Thursday, November 4, 2010

From ancient times to 1206

This is the record of a slide talk I gave at the Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church Nov. 7, 2010, on the topic, "The Cathars from ancient to modern times." It is based on the handout I gave out, a time line of Cathar history, drawn from published sources given at the end, plus the images I used, photos that come from two trips to Cathar sites, 1999 and 2001, supplemented by images from the Internet or print sources. I include here material not covered in the talk: an interpretation of Shakespeare's Juliet as a Cathar heroine in part 3; additional material on Peter Martyr, also part 3; a fuller defense of my view of the Cathars' view on sex, part 1, and fuller explanations elsewhere. Part 4 is extensively rewritten compared to my handout.

Introduction: Who were the Cathars? They were the "perfecti" of the Cathar Church, both men and women, equivalent to priests in other religions, which in Western Europe flourished mainly in the 12th and 13th centuries. The word "Cathar" is one given to them by their enemies. Their friends called them the "good men," "bonnes hommes" in French, or sometimes "the good Christians." Exactly where the name "Cathar" came from is not clear. Some people say it comes from the German word for "heretic," i.e. "Ketzer." I have not looked to see if that word predates the rise of the Cathars. Another theory is that it was used by analogy to an early sect called the "cathari," or "pure ones," pronounced heretical by the first Nicean Council of 325 c.e. Another theory is that it is from the German word "katz," meaning "cat," because they were sait to work with devils who took the form of a cat. In Italy they were called Patarenes.

The Cathars were the last big survival of ancient Gnosticism. Their immediate predecessors were the Bogomils of the Balkan peninsula, as may be seen in the time line below. They emerged from the Paulicians, who traced their origin to Paul of Samasota, a 3rd century Syrian bishop declared heretical by the established church. The Paulicians had come into contact with Gnostic-influenced groups such as the Messalians, whose beliefs were influenced by he Manicheans.

To read this blog, just scroll down. To get to a particular chapter, you can use the links to the right.


1st-2nd century. Vision of Isaiah written, a basic document of Bogomils and Cathars, Jewish-Christian-Gnostic.

3rd century: Time of Paul of Samasota, pre-Nicean bishop of Antioch, an “adoptionist” heretic (according to which Jesus became Christ and the Son of God at his baptism, not before).

8th century: Paulicians recorded in Asia Minor. Originally part of Syrian Church, then Armenian (east of Turkey), but condemned by Armenians after “reforms.” They are adoptionists, hostile to images, reject veneration of cross. In Armenia they could have come into contact with the Mani-influenced Messalians.

747. Byzantine Emperor settles many Paulicians in Thrace, to protect the Empire against the Bulgars to the north.

843. Other Paulicians set up independent state after Byzantines become hostile to iconoclasm, but are driven back to Armenia. They apparently have exchanged adoptionism for dualism (devil = Old Testament God, who created our world of matter), a change also appearing in Thrace. Christ had only a spiritual body; water baptism and the eucharist are part of world of matter; the eucharist explained as an allegory for the teachings of Christ; laying on of hands takes place of water baptism. Old Testament rejected.

927. Byzantine priests write polemics against “Manicheans” who hold that the devil is the eldest son of God, sent to Hell for his pride, where he created our world.

970 – 1100. Bogomilism spreads into Balkans and into western Asia Minor. “Outbreaks" of heresy in France, northern Italy, Low Countries, Upper Lorraine. Word "cathar" appears in German area. It might be from the German for "heretic": Ketzer. Or it might be from the name of a sect condemned at the first Nicean Council, the cathari, from the Greek for "purified ones."

Image: map showing situation before 1100. Notice that the Paulicians andBogomils, are scattered among three locations: not just the Balkan peninsula of Europe, but also Turkey and Armenia. Turkey is important because that is where the Sufis were centered later, c. 1400. The map below is from Lambert, Medieval Heresies.

972. Cosmas’ treatise against priest named Bogomil, meaning “loved by God.” They reject Orthodox liturgy, and wine (but some approve wine later). Myth: the devil made human bodies, but without life until Father breathed soul into him. Then the Devil tempts Eve into sex, which binds us to mattter. More ascetic than Paulicians, rejecting sex, as well as the killing of animals and people, and the eating of animal products. The only good marriage is that of the soul and spirit in paradise. These strictures are only for the perfecti, however, who thus are made such late in life. It seems to me that the reason they reject sex and animal products is because it ties one to the body and matter, as opposed to the spirit.

Some books say, citing Inquisition testimony, that it is only procreation that is rejected, along. with the things that go along with procreation, such as milk and eggs. I don't think that is right. I suspect that the Inquisitors framed their questions in such a way that procreation was all they asked about. They wanted to present the Cathars as homosexuals, or "bougres," a corruption of "Bulgar." The Bogomil myth about the fall was that at first Adam and Eve didn't know about sex. Then the serpent taught Eve, and Eve taught Adam. The "tree of knowledge" was the snake of "carnal knowledge." That was the fall. Children followed, but the fall, in that story, was engaging in sexuality. It didn't matter what gender the serpent was.

A Bogomil/Cathar Myth: the souls of some humans are of angels who fell with Lucifer. In spiritual baptism,the Gospel of John was laid on the initiate's head and the initiating perfectus lay hands on the shoulders of the initiate.

1145. Bernard of Clairvaux preaches against Cathars in Albi/Toulouse area. Knights’ clanging of armor prevents him from preaching outside a church in a village near Toulouse, despite his healing the son of a heretic. Advocates state interference against prosylitizers. Warns that burnings will follow; calls them the “little foxes” who “spoil the vine” in his commentary on the Song of Songs.

1163. Hildegaard of Bingen writes about the new “unleashing of the devil,” starting either 62 or 82 years earlier, with their trial and burning at Cologne in 1143, but still continuing. These heretics have the characteristic Bogomil beliefs and structure.

Image: routes showing connections between Balkans and Western Europe. Four separate church Balkan churches are indicated, each with slightly different doctrine. The most important early on was the "Church of the Latins" in Constantinople, which would have trained Western Europeans who were living there temporarily, either merchants or crusaders or religious pilgrims, for life as perfecti in their home country. Then later bishops from the other churches came to re-console the perfecti in the name of new doctrines, described in the next entry.

1165. Nicetas re-consoles perfecti of Italy and Langudoc in St. Felice, near Toulouse, because their previous consoler had “lain with a woman” and also preached an erroneous doctrine. For Nicetas the god of the Catholics is not the elder son of the good God, but an eternally existing separate principle. This is accepted by the Langdochians but splits the Italians into two camps, “moderate dualists” of Concorezzo and “radical dualists” of Desenzano. It was estimated by the Inquisition that in 1250, 1500 perfecti were with the former and 500 with the latter. Radical dualists admitted part of Old Testament: Wisdom Literature, Psalms, and some of the Prophets. The differences between the "radical" and "moderate" dualists are only at the most rarified level. Both groups have three levels: hearers, believers, and perfects. The consolamente is the purifying rite, binding the person to a strict life, for perfecti and people on their deathbeds.

Concorezzo, the seat of the "moderate dualists," is interesting in another regard. It is within 5 miles of where another sect of the time, the Gugliemites, had a center, in which the abbess--or Popess, as the Catholics charged--Sister Manfreda, was a member of the Visconti, the ruling family of Milan. (My source: Manfreda's convent was in a town named Biassono , only 5 miles from Concorezzo. In the 15th century, a later Visconti named Bianca Maria frequently visited the church at Brunate, which has a "Saint Guglielma" chapel; so she had to be aware of Manfreda's connection. Bianca Maria Visconti is famous in tarot card history for being a key figure involved with the first known tarot cards, those of first the Visconti and then the Sforza, after she married Francesco Sforza. Some people see the tarot Popess card as reflecting Sister Manfreda. Also, some people see Cathar symbolism in the early tarot. I do not; but the proximity of the two sites is striking.

For now let us return to the Languedoc, in what is now southwestern France. Here is a road sign entering the Department of the Ariege; if nothing else, it indicates that they are ready for fans of the Cathars. Actually, we have been in Cathar Country ever since our plane touched down in Toulouse, which was at about the geographic center of Cathar activity.

1204. Esclarmonde de Foix, the sister of Count, is consoled at Fanjeux (south of Toulouse, in the province of Foix) by Cathar bishop of Toulouse, Guilhabert de Castres. She sets up houses for women in Pamiers and elsewhere. In that same year Montsegur, which I have read might have been owned by Esclarmonde, is fortified and established as retreat center and place of pilgrimage.

St. Dominic (1170-1221) arrives en route between Spain and France. He is astonished to find the region he is passing through to be filled with heretics preaching quite openly. He sets himself up in one of the places known for Catharism, Fanjeax, and begins preaching against Cathars.

Image: close up of plaque on house. We will see later why Dominic left in 1215.

Dominic debates Cathars at nearby Montreal; a miracle purportedly occurs, the paperon which Dominic had written his refutation doesn't burn when thrown on the fire, unlike that of the Cathars he is debating. Dominic sets up houses for women, so as to counteract those of Esclarmonde de Foix. Soon he gets permission to establish a new monastic order, a preaching order later known as the Dominicans.

Image: fresco by Fra Angelico, 15th century Italian. At left, Dominic holds up the "testament of the Faith," a kind of check-list of questions to ask suspected heretics. At the time, Cathar perfecti were pledged not to lie to anyone, even Inquisitors. At right is the miracle of the fire that wouldn't burn the paper.

South of Fanjeux is the capital of the region, also called Foix. Still a rather small town dominated by the castle in which Esclarmonde de Foix grew up with her brother Raymond-Roger, Count of Foix.

The castle is rather tall. It remains as it was, except that all that remains inside are some archeological relics from caveman times and suits of armor.

It was never taken in battle. The wily Counts of Foix always knew when to fight and when they couldn't win and had to compromise. Raymond-Roger and his son Raymond-Roger II reportedly fought the enemies of the Cathars on numerous occasions. But when the French army arrived in force in 1443, he struck a deal instead.

Beneath the castle flows the beautiful Ariege River, which soon leads up into the Pyrenees.

Not twenty miles south of Foix is the spa town of Ussat les Bains. It was told to me that a Cathar cave lay above the town, with mysterious markings inside. I followed the signs for caves, but none looked liked what I want. I took the picture below at one of them. I think I eventually did find the right cave, purportedly called the Cave of Bethlehem. It had no sign pointing to it. It is quite close to the village directly east uphill. By then it was too dark for me to see inside.

On the other side of the mountains to the east, many miles distant, lies fabled Montsegur, mountain of safety, likely the model for Wolfram von Eschenbach's Grail Castle of Munsalvaesche, meaning "mountain of salvation."

Although used previously as a fortress, one feature of the fortress suggests that it had a sacred function even before the Cathars. Because of its connection to the sun, it was probably initiated by the Celtic priests known as Druids, for whom the sun was the symbol of an important god. It's orientation is between East and South (below, from postcard bought in village).

So at the Summer Solstice the following occurs at dawn:

This is the result of the sun's rays having to go through the slits in the opposite wall.

I need to point out that the ruins that we see today are not those of the 13th century fortress. That one was completely leveled by the French army, so that it couldn't easily be rebuilt. Then laterthe French rebuilt it from scratch. However I suspect that many of the old stones in the middle used as filler are from the 13th century walls. Breaking and hauling rocks was too much trouble.

Besides its military and spiritual value, another reason for choosing Montsegur was that it was at the intersection of two trail systems, one going west toward the Mediterranean and the other going south to Catalonia. Below is a modern sign post at the site.

"Sentier" is French for "trail." And here is a map in French and Catalan, of the route south. Here the right side is north, the left side south. These two systems are now simplified into the two "Sentier Cathar" and "Chemin des Bonhommes" (Road of the Good Men) for the sake of modern hikers or horseback riders who want to go along the high mountain ridges interrupted occasionally by ruined castles.

In the beginning, as I have said, Montsegur had a modest role as retreat center and pilgrimage site, plus occasional use as a refuge. Later its use expanded. I will return to Montsegur later on in this blog.

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