What Was the Albigensian Crusade?

Far from the holy sites in Jerusalem, a Crusade was fought in western Europe. In southern France, an heretical sect, known as Albigensians, had come to dominate a large swath of land. With the support of local nobility, they felt free to practice their faith openly, even hosting an international conference of like-minded sects. When their defiance reached the point of the murder of a papal legate, the Pope proclaimed a Crusade to reclaim southern France for Catholicism. Military campaigning went on for 35 years, and another thirty years of vigilance on the part of the Inquisition were necessary to sweep away the last vestiges of the heresy in the region, but in time its task was accomplished. Among the various Crusades of the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade was unique in its success.

The Albigensians were a local branch of a broader heretical movement known as Catharism. The Albigensians took their name from the town of Albi, from which they were supposed to have come, but credited their faith as having come from Greece. In fact, it was older still, having come from the Third Century heretical movement known as Manichaeanism, which in turn owed much to the early Gnostics and to the influence of eastern religions. In particular, these faiths took from Persian Zoroastrianism a belief in a dualistic universe, and from Hinduism its belief in reincarnation, including the sense that rebirth is a misfortune that the enlightened soul should seek to avoid.

Doctrinally, Cathars generally believed that two Powers fought over creation. The good God was the lord of spirit; the evil God was the creator of flesh, and of all physical matter. According to this system of belief, it was the Devil who created the world; in general, the Cathars believed that the god described in the Old Testament is really the evil force. Humans had the misfortune of being fragments of Divine Spirit encased within satanic flesh. Much like Buddhist monks, the core of Cathar communities was its group of Perfecti, the “perfect ones” who lived in stark poverty, ate only vegetable matter, and eschewed sexuality. When Perfecti died, their spirits were considered to be released back to the Divine. Believers who did not attain the rank of Perfectus before death would, of course, get another chance in their next life.

It might seem strange that such an austere faith could capture the collective imagination of a region such as French Provence. Disillusionment with the worldly character of mainstream Catholic clergy certainly played a significant role in this process. At the same time, a pattern that would prove common during the later Protestant Reformation obtained here as well: the political patronage of the local nobility bolstered the successes of a heterodox movement. Just as Luther had the support of the Elector of Saxony, and Calvin that of Swiss Geneva, the Albigensians enjoyed the sympathy of the Provençal nobility and the active support of many of them. In all likelihood, the motives of these nobles included a combination of sincere religious conviction and baser political advantage, in this case serving both the region’s preference for autonomy from the rule of Paris and the nobles’ designs upon wealthy clerical land.

At first, the Catholic Church tried to combat the heresy through persuasion alone. Preachers were sent in to present the Catholic answer to Cathar teachings, among them a Spaniard named Dominic, who founded the Dominican Order in Toulouse shortly before the fighting started. In part, the form that this order took was predicated upon his conclusion that the Church could not win back Cathar heretics when its representatives carried the trappings of wealth and power. The crisis reached its breaking point in 1208 when the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VI, had papal legate Peter de Castelnau assassinated.

The Pope called for a Crusade to root out this heresy. Participants would enjoy the same spiritual benefits they would have obtained from taking up the Cross in the Holy Land; nobles had the additional prospect of gaining good land close to home when heretical nobles were defeated. They also received temporal pardons and immunities for their efforts, a fact which led Count Raymond himself to change sides and align himself with the Crusade.

Premodern armies took time to assemble and deploy. The first major campaign, the seizure of Beziers, did not get underway until July of 1209. What might have been a lengthy siege was measurably shortened by the moral indignation of the defenders: an effort to strike at some camp followers who came too near a secondary gate led to the forcing of that gate by the besieging army. This event led to the utter sack of the town, and the earliest known form of a very modern expression is credited to Arnald-Amaury: “Kill them all. God shall know His own.”

This attitude prevailed as the war progressed from Beziers to Carcassone, Minerve, Termes, and beyond. Chief command among the Crusaders was executed by the energetic and ruthless Simon de Montfort. The capture of towns no longer provoked the wholesale slaughter of all inhabitants, but an affirmation of Catholic faith was required, and those who refused, mostly the ascetic Perfecti, were burned at the stake by the hundreds. Montfort drove the Crusade onward until his death in the siege of Toulouse in 1218.

The siege broke off, and the war lost its momentum. Technically, it wore on until the capture of Montsegur in the spring of 1244, but most of the land had been pacified by the mid-1220’s. In part, the character of the war had changed at that time, as the skeptical King Phillip Augustus had died, leaving the throne to his son Louis VIII. Phillip Augustus had not been enthusiastic about the Crusade, seeing it as a drain on his resources. Louis VIII, in contrast, saw the reconquest of Provence and Languedoc as a reassertion of royal prerogatives in the face of separatism, and took an active role in the war accordingly.

The surrender of Montsegur marked the end of significant fighting. Small pockets of Cathar belief persisted, and nearly three decades of work on the part of the Inquisition (largely staffed by the new Dominican Order) were needed to break all but the smallest measures of resistance. Catharism needed a body of Perfecti to keep the faith going, and as their numbers dwindled, the sect withered. The last known Cathar Perfectus in southern France was executed in 1321. With him passed the Albigensian heresy.

Aside from the loss of life, there were several important consequences of the Crusade. In matters of religion, the threat posed by the Cathars forced the Catholic Church to reexamine itself. The Lateran Council of 1215 led to a reaffirmation of key teachings, some of which had been neglected, and a variety of reforms intended both to connect the clergy with the laity more strongly, and to make the Church more appealing to common people. Among the latter can be included both a fresh emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary and the growth of orders of mendicant friars, the Franciscans and Dominicans.

In the political and cultural realm, southern France with its Mediterranean culture became subject to the rule of northern France. In part, this would persist until the present, although a separate sentiment would remain in the region. Centuries later, the area would become a center for the Protestant Huguenots.

In contrasting the success of the Albigensian Crusade with the failure of the Crusades in the Holy Land, two major points must be considered. The first is the projection of power. Here, northern French nobles, aided by Germans and Italians and others, only needed to exert their strength on nearby provinces. The fighting was generally slow, as medieval warfare tended to be, but the relative nearness of centers of power and the ease of communication made it possible to sustain a long-term effort in a way that was much more difficult across the sea.

The second is a question of culture. As different as Provencal culture is from that of northern France, these cultures were still mutually intelligible in ways that western European culture and near Eastern culture are not. The latter difference not only exacerbated Christian-Muslim relations in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but also soured the relations between visiting European lords and the settlers, who often adopted local customs. In the case of the Albigensian Crusade, it was not only possible to achieve a clear and lasting victory, but it was also a realistic goal.


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