The Heretics Have Won - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Heretics Have Won

The Heretics Have Won

By Erik Nelson

Cathar heretics burned at the stake before the King of France


Because “Perfect” faith can live on, despite vicious efforts to root out adherents.

By Erik Nelson

“Kill them all. God will know his own.”

When crusading knights gathered in modern-day southern France to attack Beziers in 1209, they knew where to aim their swords: at a burgeoning group of “good Christians” who thought they knew Jesus better than the Roman pope.

The only dilemma for these marauding murderers? Discerning the majority Catholics from the minority Cathar “heretics.” So they sought guidance from their leading monk, Arnaud Amaury, who by some accounts simplified things with his indiscriminate order to slay them all.

The ensuing massacre of up to 20,000 was merely the opening gambit in one of the bloodiest intra-European religious purges of the Middle Ages, which eventually killed or forced out all of southern France’s Cathars.

Kill them all. God will know his own.

And yet, through a series of imaginatively linked historic events, the Cathars have managed to escape being purged from history. The most recent episode was born of economic necessity. Inland areas, lacking coastal attractions, needed a marketing hook to attract tourists — and seized on the Cathars. Today you can’t swing a baguette without hitting a product emblazoned with “Le Pays Cathare.”

illustration of Pope Innocent III

The beautiful Minerve was one of the many Cathar villages that suffered the religion wars.

“There are very few medieval heretics who have their own glossy magazine,” says Stephen O’Shea, the Canadian author of The Perfect Heresy, a surprisingly accessible Cathar chronicle.

In fact, quite a few shiny publications bear “Le Pays Cathare” name. There’s also a series of historical thrillers by English writer Kate Mosse and a miniseries inspired by her Labyrinth, which aired in the U.S. in May.

The Christian-on-Christian crusade followed failures in Christendom’s effort to purge Islam from the Holy Land, such as the unintended sack of Orthodox Christian Constantinople.

Through a series of imaginatively linked historic events, the Cathars have managed to escape being purged from history.

Among the Cathars of Languedoc, Pope Innocent III found less troubling targets — politically speaking. These heretics believed that the temporal world was meaningless to a god who ruled an ethereal dimension. In his book, O’Shea explains that the Cathars’ god “simply didn’t care if you got into bed before getting married, had a Jew or Muslim for a friend, treated men and women as equals, or did anything else contrary to the teachings of the medieval church.”

According to O’Shea, social restrictions imposed by the Catholic Church were irrelevant to ordinary Credentes, or Cathar faithful. Believing in reincarnation, they also sought to become Perfects, who were considered enlightened, shunned worldly pleasures and expected to join the spiritual world upon their death.

Their chapter of history was short, but the Cathars have been idealized by everyone from French Republicans to Nazis to modern crystal-gazing, Nike-wearing fansFrenchmen looked to the Cathars for inspiration when Louis XVI’s monarchy and church were deemed morally bankrupt. And Nazis revered them as they sought to build a new society based on purity of body, mind and race.

Today, even in the dead of winter, thousands pay tribute by hiking to Château de Montségur, the final redoubt of the Cathar Perfect at a 3,900-foot perch in the French Pyrenees.

The myths of the Cathars seem more powerful than their history, most of it documented through the Inquisition’s torture and coercion. Walking across the moat of the restored medieval fortress of Carcassonne, once used as headquarters for the crusade, a grim-faced, middle-aged Anglican lay minister named John Smith explains why Cathars were treated so poorly. 

“They were seen to be devil-worshipers as opposed to papists and Catholics,” says Smith, visiting with a British tour group and his wife. 

The department of Aude, the inland portion of a Languedoc subdivision, was in economic decline in the early 1990s. Its Mediterranean coast had been developed in national initiatives going back to Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s, but that didn’t help residents in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where jobs were disappearing fast.

Today you can’t swing a baguette without hitting something emblazoned with Le Pays Cathare.

Nowadays every conceivable point of interest is marked by a sign topped with “Le Pays Cathare,” sparking a revival of interest in the area’s colorful history. 

The revival paid off. Sarah Seguy, from Carcassonne’s tourist board, says visits have doubled from the dark days of brief stopovers en route to Aix-en-Provence. Spaniards, Brits, Belgians, Germans, Dutch and others are making Aude a travel destination, bringing in 2.5 million visitors a year.

After touring Carcassonne, many head south to the ruined castle of Montségur. The name means “Safe Hill,” though it offered no protection for the last of the Perfect who burned there in 1244.

If you ignore the safety barriers and climb to the top of Montségur’s highest wall, listen carefully. You may hear the howl of the Pyrenean winds — or the defiant call of a people who refuse to be erased from the pages of history.

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