The Christian Church and its persecution of the Cathars
Partly because of the attraction of Cathar teaching, and partially because of the widespread corruption of the Catholic Church, more and more people in Southern France defected to the Cathars. The Roman Church hierarchy became increasingly worried. Pope Innocent III found a convenient excuse in 1208, and ordered a crusade against them. Crusaders enjoyed the same privileges as those who fought the Moslems. Killing Cathars, like killing Moslems, assured the killer of the highest place in Heaven. An army was mustered under the command of the Cistercian Abbot of Cîteaux. Tens of thousands of Crusaders were enlisted. They were mainly Northern French, keen for plunder, the remission of their sins, and an assured place in Heaven. They were crusaders in every sense, wearing the crusaders cross and enjoying all of their privileges (protection of goods, suspension of debts, and so on).
On 22 July 1209 they arrived at Béziers, on the periphery of the area in the Languedoc where Cathars flourished. There were believed to be around 200 Cathars amongst a much greater population of sympathetic Catholics. The crusading army sacked and looted the town indiscriminately, while townspeople retreated to the sanctuary of the churches. The Cistercian abbot-commander is said to have been asked how to tell Cathar from Catholic. His reply, recorded later by a fellow Cistercian, demonstrated his faith: “Kill them all – the Lord will recognise His own” . The doors of the church of St Mary Magdalene were broken down and the occupants slaughtered. 7,000 people died in the church including women, children, clerics and old men. Elsewhere many more thousands were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. The town was razed. Arnaud, the abbot-commander, wrote to his master, the Pope: “Today your Holiness, twenty thousand citizens were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.” .
Other towns followed. The Crusaders refined their methods. At Carcassone they expelled the inhabitants with a day’s safe conduct, so that they could loot at leisure. Arnaud wrote to the pope to explain why on this occasion no-one had been killed. Simon de Montfort, the new military leader, had another technique. When the castle at Bram fell in 1210 he had the noses of 100 prisoners cropped, their lips cut off and their eyes gauged out. One man was left with one eye so that he could guide the others away. With a hand on the shoulder of the one in front, and the one-eyed man at their head, a file of blind prisoners wound its way to the next town to demonstrate the ineffable mercy of God’s Army. At other towns Simon favoured mass burnings. The Pope, who was kept informed, gave thanks to God. For their part, the Cathar perfecti behaved like the early martyrs of Christian legend. At Minerve the Cistercian Vaux de Cernay noted that it was not necessary to throw them to the flames, for they went voluntarily. They claimed that “neither death nor life can separate us from the faith to which we are joined”. Their behaviour seems to have impressed some of their persecutors, but not enough to raise qualms about killing them. At Lavaur, 400 were burned by the crusaders, “with great joy” as de Cernay noted. (The crusaders generally burned people alive with great joy – cum ingenti gaudio). One perfecti allegedly renounced his faith. The rest died in silence.