The Cathars and The Inquisitors

A coloured illustration showing a Cathar prisoner and Dominican monksWho were the Cathars?

The Cathars were members of a Christian religious movement that spread across parts of Europe in the 11th century, and was particularly strong in the Languedoc during the 12th and 13th centuries. The origins of their beliefs go back much further and may come from Eastern Europe and beyond, even ancient Persia, brought westwards by itinerant craftsmen such as weavers.

Why were the Cathars in conflict with the Catholic Church?

Their beliefs were centred in dualism - in a good god of the immaterial and an evil, worldly god who was responsible for all material things. The good god created heaven and the soul, the bad god trapped the soul in a material form. Since the Catholic Church venerated god as the creator of the world and everything in it, the Cathar view was that this was effectively devil worship.

Cathars were known for their very strict attitudes: they would not kill, for example, so they did not eat meat; they despised material possessions and held a low opinion of the Catholic Church hierarchy with their splendid robes and lifestyle, which seemed to fly in the face of an ordained priest's vow of poverty. The Cathars did not recognise priesthood as such, although they did have a type of hierarchy of their own with ordinary believers - called "credentes" - and a smaller number of "parfaits" who were more rigorously abstinent.

The Cathars did not build churches, but rather met in houses or in the open air to pray together. They rejected violence in any form and refused to take oaths of any kind including marriage vows. Unlike Catholics, Cathars were not required to pay a tithe to support the church.

Cathars regarded men and women as equal, arguing that their souls were the same and only their outward appearance was different. They also believed in reincarnation - that a soul could be trapped more than once in a physical body until ultimately released to heaven.

How did the Inquisitors deal with the Cathars?

The Roman Catholic Church was vigorously opposed to Catharism, leading ultimately to the Albigensian Crusade. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people died on both sides during the crusade years in the Languedoc region and the final solution employed to get rid of the Cathars was the first Papal Inquisition.

Although at first the Inquisitors were welcomed by the Catholic community, they came to be widely hated throughout the Languedoc by Jews, Cathars and Catholics alike - including some of the local priests and bishops. The Inquisitors' practices were harsh: they "invited" people to come forward and confess their misdeeds and encouraged them to inform on others; the accused were assumed to be guilty, they were not permitted to know the evidence against them, and they had no right to legal representation. False accusations were commonplace, but if such lies were exposed, the accusers were forgiven as they had shown "zeal of the faith". Torture was routinely employed to extract admissions of guilt and the instruments used were blessed with holy water to sanctify the procedure.

Image of the bright yellow cross worn by repented CatharsThe punishments for these "heretics" could be extreme and many were burnt at the stake. Others were imprisoned - in Carcassonne the condemned were immured and for them death must have been a blessed release. The lightest sentence for those who repented their errors involved wearing yellow crosses on the front and back of their clothing for the rest of their days. In all cases, the Church confiscated half of the guilty person's property. Perhaps most repugnant of all, the Inquisitors had the idea of exhuming and trying dead people - in this case, the Church seized property from the heirs of the deceased.

The Inquisitors, who were Dominicans, had armed guards wherever they went to ensure their safety, as so many people hated them and their methods. In 1233 in Cordes three Inquisitors were taken by the citizens and thrown down a well - a plaque commemorates the event.