If, like me, you always thought that the medieval period was made up of monks, peasants and boring manuscripts, then you would be partly right. However, there were also some bizarre sects with what can only be described as unusual (and somewhat hilarious) beliefs, which might just challenge how you see medieval monks, even just a little bit.
One of the most bizarre and radical sects to branch out from Christianity existed from the 12th Century in Southern France, and smaller versions were found in Northern Italy and Germany. They were called the Cathars, and they were so influential that law students in France still study the laws that were passed about them to this day.
The Cathars believed that there were two Gods, a ‘good’ God, who was divine and similar to the Christian God, and the ‘evil’ God, who created the world and all of the darkness/evil in it. However, the Cathars argued that within each person, their soul was made up of light particles, and when we die, those particles are released to join the ‘good’ God in heaven. The light particles also supposedly existed in water and watery fruits and vegetables, and so, by ingesting them and then releasing them by either burping or farting (yes, really), the Cathars could help these particles join God. Some might say a rather convenient excuse!
Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. In this group, women appear to be nearly as numerous as men and the Crusaders seem to give women equally harsh treatment for their beliefs.
In the medieval period, the lunar cycle was very misunderstood. The Cathars had their own explaination for the changing of the moon’s shape; it was where the light particles were stored as they left earth. A sort of M25 service station for souls, if you like. When the moon was full, the light particles would then travel to be with the ‘good’ God in Heaven. They also believed Jesus wasn’t a real human being, and that he just had the appearance of one.
The Cathars had a hierarchy, but it was very basic. It consisted of the ordinary men and women who believed, and then the most dedicated members, the Perfecti. The Perfecti lived an intensely religious life, as they abstained from meat, alcohol, sex and marriage and wore all black robes, so that they could bring themselves closer to the ‘good’ God’s realm of light, but unlike Catholic monks, they still lived among the community.
Why They Were a Problem?
Now you might think that with such strange beliefs, that they would be ignored or even just pointed and laughed at. This was not the case. The Cathars gained a huge number of followers, leading to them becoming a real problem for the Catholic Church.
Although a lot of what they said was very different from the official line of Christian teaching, it was their practices that directly affected the Catholic Church. The Perfecti led holy and pure lives and were active members of the community, which contrasted to the overly rich and sheltered lives of the clergy at the time. The Cathars also saw women as equal to men, and allowed them to become Perfecti and join in with ceremonies, which led to many women joining the sect as well. Therefore, the authority of the Church would be compromised, as people were listening and following these ‘unofficial’ leaders instead.
The Cathars, from Southern France, Northern Spain and Italy were radical Catholics systematically ‘exterminated’ by the Catholic Church for their heretical beliefs.
Southern France was also a problem for both the Catholic Church and the leaders of the time. It was almost an independent state, with its own language, which was a mix of French and Spanish (known as Occitan) and the nobles did not follow the orders of other nobility or even the King himself. So these pesky Cathars were creating even more of a divide for France.
What Was Done About Them?
With initial efforts by the Church being unsuccessful, a Crusade was launched against the Cathars by Pope Innocent III, in 1209. It was known as ‘The Albigensian Crusade’, because of the Cathars’ stronghold being in the town of Albi.
The Crusade caused many to turn against the Catholic Church, as it only highlighted how aggressive they were in comparison to the pure and holy Cathars. But force eventually (after 20 years) won, as many battles were fought against the nobles and towns that were thought to be sheltering Cathars.
This portrays the story of a disputation between St Dominic and the Cathars, in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St Dominic’s books were miraculously preserved from the flames.
The final stand off was at the castle of Montsegur in Toulouse. A small castle of that was impregnable; it also housed approximately 500 people, with 211 of them stranded Cathars for a whole 9 months in a tiny space! The whole crusade took much longer than expected, due to the support for the Cathars extending further than the Catholic Church ever dreamed it could. All of the Cathar sects died out within a few years, but their legacy still remains.
So next time you accidently burp at your nan’s 80th Birthday dinner, just calmly explain it’s those ‘light particles’ escaping!