I promised more on the Cathars – so here goes!
The crusades had got off to a ripping start in the Middle East with Jerusalem taken by the crusaders and several Christian kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coast (roughly equivalent to Israel, western Syria and Lebanon today). All this religious zeal and the success of the endeavour gave the papacy the idea to turn this energy – a combination of the sword and the bible – on to a heresy in France that had annoyed the pope greatly.
Rome had fought to establish its primacy as the centre of the church – with the pope, as the successor of Saint Peter, as its leader. This was not a given in the early days of Christianity and there were still some who baulked at the idea of Rome telling them what they should be thinking and how to pray. One such group were the Cathars and their beliefs were complete anathema to Rome.
They didn’t believe in a formal clergy for a start and took a very dim view of the wealth and riches of the Catholic church. In the Languedoc region of France, they had powerful supporters among the feudal nobility and the general population. This all posed a dire threat to the papacy – it needed to stamp out this affront to clerical authority. The weapon that would be chosen would be crusade – a bloody confrontation with the Cathars every bit as violent as what had been meted out to the Saracens in the east.
The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out. These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed. Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.
So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe. A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness. An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards. There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.
Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes. What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc. If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.
The Cathars had to be crushed. No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church. I’ll talk more about how the crusade against the Cathars developed in the next few blog posts.