Just Finished Reading: The Cathars – The most successful Heresy of the Middle Ages by Sean Martin
Early in the 13th Century the Catholic Church had finally had enough. On 22nd July 1209 forces loyal to the Vatican surrounded the French town of Beziers and demanded that they hand over 222 Cathar believers or face the consequences. They said no. In the ensuing bloodbath between 10,000 and 20,000 men women and children in the town were massacred all in the name of eliminating a growing heresy in the very heart of Christendom. The Cathars believed that the world had not been created by God but be an equal and opposite evil force and that the only way to escape from it was a life of poverty and contemplation. They considered the Catholic Church the very spawn of Satan and opposed it at every turn. The corrupt church which was hated throughout Europe, had been shocked to discover that not only had this particular heresy existed under their noses for decades but that it was spreading at an alarming rate. When circumstances allowed – crusades against Islam permitting – they fully intended to crush it and, in the century that followed they did just that. The Crusades against Catharism (and other heretical sects that cropped up during this period) do not exactly reflect well on the Catholic Church at that time. More than anything else they saw such groups as a direct threat to their hegemony on the Truth. In a time of political and religious turmoil this could not be allowed to stand. The ferocity of the response shocked even contemporary chroniclers and are certainly shocking looking back with more tolerant eyes.
I took two lessons from the story of the Cathars. First, that no organisation driven by a dogmatic ideology should ever again be given the political (and hence military) power to impose its will on the general population. If such a state of affairs was frightening enough 800 years ago it is truly terrifying today. Second, that things could have been very different. It was not a foregone conclusion that the Catholic Church would arise victorious from this conflict. There were times when things could have gone against them. It is entirely conceivable that the schism that later split the Church into Catholic and Protestant could have, in the 13th Century, split it into Cathar and Catholic. If that was the case it is conceivable that Catholicism could have entered a long phase of retreat and withdrawal leaving Catharism in the ascendant. Those who now strongly profess the Protestant faith would then, just as loudly, be professing the Cathar faith. Ideology of all shades is, by its very nature, dependent on historical accident. Things could always have been different, yet adherents would still have honestly believed that they had access to universal and irrefutable truths. Truth claims not backed by empirical evidence are inherently suspect and should be treated with the greatest scepticism. Their beliefs are based on historical events and are guided by historical figures that could have acted differently. This means that any claims that they have been given or have discovered THE answer are deeply flawed. If history could be run again then things might well have been rather different yet they would still profess that the new ‘truth’ is still THE truth. The Cathars are indeed a lesson from history, a lesson in the evils of dogma and ideology as well as the status of unsupported truth claims. They are valuable lessons to be learned by anyone.