Posts Tagged ‘Cathars’

Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

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My travels: Q for Queribus

June 5, 2017

Some readers may have noticed my recent interest in the Cathars; in autumn last year (2016) I took myself on a trip to the Aude department in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, to visit some of the sites associated with this heretical church that was finally wiped out in the thirteenth century. The local tourist offices have been trying hard, in this rather poor area of the country, both to cash in on the history they have, and to dispel a lot of the myths that have grown up over the years about the Cathars. I found the tourist office personnel very helpful, and able to provide all sorts of extra information and tips as to what to look out for.

Cathars seem to have gathered in small, remote hill-top towns in the area, such as Rennes-le-Chateau, and when driven towards extinction to have fled to castles held by supporters of their faith. But the castles on the trail are not those where the Cathars made their last stands, but later replacements, from the era when the border between France and Spain was in dispute.

The castles themselves are mind-boggling in their inaccessibility, perched high up on rocky outcrops in a way that none of the castles – and I’ve visited a lot of them – in the UK are situated. And yes, I know that we don’t have any Pyrenees here. I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could possibly manage to build a castle in such a place: where did they get the labour (enforced?) from? The stones? And how did they get them all up there? Then, when the castle was there, how on earth did anyone manage to besiege it? Because they were besieged, and captured… Queribus could be defended by a couple of dozen soldiers, and when you climb up to it, you can see how. And you are so high up, you can see to the Mediterranean.

They I went to Peyrepetuse. You drive up and up for ages along narrow winding mountain roads and eventually reach a dusty car park: the road goes no further. You can look across the valley and see Queribus in the distance. Then you look up, from the car park, to the mountains towering up another two or three hundred feet, and it’s as if someone has dropped a stone replica of the Titanic on top of the mountain – that’s the castle, coming to a point like the prow of a cruise liner, hundreds of feet above you… And then you try to get there. Absolutely stunning. There are actually three different castles there, though you can’t really separate them, in their ruined state. Making your way around is fairly random, and precipitous, and it’s bloody windy up there, too.

There are ruined abbeys, mediaeval walled towns, and there is also Carcassonne, which I spent three days exploring. An entire, walled mediaeval town, with a citadel, seriously but carefully restored, and you can walk all the way around it, either on the ramparts, half of which are Roman and half mediaeval, or in the moat. It is huge, and awe-inspiring. All-in-all, I think this has to be one of the most stunning areas of the country I’ve visited.

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.

Heiko A Oberman: Luther

August 30, 2016

517E2TV6GBL._AC_US200_I should probably give up on reading religious history, because I never seem to achieve the clarity I’m looking for. It will be 500 years next year since Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses started the Reformation, splitting western Christendom irreparably and in England leading to cultural vandalism of an order that parallels that wrought in other lands by ISIS and the Taliban in more recent years.

So, what am I looking to find out? What Luther and associates actually disagreed with Rome about, in theological terms, the question of justification and righteousness, and whether by faith alone or by good works too. The well-known stuff about the horrendous abuses and immoralities of the mediaeval church is easier to take on board.

This book clearly demonstrates how religious reform and politics were inextricably tied up with the evolution and development of the modern nation-state, which I’d deduced after a fashion, but never been fully clear about: across the whole of Europe, people were seeking independence from Rome’s interference, the spiritual trying to usurp the temporal, and what’s more, some attempting to do this whilst remaining Catholic, while others moved definitively away from the church. It’s very detailed and probing in its survey of what is known of Luther’s life and the development of his thought and theology, and presents new knowledge and insights: the theological wranglings remain incredibly difficult to follow, even for someone who has read quite a bit in this field, both history and theology. He catalogues the wider ramifications of events, and debunks a good number of long-held myths, too. It was news to me how much of a millenarian Luther was, as well as how increasingly anti-Jewish he became.

And the nit-picking… how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin? The more I read, the more I’m astonished at the twisting and perverting of what we think was the original basis of Christianity: the heresies, the councils, the definitions, the religious bureaucracy, the torturing and killing of those who dared to question or disagree… it does seem utterly bonkers. In a few days I shall be visiting some of the Cathar sites in southern France. They were a Christian sect annihilated by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with a Catholic bishop famously instructing troops to kill everyone in a captured town without distinguishing between heretics and true believers, on the grounds that “God will recognise his own”…

What the reformers were not interested in doing was going back to the origins, the church of the earliest days of Christianity: too many vested interests involved there. It all does seem, sadly, to have been as much about grabbing temporal power and wealth, at least for those not actually inventing the new theologies. An interesting, and difficult book.

Zoe Oldenbourg: Massacre at Montsegur

January 21, 2015

41A3RSS50DL._AA160_A serious tome on mediaeval history, specifically the Albigensian Crusade. For a long time, I’ve been interested in the Cathars and their castles in the Languedoc, but it’s taken me a while to get round to reading this book.

In the late twelfth/ early thirteenth centuries the established Church was widely viewed as corrupt, and worldly, and a serious rival developed, the Cathar church, which came to command the loyalty of the entire region. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about its beliefs, practices and organisation, as it was ruthlessly and totally destroyed, and the subsequent accounts were written by the victors.

The broader context was the development and enlargement of the kingdom of France, which meant the annexation of the Languedoc by whatever means. There were also petty rivalries between local lords and barons, and the thrones of England and Spain, and the Empire as well as the Papacy all wanting to advance their power and influence.

The Church realised it needed to extirpate its rival; at first it used its power and influence over the temporal authorities, with great brutality; then it invented the independent Inquisition with powers to seek out and destroy heresy, arranging for it basically to have carte blanche from the local powers to do what it liked, an arrangement that suited both sides.

I think what I found most shocking was what I can only describe as the Stalinist methods of the Church and the Inquisition to deal with heresy and heretics. A climate of insecurity and terror was created throughout the entire region, and this led people to denounce themselves and friends and neighbours in a bid to avoid more serious consequences; the idea that the Inquisition would keep to its side of any bargain was unlikely. Heretics – men and women, young and old were often collectively burned in dozens and sometimes hundreds because they refused to abjure their Cathar faith, and eventually the old religion disappeared.

Oldenbourg’s account is masterly; some apparently think she was too sympathetic to the Cathars, but when you read her account, the established Church clearly loses any moral or spiritual authority from the very outset; although the Cathars were a rival church, all they sought was to be allowed to worship as they wished. There is an enormous amount of detail, distilled from available Inquisition documents and other sources; all is referenced. She explains in full and clear detail, as far as is possible, the beliefs and attitudes of the time so that her whole history is fully contextualised. She is open about the difficulty of coming at the truth; she is clear that in the end the issue was the independence or not of the Languedoc, and that the Church would have seen itself as having no other route than to try and destroy what was a serious alternative religion across a large area and therefore a major threat to its temporal authority. All in all, I found this an excellent work.

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