Friday, March 29, 2013

Catharism, An Interesting Medieval Heresy

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

I want to cry out, but I don’t scream and I don’t shout,
And I feel so proud to be alive,
And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.

"Heretic Pride," The Mountain Goats

It's Good Friday (which, if you're interested, I've written about a little here), perhaps not the most utterly appropriate day to ponder heresy. Then again, maybe it's the best time.

The focus of today's post is a group called the Cathars, a medieval Christian heretical sect. They first came to my attention in an essay by Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite authors, who describes them thus:
Catharism seems to have flourished for about two centuries, and to have enjoyed the respect of those it did not convert, who were always the great majority. Its clergy, male and female equally and indifferently, were chosen out of the general Cathar population as people who lived godly lives, and were instructed and initiated as "good people" or "good Christians." History and their detractors called them "Perfecti." These people lived in the world, but as ascetics, refusing meat and wine and other comforts and luxuries. They wandered and preached, barefoot and simply clothed, always carrying their Bibles. When Rome first began to try to deal with the heresy, delegations were sent to preach to the people and to debate with the Perfecti, but without success because of their opponents' great mastery of Scripture. They had no churches, no images or symbols of any kind, no hierarchy. They were completely nonviolent, laying great stress on the love of enemies. They absolutely refused to take oaths. For a long time they were resolutely defended, and rarely betrayed, by people who were not themselves Cathars. (The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, pg. 215)
These people, to me, sounded almost too good to be true, too interesting to be real, and (in a way) too modern to be medieval. I wanted to know more, so I did some research, and here is what I found.

Cathars were a medieval religious group that operated in the south of France (in the region today called Languedoc) from the 12th to the 14th centuries. They regarded themselves as the true inheritors of the Christian faith, and opposed Catholic doctrine in some key ways. Catharism was a dualistic religion: they believed that there was a Good God, the creator of light and of human souls, and an Evil God, the creator of the material world, whch was evil. The God of the Hebrew Bible was thought of as being the Evil God, and the Good God was the God of the Christian New Testament. Cathars believed that human souls were reincarnated into new human or animal bodies after death, but that there was a way to break that cycle: through a ceremony called the consolamentum, a laying on of hands which would infuse the recipient with the Holy Spirit and free them from sin. If you received the consolamentum, you had to remain free from sin afterwards to go to be with the Good God when you died.

 Languedoc, seat of Catharism, in modern France

The result of this dualistic theology was that Cathars, though they considered themselves good Christians, behaved and thought quite differently from Catholics of the time. Because they thought that everything made of matter was evil, a creation of the Evil God, they did not believe in the sacraments of the church, which were administered through material objects like bread and wine (Eucharist) or water (baptism), and they abhorred religious symbols and icons for the same reason. The fact that a soul could be reincarnated into a male or a female body led them to reject any important distinction between the sexes, unlike the Catholic church, which at the time taught that women were inferior to men because the first sin was committed by the first woman, Eve. Since the Cathars thought that a soul could also be reincarnated into an animal, eating meat was considered sinful. Additionally, since reincarnation into new, evil material bodies was thought of as a real shame, Cathars thought that procreative sex was wrong, since a baby being born meant the imprisonment of a soul in a new body. This contrasted starkly with Catholic teaching, in which any sex besides procreative sex was seen as sinful.
Additionally, Cathars rejected violence in all its forms, and refused to take oaths based on a strict interpretation of Matthew 5:33-37, as well as on the idea that swearing to God was essentially a futile attempt to link the doings of the evil material world with a separate God of light, who wanted nothing to do with it. These policies made them stand out, particularly in a violent, feudal society: "Minor though this may seem to us now, medieval man thought otherwise, for the swearing of an oath was the contractual underpinning of early feudal society. It lent sacred weight to the existing order; no kingdom, estate, or bond of vassalage could be created without establishing a sworn link, mediated by the clergy, between the individual and the divine." (The Perfect Heresy, by Stephen O'Shea, pg. 12)

Cathars were divided into two groups, somewhat like priests and laypeople in Christianity, but largely without the hierarchy that distinction implies. The elect or "Perfects" were people who chose to undergo the consolamentum and then to live their lives free from sin, which meant adopting celibacy, vegetarianism, and pacifism, as well as refraining from taking oaths. The Perfects traveled the country, preaching the good news and earning a living by doing work, rather than accepting donations. The credentes or believers, on the other hand, were individuals who believed in the tenets of Catharism, but who did not choose to undergo the consolamentum and instead lived more or less ordinary medieval lives, apparently incorporating more or less of the Cathar creeds into their daily activities as they saw fit and were able. They were, for example, advised by the Perfects not to get married (because it involved taking oaths) and often formed unmarried couples instead. Sometimes, the believers would undergo the consolamentum immediately before death, in the hopes of escaping the reincarnation cycle without living a long ascetic life beforehand.

Languedoc and its major cities

Catharism spread throughout the southwest area of what is today known as France. At the time, it was an area controlled, somewhat poorly, by various counts and other nobles, and known as Languedoc after the language which was spoken there (the langue d'oc was the language where "oc" meant "yes," and would become modern Occitan, as opposed to the langue d'oïl, the language where "oïl" meant "yes," which would later develop into French, and was spoken in the north, in and around Paris). The nobility were dealing with the rise of the middle class of merchants, who were pushing for greater political freedom and control. This atmosphere of increased freedom was one of two big factors that allowed a heretical religion like Catharism to flourish. The other was the Church itself. The Catholic Church of the 12th-14th centuries was attempting to simultaneously acquire more worldly power (in the 11th century, Pope Gregory declared that he was the ultimate decider of who could legitimately rule the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the primary authority in the whole Church) and reform its corrupt and decadent tendencies, but doing so rather slowly and in an inept way. In a time when people increasingly heard that priests should be celibate, and that God loved the poor, but saw that priests were often fathers, or even married, and hoarded wealth for themselves, the example of the Cathar Perfects, who actually lived simple lives of poverty and chastity, made Catharism seem very attractive, and indeed seemed to confirm the Cathars' claim to be the legitimate church of Christ.

"The Massacre of the Albigensians," from the Chronicle of St. Denis

Eventually, though, the flourishing of Catharism ceased. The Popes knew what was happening, and in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III called down the first Crusade to ever be launched explicitly against a Christian sect, the Albigensian Crusade ("Albigensian" being just one of many outsider terms for Cathar; "Cathar" itself was one, which came from the Greek for "pure" and referred to the Cathar Perfects' claim to purity; the Perfects merely called themselves "good men" or "good Christians"). When this failed to fully exterminate them, another Pope invented the Inquisition in order to root them out completely.

The Cathars have been quite influential on Church and European history, for all that they were wiped out seven hundred years ago. The Inquisition was one, pretty horrifying, Church response to them, but another more positive one was the creation of Church orders like the Dominicans and the Fransiscans, who lived lives of poverty and chastity like the Cathar Perfects, ordained in the hopes that their example might lead people back to the faith. The Albigensian Crusade, which was intended solely to wipe out the Cathars, evolved into a political conflict that led to the consolidation of France into a single entity under the King living in Paris. Finally, note that the Cathars also were part of a groundswell of Christian religious dissent in the Middle Ages, a series of expressions of dissatisfaction with various aspects of the Church, which eventually culminated in the Protestant reforms and the Counter-Reformation, both undeniably important advances in how the Church thought about itself and interacted with the world. 

The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson
The Perfect Heresy, by Stephen O'Shea

1 comment:

  1. Mostly off topic, the linked essay refers to the Cathars in its final paragraph: