We think of the Crusades as a Christian versus Muslim thing – but it was also a Christian versus Christian affair.
In the Baltics and Russia, Catholic knights fought the eastern Orthodox church. While in modern Turkey, the Fourth Crusade saw crusaders smash up the Christian city of Constantinople. But most terrifying of all, was the pope’s decision to crush the Cathars in southern France.
This was a variant of Christianity that became incredibly popular among both nobles and common people. And it spurned the authority of the pope – something the Vatican was hardly likely to tolerate for long.
Rome had fought to establish its primacy as the centre of the church. It has seen off other patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. A whole mythology supported by faked documents like the Donation of Constantine had cemented the pope in pole position as head of the universal church.
Then along came the Cathars.
They didn’t believe in a hierarchical clergy as an intermediary between the lay congregation and God. Like later Protestants, they believed every individual could know God through prayer and contemplation. But what really riled them was the ostentatious wealth of the Catholic church and its untrammelled venality.
Nobles baulked at having to support monks, bishops and cardinals. In the Languedoc region of France, a movement stirred. Some conspiracy theorists attribute the Cathar heresy to underground supporters of the bloodline of Jesus in that part of the world. I’m not going to delve too much into that here – but feel free to do your own research or check out my other posts on the Priory of Sion and Rex Deus.
Cathar beliefs echoed the theology of Manichaeism – preached by 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. Incidentally, this isn’t too far removed from the views of the Essenes as expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls with their belief in the people of light (themselves) and the people of darkness (Romans, Jewish High priests, etc).
What do we find in dualist universe? Basically, 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 dash of Plato in all this (a Greek philosopher who wielded a surprisingly big influence on Christian thought) 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. And this required a crusade involving Christian against heretical Christian. Needless to say the Catholic church won and many Cathars were consumed by flames at the stake or put to the sword.
However, many French families – of high rank – had to conceal their Cathar links for many years afterwards. This undoubtedly includes families with links to the Knights Templar. So much so, that it’s given rise to the suspicion that Templar/Cathar links were stronger than one might think. Could it even be that the Templars were suppressed in part because of the legacy of the Cathar crusade?
In the 1980s best seller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – which Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code drew inspiration from – it’s asserted that the Templars and Cathars enjoyed “a certain warm rapport”. It’s also claimed that the sixth Templar Grand Master Bertrand de Blanchefort came from a Cathar family. Should remark, if a bit pedantically, that Holy Blood and Holy Grail inaccurately describes De Blanchefort as the fourth Grand Master – he was the sixth.
Other claims made in that book about the Templars and Cathars:
- The Templars took a “neutral” position during the anti-Cathar crusade
- At the start of that crusade (also known as the Albigensian crusade), there was an influx of Cathars into Templar ranks
- De Blanchefort’s descendants were fighting alongside Cathars forty years after his death
- In the Languedoc Temple, officials were more often Cathar than Catholic
- Cathar Templars remained in that region of France, as opposed to going to the Holy Land, thereby creating a base in the Languedoc (that would worry King Philip of France in 1307?)
- Through the Cathars, the Templars were exposed to gnostic dualism – though this influence may also have been picked up in the east
Just to add another Cathar fact that I will have mentioned elsewhere – that the chief tormentor of the Templars under King Philip of France was William de Nogaret…..whose family are also believed to have been Templars. Maybe De Nogaret was over compensating for his family’s sins.