Sunday, March 25, 2018

Albigensian Crusade

What we now know as the Crusades began, as I have discussed previously, with efforts in 1095 to conquer the Muslims in the Holy Land (essentially what is now Israel and Syria) and make it a Christian territory.  But the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the Turks in 1187, never to be regained.  This did not stop the desire for Crusades, just their likelihood of success.

The crusading movement quickly branched out to be wars against heretics (or even personal enemies in a few cases), rather than only against Muslims.  The first big war against heretics was the Albigensian Crusade, launched in 1209, called that because much of the fighting was near the town of Albi in southern France.

A heresy we now call Catharism had been growing and spreading for some time.  It was actually an alternate version of Christianity, a dualist religion related to Zoroastrianism and to the Manichaean heresy of late antiquity.  It seems to have reached western Europe via Bulgaria, and its adherents were sometimes called Bogomils.  The basic tenet was that the universe was divided equally between forces of light and darkness, locked in eternal conflict (and no, we're not talking here about the Star Wars' Force).  For adherents, the physical universe was the creation of the devil, not of God, and the ultimate goal was to free oneself from all hint of physicality until finally starving to death.

There is a fair amount of dualism in orthodox Christianity, but it has always held that God, not the devil, created the physical world (reread Genesis), and that when we rise again we will rise in the flesh, not as disembodied spirits.

For a long time this growing heresy was considered deplorable but nothing more.  When towns in southern France started having two bishops, one adhering to Roman Christianity and one to Cathar beliefs, Cistercian monks were sent south to preach and to try to talk the locals out of what was considered their mistaken faith.  It didn't work.  Even the count of Toulouse, the most powerful lord of southwestern France, adopted at least some tenets of Catharism.

The pope sent a legate (representative) to try to help coordinate the preaching.  His legate, Pierre de Castelnau, was murdered in 1208, some said at the orders of the count of Toulouse.  No more Mister Niceguy!  Calling the heresy a cancer that must be cut from the body of Christendom before it spreads, the pope declared a Crusade.  The count of Toulouse's efforts to calm everything down were unsuccessful, and he was placed under anathema.  The Crusade, essentially a war of northern France against southern France, began in 1209.

It was a vicious war.  Northern forces were led by Simon de Montfort.  You should still not tell Simon de Montfort jokes in southern France, because these are not considered funny jokes.  When asked how they could tell who was and wasn't a heretic before burning a whole village, he was said to have quipped, "Burn them all.  The Lord will know His own."

Having (sort of) won, the northern armies settled down to hold southern lands.  They took over and enlarged a number of quite stunning castles that the heretics had held.  These are now sometimes called "citadels of vertigo" from being perched on high peaks and cliffs.  The newly established order of Dominican friars continued the efforts to try to convert people they kept hoping were just confused.  The Inquisition got underway, trying to find and deal with hidden heretics.

One of the more remarkable events, a generation after the Crusade, was the Massacre at Montségur in 1244.  A group of heretics, with their families, held out in a castle on a mountaintop for close to a year.  When the castle was finally captured (Swiss rock climbers went up the back of the mountain, so steep as to be thought inaccessible), the attackers gave any heretics who would renounce their faith two weeks to get out, not wanting to kill children and admiring the defenders' resolve.  But at the end of two weeks most were still there.  And, feeling they really had to do so, the attackers burned everybody.  You can now visit Montségur and, after paying a few euros, climb to the top.

My husband, Robert Bouchard, and I co-wrote a fantasy novel, Count Scar, set in a slightly reimagined version of southern France in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade.  It is available as an ebook on Amazon and other e-tailers.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on real medieval heresy, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.


  1. Regardless of what the pope may have called it, I wonder about us calling this French civil war a “crusade.” Do medieval historians have a world council? If yes, at the next one perhaps you can offer a motion to demote this war from crusade status in the same way that, a few years back, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to being a “dwarf planet.”

    In the meantime, I'll look into the Count Scar book.

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