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The Cathar Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine: Pop Culture Legend vs. Medieval Doctrine

The Cathar Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine: Pop Culture Legend vs. Medieval Doctrine

By Mary Ann Beavis

The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 24, Number 3, 2012

Maddalena penitente (17th century), Museo Regionale di Messina

Introduction: Since the publication of The Da Vinci Code in 2003, the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has been linked in popular culture with the Gnostic-like medieval sect known as the Cathars; in particular, with the notion that the Cathars of southern France held to an ancient tradition that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were the ancestors of a royal lineage.

In brief, the Cathars (also known by other names; e.g., Albigensians, Manicheans) were a twelfth and thirteenth-century Christian sect that was considered heretical by Catholic authorities and was scattered throughout western Europe. As early as the 1140s, the Cathar church was hierarchically organized, with a distinctive liturgy and doctrines. Cathars agreed that matter was evil and that the human spirit was fallen from its heavenly origins and trapped in the evil material world; the aim of human life was to free the divine spark within to restore its relationship to God with the aid of the divine redeemer, Christ. Since the material world was utterly corrupt, the ideal Cathar life was celibate, ascetical, and world-denying.

Due to their popularity in southern France, especially in the Languedoc, the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) was proclaimed against them by Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) and several Cathar fortresses were attacked by Catholic forces from northern France. The final Cathar stronghold of Montségur was destroyed in 1244 under the auspices of King Louis IX and the Inquisition. Although Catharism endured underground in other parts of Europe, it had virtually disappeared by the beginning of fifteenth century.


Today, purveyors of spiritual tourism advertise their itineraries in Languedoc, southern France, with slogans such as “Cathar Country: The Da Vinci Code began here”; “Cathar Country: In the footsteps of The Da Vinci Code”; and “Da Vinci Code Holidays.” Many easily accessible websites feature the claim that the marriage of Jesus and Mary was a Cathar tenet. In fact, Dan Brown’s book does not mention the Cathars, or even Languedoc, but credits the Knights Templar with guarding the secret of the messianic lineage. However, the pop scholarship exposés cited by Brown —Picknett and Prince’s The Templar Revelation; Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and The Goddess in the Gospels; and Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail—do make such claims, as do subsequent works by these authors.

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