We always think of the crusades as something that happened in the Middle East pitching western Christian warriors against eastern Muslim saracens. In fact, the crusades of the Middle Ages were far more complex than that – and even involved a war initiated by the Pope against a group of Christians he felt had grown to powerful and influential based in southern France.
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.
In 1207, the pope called on King Philip II of France to take action. He did nothing. Half of what we now call France was under the control of the English (or the Plantagenet kings to be more precise) and he didn’t much fancy a war against his own nobles.
But the pope wasn’t going to go away and forget these Cathars – he decided that Rome had to strangle the Cathars using all the powers at its disposal. I’ll be looking at how the Cathars were crushed in the next few posts.