John M. Ungashick




Presented before The Chicago Literary Club

November 7, 2011

















© 2011 by John M. Ungashick. All rights reserved.

Several years ago I came across a book in Barnes and Noble called the Perfect Heresy by Stephen O'Shea. The subtitle was a story of the medieval Cathars.  I recalled hearing of the Cathars as an heretic sect that had been savagely persecuted by the Church but didn't know much else so I bought the book and found it very interesting.  The Cathars, also known as the Albeginseans are the subject of my presentation tonight; during the talk I will explain the origin of these two names.  The Cathars were centered in southern France and I'm sure I will butcher some of the French pronunciations, so please bear with me. The talk is broken down into three sections; the first is an examination of the state of Europe in the late 12th and early 13 century which was the general time frame of the story.  It's impossible to understand the Cathars without also understanding the context of their times.  The second section will examine the Cathar philosophy and (at least in my opinion) their relevance for us today and the third will look at the history of the so-called Albeginsean Crusade in which the sect was virtually wiped out.

First the state of Europe; I'll start with what I call monolithic Christendom.  There had been no serious heresy for centuries and everyone in Western Europe, save the Jews, were members of a unified Church.  There had been a Great Schism in 1054 but this involved only the Eastern part of the continent who adhered to the Orthodox Church.  The concept of freedom of thought or freedom of religion was unknown at the time and the one minority group, the Jews, were periodically persecuted because they were different and people could not accept the fact that they stubbornly refused to accept Christ as their Savior.   In fact it was inconceivable to people at the time that anyone could hold an opposing view without being in league with the devil and this is how the Cathars got their name.  One of the ceremonies of devil worshippers was the Black Mass and during the ceremony a black cat (the personification of the devil) was passed around and fondled by the members; even today a black cat is looked upon as a sign of bad luck.  Through a corruption of French the group were labeled as Cathars or cat fondlers. 

The second major factor in explaining the times was to realize that this was the era of the Crusades.  The First Crusade was preached in 1095 by Pope Urban II and culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.  The Crusades are controversial even today and looked at quite differently by the East and the West.  The West concentrates on the piety and bravery of the Crusaders and emphasizes the glory of such men as Richard the Lionhearted while the East look upon the Crusades as the first manifestation of Western Imperialism.  One story not talked about much in the West is that after the capture of Jerusalem, the entire population of the city was slaughtered.  A majority of inhabitants were Muslims but a large group were Jews but all were killed.  In fact a prominent feature of the whole Crusading era was the periodic persecution of the Jews.  The initial enthusiasm for the Crusade often had its first manifestation with an attack on the local Jewish inhabitants; why go all the way to the Holy Land to fight infidels and leave behind infidels (i.e. Jews) right in our midst. 

A  Second and Third Crusade were failures and Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1187.  This led Pope Innocent III to preach the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  The story of the Fourth Crusade is very complicated and I can't go into it here but suffice to say that rather than going to the Holy Land the Crusaders instead attacked, captured and sacked the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire.  This incident was one of the most significant in the history of the world for several reasons.  First of all it made the split between the Eastern and Western churches permanent and during the sack many priceless books and other objects which had been in Constantinople since ancient times were destroyed; the loss to later archeology was incalculable.  It also fatally weakened the Byzantine Empire and it never really recovered; they hung on for another 250 years but were never a serious international factor from that point forward.   What does this have to do with the Cathars and that brings me to the next item which is the redefinition of the idea of Crusade.

The Fourth Crusade was condemned by the Pope and all the Crusaders were excommunicated but a precedent had been set and the concept of Crusade was expanded beyond just an attempt to capture the Holy Land.  The first manifestation of the redefinition was the Teutonic Knights, a religious military order, who were attacking the pagan areas in Eastern Europe.  Instead of a naked grab for power, which is what the Teutonic Knights were actually doing, their activities became sanctified as a Crusade against the unbeliever. The second was the Reconquista in Iberia which had been largely overrun by Moslems in the 8th century.  Only a few small kingdoms in the north remained Christian and they pursued an almost constant battle to drive out the Muslims and weren't completely successful until 1492 when the last Muslims and the last Jews were expelled.  With the redefinition of Crusade, this effort was given a new life and all the benefits of Crusade were given to the participants, including a plenary indulgence of all sins meaning anyone who died in the effort who go straight to heaven and a papal guarantee of any lands or property left behind.  Since strong national states and an effective legal system did not exist at the time it was dangerous for any noble to leave their land and go off for what could be several years on Crusade as the noble next door might just swoop in and seize your lands.  A papal guarantee made crusading possible as the prestige of the Church gave this neighbor pause in seizing your land.  The third manifestation of Crusade was to utilize it to punish Christian heretics, the most prominent of whom were the Cathars.


This starts with trying to answer an age old question, the problem of evil.  This has existed as long as we have had religion and starts from the premise that if there exists an all-knowing, all loving God who controls all activity in the universe, how can he/she permit evil, at least evil which is inflicted on innocents such as a deadly disease contracted by a young child or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood where the vast majority of victims are people who clearly do not deserve such a fate and certainly includes some who are exemplary both morally and spiritually.  There are three ways to approach this problem; the atheist or non-believer will refuse to accept the main premise that such a being exists and therefore these calamities are just terrible random events and if they happen to you so much the worse.  The believer will accept that he cannot know the mind of God but is firm in his belief that all actions are the will of God and are done for a reason but our feeble human minds cannot know the real reasons.

The third approach is what is called dualism; there does in fact exist an all knowing and loving deity but that deity only controls the so-called spiritual realm.  The material world, all that we see and our own bodies, are controlled by God's evil twin, an anti-God who is the font of all evil and therefore permits evil to exist in the material world.  The ancient Zoroastrians believed in a form of dualism and they existed centuries before the Christian era.  A near contemporary of the early Christians were the Gnostics who wrote many works which were not included in the Christian canon and were pretty much lost to history until relatively recent times.  Examples are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  Roll forward a few centuries and we have the Manicheans who were also a dualist sect, condemned as heretics by the established Church.  Saint Augustine was a Manichean early in his life but once he converted to Christianity he became an implacable foe and most of what we know about them come from his writings against them.  Other groups throughout the next 700 years adopted a dualist philosophy but eventually we come to the Cathars who flourished from the mid-12th to early 13th centuries.

The Cathar philosophy was much more rigid in that they believed the material world was totally evil and the only relief was to come from shedding all ties to the material world and being absorbed into the spiritual realm where all individuality would be lost; similar to the Buddhists.  Like the Buddhists the Cathars believed in reincarnation and your next life would be a direct reflection of how well you lived the previous life as they believed that sparks of the spiritual world were intermingled with the matter used to create the material world so your goal was to fan these sparks as much as possible while existing in the material world.  Therefore you had to be kind to all other beings (human and animal) and try to relieve suffering as much as possible; Cathars were supposed to be celibate and strict vegetarians.  Since the material world was completely evil in the Cathar world-view, this meant that all the elaborate structure of the Church with the Pope, bishops, sacraments etc. was not only irrelevant but intrinsically evil.  The Cathars did not believe in any of the dogmas of the Church such as the Trinity, the virgin birth etc. which did not endear them to the official hierarchy.  The Cathars did not have a priesthood but they did have spiritual leaders who were know as perfects.  Those members who hadn't yet attained the status of perfect were known as credentes.  The only ceremony in Catharism was known as the consolamentum which involved the anointing of a credente by an existing perfect which then made the anointed into a perfect.  However if at any time after being made a perfect, you broke any of the rules, for example you ate meat or showed yourself to be uncharitable you would immediately lose your status as a perfect and have to start all over again.  For this reason, many credentes waited until they were near death to have the consolamentum as they then wouldn't have very much time to fall from grace.  There is one story that a very old woman who had been a secret Cathar for many years was near death and sent her servant out to find a perfect to administer the consolamentum.  This was during the days when the Cathars had been driven underground and the servant, sensing a possible reward went instead to the local representative of the Inquisition (which we will talk about later).  The Inquisitor posed as a perfect and had the old lady confess to being a Cathar.  Then she was hauled out of her house, still in her bed as she was too ill to walk and she was burned alive, despite the fact she would have probably died a natural death within a very short time.  

I hesitated to include the next section which I'll call "Cathars and Conspiriatorialism" but maybe it will make things a little more interesting.  Many believers in the so-called DiVinci Code have linked the Cathars to their conspiracy theory.  There seems to be no connection that I can find with the dualist nature of the Cathars and the DiVinci Code which postulates that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, had a daughter and their descendants still exist.  The conspiracy in a nutshell is that in the early days of Christianity Mary Magdalene was worshipped as a near equal to Jesus and represented the Feminine Principle but this idea was suppressed at the Council of Nicea in 321 and the whole story of Mary and the bloodline of Jesus was eliminated from Church doctrine.   Given that the conspiratorialists always try to link things together it's possible that since the Gnostics (mentioned earlier) were also condemned at the Council of Nicea, the Cathars who came 700 years later were also somehow involved.  The feminine principal postulated that woman, as the giver of life is the true representation of the divine; all pagan religions had goddesses and in some cases the goddess was the chief deity but not in Christianity.  A secret society known as the Priory of Sion was set up to guard this knowledge of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and over the centuries many great men such as Leonardo DiVinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo have served as Grand Masters of the Priory.  In many ways the conspiracy attempts to neatly answer an age old question which involves the suppression of women and the rise of misogyny and patriarchy.  While that has been a blot on civilization for a long time it's a little too simplistic to say that it all started with the Council of Nicea.   In any event there is no connection whatsoever that I can see between the Cathars and the Priory of Sion (if the Priory ever even existed) other than they were both secretive; the Cathars being secretive after they were persecuted and driven underground.

My next topic will examine the Cathars as the forerunners of many modern ideas.  This wasn't necessarily their objective but by rejecting all authority and the existing rules of the material word they came to many conclusions that we would admire today and weren't in general acceptance until centuries after the Cathar were suppressed. They believed that everything in the material world was evil so therefore all the distinctions so important to the material world were also irrelevant.  Such things as Jew vs. Gentile, Men & Women, Rich and poor, noble and serf.  As I mentioned above, the Jews were sporadically persecuted throughout the Middle Ages but to the Cathars a Jew was no better and no worse than a Christian because these distinctions were part of the material world and therefore irrelevant.  In fact the Church reserved some of its bitterest criticism for those nobles in Cathar territory who employed Jews as advisors in their courts.  The Cathars lived side by side with Christians & Jews and as long as they did not attempt to force their beliefs on others, they were left alone.  Given that the concept of freedom of thought and freedom of religion were centuries in the future this attitude was very advanced for the time and prefigured the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.

This era was not a good time to be a woman as they were considered a form of "property" under the complete control of their fathers and later their husbands. In fact the only careers open to women were the religious life (mostly as cloistered nuns) and motherhood.  Rates of infant mortality were very high and married women were often almost continuously pregnant. Given that childbirth was very risky, women often died in the process.  There are many examples of nobles who were married 3 or 4 times as the previous wives had died in childbirth or the effects thereof.   Women had no direct authority positions in either the Church or the secular world.  However sexual distinctions meant nothing to the Cathars and there are many examples of female perfects.  Although it would be a stretch to call the Cathars true feminists they were clearly forerunners of the idea of sexual equality which didn't come into common acceptance until the 20th century.  Given that the Cathars did not believe in marriage they were often attacked as being advocates of free love, but this is misleading as the perfect were celibate.

The third area I'd like to discuss involves trade and commerce.  At this time 80-90 percent of the population were serfs bound to the land, but there did exist tradesmen and artisans; this activity was controlled by the medieval guilds who were very anti-competitive.  Some people equate the guilds with modern day labor unions but in fact they controlled both the labor and management side of the equation and were like a union of the labor movement and the chamber of commerce.  One of the major elements of the capitalist system as discussed by Adam Smith in his 1776 master work "The Wealth of Nations" was the concept of the invisible hand.  This meant that the free interplay of competition would ultimately yield a quality product at a fair price.  The guilds on the other hand were not interested in providing for the general welfare but in perpetuating their own monopolies and their activities seriously retarded economic growth.  Since the Cathars had no use for any rules in the material world they completely disregarded the guild regulations and allowed individuals to pursue their own activities unhindered, in effect utilizing the concept of the invisible hand particularly since they also believed in justice and fairness in all interpersonal relations.  On the other hand they lived communally and shared all their material possessions.  So to some extend you would have to say the Cathars were the forerunners of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx.


In 1209 Pope Innocent III, the same Pope who preached the Fourth Crusade preached the Albeginsean Crusade to root out and destroy this heresy.  The name Albeginsean comes from the name of a city known as Albi which was on the border of the Cathar controlled territory; an area of southern France known as Languedoc.  Given that the Cathars were tolerant of others and made no attempt to forcibly convert anyone, why were they suppressed so brutally?

There were several reasons; first of all since the Cathars completely rejected the material world this meant that they did not subscribe to any of the dogmas of the faith such as the Incarnation, the Trinity or the Resurrection which was anathema to the Church authorities.  Rejecting all the sacraments and other ceremonies of the Church undermined the justification for the Church's entire existence which was something that could not be allowed to spread.  On a more personal note, the comparison of the Cathar perfects with the average bishop or village priest was often so stark that it seriously undermined the respect of the average peasant.  Feudalism was the overriding factor in society and this meant that land was the only recognized source of wealth.  A rule known as primogeniture meant that all land passed to the eldest son, in order to prevent a splintering of the family patrimony.   That was fine for the eldest son but what about the other sons; in this era daughters didn't matter?  Since the other sons had no means of supporting themselves without land, many went into the religious life where they would be granted what is called a sincture or position such as a bishopric, an abbey or a village parish.  Since the Church was a major landowner, all of these sinctures came with land, the income of which could be used to support the younger son.  In most cases this was not done because of any religious zeal on the part of the younger son but merely as a means of providing for their livelihood.   Many (although obviously not all) religious lived a very hedonistic lifestyle with mistresses, illegitimate children and a total distain for the humble parishioners for which they were supposed to provide spiritual comfort.  When compared with the exemplary life of the Cathar perfect who eschewed material wealth, practiced celibacy and were tasked with alleviating suffering and providing comfort for the downtrodden, it's easy to see whom the peasants admired more.  Several attempts were made to clean up the Church during this period but it wasn't until the shock of the Protestant Reformation several centuries later that any reforms of substance were introduced.  This situation was intolerable for the Church authorities and their solution was the elimination of the competition. 

Another factor was a naked grasp for power.  The hotbed of Cathar sympathies was an area in the south of France known as Languedoc.  This area was very rich and was coveted by the Kings of France who only exercised very loose control over any area of their kingdom other than that immediately surrounding Paris.  By suppressing the Cathars and overthrowing their principal patron, the Count of Toulouse, the power and prestige of the French monarchy would be greatly enhanced. 

A third element was the jealousy of the medieval guilds who saw that the freewheeling ways of the Cathars were seriously undercutting their monopoly on the economic life of Europe.  Let's now discuss the main episodes of the Albeginsean Crusade.   

The first obstacle to the Crusaders was the city of Beziers, which was quickly captured by use of a ruse.  Legend has it that a phrase used much later in Vietnam was used here when the Crusader commanders asked their leader what to do with all the prisoners.  His reply was "Kill them all, God will sort them out" and as a result 20,000 people, including many women and children, were slaughtered.  The second city was Carcassonne which put up a stiff resistance but began to run low on food.  The Cathar leaders asked for a flag of truce to discuss terms but they were treacherously seized and the leaderless city then shortly surrendered.  The inhabitants were not killed but they were told to immediately leave with no provision made for their welfare.  Many died on the way in a precursor of the Bataan Death March.  These examples illustrate the violence and ferocity of the Crusaders toward the Cathars. One of the main sponsors of the Cathars, Raymond Count of Toulouse, recanted his support, condemned the heretics and expelled the Jews from his court.  He also submitted to a public flogging by Church authorities and agreed to recognize the King of France as his liege lord.  The Crusade went in to a dormant phase as the Cathars perfect went underground and the Crusader leaders were absorbed in digesting their gains.  One interesting note concerns Simon de Montfort the elder, who was one of the most bloodthirsty leaders of the Crusade.  Simon de Montfort the younger(his son) is one of the most honored names in British history as he was instrumental in forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and helped to organize the first English Parliament.  While hardly "democratic" in the modern sense, these reforms were important steps in the evolution of human freedom.  His father on the other hand was a major player in the suppression of the Cathars, looked upon now as a serious offense against justice and fairness. 

The Albeginsean Crusade was also the impetus for the founding of the Inquisition which reached its' apex a few centuries later in Spain.  At that time there was no organized system for handling heretics and it was left to local authorities. Since many of the local clergy were either illiterate or totally untrained in Church law, they were completely ineffective in opposing the highly motivated Cathar perfect in terms of intellectual disputation.  The Dominican order was put in charge of the Inquisition and they created a manual to follow in combating heresy.  The Inquisitors would swoop down on a recently captured Cathar area and interrogate anyone suspicious, often using torture.  Inevitably someone would expose a neighbor, often someone they disliked, and that person would then be examined.  Often the second person would name his accuser as a Cathar (even though he was unaware of who had been the initial accuser) since there was bad blood between them and the cycle would start all over again.  No pretence of a fair trial was allowed and anonymous accusations were permitted.  The population often rose up in disgust, slaughtered the inquisitors and burned their records.  Rather than recognizing the system for what it was, the Church authorities persisted in believing the Cathar perfect were behind all the violence and determined to wipe them out once and for all.

The Crusade essentially ended in 1244 with the fall of Montesegur, the last Cathar stronghold.  Virtually all the remaining perfect (200 individuals) were within the fortress when it surrendered after a long siege.  The so-called Cathar treasure was removed before the fall of the fortress and this has given rise to stories that the Holy Grail itself or the secrets of the Priory of Sion were part of the treasure.  All the Cathar perfect had to surrender to prevent a massacre of the entire population of the town and immediately suffer burning at the stake if they did not recant.  None did recant and amazingly 21 credentes asked to receive the consolamentum and share the fate of the senior perfect.  This was a fitting end to the Cathar story although remnants survived for at least a century.  The Cathars have become a major tourist attraction in Languedoc in modern times.  When you arrive at the border of Languedoc there are signs today which say “Welcome to Cathar Country” and every old castle is revered as a Cathar stronghold, even if it was not so in real life.  One of my friends told me a story where he was visiting southern France to study cave paintings but the tour guide spent some time talking about the Cathars even though they were not part of the tour.  Their disdain of marriage made them a favorite of free love hippies in the sixties and they also appealed to early feminists along with other groups who disdained traditional values.