Anne Brenon: Les Cathares

September 19, 2016

51vsnpcj3tl-_ac_us160_Anne Brenon is one of the foremost experts on the history and theology of the Cathars, so I took her book to re-read on my recent trip to the Aude department of southern France as I set off to visit some of the sites where they lived and were ultimately wiped out by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It’s one in an excellent and long-running series from the publishers Gallimard, where a topic, theme or idea is explored in depth in a copiously illustrated main section, which is supported by a supplementary document and bibliography section at the end. Some of their titles were taken up and translated by Thames and Hudson a couple of decades back, but that enterprise seems to have petered out.

The Cathars formed a sizeable and widespread alternative to the official church in southern France, northern Italy and other adjoining areas; they rejected the authority of the pope, the sacraments and rituals of the Roman Church, and sought to return to the basics of early Christianity; men and women were of equal status. More seriously, they spurned the cross, the passion of Christ and the crucifixion, and focused on the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. This earned them condemnation as heretics, the launching of the crusade against the Albigensian heresy (as the Cathar beliefs were labelled) and the setting up of the Inquisition. Of course, it wasn’t just about religion: power politics were in play as always, as the French throne sought to spread its borders and emasculate a powerful rival in the Languedoc. It is a truly shameful episode in the history of the official church: the 5000 in habitants of the city of Beziers were slaughtered, heretics and Catholic alike on the orders of a bishop who said: ‘Kill them all; God will recognise his own’…

The Aude department is encouraging tourism to the areas where the Cathars lived and died; there are museums and exhibitions, and they are careful to de-mystify the untruths which have grown up over the years, that the ruined castles such as Queribus and Peyrepetuse, perched impossibly on their rocky crags, were the sites of Cathar last stands: those castles were built in those places by the French throne after the Cathars had been evicted and massacred, as part of the pacification and securing of the frontier with the throne of Aragon to the south…

Fascinating places which I really enjoyed visiting, and very interesting episode of mediaeval history. Brenon’s book was a very useful companion: there’s sufficient information to make one feel informed properly without being overloaded, it’s well-organised and illustrated.

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