The Albigensian Crusade

The Albigensian Crusade was the Holy War undertaken against the Cathars in the early thirteenth century which was launched by Pope Innocent III. It lasted for twenty years and aimed to drive out the ‘heretics’ from the Languedoc region in Southern France.

So, what were the beliefs of the Cathars? And why were they considered to be heretics by the Catholic Church? Catharism was a branch of Christianity that incorporated a duelist sect with Gnostic elements. They were critical of the Catholic Church, claiming that it had corrupted the original message given to the Church and had led the people astray through its teachings. They believed in living lives of frugality and simplicity, which contrasted with the ceremonial and often elaborate sacraments which made up the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Conflict also came from the fact that they believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the ‘God of Love’ from the New Testament, even going as far to say that the Old Testament God had created the world as a prison for humankind and that he was an agent of the Devil. This branch of Christianity was slowly gaining followers, particularly in the Languedoc region, and when peaceful attempts at converting the people did not work, this acted as an impetus to justify launching the crusade. Moreover, the 1179 Third Lateran Council decreed that the heretics’ ‘goods are to be confiscated and princes free to subject them to slavery’[1] and also urged that it was the duty of the princes to fight against this heresy.

The March on Beziers in 1209 is one of the best examples that illustrates the degree of violence that happened during the crusade. As the crusader army advanced on the city, the citizens of Beziers attacked the crusaders and their men, which led to the camp followers retaliating against them, having being told that the people in the town were the ‘instruments of Satan’[2] as justification for the crusade. The inhabitants of the town who didn’t have time to hide were killed immediately and indiscriminately. Even those who had tried to take sanctuary within the churches were killed, whether they were priests, women or children. Out of those who had tried to take shelter in churches or at the cathedral, there were no survivors. After the massacre, they burned down the town and set fire to the cathedral, only stopping their rampage when the flames meant that they could no longer go on. Estimates of how many people were killed range between 7,000 and 20,000. In the middle of the carnage, when asked how the crusaders were meant to distinguish between who was catholic and who was a heretic, Arnald Amaury, a papal legate, is quoted as saying ‘kill them all; God will recognise his own’[3]. Despite whether or not he actually made the comment, it has become interlinked with the remembrance of the Albigensian crusade and the violence against the Cathars.

This act of violence acted as an example to the rest of the south, and meant that other towns and cities such as Narbonne surrendered much more easily. Narbonne for example, surrendered all of the heretics within its walls and also offered other placatory methods such as offering the property owned by them and the Jewish population to them, as well as providing the army with food and paying a tax of a sixtieth on their possessions in order to help finance and supply the army[4]. Although the tactic was doubtlessly brutal, it served its purpose of creating an atmosphere of fear throughout Languedoc which allowed the crusade to advance even further.

Other notable acts of violence during the Albigensian crusade include the events in Lavaur where similar events to what happened in Beizers took place. The townspeople were made to pay for the earlier massacre at Montgey against the crusaders, and ‘unarmed men [were] brutally cut to pieces, priests killed with axes at the alters of nearby churches’[5] and 300 to 400 heretics were burned altogether in a nearby meadow.

Malcolm Barber provides an apt summary why the Albigensian crusade and the events at Beziers deserves to be a part of our March Month of Violence:

‘The Albigensian crusades went far beyond the normal conventions of early thirteenth-century warfare, in the scale of the slaughter… in the mutilation of prisoners, in the humiliation and shaming of the defeated, and in the quite overt use of terror as a method of achieving one’s goals’[6].

[1] Third Lateran Council (1179), http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/faith/ECUM11.HTM

[2] J. Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (London, 1978), 93.

[3] Ibid., 94.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 131.

[6] M. Barber, ‘The Albigensian Crusades: Wars Like Any Other?‘ in Dei gesta per Francos: Etudes sur les croisades deditees a Jean Richard, ed. M. Balard, B. Z. Kedar and J. Riley-Smith (Aldershot, 2001).

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