Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Hunting of Heretics: The Cathars

The term "Cathars" was never used by those who simply called themselves Les Bonhommes, or Good Christians. While some scholars have claimed the word comes from the Greek Kataroi, meaning the Pure Ones, others, most notably Nicolas Gouzy of the Centre d'Etudes Cathares in France, have suggested that the name was more comparable to an insult deriving from the German "die Ketzerei" meaning "cat worshippers" and indeed in the iconography of the Middle Ages they were almost always accompanied by cats, a symbol of evil for all of Christendom at the time. They have also been often referred to as The Albigenses, after the chronicler Geoffrey of Vigeous in 1181, especially in the scholarly literature. But this too may be a misnomer as the town of Albi was not notably Cathar with the greatest concentration of believers to the south and south east of the Languedoc and towards the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees.

Why were the Cathars (and for ease of recognition, I'll use this term throughout) such a threat to the Roman church that it was deemed necessary to persecute and exterminate them in their hundreds, perhaps thousands?

Notable in the Cathar writings of the 13th century we find this:

"The Roman church is not ashamed to say that they are the lambs of Christ. They say that the heretics they persecute are the church of wolves. But this is absurd. The wolves have always pursued and slaughtered the sheep. It would have to be the contrary for the sheep to be so mad as to hunt down and kill the wolves, and for the wolves to be so passive and patient as to let the sheep devour them."

The early 11th century brought about a crisis of faith. The world had not ended with the Millennium as most expected it to do according to prophecy. The clergy were seen as corrupt, seeking only power and riches; the Latin litany droned on with no-one understanding a word. No-one spoke Latin anymore and comprehension of the mass was reserved only for those who could read and write in that language; this did not even seem to include some of the priests themselves who used onlywell-used psalms and prayer books. In fact, as I shall mention later, the ownership of a bible was a capital offence since it pre-supposed heretical interests! People began to speak openly of the inconsistencies of the Catholic faith and Catholic practices. They spoke out about the usury of the church; of the fees collected by avaricious churchmen and their superstitious rites. The moneys they collected for holy water, oil, and earth for burial. Ordinary people began to move away from the massive cathedrals and abbeys and began to go - as the comedian Lenny Bruce has termed the 20th century spiritual comparison - "...back to God".

What can the world be other than created by the devil, they said. They began to preach detachment from this realm whose prince was Satan and sought ways to "a new heaven, and a new earth where justice will dwell".

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