Interview with Laurence Marvin – The Occitan War: A Military And Political History Of The Albigensian Crusade, 1209–1218

The Albigensian Crusade of the early-thirteenth century was a key moment in Europe’s medieval history.  The crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III in 1209 against the Cathars, a heretical sect of Christians living in southern France. It led to a series of military efforts to root out the Cathars and their supporters.  Many books have been written about the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, but it was not until 2008 that a scholarly volume on the miltary aspects of these events was produced.

The Occitan War: A Military and Political History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1209–1218, by Laurence W. Marvin, is the first military and political account of this war, focusing on the campaigns conducted by the Crusade leader Simon de Montfort. Marvin examines how Montfort experienced military success in spite of a hostile populace, impossible military targets, armies that dissolved every forty days, and a pope who often failed to support the crusade morally or financially. He also discusses the supposed brutality of the war, why the inhabitants were for so long unsuccessful at defending themselves against it, and its impact on the region.

We interviewed Professor Marvin by email:

Your book focuses on the military aspects of the Albigensian Crusades—the campaigns, battles and sieges.  Why did you think this book was needed?

In the mid-1990s while still in graduate school, I read a recently published, exceptionally fine book by John France called Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade.  I was struck by a number of things about this book, not the least of which that the author had done something no one else had bothered to do.  The bibliography on the First Crusade is huge, yet no one had ever made the military campaign the focus of the study.  In other words, out of 100s (1000s?) of books and articles written about the First Crusade in the past 150 years or so, the military aspects, i.e., those involving hardship and death, mostly took place as a sideshow to other things.  His book was really a first.

When I was researching my dissertation I dabbled in the Albigensian crusade (though it was not the focus of the dissertation), and it occurred to me that, like the First Crusade, no one had looked at it as a military event, partially because the religious aspects of heresy are so fruitful and interesting.  I found the source material relatively speaking incredibly rich in military details (more below) yet no one had really tapped it.  I kicked myself for not doing my dissertation on a military history of the crusade, but vowed I’d do it as my first book project.

The book was needed for a number of reasons, as I lay out in my preface.  A lot of interesting and important stuff gets left to the side because most authors cover a large chronology (1150-1350).  I wanted to concentrate on a smaller chronology, especially since the years I cover were the most militarily active.  I wanted to do a military history of the crusade since after all, in 1209 the church sought a military solution to the problem of heresy in Southern France.  No author had really concentrated on this aspect, so I knew there was a hole to be filled.

Your book, like anyone who works on the Albigensian Crusades, draws much of its material from three major narrative sources.  Could you tell us something about these sources and how you worked with them?

When I dabbled with these sources during my dissertation none were translated into English, though the translations started coming out soon after.  All three are widely accessible now.  The various translators did a great job, including lots of good editorial comments that saved me work.

These sources remain problematic and have been criticized in any number of ways.  Peter Vaux-de-Cernay is the most contentious because he was a crusade insider, which ironically also makes him a very important witness.  He was in his early 20s at the time of the crusade and witnessed many events he discusses.  His uncle, the Abbot of Vaux-de-Cernay was friends with Simon of Montfort and Peter traveled to the south twice as his secretary.  Therefore Peter knew the crusade leaders intimately.  As a Cistercian himself, he fervently believed in the crusader cause, and had no sympathy for the people of the south.  Because of this he has often been discounted as a propagandist fanatic, and on some things I’d agree with this assessment.  But his level of detail for many military events is unmatched by any other source.  Because he was an insider he offers us many things an outsider never could, including his own experiences on crusade.  In the end I can appreciate his viewpoint.  He was a young guy from outside the region who wrote with the passion and partisanship young people often do. 

The second source, the “Song” of the Albigensian crusade is equally problematic for different reasons.  Maybe the most significant is that it is a poem, not prose, so the authors had to fit what they said into rhyme and meter.  As moderns our knee jerk reaction is to wonder how good any poem could be as a source (after all, an epic poem on the American Civil War would normally not get much credence) but medievalists or anyone who studies something pre-modern uses everything.

Another problem is the song was clearly written by two people, only one of whose identity we know (William of Tudela).  He was a pretty good witness actually.  He was a cleric but from the south, and is generally more sympathetic towards the people of Languedoc, though not sympathetic to Catharism.  He offers us many things that Peter Vaux-de-Cernay does, thus providing good corroboration, but often provides things that PVC doesn’t mention, so we are dependent on him just as heavily as PVC.

The other part of the song was composed by an Anonymous author who may have been from Toulouse.  He hated the crusaders without question, so he is just as partisan as PVC, simply in a different way.  From our judgment we’d say he had good reason to feel this way, since it was his city that would be besieged three times in a decade (1211, 1217-18, 1219).  In general for events of the crusade he is not as good as the other two but he is superior to them in two other ways. 1) he offers very detailed, though stylized descriptions of medieval combat.  I’m surprised actually, that to my knowledge no scholar has really exploited the Anonymous’ account for its battle descriptions.  I did not find them to be that helpful because of my own focus but there is a lot there for those who want to take up that burden (hint: possible doctoral dissertation).  2) he offers us, by far, the most detailed account of the 2nd siege of Toulouse.  In fact, about 1/3 of the entire song (both authors) covers the 2nd siege.  So, it is incredibly detailed, from the southern side of course, but extremely valuable.

The third source (but fourth author) is William of Puylaurens.  We used to think we knew who he was, and some scholars still seem sure, but we’re not as sure as we once were.  William was probably a chaplain in the service of Raymond VII, the last native Count of Toulouse.  He was a southern insider therefore, though he doesn’t spill the vitriol like PVC.  William is hit-and-miss as a source.  Occasionally he mentions things that no one else does, and for this he is extremely valuable.  Actually his account gets better as the years go on, reflecting his own lifetime.  In other words, he’s sketchier at the beginning of the crusade (1209) but gets better by 1220, becoming the main source in fact.  So the later one goes, the more dependent one becomes on William.  He’s especially good at character sketches on some of the people of the south, like Raymond VII, who likely he knew pretty well.

Many historians have commented that the warfare of the Albigensian Crusaders was more fierce and brutal than what was usual for the Middle Ages.  What is your opinion on this?

Since the book came out I’ve given a couple of talks on this subject.  Here’s my current thought: It was not worse than usual, with some qualifications.  They are: 1) this was a war spawned by religious ideology.  Though I’m a historian, not a social scientist, it seems to me that wars involving any ideology often turn out to be nasty.  In other words, people seem to be more willing to kill or torture those who believe differently than they do.  2) Simon of Montfort had a large area to control and never enough soldiers to do the job.  Not even close.  Therefore, he felt compelled to make his presence felt, in any way possible, and this meant he acted brutally on occasion.  Yet southerners responded in kind, and one can argue that they, not the crusaders, began the cycle in 1209, something I discuss in the book.

Here is why I think the crusade wasn’t any worse in brutality than typical Medieval warfare.  Anyone who studies the military history of the period 1095-1453 can recite chapter and verse when people were brutalized or tortured in warfare.  Heck, we can go way before that or way after.  The Hundred Years war was no picnic, and some scholars believe the Thirty Years War was worse than any European war in its brutality until Napoleon at least.  Obviously war brings out the worst in human beings, and no matter how many rules we make there are going to be excesses.  That was true in the thirteenth century and is today.

There are many reasons why modern people have chosen to view the Albigensian Crusade as especially brutal.  Since the 18th century those influenced by deistic thinking saw killing in the name of religion to be particularly abhorrent, though I would argue that killing in the name of anything is equally bad.  If one is hostile to the Christian tradition, then the Albigensian Crusade seems pretty dreadful since people did die for their beliefs or lack thereof.  The nature of PVC’s account seems to suggest he was ok with brutalization, but that doesn’t mean it happened more frequently during this war than in conflicts elsewhere.  After all, the standard raiding warfare in western Europe could be brutal.  In one twelfth century source (Orderic Vitalis) a particular Norman noble would raid into his enemies’ territories, take peasants and cut off their feet.  That seems rather cruel, and he had no other reason to do it other than to get back personally at an enemy.

 Another reason people seem to think the Albigensian Crusade was worse than normal would be that the first major contest of the war, the siege and sack of Béziers, was a such a lopsided thing in medieval warfare.  Well-situated, well-defended cities simply didn’t fall in one day.  Yet Béziers did.  Because of the way it did, the conventions of medieval siege warfare, and lack of command and control in the crusader army, the city was sacked and at least partially burnt.  Béziers then is a spectacular moment (in an awful way) that opened the Albigensian crusade like a thunderclap.  Nothing like this ever happened again during the crusade but Béziers remains the most infamous incident of the crusade. 

Yet another reason is one I mention in the book, and that is the regularity of warfare, particularly between 1209 and 1218.   Like many nobles elsewhere, the indigenous nobility of the south constantly fought each other over land and for other semi-personal reasons.  There was a certain amount of give and take though to the sorts of warfare (mostly raiding) they did to each other.  By the fall of 1209 the crusaders had come to stay, and thereafter subjected the region to near constant warfare season after season.  Here’s my point: the people of the region were not used to regular, sustained conflict year after year.  Therefore, these years seem especially horrible, understandably so.  But on a scale of 1 to 10 they weren’t worse than in other places, except in their regularity.  If you compare events in Languedoc between 1209 and 1218, events in Wales during parts of the thirteenth century, or England during the reign of King Stephen in the twelfth than events in the South of France do not seem qualitatively worse.

A major character in the Albigensian Crusades was Simon de Montfort, who was a leader of the Crusaders.  He had his share of victories and defeats, but I was wondering how you would judge his abilities as a military commander?

Someone else recently asked me that question.  I would say that most people have ignored Simon of Montfort as a historical figure either because he seemed so brutal or because he was no William the Conqueror or Richard Lionheart.  Simon was an excellent tactical commander, no doubt about it.  He was brave and very loyal.  He looked out for his soldiers and rewarded them well.  He led from the front, by example, (Castelnaudary in 1211 and Muret 1213) being rare exceptions.  The small army that he could permanently afford, in between campaigns, consisted of long-service professionals led by a commander they knew would back them up.  Simon also did an excellent job at commanding the much larger crusader armies that descended during the summers to do their forty days service.  This was very tricky because he had to use them quickly before they left.  They didn’t know the situation in the south, so he often had great difficulty getting their leaders up to speed, getting troops where they needed to be, and wrapping up things before they left.  The sources, especially PVC, mention many examples of Simon pleading with groups to stay longer, and he was often successful.  But not always.

He was also a guy always on the move, which of course he had to be, like a forest ranger always on the lookout for hot spots.  I’m still in awe of how much terrain he covered to quell rebellions.

Simon also trusted his subordinate commanders, who had usually served him for a long time.  Several sources mention them by name, and there is a German Ph.D dissertation on these followers.  He was good about giving them responsibility but offering support so they stayed loyal to him.

He did have an impulsive streak in him, which could be bad or good depending on the circumstances.  Being willing to gamble paid off big, at Castelnaudary and Muret, but occasionally it backfired, as at Beaucaire and twice at Toulouse.  My final assessment of Simon of Montfort tactically is that he was a very good leader to follow in battle.  One other advantage he had was that his opponents were simply not as good as he was as a battle leader.

Strategically Simon was far less adept.  Here his religious beliefs clashed with his political sense and his personal avarice.  He probably could have held the territory he was initially given (the Trencavel lands) but by 1211 he ventured farther out to encounter the Count of Toulouse and the people of the Toulousain.  Not only was he on weaker moral ground here, but he opened up a much larger area and many more people he would have to control and subdue.  Admittedly he did very well through 1212; after all by then he controlled virtually all of the Toulousain heartland except the city itself.  Yet he could not sustain the effort with the limited resources and support he received.  He could not capture “hearts and minds.”

As a political/strategic leader he made some real blunders and in the end these cost him his life.  He never handled the people of Toulouse in the right way, and that cost him dearly.  He attacked the city in 1211 when he might have taken a softer approach that could have won the people of Toulouse over.  He appeared to lump the people of Toulouse in with their count, which was not the case; in fact the opposite.  Yet because of this insistence at seeing them as one bloc he drove them together.  At several times he acted overly harshly to the people of Toulouse, who came to be so afraid of him that they’d rather see their city destroyed in a siege than be under his administration.

To be fair to Simon, as the years went on the constant pressure of subduing a region that wouldn’t roll over had got to him, as evidenced by his growing alternate impatience and lethargy.  At Beaucaire instead of patiently besieging the town he tried to assault it and by squandering men and his military capital eventually lost the town anyway.  He was even worse at the 2nd siege of Toulouse.  Instead of methodically investing it, a tactic that served him so well in the early years of the crusade, he insisted on numerous assaults that cost men and treasure but accomplished nothing.  As the siege wore on, the people inside of Toulouse grew more emboldened, conducting their own counterattacks.  Simon responded very slowly.  I think (though of course have no way to prove) that he was mentally tired, worn out by all those years.  After all, we would never expect a general to stay in command of a “hot” zone for nine years.  We know that the mental endurance of any human is finite and that eventually they break down, usually sooner rather than later.  By 1218 Simon was in his mid-fifties and needed a rest, but there really wasn’t anyone who could take his place, hence the setbacks the crusade encountered after his death.

We thank Professor Marvin for answering our questions.

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email