Women and Catharism
By Malcolm Barber
Reading Medieval Studies, Vol.3 (1977)
Introduction: Participation of women in sustaining and spreading the dualist heresy known as Catharism in Languedoc in the first half of the thirteenth century was greater than the passive role generally assigned to them in medieval society. The records of the Inquisition (which survive in France from the 1230s) bear witness to this, for these carefully recorded depositions and sentences contain many examples of women who become perfectae or ministers of the Cathar faith, and many more who were credentes, the believers of the faith who provided economic support and shelter for the ‘perfect’.
So commonplace was the participation of women in Cathar society that there is a case of a female spy having been used by the Inquisition. In the mid-1230s Marquese, the wife of Bertrand de Prouille, three times sent information to a Master Raoul of Narbonne (on official of the Inquisition) concerning gatherings of heretics to which she was freely admitted, for she came from a family of heretics. On each occasion Master Raoul came in response to her information, but she was not apparently a very efficient spy, since he caught only one heretic. Nevertheless, he thought it worthwhile to supply Marquese with money ostensibly to help the heretics, for whom she bought food.
This method could hardly have been employed had not the Cathars accepted women as members of the sect and placed confidence in female supporters. The aim of this essay is twofold: first, to describe the role of women in Catharism during the first half of the thirteenth century by means of examples taken largely from inquisitorial records (in particular from the Collection Doat in the Bibliotheque Nationale), and secondly, to try to offer some explanation for this role which contrasts so markedly with the usual ‘right order’ of things in medieval society.
In essentials the Cathar Church was divided into two classes: the perfecti and the credentes. The perfecti were a small minority who had received the consolamentum in a special ceremony, vowing to live lives of absolute purity, pacific, chaste, without property, eating and drinking only what was strictly prescribed. Their lives were devoted to preaching, conversion and contemplation. The credentes did not toke vows of this kind, but outwardly at least, integrated with the society around them, participating in economic life, marrying and bringing up families and engaging in warfare when the occasion arose. Generally they received the consolamentum from the perfecti when on the point of death.