Cathars – the crushing of a medieval heresy

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


Maps of the Templar world

I have always loved historical maps – they never give a wholly accurate view of what the reality was on the ground but they’re fascinating to pore over. And here are some images of Europe and the Middle East at the time of the Knights Templar. What a different world they present!

Going from left to right across Europe, these maps reveal the tempestuous political climate of the period.  The Norman aristocracy of England had begun its slow invasion of Ireland as you can see by a smattering of pink on the east coast, Wales and Scotland were still independent and the English crown still claimed vast swathes of what is now France.

The Iberian peninsula is even more striking. Half of it was still under Islamic control – having been completely invaded in the year 711CE.  Christian kingdoms like Leon, Castille, Portugal as well as Aragon and Navarre had begun the ‘Reconquest‘ aided by crusaders and Templars from all over Europe.

Central Europe was dominated by the Germanic Holy Roman Empire that stretched down into northern Italy meeting the Norman controlled southern half of the boot.  Venice was independent and increasingly challenged the fading power of the Byzantine Empire – which it would eventually deal a huge blow against in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.

Beyond the Byzantines – the Greek speaking inheritor of the eastern Roman empire centred on Constantinople – was the encroaching realms of the Seljuk Turks.  The Seljuks had become the dominant force in the Islamic Middle East and would crush crusader controlled Edessa in 1144.

Enjoy the maps!

Map of medieval Europe map of medieval europe map of medieval europe

Castle built by Saladin – a picture gallery

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Here is Ajlun castle built in 1184 by a nephew of Saladin to see of the crusaders and protect local iron mines from the crusaders. A jewel in Ayyubid history – that’s the dynasty founded by Saladin. As you know, Saladin would go on to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and put many Templar knights to the sword.

One special plea to the Jordanian authorities – please remove the rubbish piling up near the castle. It’s such a beautiful monument and I’m sure those large bins can be put elsewhere! Don’t let that put you off a visit.

Ajlun castle
Looking out over the countryside
Ajlun castle
On top of the fort
Ajlun castle
Boiling oil was poured down here on to invaders
An atmospheric stairway
An atmospheric stairway
The main entrance
The main entrance
The imposing walls
The imposing walls
Please get rid of that rubbish!!
Please get rid of that rubbish!!

The Knights Templar and money lending

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři
Knights Templar

The Knights Templar were warriors, monks, farmers, royal advisers and bankers all rolled into one. Whether they sat on fabled mountains of gold – it was certainly widely believed (particularly by certain monarchs) that they did – they certainly lent vast sums to popes and princes. The Paris Temple in particular was a heavily fortified bank in the eyes of the French kings.

As today’s banking system sees its reputation torn to shreds, it’s worth recalling that our banks owe a debt to the Templars for creating an early system of lending and credit. So how did it work?

Well, in a pre-capitalist age without modern banking, you might have to haul large amounts of bullion around with you when you went off on crusade or even dig a hole in the ground to hide it. Not exactly sophisticated. Your wealth would largely be based on land and that was at risk of being seized by somebody unscrupulous while you were away. So step forward the Knights Templar with an easier way to access your money while on crusade without having to heave great sacks of it with you.

They issued letters of credit – a promise to pay the bearer the designated amount. These could be cashed in – bit like old fashioned travellers’ cheques – at Templar houses or preceptories. The order would charge a kind of administration fee to avoid the charge of usury. It was sin to charge interest on loans – a religious rule still followed today by Islamic financial institutions where ‘enhanced capital’ is OK but not outright earning of interest.  Jewish lenders were permitted to charge interest, which contributed to anti-Jewish feeling in times of economic crisis or political upheaval.

Templar enthusiasm for the world of high finance may have originated at the Champagne Fairs – a massive market held in Troyes and other towns in the Champagne district of France.  This was where the first Templars originated from so the order had strong links to this part of the world. Merchants would come from all over Europe bringing goods from further afield including the Middle East. To ease the flow of transactions, the Templars developed their credit note system. The knights themselves would have been selling their wool and other produce from their manors to fund their crusading activities in outremer.

Turcopoles – a Crusader’s best friend?

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

From the Roman empire onwards, armies have always vexed over how to get hold of the necessary manpower. This is particularly an acute problem when an empire is expanding far from home. Supply lines have always needed to be maintained and recruits found to replace the dead and wounded. It’s also been a trick of every conqueror to absorb the fighting tactics of their enemies and the closest available manpower. The Romans never let a good enemy tactic go unnoticed and adopted – and they would cheerfully enlist the sons of the conquered.

Equally with the crusader states that sprang up in the Middle East after the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, there was a need to soak up some of the local fighting talent. The Christian invaders were never going to hold on to the kingdoms and principalities they had created without some of the locals coming on side. There were, of course, plenty of Christians living all around them. The religion had, after all, begun in the Middle East. Every shade of Christianity could be found in the crusader states and to the north was the ancient and still very active eastern orthodox Christian empire of Byzantium.

It couldn’t be automatically assumed that any of these Christians would wield a sword for their new masters – who often regarded them as heretical.  In appearance, they looked a little too much like their Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their church services were distinctly lacking in any Latin. But some were prepared to take up arms with the crusaders – and especially the Knights Templar. These obliging eastern warriors were known as  ‘Turcopoles‘.

I’m told this word derives from old Greek meaning ‘sons of Turks’ – but as my Greek is non-existent, one of you can put me right. It’s certain that these lightly armed auxiliaries weren’t necessary Turkish by ethnicity, though many may have been. They were easterners for sure and in the Templar order, they formed a useful fighting force. However, any hope they might have had of rising to be a full blown knight – let alone a brother serjeant – they could forget.  Not that racism as we understand it was prevalent – but they were never to be admitted to the Frankish noble inner circles of the crusader states.

In my book Quest For The True Cross (click on title to go to Amazon) – I have a turcopole main character called Pathros. I made him a man from Aleppo whose family had fallen on hard times due to political changes in Syrian society – not least the arrival of the Seljuk Turks.  A removal of Christians from the bureaucracy of the Islamic caliphate reduces his father to poverty and Pathros goes to find his fortune in the nearby enemy kingdom of Jerusalem. He meets my main Templar hero, Sir William de Mandeville, and becomes his trusty servant. What I show is that Pathros is an educated, literate easterner who, nevertheless, cannot rise up in the Templar order – a fact that frustrates and embitters him. He is lost between two cultures – the Frankish Christian world of the crusaders and the Muslim caliphate. Pathros belongs to neither.

Interestingly – and bringing things to the modern day – I chanced upon THIS blog post from an Islamic blogger arguing for the existence of what he called “Neo-Turcopoles” – Muslims who, as he put it, co-operate with American Neo-Cons and even the Tea Party. I must hasten to point out that this blogger is ultimately arguing for inter-faith unity between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He claims these Neo-Turcopoles are Muslims allying themselves with the most right wing commentators in the US – part of what he calls the Islamophobia “industry”.

I’ve no doubt that in the twelfth century, plenty of easterners living under crusader rule probably took an equally dim view of those who fought alongside the Templars. Plus ca change!

How did the Crusades start?

Alp Arslan humiliant Romain IV
Alp Arslan humiliates the Byzantine emperor Romanos

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a huge crowd at the town of Clermont in France and urged them to do something new and very exciting – to march east and fight the forces of Islam. Something terrible had happened – he said. It needed an immediate remedy – every fit and able man must go and defend the Christian holy places.

“Let those who, for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights!”

Since the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Middle East had been divided between the Muslim realms covering north Africa and the Levant and the Christian Byzantine Empire (which viewed itself as the unbroken continuation of the eastern Roman empire).

The Byzantines had experienced mixed fortunes over the centuries but in the 10th and 11th centuries, the emperors of Constantinople had not only pushed back the Arab armies of the Caliph but aggressively expanded. However, a new force emerged that checked the Byzantines: the Seljuk Turks. These people had migrated from the Caspian and Aral seas and arrived in Persia before invading down into Syria.

By the year 1071, the Seljuks were looking like the new dominant power in the Levant. The Seljuks were probably more interested in crushing the Fatimids in Egypt but were provoked into battle with the Byzantines and beat them soundly at the Battle of Manzikert. The Seljuk leader Alp Arslan captured and humiliated the Byzantine emperor Romanos who was later blinded by his own side for bringing shame to Constantinople.

All of which left Asia Minor open to the Turks – which shook Christians in the west. Even though there was little love between the Latin rite Christians of the west and the Greek rite Christians of Constantinople – there was nevertheless a fear that the east would fall entirely to the forces of the caliph. Or as Pope Urban put it:

“For your brethren who live in the East are in urgent need of your help and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.”

He was speaking twenty years after the defeat at Manzikert and there had previously been talk of a crusade – but now a begging letter from Constantinople propelled Rome into action. There was also another element often overlooked. 1094 – the year before Pope Urban’s sermon – has been described as the ‘year of the death of caliphs and commanders’. Both the Fatimid caliph and his vizier died. In Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadi passed away as well. Two years earlier, the Seljuk vizier had been murdered by the Assassins, a fanatical sect, and the Sultan had died two months later in suspicious circumstances.

Did Pope Urban II know this? Were the crusaders exploiting a political vacuum in the Muslim east? We don’t know from any Christian writers. But there are chroniclers from Syria who condemned the lack of action by both Seljuks and the caliph in Baghdad when crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Clearly, internal divisions after the year of death were still lingering. And it’s only in 1144 that we see a clear fightback from the Seljuks under Zengi – taking Edessa back from the crusaders.

The ancient souk of Aleppo in Syria is destroyed

Gosh – what can one say? The horror being faced by the people of Syria is stomach churning and to add to their misery, the very buildings that have given them both pleasure and a livelihood from tourists are being bombed and severely damaged. Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman monuments have suffered. Now we have news that the souk of Aleppo – a UNESCO protected site – has been set ablaze in fighting. It’s doubtful the building as it was now exists. Read more HERE.

Syria – historic sites being blasted in civil war

Coat of arms of Syria -- the "Hawk of Qur...
Coat of arms of Syria — the “Hawk of Qureish” with shield of vertical tricolor of the national flag, holding a scroll with the words الجمهورية العربية السورية (Al-Jumhuriyah al-`Arabiyah as-Suriyah “The Syrian Arab Republic”). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Frontal view on the Citadel of Aleppo...
English: Frontal view on the Citadel of Aleppo Deutsch: Die Zitadelle von Aleppo, frontale Sicht (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th ce...
Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th century castle and was used in the Crusades. It was one of the first castles to use concentric fortification, ie: concentric rings of defence that could all operate at the same time. It has two curtain walls and sits on a promontory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Southern part of inner wall of Krak d...
English: Southern part of inner wall of Krak des Chevaliers, Syria Français : Partie sud du mur de l’enceinte intérieure du Krak des Chevaliers, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wish that headline was a bit of journalist hyperbole – but the pictures say otherwise. We’d all like to think that in the current civil war in Syria, its Roman and crusader sites – jewels that should be treasured forever – would be respected. But a civil war is always a brutal affair. YouTube videos of summary executions, torture and abuse of ordinary people show how the country has descended into hell. So what chance for its antiquities?

Before anybody says it – yes, people come before old buildings. And I don’t wish to be accused of being indifferent to the fate of Syrians because I’m a great supporter of the Arab Spring and the awakening of democracy in the Middle East. But on the ground – Syria is revealing all the worst aspects of human warfare.

When I heard that Aleppo was under fire from government troops – I naively thought the exchange of bullets would be reserved to the suburbs. But no – the main gate to the ancient citadel has been shelled and Time magazine has revealed the damage – click HERE for more. But worse than this is the smuggling and looting of antiquities – and shame on those dealers and buyers in the west who are aiding and planning these activities. As Time reports, the smuggling is not only for money now – but also for weapons. Priceless statues and artifacts are being traded for guns and bombs.

UNESCO has put out a statement – click HERE – warning that all of its six major historical sites have been damaged. And you have to remember that Syria has entire Roman and medieval villages dotted all over the country with incredible temple ruins. None of this has been spared in the fighting. A Facebook page has been set up to monitor the destruction including videos showing the bombing of old houses in Damascus and elsewhere. Click HERE to visit.

But surely – amidst all this madness – you would expect the magnificent crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers to be left untouched. It’s located in the desert near Homs and has remained in near pristine condition for eight centuries. Well, take a deep breath. It has been shelled and the chapel has been damaged. Click HERE for veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk‘s gloomy account in The Independent newspaper. He describes archaeological sites as having been ‘pulverised’.

What Fisk reports – and made me gulp – is the use of temples, castles and even a Roman amphitheatre as places for rebels to hole up. Inevitably, they then come under government fire with horrific consequences for human life and the heritage of Syria.

The turning point for Moorish rule in Spain

The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa
The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa 

While the crusades suffered setbacks in the east with the loss of Jerusalem and the advances made by Saladin – all was not well for Muslim rulers in the west.  It’s often forgotten that the crusades were not just waged by crusaders against Islam in the Middle East, but also in Al-Andalus….medieval Spain and Portugal.

Since the year 711, when the Iberian peninsula was overrun by the armies of the caliphate, there had been three hundred years of solid Muslim rule but then a rolling back of Islamic Al-Andalus as the new Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, Leon and Portugal began to emerge.  Divisions in Al-Andalus between rival rulers caused weakness and division which the crusaders, including Templar knights, exploited.  But the tide of war ebbed and flowed in favour of the Christians and then the Muslims and then back again.

But from the late eleventh century, the Moors – as the Muslim rulers of Spain were called – lost many of their most treasured cities including Toledo and Al Usbunna (Lisbon).  The Templars were highly prolific in the fight to drive the caliphate southwards.  Things started to look increasingly precarious for the Moors as Castile expanded towards the key cities of Seville and Cordoba.  But the Moors were not completely spent as a force – on the contrary, they regarded Al-Andalus as a part of the Islamic world and were not prepared to surrender it so easily.

Religious zealots called the Almohads put some backbone in to the Moorish fightback and the crusaders were pushed back.  But then came the decisive battle of Las Navas de Tolosa – also known as the Battle of Al-Uqab – in the year 1212.  The Almohads through everything they had at the combined armies of the Christian kingdoms to the north but suffered a terrible defeat.  From this moment onwards, Al-Andalus was slowly snuffed out and Spain emerged as a Christian kingdom – with Jews and Muslims forced to convert.

Saladin the merciful – think again!

SaladinAn excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode.   Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge.  It’s hard not to agree.  It is an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan.  His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.

But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187.  The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city.  He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms.  There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood.  Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo.  They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.

The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin.  The legends that followed were stuff and nonsense.  When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil.  Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople.  It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate.  And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.

But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem.  After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill.  So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would.  Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy.  If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock.  This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down.  Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.

However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy.  There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist.  I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.

Here we have Saladin depicted in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’

Saladin animated in a cartoon series!