The Albigensian Crusade: Heresy in Languedoc

Written by Chris Riley,

After the debacle of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), you would think that the Catholic west would reassess and have a long hard think about their efforts to spread Catholicism through the world but, they didn’t. With growing tensions within Europe, a small Christian sect found itself in the crosshairs of the Pope and his militant friends.

The Cathars

Southern France was and still is, a region of wine and fine countryside, and in the 13 century the region of Languedoc, was home to rolling hills and vineyards, stretching from Toulouse in the east, to Nîmes in the west. The region of Languedoc was under the loose control of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, in reality real power lay with the local aristocracy who valued independence over central control.

A map of France, showing he region of Languedoc in red SORCE: Wikimedia Commons

So what is a Cathar? A Cather is a Christian with slightly different beliefs to a catholic, choosing to focus ore on the spiritual side of their faith, rather than the perceived indulgent extravagance of the Catholic Church. As well as their decision to live life simply, eating no meat or eggs, Cathars also believed in two distinct gods. The Spiritual god was considered the ‘good’ god where as the material god was the ‘bad’ one, leading Cathars to reject material things including, the joining of two bodies in both marriage and sex. One of the main points of contention for the Church was the fact that the Cathars refused the idea of a physical Christ on earth (Jesus) and saw that as heretical, a massive difference between the two Christian denominations.

As mentioned before, Raymond VI was supposed to be in change of the region but, the aristocracy were far more powerful than Raymond, leading to constant internal wars, allowing Raymond no time to focus on such things as surprising heretics. It is important to remember that Languedoc was NOT a Cathar dominated region but was a region of great turmoil in the early 13th century, not the best look for Pope Innocent who needed a united, Catholic Europe to beat back all of the Pagans and Muslims on the fringes of his church's power.

Raymond and the Pope

Raymond did not have the greatest relationship with the Holy Father, and Innocent saw the southern French lord as, if not a Cathar himself, at least someone who would protect them from the power of the church. By 1207, Pope innocent was sick of the apparent inaction by Raymond and, after sending a Papal Legate by the name of Peter of Castlenau, he excommunicated him, turning the eyes of Europe onto Southern France.

A statue of Raymond VI of Toulouse SOURCE:

Understandably, Raymond was furious that he had been excommunicated and in his rage, threw out the papal legate who mysteriously turned up dead the next day. Upon hearing that his representative had been murdered (never proven that Raymond was to blame but, go figure…) a call to arms was made. A Crusade was coming to Languedoc.

Christians on Christians

A furious Pope Innocent III began recruiting for his next venture to rid the world of heretics, relying on another Papal Legate, Arnaud Aimery, to recruit an army to rid the world of both the Cathars and, Raymond who the Pope saw, as their protector.

Northern France was the target of the latest recruitment drive and after taxing the French Church (surely there’s something wrong with that but, hey ho), a large force of Frenchmen had formed. Upon hearing the news that thousands of his fellow countrymen (France was not a unified country yet, but, it is likely that they all saw themselves as French) Raymond quickly had a change of heart. In June of 1209, Raymond submitted to the Church, confessing to all of the ‘crimes’ that he had committed against the Papacy and the mother church. Raymond was ceremonially whipped by the Papal Legate and after performed an almighty U-turn, taking the cross himself against the Cathars. The decision to join the invading army wasn’t due to Raymond’s sudden religious desire to see the Cathar enemy unrooted but, by doing so, he protected his lands and titles from the Pope.

The main man on the other side was Raymond Roger of Trencavel, who was less a Cathar sympathiser and more an individual lord who wanted to keep that independence. By June of 1209, the crusader army was at the city of Béziers, laying siege. By 22nd July, the city had fallen and the population of around 10,000 were massacred (less than 1000 Cathars) apparently orchestrated by Legate Aimery who apparently said “kill them all, God will know his own”. whether or not Aimery said those exact words or not is unclear but, a clear message was sent to there lords in Languedoc, don’t expect mercy.

By August, Raymond Roger had surrendered but was soon thrown in jail where he later died. With the crusade going well, in stepped Simon de Montfort, known as ‘the ‘elder’ to differentiate from his rather famous son of the same name, and Simon had one thing on his mind, Toulouse.