Though almost no one refers to the entire medieval period as the "dark ages" anymore, the years from the fifth through the fifteenth century were often gloomy. Western Christendom battled Islam to the south and east, barbarians to the north and west, and plagues, famines, and feudal warfare at home. Then there was the problem of heresy, sprouting both local varieties and exotic foreign species.
Of the former strain, thirteenth-century Catharism was viewed as perhaps the most poisonous. At least it elicited the fiercest response. First the Cathars weathered a particularly vicious crusade: 20,000 people were slaughtered in the city of Beziers alone after the monk in charge of the assault, when asked how to distinguish heretics from Catholics, replied, "Kill them all, God will know his own." Surviving Cathars then became the original targets of the Inquisition.
The Cathars receive much nicer treatment from journalist Stephen O'Shea, who traces their history in his lively new book The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (Walker & Company). He labels them "a pacifist brand of Christianity embracing tolerance and poverty" and groups them with the pre-Protestant Waldensians as legitimate challenges to an authoritarian church. However, he also admits that they were "well and truly heretical, by every definition except their own." Let me just say that I appreciate his narrative more than his judgment.
There's no doubt that the Cathars, who called Languedoc (now southern France) home, were revolutionary. Dissatisfied with a church accumulating temporal wealth and authority, they adopted a gnostic dualism: matter was evil, and salvation lay in sloughing off the mortal coil after achieving perfection, which might require several reincarnations. Because matter was evil, everything associated with it was also evil, including creation (and therefore the Creator of the Old Testament, along with the Old Testament itself), procreation (and therefore sexual relations), and the Incarnation (they believed Christ had only a ghostly body). Other church teachings related to the material world, such as tithing, physical hell, the Resurrection, and the sanctity of marriage, were at best irrelevant, at worst pernicious.
O'Shea makes sure we understand the appeal of such notions to those deprived of property and privilege in the feudal system—especially women. "Not since the time of the gnostics had women had such a say in the affairs of the hereafter," he writes. "Simple credentes [Cathar believers who had not yet achieved perfection] could bask in the glory of their stronger sisters and, more important, take solace in the knowledge that they were not some sort of afterthought of the divine mind. In any event, the Evil One had created the world, so the shibboleths of its organization—including its sexual pecking order—were there to be endured, not endorsed."
While O'Shea can imagine the frustrations of the Cathars, he cannot comprehend, except in a political or economic sense, why the church came down so hard on them. He writes that the Cathar god, "unconcerned with the material, simply didn't care if you got into bed before getting married, had a Jew or Muslim for a friend, treated men and women as equals, or did anything else contrary to the teachings of the medieval Church." Obviously O'Shea doesn't care either, nor does he care what the Christian God might really be like. What interests O'Shea, and what he does a good job relating, is the fascinating story of the Cathars and their unorthodox beliefs, which also now interest groups as diverse as feminists, pacifists, New Agers, members of the Order of the Solar Temple, and French tourism promoters.
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY.
Read Catholics, Heretics and Heresy, an on-line book by Gilles C. H. Nullens, with detailed chapters on the Cathars and their survival in different forms and traditions.
The Perfect Heresy is available from amazon.com.
Previous Christian History Corners include:
All Together Now | What qualifies as an ecumenical council anyway? (Sept. 1, 2000)
Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage | How the government manipulated division in the Russian Orthodox Church. (Aug. 18, 2000)
Sacrifice at Sea | The story that wasn't in James Cameron's Titanic. (Aug. 11, 2000)
Colonial Soul | The Cross and The Tomahawk series examines our nation's past from many perspectives. (Aug. 4, 2000)
The Fifth Evangelist | Johann Sebastian Bach was a musician "who lived the Bible." (July 28, 2000)
How the Other Half Lived | Chronicling the forgotten gender in the Bible and church history. (July 21, 2000)
A Cure for Cliophobia | While not for "dummies" or "complete idiots," a new guide introduces church history to the beginner. (July 14, 2000)
New Stabs at Old Wounds | Why Northern Ireland doesn't always love a parade. (July 7, 2000)
Camp Fire | The earliest recorded Methodist camp meeting in America took place 200 years ago this week. (June 30, 2000)
For Better or Worse | The diaries of a frontier missionary couple reveal starkly differing perspectives. (June 23, 2000)
Like Father, Like Son | The Mather men followed the faith—and career paths—of their fathers. (June 16, 2000)
Agent of Grace | PBS's Bonhoeffer film shows us a theologian in action. (June 9, 2000)
Revive Us Again | Two recently translated books recount searches for recapturing Pentecost. (June 2, 2000)
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