“The Roman Church is not ashamed to say that they are the sheep and lambs of Christ, and they say that the heretics they persecute are the church of wolves. But this is absurd, for the wolves have always pursued and killed the sheep, and today it would have to be the other way around for the sheep to be so mad as to bite, pursue, and kill the wolves, and for the wolves to be so patient as to let the sheep devour them!” (from the writings of the Cathars)
While the waves of Crusaders were crashing on the shores of Palestine, the common people of Europe were experiencing a crisis of faith. They could not find God in the churches, with their corrupt clergy and droning Latin liturgy, and were turning elsewhere in their groping for Him.
Everywhere in Europe the leaven of religious dissent was spreading. New and diverse sects were sprouting up everywhere, sharing in common a thirst for the pure source of the gospel, and a return to the pattern of the primitive church. There emerged two main trends: one leaning towards poverty and preaching (such as the Waldensians ), and the other leaning towards hard work and ritualistic life (such as the Cathars ). An important common attraction to these movements was their preaching in the language of the people. They were also characterized by their common and dangerous conviction: “It is better to obey God than to obey men!”
Men and women sought a rampart against the evil they saw present everywhere. They scoffed at the superstitious practices of the Church, criticized infant baptism and denied the validity of sacraments given by a corrupt clergy. They preached detachment from this low world, whose prince is Satan, and waited for the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth where justice will dwell.”
The 11th century was the century of monks and knights, but also of religious dispute. As such, it was the century of heretics. The papal church often referred to them as Manicheans . 1 The name, once given, provided a convenient link to the historical use of force against such heresies and also by naming them so, the heresy was branded as an Eastern dualist movement, 2 effectively disqualifying them and keeping the debate away from the errors of Roman Catholicism. With violent reaction, the Church opposed those whom the clergy named as false prophets and servants of Satan, compelling the state to enact her repressions: floggings, branding with hot irons, expulsions, and inevitably, executions. Seven centuries had passed since the execution of a Christian for heresy, 3 but the new millennium would begin with 13 heretics being burned at the stake in Orléans in 1022. It marked the beginning of the violent and systematic religious repression which would be the Church’s practice for centuries.
Heretics were discovered in Champagne, in Aquitaine, in Périgord, and also in Arras where the bishop “reconciled” many in 1025. In northern Italy, an important and active group was collectively burned at the stake around the same year. Then in 1184 the Synod of Verona put forth the mandate for the Inquisition:
In order to do away with various heresies which have recently started to proliferate in several parts of the world, it is necessary to rouse the force of the Church... Therefore we decree that first of all the Cathars and Patarins be permanently anathematized, then those who falsely call themselves the Humble or Poor of Lyon, and... all those, either forbidden or not sent, without authorization by the Holy See or the local bishop, who are so presumptuous as to preach in public or in private, as well as all those who do not fear to think or teach about the Eucharist, baptism, confession, marriage and the other sacraments in any way other than that which the sacrosanct Roman Church preaches and observes, and generally anyone who has been judged as a heretic by the Roman Church herself. 4
All over Europe the sects, as soon as detected, were destroyed, their leaders tortured and the followers dispersed. New movements continued to appear, sometimes even churches were organized, but always in a general climate of clandestine activity, suspicion, and often of terror.
The land of Languedoc 5 provided asylum for the sect known as the Cathari or Cathars, 6 first because of their good reputation with both lords and the common people, and later because of the castles of the region in some of which they took refuge. So, in spite of the preaching campaign of St. Bernard in 1145 to convert the heretics, the Cathar Church organized itself with the open complicity and tolerance of the great barons.
Perhaps in this tolerance there was a degree of indifference regarding religious issues. It seemed natural to the Occitan people that one could profess the religion he chooses. Even the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VI, displayed a benevolent tolerance toward those who did not pray like him. Jews, heretics, and Muslims lived on his lands and thus were under his protection. By accepting the dissidents, the counties of Languedoc were acknowledging more the right to be a heretic than the heresy itself.
By the beginning of the 13th century, the Cathars were long established in this favorable environment and living in peace. In the south of France, the nobles built around their castles big fortified villages where all the social classes cohabited. This gave the Occitan feudal society its original character of conviviality and allowed social interaction which was an important factor in the growth of Catharism.
Those Cathars who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Holy Scriptures lived in separate communities of men and women. Their beliefs led them to not lie, kill, judge, or take oaths. They prayed constantly, night and day, refrained from eating meat or animal products, and many fasted three times a week with only bread and water. They made copies of the New Testament in the Occitan language, many having with them at least the gospel of John. This was the simple life observed by those around them, in embarrassing contrast to the opulent and pampered lives of the bishops.
The Cathars worked for their living by spinning, weaving, working with wood or metal in shops that were places for apprenticeship, but also preaching. In their houses, located in the heart of the village, they cared for the sick, the needy, and the traveler. Those houses were meeting places where rich and poor could interact naturally as they listened to their teaching. Their simple solutions to the moral problems and spiritual concerns of their day attracted the nobles as well as the common people.
Called by their neighbors the “good Christians,” they gained the respect of all, and their faith propagated quickly, threatening the spiritual and material dominion of the Catholic Church. By their words the Cathars were opponents, as they rejected the dogmatic authority of the Church, considered its sacraments as null and void, and denied the legitimacy of the Pope. They neither owned nor desired riches or power, and demanded no taxes. Theirs was not an attempt to reform Catholicism, but to separate from it and band together in a life of purity and devotion to God, as they understood Him. It was a more brotherly, egalitarian society, freed from the heavy hierarchy of the Roman Church. Catharism may well have become the dominant religion of the people of southern France, if left in peace.
In 1198, Innocent III ascended to the supreme spiritual power with a well-set goal: to restore the Church in its worldwide dominance. He drew his conviction both from the sacred writings and from history, declaring in his inauguration speech:
“To me the word of the Prophet applies: I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, that you may uproot and destroy, and that you may build up and plant.” 7
“God has established us above peoples and kingdoms. Nothing of what goes on in the universe must escape the Pope’s notice or control. God, creator of the world, has placed two big heavenly bodies in the firmament in order to give it light: the sun which presides over the days, and the moon which orders the nights. In the same way, He has instituted two high dignities in the world: the papacy which reigns over the souls, and the royalty which dominates the bodies. But the former is very superior to the latter. As the moon receives its light from the sun, which shines much brighter than the moon, so the royal power draws all its splendor and prestige from the power of the Pope.” 8
The power which the princes exercise had only been delegated to them, as it were, and the fullness of power ultimately belongs to the Church:
“Christ, he writes, has not only given Peter ruling power over the Universal Church, but over the whole age. The princes have been given power on earth; the priesthood has been assigned the power on earth as well as in heaven.” 9
Since Catharism represented such a danger to Catholicism, the new Pope decided to take the situation in hand by using “ the force of the material glaive [double-edged sword], by means of the princes and the people” to prevail against the heretics and those who protected them, namely the Occitan lords.
On March 10, 1208, Innocent III sent to the bishops, counts, and knights of France, and even to the king, a virulent call for holy war:
“Forward then, Christian knights! Forward, courageous recruits of the Christian army! May the universal cry of distress of the Holy Church lead you along! May a pious zeal set you on fire to avenge so great an offense against your God! ... They say that the faith has departed, peace is dead, and the heretical pest and the warring fury have regained new strength: the ship of the Church will suffer total shipwreck unless it gets some strong help in this unprecedented storm. This is why we ask you to give heed to our warnings, we exhort you with kindness, we order you with confidence in the name of Christ, in the face of such peril we promise the remission of your sins, so that you may thwart such great dangers without delay. Make every effort to pacify these populations. Be diligent to destroy the heresy by any means God will inspire you to use. With greater assurance than with the Saracens, since they are more dangerous, fight the heretics with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. As far as the count of Toulouse is concerned, who seems to have made an alliance with death without considering his own, if by any chance torment is going to give him understanding, and if his face covered with ignominy starts to implore the name of God, continue to lay threats on him until he satisfies us, the Church, and God. Drive him and his accomplices out of the tents of the Lord. Strip them of their land, so that Catholics may replace the eliminated heretics and serve in God’s presence in holiness and justice according to the discipline of your orthodox faith.” 11
For ten years he had tried in vain to launch this crusade, coming up against the resistance of the princes as well as the nonchalance of the prelates. He had to content himself with opposing the Cathars by preaching, and that without much success, as he had only the force of conviction and persuasion of the Dominican and Franciscan orders.
The murder of the Pope’s legate in the Toulouse region provided the Pope with the pretext he needed to convince the lords of France to take up the crusade, called Negotium Pacis et Fidei (“the business of peace and faith”), expressing well that this military campaign had both political and religious goals. Ultimately, it would increase the spiritual and temporal power of the Pope.
In 1209 the papal legate, Arnaud Amaury, surged towards the land of Languedoc at the head of a huge international army. Béziers was the first besieged city. Refusing to hand over to the crusaders the 220 heretics living there, the city was plundered and burned and its 20,000 inhabitants slaughtered in a morning’s work. “ Kill them all; God will know his own, ” was the sadly famous command given by the Pope’s legate when asked how to distinguish heretics from Catholics. “ The divine revenge marvelously struck the city; we killed them all, ” wrote Amaury to the Holy See.
For nearly 15 years, the crusade ravaged the country. The Occitan lords, accused of protecting the heretics, were utterly dispossessed. Any resisting city was treated without pity. Whole communities of Cathars were burned at the stake: 140 in Minerve, 400 in Lavaur, 200 in Montségur 12... However, the “Holy War” did not achieve its goal of eradicating Catharism, and a counter-offensive from the Occitan lords ended with the departure of the crusaders in 1224. Through this re-conquest the lords of the south recovered their goods and some of their cities, and Catharism reappeared in open day. Their churches were reorganized and the communities flourished again.
In 1226 a second crusade was roused by the Pope, headed up by the new king of France, Louis VIII himself. Drained by years of battle and attrition, Occitany finally surrendered in 1229. It was the end of the crusade, but not the end of the Cathars. Politically the crusade was a success for the king of France. The royal house of Capet emerged victorious from this 20-year-long war launched by the Pope against the lords of the south, resulting in the annexation of the Languedoc to the royal domain. As for the Church, the crusade had torn apart social bonds and opened wide the way to eliminate the heresy once and for all. “ Negotium pacis ” was done, “ negotium fidei ” was still left to do.
Where the sword had not been able to destroy the heretics, Rome was going to find more effective means. A council held in Toulouse in 1229 ordered:
“That in every parish three commissioners be appointed who are especially charged with seeking out the heretics from the cellar to the attic, and denouncing them to the bailiffs.
That the converted heretics be interned in Catholic cities lest they backslide; there they will wear two crosses on either side of their chest which are of a different color from their clothes, so they can be recognized.
That every heretic whose conversion was not obtained by devotion but by fear of the laws, be detained in a fortress, so that he cannot defile others...
That no one keep either the Old or the New Testament in his possession, but only the collection of psalms, the book with excerpts of the gospels, and the daily prayer book, and let these books not be translated into the common language.” 13
But by 1233, the papacy under Gregory IX, conscious of the failure and reluctance of the local clergy to enforce these measures, created a repressive institution under its direct control: the Inquisition was officially born, a tribunal whose mission was to eradicate heresy.
According to the law we apply the term heretic in very specific cases: A heretic is any excommunicated person, any sorcerer, anyone who opposes the Roman Church and dares contest the dignity which she has received from God, as well as anyone who commits errors in the explanation of the Holy Scripture, or anyone who creates a new sect; also anyone who does not receive the Roman doctrine regarding the sacraments, who interprets one or several creeds differently from the Church of Rome, or who doubts the faith. 14
Many have argued that Pope Gregory IX, by entrusting the Inquisition to the Dominicans, was hoping to ensure the defense of the faith and the re-conquest of souls by persuasion. But the Dominicans proved to be so severe and excessive that the Pope associated the Franciscan monks to them in 1237, “to moderate the rigor of the formers by the leniency of the latter.”
The inquisitors organized their institution with great zeal, with rigorous procedures and thoroughly recorded depositions. Through threat, cunning and sagacity, the inquisitors sought to obtain confessions. In 1252, in the bull “ Ad extirpendam ” Pope Innocent IV officially authorized the use of torture “to help determine the truth”!
To begin with, the inquisitor advocates imprisonment which, when cleverly prolonged, “enlightens” the prisoner and inclines him towards converting. The penitentiary system includes first fasting, then putting the feet in shackles, then putting the hands in chains, then other more cruel forms of torment. If the prisoner turns out to be non-repentant we will subject him to torture. An order is given to avoid mutilation or mortal danger. 15
The inquisitors created an atmosphere of general suspicion which undermined the whole society by destroying solidarity, trust, and friendship in the once-tolerant and welcoming Languedoc. Everyone trembled. Because of a mere denunciation one might lose his freedom, all his goods, and even his life.
Though the stated goal of the Inquisition was to combat heresy, not to kill, it brought many to the executioner:
The Church does not even consider the penalties she imposes as real punishments. She gives them the nature of penances which are useful for the spiritual well-being of those accused of heresy. The heretic who stubbornly refuses to renounce his errors and the backslider are handed over to the secular judicial authorities. This decision protects the inquisitor from committing an irregularity by being involved in a capital sentence. 16
By means of large-scale police operations, sometimes rounding up whole villages, the inquisitors dismantled the clandestine Cathar Church. One after the other, the fugitives were denounced and arrested. In 1321, the last known Cathar, Guilhem Belibaste, was burned at the stake. It had taken a century for the Inquisition to totally eradicate the dissenting church.