Cathar or Catholic: Treading the line between popular piety and heresy in Occitania, 1022-1271

Cathar or Catholic: Treading the line between popular piety and heresy in Occitania, 1022-1271

By Elizabeth Jensen

Master’s Thesis, Brandeis University, 2013

The Murder of St Peter the Martyr, by  Giovanni Bellini

Abstract: The Occitanian Cathars were among the most successful heretics in medieval Europe. In order to combat this heresy the Catholic Church ordered preaching campaigns, passed ecclesiastic legislation, called for a crusade and eventually turned to the new mechanism of the Inquisition. Understanding why the Cathars were so popular in Occitania and why the defeat of this heresy required so many different mechanisms entails exploring the development of Occitanian culture and the wider world of religious reform and enthusiasm. This paper will explain the origins of popular piety and religious reform in medieval Europe before focusing in on two specific movements, the Patarenes and Henry of Lausanne, the first of which became an acceptable form of reform while the other remained a heretic. This will lead to a specific description of the situation in Occitania and the attempts to eradicate the Cathars with special attention focused on the way in which Occitanian culture fostered the growth of Catharism. In short, Catharism filled the need that existed in the people of Occitania for a reformed religious experience. Despite all the church’s active attempts to quell the Cathars, it was only when a new group of religious men providing an orthodox solution to the religious need of Occitanians and a new political culture came to Occitania that the Cathars were finally eliminated from the fabric of society.

Introduction: Peter of Castelnau stood on the bank of the Rhone River, just outside of Arles, waiting to take a ferry across. It was 15 January 1208, and it was the last day of Peter’s life. Perhaps while waiting for the ferry, Peter filled his mind with happy thoughts of his old life as a Cistercian monk. It had been five years since he had last seen his beloved home of Abbey Fontfroide, located 15 kilometers southwest of Narbonne, in the foothills of the Pyrenees near the border of Aragon and the County of Barcelona. It had not been his idea to leave the abbey and venture into Occitania, a land rife with heretics; if it had been left up to him, he would still be working the lands of the monastery. However, since he was a monk, his life was not his own to direct. Therefore, when Pope Innocent III ordered him to undertake a preaching mission in the lands between the Rhone and the Garonne, Peter went. He travelled into a land “where once the true faith had flourished” “to preach peace and support the faith.” Thankfully, Innocent had not sent him into battle alone. Another of Fontfroide’s monks, Brother Ralph, accompanied Peter and Arnold Amalric, the leader of the Cistercian order, led the duo. “The preachers travelled on foot and on horseback among the wicked and misbelieving heretics, arguing with them and vigorously challenging their errors”.

The group embarked on their journey in the winter of 1203 with the intention of fighting heresy and the apathetic tolerance on the part of rulers that allowed it to thrive. They spent five years chiding leaders like Count Raimond VI of Toulouse, for their inaction against heretics. The monks attempted to be “candlesticks” illuminating the straight and narrow path for wayward souls. They deposed lackadaisical bishops and even debated the leaders of the heresy.  Barefoot, clothed in his white habit, the picture of poverty, Peter had done everything he could to reach the Occitanians only to be met with hate, lies and all manners of ill-will. To the priests and bishops he was a sanctimonious, brown-nosed little monk; to the people, he represented an unwelcome foreign intrusion into local politics. So great was Peter’s unpopularity, he was once forced to flee from Beziers after the locals threatened to murder him. All this adversity made Peter long for his simple days of abbey life behind the safe, protecting walls of Fontfroide. He was tired of being a papal legate. He wrote to Innocent asking to be recalled. These fields were not ripe for reaping, these bishops dumb and numb, these rulers obstinate and deceptive. The “wrath of princes and kings” was constantly upon the group. Over the course of five years Peter had come to the conclusion that preaching would not fix these errors; only the sword would bring these errant fools back into the fold. Heresy was a “root of bitterness” “deeply embedded in the hearts of men”.

Click here to read this thesis from Brandeis University

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