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The Perfect Heresy:

In 1209, Pope Innocent III set out to destroy a heretical sect that today would seem utterly harmless. In the process, he (and his successors) created modern France. This is the aspect of the story that most concerns Stephen O’Shea’s The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars.

Like other sects and tribes that were pushed to the edge of European consciousness by the Roman Empire or the Roman Catholic Church, the Cathars made a sort of comeback in the 19th century. The name Cathar—an insult that originally meant “cat worshiper”—is esteemed today by upscale neo-pagans, New Agers, and spiritually minded tourists who visit the faith’s former strongholds in southern France’s Languedoc region. Their interest is eminently reasonable, given that many of the Cathars’ beliefs now seem more congenial than those of the church that brutally massacred them.

The Cathars, also known as the Albigensian heretics, after the town of Albi, melded elements of Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Platonism into a creed that also suggests Hinduism and Buddhism. They taught that the universe is divided between good and evil, and that the physical realm is entirely base, created by a god of darkness. They believed in reincarnation, and those Cathars who were on the verge of breaking the cycle of rebirth—the “Perfect,” a term also conferred on them by their enemies—avoided sexual intimacy, prayed and fasted frequently, and did not consume meat or any “byproduct of reproduction,” such as eggs or dairy products.

To Catholic authorities, one of the most threatening things about the Cathars was that they weren’t enforcers. Although they believed that theirs was the only way to salvation, Cathars didn’t judge—let alone punish—people who didn’t follow it, whether they were flagrant sinners or members of competing faiths such as Judaism or Islam. Indeed, for all their contempt for the world, the Cathars’ religion was easier on people who had to live in that world than was the pope’s, especially women. Whereas 13th-century Catholic thinkers considered women nothing more than temptation and corruption in one handy package, the Cathars treated them (almost) equally. Women could become Perfect, and in the meantime they could be educated, live productive lives even if widows or spinsters, and inherit property (impossible in most of the Catholic world at the time).

The Perfect lived in simplicity and poverty, their very existence such a powerful rebuke to the avaricious Catholic Church that the pope eventually had to accept the creation of a Christian order, the Franciscans, whose ascetic code mirrored that of the Perfect. The same era, however, also saw the establishment of the Dominicans, one of the most bloodthirsty organizations in human history. It was not a Dominican who supposedly uttered the phrase that endures from the Albigensian Crusade—”Kill them all. God will know his own”—but it was that order that established the Inquisition, the most horrific legacy of the anti-Cathar campaign.

To be sure, the Cathars—who called themselves simply “good Christians”—were heretics. They rejected all Catholic sacraments and dismissed the Old Testament, deeming its vengeful God the creator of the visible world and thus the Cathar equivalent of Satan. They also described the Catholics’ “true church” in quite colorful terms, calling it the “harlot of the Apocalypse” and “the church of wolves.”

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In using the latter epithet, the Cathars were slandering wolves. Mere hungry predators would never have committed the crimes the Catholic Church did in Languedoc. In 1209, Catholic crusaders killed every single resident of Béziers, some 15,000 to 20,000 people, and then looted and burned the town. The following year, the crusaders seized Bram and blinded all its defenders save one, whom they left a single eye; then they captured Minerve and burned 140 Perfect at the stake. A year later, in Lavaur, the pope’s murderous White Brotherhood captured and burned 400 Perfect in what O’Shea calls “the largest bonfire of humanity of the Middle Ages.” In 1219, crusaders butchered all 7,000 inhabitants of Marmande, a town that wasn’t even a Cathar haven. After the Inquisition arrived in Languedoc, in 1233, its agents burned books, executed a dying woman, disinterred dead heretics and burned their corpses, and ordered their descendants to sew large yellow crosses to their clothes.

It took more than a century to capture, torture, and burn all the Perfect, but the church and its crusaders were happy to do so. They sang hymns as they roasted alive their fellow human beings, and those they didn’t kill they forced into the wilderness, thus prefiguring the Khmer Rouge as well as the Nazis. Virtually the only Catholic heroes in this tale are a handful of Franciscans, notably the one who in 1233 killed Conrad of Marburg, one of the Inquisition’s most ardent slaughterers.

O’Shea touches on the barbarism of all this, as well as the continuing appeal of Catharism, a religion that—whatever its theology—seemed remarkably benign in practice at a time when the Catholic Church was little more than Murder Inc. But he’s mostly interested in the politics—and especially the military history. Most of The Perfect Heresy is more about troop movements than theology.

O’Shea’s battle accounts are reasonably interesting, especially because the stakes were so high. What the Catholic Church wanted to destroy was a region where the ruling nobles refused to persecute their subjects, not only Cathars but also Jews. Heresy-friendly Toulouse—by 1200, the largest city in what was to become France—had even abandoned a charming Easter tradition called “strike the Jew,” in which Jewish residents were beaten in the city’s public square. Toulouse was in essence the capital of the loosely linked fiefdoms of Languedoc, where people spoke not French but Occitan; this was the language of the troubadours, whose ballads preferred chivalry and courtly love to the church’s celebration of divine butchery and the afterlife.

The Cathars got a tremendous boost when their most powerful protector, King Pedro II of Aragon, won a major battle against the Moors in Andalusia in 1212. Because Pedro was now a victorious defender of the True Faith, the pope was in a quandary when the king proposed an end to the Albigensian Crusade. The pope consented in 1213, but the Cathars’ most zealous enemies continued to fight, ending Languedoc’s hopes of autonomy when they managed to kill Pedro on the battlefield.

The ultimate result was not merely the extinction of the Albigensian heresy—and the people who held to it—but the destruction in its infancy of a Catalan/Occitan proto-state that might today nestle between France and Spain, its capital in either Toulouse or Barcelona. In a sense, this country still survives. Despite centuries of oppression, Catalan and Occitan (and such cousins as Provençal) are still spoken, and Occitania may someday get the degree of regional autonomy from France that Catalonia has won from Spain.

O’Shea mostly restricts his discussion of larger issues to the introduction and the epilogue, and he relegates to the footnotes anecdotes that would have made the narrative both more lively and more informative. Thus it takes some looking to find his speculations on such integral subjects as the origins of Cathar theology and the possible identity of the men who plotted the assassination of the papal legate whose death in 1208 unleashed the fury of the Albigensian Crusade. Given the author’s limited knowledge of pop culture, however, perhaps it’s just as well that his comments on that subject are similarly buried. It’s fascinating to learn that the original French lyric to the Singing Nun’s 1963 hit “Dominique” contains a reference to fighting the Albigensians, but his account of “Kill ’em all”‘s rock ‘n’ roll significance excludes Metallica.

The Perfect Heresy is a fine introduction to its subject and an expert piece of popular scholarship. When he gets to the epilogue, however, O’Shea lets the Cathars down. Outlining the sect’s legacy, he discusses mostly illegitimate heirs like the Nazis; the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a best-selling pop-theological potboiler; and the Order of the Solar Temple, a suicidal Franco-Swiss cult that based some of its creed on the discredited notion that the Cathars built their mountain sanctuaries as “solar temples.”

The Albigensian heresy is now long dead and thus safely quaint, but a more imaginative writer might have made more interesting connections to faiths that continue today. It seems that O’Shea is interested in the Cathars’ saga but not fired by it. Yet who but a Catholic apologist or an inhumanly detached observer cannot be stirred by the words of Cathar Peter Garcias, who in 1247 declared, “If I got my hands on this God who created so many souls to save but a few and damn the rest, I’d rip him apart with my fingernails and my teeth”? CP