The Albigensian Crusade

When most people hear the word “Crusades”, they think of knights in armor trekking to the Holy Land to fight with the Muslims. But one of the bitterest and bloodiest medieval Crusades took place in France and was fought against people who declared that they were “Good Christians”.


Albigensian Crusade                                       photo from WikiCommons

When the knights of the Second Crusade returned to Europe in the middle of the 12th century, they brought back with them a dazzling array of knowledge and technology from the Arab world, a including medical knowledge, new techniques of castle construction, and mathematics. They also brought back new religious ideas–and some of these were not well-received by the ruling Catholic Church.

One of these was the Cathar movement, which had roots in the ancient Gnostic church that rivaled the early Roman Catholics. The Crusaders probably encountered Gnostic ideas in the area of Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land, or perhaps from Christian sects in Persia, and brought them back to Europe, establishing colonies in the Cologne area of Germany, the Lombard province in Italy, and several areas of France. In particular, the region around Toulouse, known as Languedoc, became a center of Cathar thought.

The Cathars preached a number of religious ideas that conflicted with standard Catholic doctrine. They rejected the idea of a Holy Trinity, and instead believed in two separate gods, one good (the God of the New Testament) and one evil (the God of the Old Testament), who were in constant struggle with each other. According to Cathar theology, humans were originally angels who lived in Heaven but had been tempted to Earth by the evil God of the Old Testament, and the aim of Cathar worship was to allow humans to once again realize their angelic inner nature. Most significantly, the Cathars viewed the Catholic Church as corrupt and sinful, rejected the authority of the Pope, and formed its own separate rituals, sacraments, and ceremonies outside of the Catholic Mass.

This religious movement, however, also had political implications: in the Middle Ages, church and state were inseparable, and religious conflicts usually also had underlying political motives. King Louis VII and the various lords that ruled France were staunch Catholics, but the province of Languedoc was not only wealthy but rebellious, and the Cathar religious rebels were also political rebels, opposing the local rulers and seeking an independent kingdom of their own. There were serious concerns that perhaps they would even ally themselves with the ancient enemy in England and fight against the French King.

The Catholic Church had already seen such an ideological challenge before: its early struggles against the Gnostics had been one of the most serious threats to its existence, and now it viewed the Cathars in the same light. Throughout the second half of the 12th century, a series of pronouncements were issued by the Church condemning the Cathars as heretics, and a number of Papal representatives were sent to various Cathar communities to try to win them back to the One True Church. In one tale, a Catholic priest named Dominic challenged a Cathar priest to a test: they each placed one of their holy books into a fire and, according to the legend, only the Catholic Bible emerged from the flames undamaged–thereby proving the superiority of Catholic doctrine. (Sadly, we do not have the Cathar versions of these legends, since nearly all of their writings would be destroyed by the victorious Catholics.) Father Dominic would later go on to establish the Dominican Order, which would become a powerful force in the Catholic Church.

Despite all these efforts, however, the Cathars continued to thrive all over Europe. When Pope Innocent III took office in 1198, he sent another mission, under a bishop named Pierre de Castelnau, to meet with the rebellious ruler of Languedoc, Count Raymond, demanding that he outlaw the sect and move against them. When Raymond refused, Castelnau excommunicated him. Shortly afterwards, Castelnau himself was killed by one of Raymond’s knights, and when word of this reached Rome, the situation exploded. Pope Innocent excommunicated all of the Cathars, declared a Holy Crusade against them, and asked the King of France, Philip Augustus, to lead an army against the Cathar stronghold in Languedoc. As the Cathar leaders lived in the town of Albi, it became known as the Albigensian Crusade. The Pope not only promised a quick ticket to Heaven for anyone who killed the heretics, but also agreed to turn over all of the captured Cathar lands to the conquering knights.

Philip was a bit busy at this time with his war against England, and so politely refused the honor of leading the Crusade, but appointed several of his barons and dukes instead. A force of some 10,000 knights, most of them French, invaded Languedoc. One of the first battles happened in July 1209, when an army commanded by Abbot Arnaud-Amaury surrounded the town of Bezieres. About 20,000 people were trapped inside the walls, many of them Catholics who were not Cathars but who supported the political independence of Languedoc. After a short siege, the Papal army broke through the gates and swarmed inside. According to legend, when one of his commanders asked how to tell who was a Catholic and who was a Cathar, Arnaud-Amaury replied with one of the most famous paraphrases in history: “Kill them all, and let God sort them out.”

It took twenty years and a long series of sieges to finally crush the Cathars and stamp out their movement. During the siege of the town of Minerve, the Papal commander Count Simon de Montfort destroyed the walls with a new bit of military technology brought back from the Middle East–a huge stone-throwing trebuchet named “Bad Neighbor”. Count Raymond, meanwhile, though not a Cathar, sought their help anyway and fought for an independent Languedoc. On September 12, 1213, Raymond’s forces, commanded by King Peter of Aragon, were beaten by Montfort’s smaller Catholic army at the Battle of Muret. Over the next few years, Raymond recaptured most of his lost lands–only to lose them again in a new series of sieges. Eventually, Raymond and the remainder of his Cathar forces were surrounded inside Toulouse and surrendered. In 1229, with the Cathars defeated, the province of Languedoc was formally dissolved and divided up amongst the King’s vassals. The war had killed over 200,000 people.

In 1234, the new Pope Gregory IX established the first Catholic “Inquisition”, which was given the task of stamping out heresy within the Church. For the next 100 years, the remaining scattered bands of Cathars were hunted down all across Europe, and were burned at the stake when found. Their last gasp came in 1245, when a small group of Cathars carried out the murder of several Inquisitors: when they were found by church officials, some 200 of them were executed in a mass burning. By the mid-1300’s, the Cathars no longer existed.


5 thoughts on “The Albigensian Crusade”

  1. The pope promised a quick ticket to Heaven for anyone who killed the heretics….wow, that dude made promises he couldn’t possibly keep! It’s also disturbing that folks believed him. “Religion” – ugh!

  2. 200 000 dead… of which how many were knights? Probably just a fraction. The rest, all illiterate peasants who wouldn’t know the Pope from Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to scrape some sort of humble living.

    So it still goes today: George Bush has an issue with Saddam, and 100 000 Iraqi civilians die.

  3. Hard for me to see this as mainly a conflict over religion, a point you hint at. This was an important episode in the creation of the French state, with Paris at its head. It wasn’t until after WWI that people in such places as Languedoc even thought of themselves as primarily French, if then. For many, Paris was a tyrant ruler over conquered lands, but it was certainly a more successful ruler than, say, Moscow over the Tsar’s empire.

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