In the twelfth century a new religion took root in Europe which we know today as Catharism.
The Cathars were Gnostic Christians. They claimed that their beliefs
and practices dated from the earliest Christian times, and predated
the innovations of the Catholic Church - a claim that is now recognised
by historians as substantially correct. They had survived in Persia
and gradually travelled westwards through the Byzantine Empire,
the Balkans and Italy to Western Europe.
The Catholic Church regarded Cathars as heretics. It was then a crime to disagree with Catholic theology and a capital crime if the disagreement was repeated.
Cathars appeared throughout Europe, but it was in the Languedoc
that they flourished, becoming the majority religion in many places.
After a series of failed attempts to convert them by preaching and
debating, Pope Innocent III called a full scale crusade against
From 1208 a series of military campaigns were launched against the Cathars and their sympathisers, known together as the Albigensian Crusade from the erroneous idea that the Cathars were centred in the town of Albi.
The local nobility of the Languedoc, vassals of the King of Aragon,
along with the rest of the local population, sided with the Cathars.
As the crusade progressed, Cathars and their sympathisers took refuge
in castles and fortified towns, often located on spectacular hill
tops in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Many sieges and a few open
battles were recorded in detail by three chroniclers.
After several generations of war the local lords were defeated
and dispossessed by the (mainly French) Catholic crusaders. The
Cathars were exterminated - burned alive by the hundred. The first
Papal Inquisition ensured that there would be no re-emergence of
the Cathar religion. Their castles fell into the hands of the victors,
and the area was annexed to France.
The castles were reinforced or rebuilt or destroyed. Some were turned into Royal fortresses but after a few centuries the borders of France moved even further south to the Pyrenees and the Royal castles were no longer needed for border defences and were slighted.
Today you can visit many so-called Cathar Castles in the Languedoc. A few, such as Carcassonne, have been restored. Many others are spectacular, romantic and unbearably poignant. They are a major tourist attraction.
On the right at the top of the page is one of the most famous at
Montségur. This was the Cathars' last real stronghold, which fell
after 10 months of siege in 1244.
You can read more about the cathars, their beliefs, their history and their legacy at www.cathar.info