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This article is about a religious movement called "Catharism", for the information on a Star Wars race under the same name, see the list of Star Wars races. To see information on the band with the same name see Cathar (Band).
Cathars being expelled from Carcassone in 1209.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassone in 1209.

Catharism was a religious movement with Gnostic elements that originated around the middle of the 10th century, branded by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church as heretical. It existed throughout much of Western Europe, but its home was in Languedoc and surrounding areas in southern France.

The name Cathar most likely originated from Greek καθαροί, "pure ones". One of the first recorded uses is Eckbert von Schönau, who wrote on heretics from Cologne in 1181: "Hos nostra germania catharos appellat."

The Cathars were also sometimes labelled Albigensians. This name originates from the end of the 12th century, and was used by the chronicler Geoffroy du Breuil of Vigeois in 1181. The name refers to the southern town of Albi (the ancient Albiga). The designation is hardly exact, for the centre was at Toulouse and in the neighbouring districts.



The beliefs came originally from Eastern Europe by way of trade routes. The name of Bulgarians (Bougres) was also applied to the Albigenses, and they maintained an association with the Bogomils of Thrace. Their doctrines have numerous resemblances to those of the Bogomils (and Paulicians). It is difficult to form any precise idea of the Cathar doctrines, as all the existing knowledge of them is derived from their opponents, and the few texts from the Cathars (the Rituel Cathare de Lyon and the Nouveau Testament en Provencal) contain very little information concerning their beliefs and moral practices. What is certain is that they formed an anti-sacerdotal party in opposition to the Catholic Church, and raised a continued protest against perceived corruption of the clergy. The Cathar theologians, called Cathari or perfecti by their Catholic executioners and judges, were known to themselves, their followers and even their co-citizens as "bons hommes" or "bons chrétiens", literally "good men" or "good christians", were few in number; the mass of believers (credentes) were not initiated into the doctrine at all—they were allegedly freed from all moral prohibition and all religious obligation, on condition that they promised by an act called convenenza to become "hereticized" by receiving the consolamentum, the baptism of the Spirit, before their death.

The first French Cathars appeared in Limousin between 1012 and 1020. Several were discovered and put to death at Toulouse in 1022. The synods of Charroux (Vienne) (1028) and Toulouse (1056) condemned the growing sect. Preachers were summoned to the districts of the Agenais and the Toulousain to combat the Cathar doctrine in the 1100s. The Cathars, however, gained ground in the south thanks to the protection given by William, Duke of Aquitaine, and a significant proportion of the southern nobility. The people were impressed by the bons hommes, and the anti-sacerdotal preaching of Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne in Périgord.


Catharism was based on the idea that the world was evil. This was a distinct feature of older versions of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, such as Manicheanism and the theology of the Bogomils, and the appearance of this idea in Catharism was probably due to the influence of these older Gnostic lines of thought. According to the Cathars, the world had been created by an evil deity known to the Gnostics as the Demiurge. The Cathars identified the Demiurge with the being the Christians called Satan. Earlier Gnostics, however, did not identify the Demiurge with Satan.

The Cathars also believed that souls would be reborn. The way to escape was to live an ascetic's life, and to be not corrupted by the world. Those that did live this life were called 'Perfects' (Parfaits). They had the power to wipe away a person's sins and connections to the material world, so that they would go to heaven when they died. The Perfects themselves lived lives of unimpeachable frugality, in stark contrast to those that lived within the corrupt and opulent church of the time. Commonly, the wiping away of sin, called the consolamentum, was performed on someone about to die. After receiving this, the believer would almost always stop eating, so that they could die faster, and with less taint from the world. The consolamentum was the only sacrament of the Cathar faith. They did not perform any rite of marriage, as procreation (bringing more souls into the world) was frowned upon. It was as a result of this particular belief that the term "buggery" was coined (after the 'Bulgars', or 'Bougres') since if they were to give in to sexual temptation, this would at least ensure that no children resulted.

The Cathars also held many beliefs that were odious to the rest of medieval society. They did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity claiming it was an invention of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catharist concept of Jesus resembled modalistic monarchianism in the West and adoptionism in the East. The Western concept resembled the Oneness doctrine of the nature of God taught by Oneness Pentecostals and Swedenborgians today. Most Cathars, however, believed that Jesus had been an apparition, a ghost, that showed the way to God. They refused to believe that the good God could or would come in material form, since all physical objects were tainted by sin. This specific belief is called docetism. Furthermore, they believed that the god of the Old Testament was the Devil, since he had created the world. They also did not believe in any sacrament except the consolamentum, which was another major heresy.

Women were treated as equals, because their physical form was irrelevant; their soul could have been a man's soul before, and it might once again become one.

One of their ideas most repugnant to feudal Europe was the belief that oaths were a sin, because they attached you to the world. To call them a sin in this manner was very dangerous in a society where illiteracy was wide-spread and almost all business transactions and pledges of allegiance were based on oaths.

Objection to the Cathars was not strictly theological in as much of what the Cathars taught and practiced had a very destabilizing effect on society. The dualism of the Cathars was also the basis of their moral teaching. Man, they taught, is a living contradiction. Hence, the liberation of the soul from its captivity in the body is the true end of our being. To attain this, suicide is commendable; it was customary among them in the form of the endura (starvation). The extinction of bodily life on the largest scale consistent with human existence is also a perfect aim. As generation propagates the slavery of the soul to the body, perpetual chastity should be practiced, by all Cathars, at all times. Matrimonial intercourse is unlawful; concubinage, being of a less permanent nature, is preferable to marriage. Abandonment of his wife by the husband, or vice versa, is desirable. Procreation was abhorred by the Albigenses even in the animal kingdom. Consequently, abstention from all animal food, except fish, was enjoined. Cathar Perfects also practiced a diet very similar to strict vegetarianism, with one exception. They were required to avoid eating anything considered to be a by-product of sexual reproduction, including cheese, eggs, milk and butter. Having said this, they were allowed to eat fish, as little was then known about the mating habits of marine creatures which were generally believed to simply appear spontaneously in the sea. Their belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, the result of their logical rejection of purgatory, furnishes another explanation for the same abstinence. To this practice they added long and rigorous fasts. The necessity of absolute fidelity to the sect was strongly inculcated. War and capital punishment were absolutely condemned, an anomaly in a crusading age. For these reasons and others, civil and religious authorities took a hard stance against the Cathars.


In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the affected district in order to arrest the progress of the Cathars. The few isolated successes of Bernard of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, and clearly shows the power of the sect in the south of France at that period. The missions of Cardinal Peter (of St. Chrysogonus) to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180–1181, obtained merely momentary successes. Henry of Albano's armed expedition, where he took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.

The persistent decisions of the councils against the Cathars at this period — in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179) — had scarcely more effect. By the time Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, he had resolved to suppress the Cathari.

At first he tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the affected regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who venerated them, but also with the bishops of the district, who rejected the extraordinary authority which the Pope had conferred upon his legates. In 1204 Innocent III suspended the authority of the bishops in the south of France. Papal legate Peter of Castelnau, known for excommunicating the noblemen who protected the Cathars, excommunicated the Count of Toulouse as an abettor of heresy in 1207. Peter was then murdered near Saint Gilles Abbey in 1208 on his way back to Rome, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "probably at the connivance of Raymond VI, count of Toulouse". As soon as he heard of the murder, the Pope ordered his legates to preach the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars.

This war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, possibly instigated by a papal decree stating that all land owned by Cathars could be confiscated at will. As the area was full of Cathar sympathisers, this made the entire area a target for northern nobles looking to gain new lands. It is thus hardly surprising that the barons of the north flocked south to do battle for the Church.

In one famous incident in 1209, most of Béziers was slaughtered by the Catholic forces headed by the Papal legate. Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how to distinguish between the Catholic and Cathars, and allegedly answered, "Kill them all, God will know his own". The Catholic Encyclopedia denies these words were ever spoken.

The war also involved Peter II, the king of Aragon, who owned fiefdoms and had vassals in the area. Peter died fighting against the crusade on September 12, 1213 at the Battle of Muret.

The war ended in the treaty of Paris (1229), by which the king of France dispossessed the house of Toulouse of the greater part of its fiefs, and that of Beziers of the whole of its fiefs. The independence of the princes of the south was at an end. But in spite of the wholesale massacre of Cathars during the war, Catharism was not extinguished.

In 1215, the bishops of the Catholic Church met at the Fourth Council of the Lateran under Pope Innocent. One of the key goals of the council was to combat heresy.

The Inquisition was established in 1229 to root out the Cathars. Operating in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century and a great part of the 14th, it succeeded in extirpating the movement. From May 1243 to March 1244, the Cathar citadel of Montségur was besieged by the troops of the seneschal of Carcassonne and the archbishop of Narbonne. On March 16, 1244 a large and symbolically important execution took place, where leaders of Catharism together with more than 200 Cathar laity were thrown into an enormous fire at the prat des cramats near the foot of the castle. Moreover, the church decreed severe chastisement against all laymen suspected of sympathy with Cathars (Council of Narbonne, 1235; Bull Ad extirpanda, 1252).

Hunted down by the Inquisition and abandoned by the nobles of the district, the Albigenses became more and more scattered, hiding in the forests and mountains, and only meeting surreptitiously. The people made some attempts to overthrow the Inquisition and the French, and insurrections broke out under the leadership of Bernard of Foix, Aimerv of Narbonne and Bernard Délicieux at the beginning of the 14th century. But at this point vast inquests were set on foot by the Inquisition, which increased its efforts in the district. Precise indications of these are found in the registers of the Inquisitors, Bernard of Caux, Jean de St Pierre, Geoffroy d'Ablis, and others. The sect was exhausted and could find no more adepts, and after 1330 the records of the Inquisition contain few proceedings against Cathars. The last Cathar Perfect, Guillaume Bélibaste, was executed in 1321. Other movements, such as the Waldensians and the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit survived into the 14th and 15th century, until they were gradually replaced by, or absorbed into, early Protestant sects, such as the Hussites.


  • Christian Rosencreuz, according to some, may have been associated with an underground Cathar movement that hid from the Inquisition. However, this is highly unlikely because there is absolutely no evidence that the Cathar movement still existed by Rosencreuz' time, nor is there any concrete evidence that Rosencreuz existed at all.

The Holy Grail

It has been suggested in some modern fiction and non-fiction books that the Cathars could have been the protectors of the Holy Grail of Christian mythology, especially in the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, although modern investigation into this book has largely discredited its findings.


Visigoths had settled in the region described as central to Catharism, which separated the political ideology from the Frankish northern provinces or Burgundy. The Crusade to rid Christendom of Cathars was a synonym for eradicating the last remnants of Arianism. The disparity between religious practices had not only been between the Visigoths of Toulouse and Franks of Paris, because Burgundy's Geneva would later erupt in Calvinism with opposition by the Franks at that time as well.


External links

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

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