Women are often seen as playing a passive role in great political and religious movements – but nothing could be further from the truth – even in the Middle Ages! Because it was some very powerful and resourceful females who led one of the biggest medieval revolts against the power of the Pope at the time of the Templars.
Despite all the best efforts of the Roman Catholic church to exclude women from decision making in religious matters – they took things into their own hands when it came to heresy. They joined movements that challenged papal power and preached ideas that horrified Rome. Even though the punishment for heresy – in case you didn’t know already – was death.
So who were these female heretics daring to challenge the authority of the Pope?
Well, the heresy I’m writing about here is the Cathars – who became dangerously popular in southern France during the 13th century. They denied the authority of the Pope, the Catholic church and the sacraments. Borrowing from ancient belief systems like gnosticism, they turned their back on the material world and all its corruption.
Catharism spread virally across southern France – and many feared it would replace the Catholic church. It’s even believed that the parents of Guillaume de Nogaret – the minister of King Philip of France responsible for arresting the Knights Templar in 1307 – were Cathars. And women played an important leadership role in their ranks.
Women like Esclarmonde of Foix. Her name meant ‘clarity of the world’ in the Occitan language spoken in those days in southern France. She became a “Perfect” within the Cathars – their version of a priest. It’s been argued that the welcoming attitude of the Cathars towards women like Esclarmonde was rooted in their belief in reincarnation. Basically, until your soul was cleansed of earthly sin, you were condemned to be re-born over and over – sometimes as a man – and sometimes as a woman.
There were two classes of Cathar – ordinary believers who were called “credentes” and ministers who were called “perfects”. It scandalised the Catholic church that the Cathars allowed women like Esclarmonde to become perfects – taking the role of priests, which to this day is only done by men in Catholicism.
Esclarmonde became notorious for using her position as a well-connected aristocrat to spread the Cathar heresy among the people. The records of the Inquisition reveal that she was one of many other women preaching Catharism across France. For example, Helis de Mazerolles later told a Catholic inquisitor that her grandmother, mother and sister had all been perfects in the Cathar order.
The involvement of women in the Cathar heresy was so prevalent that when the Catholic Inquisition wanted to spy on them – they sent in women. It’s been calculated by one French academic that these spies would have found that a third of the perfects were women. To get that into perspective, imagine the Catholic church with women making up one in three of its priests, bishops, cardinals and maybe even – a pope!
These spies discovered that Cathars, when captured and interrogated, would recant their beliefs to avoid being executed and then resume being Cathars once freed. Though many took to living in cabins in the wood and adopting a nomadic lifestyle in the countryside. This included brave women who continued to be revered and to whom the faithful would genuflect.
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Initially, the Catholic church tried to debate with the Cathars in the hope of puncturing their strong beliefs. Esclarmonde was reportedly at one of these debates and even contributed – to the disgust of the Catholic priests present. When she finished talking, an enraged priest screamed at her:
Go madam and tend your distaff (an instrument for spinning wool) as it does not appertain to you to speak in debates of this kind.
One of those present at the debate was Dominic Guzman – who would go on to form the Dominican order of friars. They would play a huge role in the Inquisition. One can only imagine what he thought about this feisty female daring to question Catholic orthodoxy.
But before the Dominicans and the Inquisition could interrogate anybody, the Cathars had to be stamped on hard and the pope called for a full on crusade in the south of France that led to the deaths and execution by burning of thousands of Cathar followers.
Then the Inquisition moved in. Many Cathar men and women went into hiding and continued to try and preach. They were sheltered by Cathar families, now keeping their faith a secret. And it seems that women perfects were helped to the same extent as the men.
Eventually, the church got its way and the Cathars literally went up in smoke – men, women and children. But the memory still continues of those extraordinary women who were so prominent and powerful.