may seem ahead of their time to us today in that they rejected many of the rules and dogmas of the Catholic Church, but at the same time the Cathar faith was a world-denying neo-Gnostic remnant from ancient times that was out of place in Europe and at odds with Europe’s future as Europe prepared in the 13th century to descend into the materialism that would eventually bring about the modern world of science and technology four centuries later, and prepared also to descend into the age of deepening darkness out of which would come, by the mid-19th century, the freedom of the individual. This freedom came about through an enthusiastic embrace of the physical world, not a rejection of it.

    A key preparatory stage in that process was the emergence precisely at the time of the Albigensian Crusades in the 13th century of the two new mendicant Orders, the Franciscans (1209) and the Dominicans (1206/1216). Both of these Orders were approved by Pope Innocent III and his successor Honorius III respectively in an effort to combat heresy, which at the time meant predominantly the Cathars, who were seen as the most dangerous heretical challenge to the Church in southern France and northern Italy. The Franciscans’ focus was on compassion in this earthly world; the Dominicans’ was on spiritual truth. The Franciscans sought to show the people a moral example that they felt was more truly Christian than the Cathars, or at least, as moral as theirs, whereas the Dominicans attempted to teach people how the Cathars had strayed from the true Christian path.

How Good it is when Fraternal Twins Dwell in Unity! | Dominicana

                                                                                  Dominicans (left) and Franciscans (right)

    Christ had said (Matt. 22: 36-40) that the two most important commandments are: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Dominicans’ focus was on the first of these, and their great 13th century Scholastic teachers, such as Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, sought to defend the Christian faith against what they regarded as anti-Christian ideas coming both from Islam and from heretics; in philosophy, they also defended the spiritual nature of ideas, a notion that was termed Realism. However, as time went by, the members of the Dominican Order, who wore a black cloak over a white habit, became especially associated with the Inquisition, the spiritual ‘thought police’ of the Roman Catholic Church, often acted at the expense of the second commandment and with an uncompassionate dogmatism that insisted on absolute submission to the authority of the Church – the rigid principle of ‘oneness’; they were concerned that if this were not adhered to, Christian society would founder. The focus of the Franciscan Order (founded in 1209, the year the first Albigensian Crusade was declared by Pope Innocent III) was on the second commandment, care for the world and one’s fellows, but not only were the Franciscans also involved in the papal Inquisition from its beginnings in the 1230s, and later, the use of torture, their ‘this-worldly’ focus led Franciscan Scholastics to embrace Nominalist philosophy, which rejected the spiritual nature of ideas, a key stage on the way to empirical natural science and the materialism of the modern western world.6

    There is something symptomatic in the way these two Orders emerged 800 years ago at the time of the Cathar ‘heresy’ and in the way their attention was focused mainly on just one of the two commandments mentioned by Christ. The Orders and their concerns are symptomatic of a split in European consciousness in the 13th century that began at that time and grew wider over the following centuries. In the culture of the ancient Greeks a focus on the heavenly and on the earthly, such as one can see in the respective philosophies and concerns of Plato and Aristotle, had been held together in Greek culture; they did not fall apart. Plato has sometimes been called ‘the last Asiatic’ philosopher in Europe and Aristotle ‘the first European’ philosopher.

In the 82 lectures that Steiner gave on karma and reincarnation in 1924 he referred on several occasions to a process that took place in the spiritual world behind the scenes of historical events. As the 12th century drew to a close, the illustrious teachers of the great School of Chartres died away. These teachers and their pupils, said Steiner, belonged to a Platonist stream of spirituality; they were the last in Europe who still felt and taught something, albeit very tenuous by this time, of the spiritual forces at work in nature. After they crossed the threshold of death, they took part in a ‘conference’ in the spiritual world with members of an Aristotelian stream who were about to incarnate into earthly life. A spiritual ‘baton’ was passed over, so to speak, from Christian Platonists to Christian Aristotelians at the end of the 12th century. Most of these Aristotelians then became Dominicans in the 13th century as the Middle Ages headed into an era of great contrasts of darkness and light and tremendous clashes of world forces.

    Right in the centre of those contrasts and clashes, in the still, mid-century eye of the storm, around the critical year 1250, a quiet process and a gathering took place in central Europe that would plant the seeds of a healing culture for the future. It is to that year and that gathering that Part 2 of this essay will turn.

Go to Part 2 of this essay: http://threeman.org/?p=3212


1. In August 1209 the lord of Carcassonne castle, Béziers and other cities, the 24 year-old Viscount Raimon Rogièr Trencavel, who had a ‘live and let live’ attitude to the Cathars, surrendered Carcassonne to the crusaders led by Simon de Montfort after a short siege and the crusaders’ capture of the castle’s water supply. During a parley to negotiate terms, de Montfort had Trencavel seized and thrown into a dungeon where he later died, likely murdered.

2. Dualism in the Near East many centuries before had been more moderate, holding that there was one eternal god (Zurvan, or Zervan) and below ‘him’ were two opposed spirits, Ahura Mazdao (Light, Truth) and Ahriman (Darkness, Lies). In the distant future, it was believed, Ahura Mazdao would triumph over Ahriman. As such dualism moved westwards over the following centuries, Zurvan became fused with Ahura Mazdao, metamorphosing in the Balkans into an absolutist form of radical dualism. It was this more extreme and radical form which then, via Italy and Sicily, passed to Languedoc. See Yuri Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe (1994)

3. Thomas F. Madden, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built–and America Is Building–a New World (2009).

4 Pope Boniface VIII in his Bull Salvator Mundi (1301): “God has placed us over the Kings and Kingdoms.” In the Bull Unam Sanctam (1302), Bonface declared: “Therefore, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster”  and also: “We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal.

5. It is often said that Bélibaste, who had a local reputation of being something of a prophet, is supposed to have declared: “In 700 years the laurel will become green again, and the good people will return.” However, it seems that this saying actually stems from the late 20th century: https://www.reddit.com/r/Throawaylien/comments/ocjqss/cathar_prophecy_not_debunked_further_thoughts/ The laurel was supposedly the symbol of pure love in Languedoc at that time, and traditionally, in ancient Greece it had been the symbol of Apollo and his love for Daphne, a symbol also of the highest status and of victory.

6. It is noteworthy that in the French Revolution, the headquarters of the Jacobins, the revolutionary ‘Dominicans’ of the era, was in the rectory of the Dominican monastery in the Rue St Jacques, named after St James the Great. French Dominicans, who wore black cloaks over white habits, had always been known as ‘Jacobins’. The Jacobins’ more populist rivals in the Revolution, the Cordeliers Club, had their headquarters in the Paris convent of the Cordeliers; “Cordeliers” was a name traditionally given to the French Franciscans, who in the Middle Ages wore simple, peasant-like brown or grey habits.

Go to Part 2 of this essay: http://threeman.org/?p=3212