Catharism was a Gnostic heretical movement that originated around the middle of the 12th century AD. It existed throughout much of Western Europe, but its home was in Languedoc, in southern France. The name Cathars probably originated from catharos, the pure ones, maybe also from cattus cat which they were supposed to sexually abuse during their ceremonies, and 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 are also called Albigensians, this name originates from the end of the 12th century, and was used in 1181 by the chronicler Geoffroy de Vigeois. The name refers to the southern town of Albi (the ancient Albiga.) The designation is hardly exact, for the heretical centre was at Toulouse and in the neighbouring districts.
The heresy, which had entered these regions by following the trade routes, came originally from eastern Europe. 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 still more to those of the Paulicians, with whom they are sometimes connected. It is difficult to form any precise idea of the Albigensian doctrines, as all the existing knowledge of them is derived from their opponents, and the few texts from the Albigenses (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 Roman church, and raised a continued protest against the corruption of the clergy. The Albigensian theologians, called Cathari or perfecti (in France bons hommes or bons chretiens) were few in number; the mass of believers (credentes) were not initiated into the doctrine at all – they were 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 Catharist heretics appeared in Limousin between 1012 and 1020. Several were discovered and put to death at Toulouse in 1022. The synods of Charroux (Vienne) in 1028 and Toulouse in 1056, condemned the growing sect. Preachers were summoned to the districts of the Agenais and the Toulousain to combat the heretical propaganda in the 1100s. But, protected by William, duke of Aquitaine, and by a significant proportion of the southern nobility, the heretics gained ground in the south. The people were impressed by the bons hommes, and the anti-sacerdotal preaching of Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne in Perigord.
Catharism was based on the idea that the world was evil. This was a distinct feature of Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Manicheanism and the theology of the Bogomils. It may possibly also have been influenced by older Gnostic lines of thought. According to the Cathars, the world had been created by an evil deity, known by the Gnostics as the Demiurge, which the Cathars identified with the being called Satan by Christians. Earlier Gnostics did not identify the Demiurge with Satan, which may depend on the fact that Satan was not “in fashion” during the first hundred years A.D., while he was increasingly popular in these medieval times. They also believed that souls would be reborn until they managed to escape the material world for the immaterial heaven. The way to escape was to live the life of an ascetic and not be corrupted by the world. Those that did live this life were called Perfects, and had the ability to wipe a person clean of their sins and connections to the world, so when they died, they would go to heaven. The Perfects themselves lived lives of unimpeachable frugality, a stark contrast to the corrupt and opulent church of the time. Commonly, the wiping away of sin, called the consulamentum, was performed on someone about to die. After receiving this, the believer would sometimes stop eating, so that they could die faster, and with less taint from the world. The consulamentum was the only sacrament of the Cathar faith; they did not even perform any kind of marriage, procreation (bringing more souls into the world) being frowned upon.
The Cathars also held many beliefs that were odious to the rest of medieval society. First off, they believed that Christ 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. They further believed that the God of the Old Testament was the Devil, since he had created the world. Also, they did not believe in any sacrament except the consulamentum, which was another major heresy.
Women were treated as equals, because their physical form was irrelevant and their soul could have been a man before and might again. One of their most heretical ideas to feudal Europe was their belief that oaths were a sin. To a society based on oaths, to call them a sin because they attached you to the world was very dangerous.
In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the affected district. The few isolated successes of the abbot of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, and well 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. Even when Henry of Albano led an armed expedition and took the stronghold of heretics at Lavaur, this in no way arrested the progress of the heresy.
The persistent decisions of the councils against the heretics 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. But when he came to power in 1198 Pope Innocent III resolved to suppress the Albigenses. At first he tried pacific conversion, and sent into the affected regions a number of legates. They had to contend not only with the heretics, 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 of the south of France. Peter of Castelnau retaliated by excommunicating the count of Toulouse, as an abettor of heresy (1207). As soon as he heard of the murder of Peter of Castelnau, the Pope ordered his legates to preach the crusade against the Albigenses.
This implacable war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, and involved as well the king of Aragon who owned fiefdoms and had vassalls in the area. Peter II of Aragon died in the crussade. This 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, so far as the heresy was concerned, Albigensianism was not extinguished, in spite of the wholesale massacres of heretics during the war.
The Inquisition, however, operating unremittingly in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century and a great part of the 14th, succeeded in crushing the heresy. The repressive measures were terrible, in 1245, the royal officers assisting the Inquisition seized the heretical citadel of Montségur, and 200 Cathari were burned in one day. Moreover, the church decreed severe chastisement against all laymen suspected of sympathy with the heretics (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 throw off the yoke of 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 terrorized 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 Catharists.
Catharism was destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade, and the following Inquisition in Languedoc. The last Cathar Perfect died in the beginning of the 14th century. Sympathizers with the Cathars went underground and hid their faith for obvious reasons.