A blog on reading, writing and life

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages

I've been interested in the Cathars for some time, but this was the first book I've picked up about them. I was rather disappointed in the depth of information presented by Sean Martin here. It seemed half the people in this book were named Peter or Roger or Raymond or Roger Peter or Raymond Roger, and I felt like more could have been done to distinguish one Peter from another at times. This made the narrative hard to follow, and helped me really learn to appreciate surnames.

The Cathars were Medieval heretics who believed they, and not the Catholic Church, were the true heirs of Christ. The Cathars were the ideologically similar to the Gnostic tradition, which predates the Nicene Council of 325 AD that drew the line between heretical and orthodox Christian belief, but they seemingly sprung from nowhere during the 10th century.

Catharism was especially popular in the south of France, which had unprecedented religious tolerance for its time and also a particularly corrupt Catholic clergy. One thing that surprised me was that the Catholic church, before resorting to violence, actually held public debates of theology in Cathar towns. It was only after they had their butts polemically handed to them that they launched first a crusade, then the Inquisition, to bring the region under the thumb of Rome.

I'm especially interested in what makes people willing to give their life for their religious belief. Thousands of Cathars were burned at the stake, and typically before a mass burning heretics were given one finally chance to reconcile themselves to the Catholic Church, but it was common for a group of 200 Cathars to all stay true to their faith and be burned together.

For someone to make that ultimate sacrifice, they must see something in their faith that is undeniably true. In the brutality of the Middle Ages, the Cathar belief that the world itself was literally hell could have been particularly appealing. This belief was so strong, that Cathars refused marriage in order to avoid bringing more babies into this hell. The Cathars also believed in egalitarianism between the sexes, which attracted a lot of women who were alienated by the misogyny of the Catholic church. In Cathar metaphysics, humans are reincarnated and any soul could be reincarnated as either a male or female, therefore sex is meaningless.

This book, however, was a rather brief overview of the entire Cathar era, and didn't go into as much detail as I would have liked on the normal day-to-day life of Cathar believers. In the future I might pick up another book on this subject.