Sunday, February 08, 2015

Five years ago or thereabouts, I read a novel set in medieval Languedoc in southern France. It was a good book, but I’ve forgotton the title and the author’s name. I do remember the gist. The heroine was a Cathar princess who, with the whole population of her town, Carcassonne, was exiled and forced to hide in the wilds of the Pyrenees. She survived along with half a dozen of her fellow believers, certain that most of her townspeople had died. They had all been routed from their homes with nothing, naked or wearing only undergarments; no food, coin, livestock, household goods, farm implements, or even seeds. They fared better than the people of nearby Béziers, however. Everyone in that town was murdered. Everyone. I’m afraid I read this tale simply as a stirring, fantastic work of fiction, but I wanted to learn more about the Languedoc so I looked it up on Wikipedia. What I discovered knocked my socks off.
Expulsion of the inhabitants from Carcassone in 1209. Image taken from Grandes Chroniques de France. Circa 1415

I’d never heard of the Cathars, who were peaceful practitioners of religious beliefs that were heretical to the tenets of Christianity held by those in power. I read about the historical roots of their ideas and then I read this part:

“The Albigensian Crusade was (1209–1229) a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in Languedoc. The Crusade was prosecuted primarily by the French crown and promptly took on a political flavour, resulting in not only a significant reduction in the number of practising Cathars but also a realignment of the County of Toulouse, bringing it into the sphere of the French crown and diminishing the distinct regional culture and high level of influence of the Counts of Barcelona. The crusaders captured the small village of Servian and then headed for Béziers, arriving on 21 July 1209. Under the command of the papal legate, Arnaud-Amaury, they started to besiege the city, calling on the Catholics within to come out, and demanding that the Cathars surrender. Both groups refused. The city fell the following day when an abortive sortie was pursued back through the open gates. The entire population was slaughtered and the city burned to the ground. Contemporary sources give estimates of the number of dead ranging between 15,000 and 20,000. The latter figure appears in Arnaud-Amaury's report to the pope. The news of the disaster quickly spread and afterwards many settlements surrendered without a fight. According to the Cistercian writer Caesar of Heisterbach, Arnaud-Amaury, when asked by a crusader how to distinguish the Cathars from the Catholics, answered: "Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" – 

"Kill them [all]! Surely the Lord discerns which [ones] are his". 

On the other hand, the legate's own statement, in a letter to the pope in August 1209 (col.139), states:

while discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low degree and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying "to arms, to arms!", within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt, as divine vengeance miraculously…” (excerpted from the Wikipedia article on The Albigensian Crusade)

All the babies in Béziers, all the old people, even all the people who might have been faithful to the “true religion” were murdered in the course of a day’s work. A killing frenzy if ever there was one—perpetrated by Christians against Christians, Europeans against Europeans, armed against unarmed, and left utterly unpunished. There was no reprisal by any government. In those days, before the Reformation, before the American and French revolutions, before religious freedom was an idea that took hold, the Christian establishment and the ruling families reigned together. If there was argument, Religion won, because it had God on its side.  In today’s western world, massacres like the one in the Languedoc over religious beliefs no longer take place because the churches and the states have been separated. Today's dear Pope Francis, (or the head honcho of any religion in the West) should he lose his mind and decide to massacre everyone in say, Sienna, would not get far with his plans. I hope the secular and the sectarian are never reunited in my part of the world and I hope, for the sad people of the Middle East who are forced to live with governments commingled with religious ideology, that their situation changes for them one day. Life gets cheap when religious leaders have armies and they get good and angry.