The Magdalene of the Heretics - Part II

 Languedoc countryside

 Languedoc countryside

On the feast day of St Mary Magdalene - 22 July - in the year 1209 something utterly horrific, yet at the same time rather magnificent , took place at  Beziers, a small town now in the department of Herault in Languedoc-Roussillon, south-western France. According to the Cistercian monk Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernat, writing in 1213, every last inhabitant of the town went willingly to their deaths at the hands of the pope’s men rather than deny their passionately-held belief that Jesus and the Magdalene were lovers. Yet astoundingly, the crusaders had only required that the townspeople give up a few heretics, but they reacted by offering themselves for martyrdom, too.   

The Cathar stronghold of Albi

The Cathar stronghold of Albi

Beziers had become something of a focus for local heretics: these were the Cathars or Albigensians, who roamed northern Italy and the area of the Languedoc and the foothills of the Pyrenees. So many members of the aristocracy were Cathar sympathizers that in everything except name the area was a Cathar state.

Rather than being one large homogenous sect, this was a loose federation of several allied groups, many of which had their roots in the beliefs and practices of the Bogomils, named after the heretical priest Bogomil of Bulgaria. (The modern word ‘bugger’ derives from ‘bogomil’.) .

 Cathar being tortured

It is possible to reconstruct the Cathars’ curious and dedicated lives from scraps of records, from the more objective and apparently knowledgeable of their opposition, and even the oral tradition of the area: the Cathars believed they adhered to the beliefs and practices of the primitive, pre-Roman, Church: rejecting the authority and rule of the Vatican and the role of the priesthood. The heretics eschewed everything that was associated with the authority of the Church, to its rites and even the use of church buildings.   The Cathars believed in worshipping in private homes or in the open countryside, as the first Christians did in response to the preaching of the apostles.

Their regime was based on the all-consuming quest for personal purity, which they took to extremes - for example, favoring vegetarianism rather than pollute their bodies and souls by ingesting anything that had reproduced through sexual contact (although they did eat fish, believing that it propagated itself asexually). They aimed to achieve the status of parfait(e)s or perfecti, perfect beings, although many reserved that for their deathbeds. They travelled in twos, preaching and setting a good example to others through their own lives, which on

A ‘witch’ is burnt by the Inquisition

A ‘witch’ is burnt by the Inquisition

the whole they did so successfully as to earn themselves the nickname of ‘Les bonhommes’ (‘good men’ or ‘good people’) among the locals. The Cathars also returned to primitive Christianity in that they believed passionately in reincarnation - which gave a poignant, but ultimately optimistic edge to their mass martyrdoms - and rejected all forms of carnality.

Benjamin Walker, in his Gnosticism: Its History and Influence (1983), writes:

‘The Cathars were uncompromising opponents of the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy, the liturgy and the sacraments. They rejected the worship of the Virgin Mary, and of icons and images, including the cross. In their eyes the established Church was the “synagogue of Satan”, and the altar the mouth of hell. The corrupt, luxury-loving, avaricious and immoral popes and clergy were the lackeys of the devil. In the same tradition of dissent, they opposed the pomps and vanities of magistrates and civil authorities because they upheld and supported the Church.’



When the Cathars were at their peak, their chosen heartland of the Languedoc was also prosperous and thriving, with science, the arts and learned discourse flourishing in the courts and private houses. As Yuri Stoyanov writes in his The Hidden Tradition in Europe (1994): ‘In contrast to the prevalent climate in western Europe, Languedoc society was markedly more tolerant and cosmopolitan and had also attained a high degree of prosperity. With its distinctive and diverse culture Languedoc was a prominent centre of twelfth century “Renaissance”...’ It was also an area of unusual egalitarianism between the sexes - perhaps because the Cathars had both male and female preachers, as they believed Jesus had intended from the start. However, all of that Golden Age was to be lost for ever through a terrible, if strangely little-known, series of massacres.

 The Holy Grail

 The Holy Grail

By 1244 over 100,000 Cathars were slaughtered by the specially-called Albigensian Crusade (so named after the Cathar town of Albi), which began in 1208, in what was effectively the first act of European genocide- although this fact is rarely, if ever, taught in schools, even in France. Yet this crusade was remarkable for many reasons, not least because it involved Christians murdering other Christians in a Christian country on the Pope’s orders, and the dignity with which the thousands of Cathars met abominable torture and an agonising, fiery death. Indeed, they actively trained for it, using what may well have been Buddhist-like states of trance, the secrets of which were passed to them during their first initiations. Like very early Gnostic Christianity (see below), they had both exoteric and esoteric levels of membership, their greatest secrets being passed on in secret only to those who had already proved themselves worthy of them. (Unfortunately, those who were so impressed by the Cathars’ essential simplicity, faith and goodness that they sided with them against the Crusaders, often went to their deaths without the necessary training in pain control. This makes their conversion and conviction all the more impressive.)

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The Magdalene of the Heretics - Part I

Henry St Clair

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