Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | FRANCE

In The Realm Of Castles And Crusades

The History Of The 'Heretical' Cathars Offers A Window Into A Boodstained But Beautiful Swath Of Southwest Countryside

March 19, 2000|TED BOTHA | Ted Botha is a writer based in New York. He last wrote for the magazine about bicycling through Scotland's Outer Hebrides

The talk over salade nioise and fromage de chevre was about ghosts. My English friend Christopher Neville informed me that two of them haunt his house in southern France, on the sunny terrace of which we were now having lunch. I don't normally believe in spirits, but it seemed wise to suspend disbelief for the moment, since I would soon be entering a region of sorcery and hidden Grails, where heretics once marched defiantly into the bonfires of bloodthirsty crusaders: the land of the Cathars. Christopher's ghosts were said to be knights from those medieval times. I don't know whether he began studying the Middle Ages because of the ghosts or whether the ghosts arrived one day because he had taken an unusually keen interest in the Cathars. I do know that his knowledge proved invaluable.

Two days after Christopher drew up an itinerary for us, I joined my friend Catherine Stock, an illustrator from New York, and we headed south to Cathar country. Our starting and finishing points would be two cities that had been famous centers of the Cathar heresy, Toulouse and Carcassonne. Along the way, we would stay at small country inns and take in a half dozen of the castles that had played a crucial role during a little-known era in a little-known part of France that lies tucked in the foothills of the Pyrenees. People lump this unsullied, relatively inexpensive area into the "Midi" that includes the more-famous Provence, but then pass it by to drive to Spain's Costa del Sol. We planned to linger, taking time for me to envision scenes from the Dark Ages, for Catherine to paint and for us both to dine on the region's subtle cuisine.

The Cathars, I had read, were a kind and gentle people who would have fit better into the diverse 21st century than the 13th. While the details of their complex belief system are still hotly debated, several fundamentals go uncontested: They were dualists (man is bad, the spirit good), they viewed the material world as corrupt, and they rejected certain important tenets of the powerful Catholic Church, including priests, the Trinity and the sacraments. The laying of hands, the consolamentum, was thought to transform believers into parfaits (the Perfects, or Good Christians), who were from then on expected to abstain from sex and meat. The popularity of this gnostic faith threatened the reign of Pope Innocent III. In 1208 he sent Simon de Montfort on a crusade against the heretics. The Albigensian crusade took its name from the town of Albi (later the birthplace of someone who couldn't have been less of a Cathar in spirit, the sybaritic artist Toulouse-Lautrec) and was followed 25 years later by the Inquisition. Together, these purges ensured the end of the Cathars, although not until 1321, when Dominican monks burned at the stake the last of them, a larger-than-life adulterer named Belibaste.

Why the Cathars thrived for at least a century probably owed as much to their location as to their strong convictions. Home was the Languedoc region, a center of learning that tolerated freer thought and was sympathetic to the religion. While Carcassonne fell in two weeks, Toulouse held out for years. It came under attack so many times that it now bears no resemblance to its former self. Christopher had told me as much: "Today the city stands for everything the Cathars were against. It's pure materialism."

*

Materialist or not, Toulouse is a town easy to like. On an early summer afternoon, Catherine and I sat at the Brasserie les Arcades on the Place du Capitole, surrounded by the wonderful deep-pink buildings that helped earn the town its nickname, Ville Rose. We had lunch while the Wednesday market pulsed in front of us: performance artists doing handstands, mimes in multicolored patchwork, and--seeing as it's still home to a respected university--a generous mix of students. It was easy to imagine how another small sect, if you can call it that, had flourished at the time of the Cathars--namely the troubadours. There was no connection, but they were both singularly focused. The one sought pure religion, the other pure love. Sang Raimon de Miraval, one of the most famous troubadours:

*

From Love come all my thoughts

I only trouble with Love

And all that is done for Love is good.

* The language of crooning was not French but Occitan, or langue d'oc, a related dialect from which this region took its name and that intolerant Parisian rulers eventually suppressed.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|