Did the Cathars Exist?

By Dr Rebecca Rist


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Who were the Cathars? Traditionally they have been seen as dissenters from Catholic doctrine living in the south of France and Northern Italy during the High Middle Ages. Cathar beliefs were supposed to derive from Bogomilism, a form of dualism originating in Bulgaria which probably spread to the Byzantine Empire during the eleventh century, before making its way to the West where we find it in the Rhineland by the mid twelfth century. Historians have argued that from the 1150s onwards, Catharism became particularly deeply rooted in south of France and northern Italy and quite likely in other parts of Europe too.

According to contemporary clerical sources, the Cathar faith was a moral and metaphysical dualism. The Cathar felt himself alien from the world about him, and sought to sever his connections with it and thus purify himself morally: the name ‘Cathar’ seems to have been derived from the Greek ‘katharoi’ meaning ‘the pure’. By dualism Cathars explained the corruption of the world through a distinction between good and evil principles in the universe. They believed in a good God who had created the spiritual order and an evil spirit or Satan who had created the visible, material world. Many historians have suggested that Cathar heresy took two forms: Mitigated Catharism: which was closer to orthodox Christianity in holding a belief in one God and Lucifer – an evil fallen angel, and Unmitigated Catharism: absolute dualism which espoused a theory of two gods, one in charge of the spiritual (good) world and one in charge of the material (evil) world.

Hence according to this traditional account, the Cathars held a belief that the souls of men, created by the good God, were imprisoned in bodies of flesh by the evil principle and were doomed to an eternal round of reincarnation; they also condemned the validity of Catholic sacraments. The Consolamentum (meaning ‘consoling’) – baptism in the spirit by the laying on of hands was a sacrament administered only to fully instructed adults or to the dying; only those who had received it were full members of the Church and were known as ‘perfecti’ (‘perfect ones’) rather than merely ‘credentes’ (‘believers’). As part of their renunciation of the evil material world, the ‘perfecti’ renounced all property, sexual activity including in marriage and all social ties, while at the same time abstaining from eating meat and other animal products such as milk, eggs, cheese, refusing to tell lies, swear oaths or take the life of any warm blooded animal. They rejected infant baptism, the Mass, confession, extreme unction, and the Old Testament, believing its god to be the evil creator of the material universe, whereas the good god of the New Testament was the loving creator of souls. So their beliefs were anti-sacramental, anti-clerical and – since they disdained all medieval ‘feudal’ ties – counter-cultural. According to some contemporary sources the Cathars had a strong hierarchical organisation, with bishops ruling over territorial dioceses, each subdivided into smaller dioceses presided over by deacons. In his book The Cathars (1998), drawing on contemporary references to the Cathar rite of the Consolamentum by which ‘credentes’ became ‘perfecti’, Malcolm Lambert argued that the Cathar sect had a definite hierarchy, although it was not as sophisticated as its rival, the Catholic Church. He based this evidence on the fact that Inquisition and clerical sources referred to Cathar leaders as ‘perfecti’, even though they referred to themselves only as ‘the good men’ or ‘the good Christians’.

In recent years there has been much debate about the origins of the medieval phenomenon which historians continue to call ‘Catharism’. Was it a real heresy with Balkans origins, or rather a construct of western medieval culture whose authorities wanted to persecute religious dissidents – what the historian Robert Moore has termed a ‘persecuting society’, or could it have been both? Some historians have even denied that there was a recognisable group of heretics in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries who were called ‘Cathars’, arguing that such a group never existed but was rather an invention of medieval theologians and clergymen.

Let us glance at the historiography of this ‘heresy debate’. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, most historians considered the clerical literature that documented the Cathar heresy to be a factual account which represented the true beliefs of a distinct group of heretics. They followed the accounts of medieval clergy in portraying the Cathars as a unified anti-ecclesiastical group composed of an established hierarchy and distinct theology whose origins were derived from the Manichaean heresy of the ancient world against whom St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) had preached. So, for example, in A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1887), the historian Henry Charles Lea depicted the Cathars as a sect which, having been founded by Mani in the third century BC, was transposed to Western Europe in the twelfth.

From the 1950s onwards, ‘revisionist’ historians began to question the accuracy of this depiction of Cathar practices and theology which was derived almost entirely from polemical sources written by the clergy – those who could read and write in medieval Europe – and who they pointed out were likely to be unfriendly to those who did not espouse orthodox Catholic doctrine. So, for example, in Le Catharisme: La Religion des Cathares (1976), Jean Duvernoy questioned information about the heresy detailed in medieval sources and the premise of a unified Cathar Church which was based on the fact that its supposed adherents espoused Manichaeanism. He suggested that those accused of participation in an organized dualist sect were probably not opposed to Catholic theology per se but rather anti-clerical dissenters.

In The Formation of a Persecuting Society published in 1987, Robert Moore revolutionized this revisionist approach. Arguing that in times of instability and faction fighting the majority will unify around a common enemy and that the ‘Other’, the outsiders of society, are likely to craft their identity in response to the labels and characteristics applied to them by this majority, he argued that the Catholic Church, in the aftermath of the Investiture Contest and the programme of reform of the eleventh-century papacy, deliberately created the threat of heretical ‘Cathars,’ who were in fact merely scattered dissidents, isolated from mainstream society, who adopted Manichaeanism to define themselves. Not only did Moore agree with the idea that medieval clergymen had overemphasised the structure of Catharism, but he also claimed that, although heretics existed, the Church had helped to manufacture their significance. Scholars such as Mark Pegg in A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (2008) have been influenced by such interpretations and gone even further, claiming that there never was a Cathar heresy at all.

In response to such interpretations which have provoked much debate – some of it very heated – many historians of heresy began to question if such revisionists had swung the pendulum too far back from the traditional reading of medieval polemical texts. Nevertheless, although some scholars continued to refer to the Cathars as neo-Manichaeans, thereby identifying the heresy directly with the Manichaeans of the Ancient World, others began to deconstruct the narratives of the clerical texts by comparing and contrasting them wherever possible with other sources.

Claire Taylor, summarising the ‘heresy debate’ in her work Heresy in Medieval France: Dualism in the Aquitaine and the Agenais 1000-1249 (2011), explained how traditionally historians, noting features of the sources that appeared to resemble dualism, considered the heresy to be a form of dualism and therefore a form of Bogomilism. By contrast recently, discussing the sources in a structural context, historians have focussed on social origins to explain dissent. Taylor also emphasised that such revisionists of the dualist thesis should not be dismissed and called for a ‘post-revisionism’. In Heresy and Heretics in the Thirteenth Century: The Textual Representations (2013), Lucy Sackville provided a detailed history of the ‘revisionist’ historiography, and used the term ‘deconstruction’ to explain their methods, but also argued against the ‘revisionist’ idea that there was no cohesive intellectual Cathar theology. She pointed to the faulty logic of claiming that, although ‘revisionists’ rightly point to the Cathars’ opaque origins and their branding as ‘Manichaeans’ this means that we should disregard all evidence supporting their existence. Rather, she argued that, however the Cathars came into existence, there is plentiful evidence that by the thirteenth century their heresy had an organised, systematic and intellectually-based theology.

I would agree with these historians that, although medieval scholars, clergymen and theologians may have over emphasised their unity and coherence, and exaggerated the threat they posed to the Catholic Church, there is undoubted evidence for Cathars. I would also argue that there are serious flaws in the ‘revisionist’ or ‘de-constructionist’ argument. To claim that an organisation invented or constructed a heresy – in this instance that the Catholic Church ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ the Cathar heresy – may arise if historians fail to take into account a procedure which medieval clergy widely used: namely to attack what the attacker (the Church) saw as the logical conclusion of the position attacked (a neatly packaged Cathar heresy) rather than necessarily what the attacked (the Cathars) actually said. Yet this does not mean that Cathars – those who espoused beliefs fundamentally at odds with Catholic Christianity – never existed.

There are also other reasons to be sceptical of the revisionist approach. In The Formation of a Persecuting Society, Moore argued that the overriding reason why these heretics and other minority groups began to be persecuted from the eleventh century onwards was that majority society, and in particular a literate and therefore élite social group, could assert and consolidate its own power by defining itself against the ‘Other’. Yet this interpretation failed sufficiently to take into account the papacy’s genuine fear as to what the effect of the spread of heresy in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries would have on Christianity. Although, for example, historians dispute the actual number of heretics in the south of France, their correspondence leaves us in no doubt that popes were greatly alarmed and horrified by what they saw, correctly or incorrectly, as a real threat to the orthodox teachings of Catholic Christianity in the West.

Papal fears were echoed by a large number of the Western European clergy in their preaching and by canon lawyers and theologians in their writings. Some of these men may indeed have worried that, if heretics, complained about the oppressive hierarchy of the Church, their own authority would be questioned. Hence undoubtedly power plays by church authorities played their part – it would be very surprising if they did not. But for many clergy there is no need to believe that they were only, or even primarily, concerned with power, nor that their motives were only, nor even primarily, cynical. Their overriding spiritual concern as clergymen was that the truth of Christianity, which they believed the Church had safeguarded for centuries, would be undermined by heretical doctrines.

Here I would also note the influence of popular fiction and the idea that the Cathars were ultimately derived from quasi-Neoplatonists who sprang from Christian Gnostic sects or even Zoroastrianism. Hence ideas of dualism and the immortal soul’s return to its divine source upon death were transmitted from Gnostics to Manichaeans to Messalians to Paulicians to Bogomils, and finally to the Cathars.

In The Cathars: Dualist Heretics of the Languedoc in the High Middle Ages (2000), Malcolm Barber discussed how some scholars have argued against the idea that any early Christian sect prior to the Paulicians, established in the seventh century, had a dualist foundation. Yet we know that semi-Christian Gnosticisms of a dualist type go back to the second century CE and that this was recognized by pagans as well as Christians. Thus Porphyry (c.234-c.305 CE), the editor, entitled Ennead 2.9 of Plotinus: “Against the Gnostics or those who think the Creator of the Universe is evil”. Plotinus (c.204/5-270 CE) certainly had a wide spectrum of Gnostics in his sight and almost certainly that would have included Christian as well as pagan ones. Indeed many early Gnostics also thought of themselves as “real” Christians. All this has led some historians to agree that the commonalities between Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars are too similar to be coincidental, but also to state that is impossible to verify transmission from the existing primary sources.

What shall we draw from such debates? I am inclined to the view that the ultimate origins of ‘Catharism’ do lie with the Manichaeans. Mani’s religion was the last and most successful of the great ancient semi-Christian dualisms. When one surveys the scholarship on Manichaeanism one realizes just what an enormous amount of the ancient known world, was – however briefly – Manichaean. Furthermore, the religion of Mani extended well beyond the ancient world as we know it – there were lots of Manichaeans as far as China – and for quite a long time. The detailed food prescriptions and the ‘perfecti’-‘credentes’ distinction also appear just too close to Manichaean practices to be coincidental: for Mani the ‘credentes’ were called ‘audientes’ – among whom St Augustine of Hippo counted himself when he belonged to the sect. So it does seem quite possible that the dualism in ‘Catharism’ derived ultimately from this source, though how it reached the Cathars – or rather in the first instance the Bogomils – remains uncertain. Even more scholarship is needed in this area.

I also agree that the medieval Church, following St Augustine, adopted the attitude of many ancient thinkers in looking at the logical conclusions of a heretical system. Yet that precisely might give one a better ‘system’ but would NOT explain matters of ‘church’ organisation. So, for example, some historians have suggested that Pelagianism was invented by St Augustine, but this should not mean that there were no Pelagians, or that all Pelagians reached the logical conclusions Augustine gave them. Rather what Augustine did was to point out where one must logically finish up if you start along a certain road. Nevertheless, one should also stress that this in itself tells us nothing about the social structure of Pelagianism. And of course the Cathar-Pelagian parallel will itself only go so far until it breaks down, because the Pelagians insisted they were Catholics: the funerary inscription of Julian of Eclanum (c.386–c.455 CE) ran: ‘here lies Julian, the Catholic bishop’.

In conclusion I would argue that contemporary sources, whatever their limitations, failings, sub-texts, projections and biases, can and do help us to build up a picture of Cathars and their beliefs. One way to learn more about what the Church thought about them, is to examine what clerical sources themselves say about heresy and heretics, as well as the decrees of Lateran III (1179) and Lateran IV (1215), the two great ecumenical councils of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and the correspondence of medieval popes. Such primary sources are not necessarily the best place to find information on specific beliefs and practices and the historian also needs to look elsewhere, to other types of sources, to gain a more rounded picture of the Cathars. It is always a shame that we do not have more evidence from the perspective of those accused of heresy. Nevertheless, papal documents are particularly important primary sources for the study of the Cathars, because they tell us so much about the ‘official’ view of the medieval Church as dictated from its spiritual centre: Rome.


The southern-French tourism industry can breathe easy: the Cathars did exist.

Dr Rebecca Rist is Associate Professor in Religious History at the University of Reading


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1 Response to Did the Cathars Exist?

  1. wendon74 says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Rubber Boots.

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