A Fable for Our Time
A review of The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Albigensians, by Stephen O'Shea;
The Cathars, by Malcolm Barber;
The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars 1290 - 1329, by René Weis, and
The Other God, by Yuri Stoyanov.
The Cathars are fashionable these days. This movement of allegedly heretical Christian peasants and minor nobility drew the attention of suspicious religious authorities from the mid-twelfth to the mid-fourteenth centuries in the eastern Mediterranean lands of Languedoc, Catalonia, and Lombardy. They and the successful inquisitorial campaign against them have generated three new books in English and the expanded reissue of a classic volume on the Gnostic and dualistic doctrines ascribed to them.
The more that is published about the Albigensians—as the Cathars are also known— however, the less seems to be reliably known of them, and that is a problem for serious students. All that can firmly be stated is that bloody crusades were conducted against a supposed heresy, and that a large quantity of documentation assembled by their inquisitors is the only resource we have for study. Most of this information was extracted under duress, and it would seem obvious that discussions of the Albigensians based on such sources should be no more reliable than, say, a chronicle of Bolshevism derived from the confessions recited in the Moscow Trials or a history of the German Jews based on Nazi propaganda.
Were the Albigensians dualists, that is, proponents of a universe inhabited by two nearly equal forces—Good and Evil, God and Satan—eternally locked in a conflict to which humanity is a mere spectator? Did they represent a revival of Gnosticism, the religious movement that so influenced the Near East in the early Christian centuries? Were they antinomians who believed that life groans under the usurping authority of evil, and that resistance to established religious doctrine is, in fact, true morality? Were they connected with allegedly heretical, ostensibly dualist phenomena in Balkan Christendom—the Bulgarian Bogomils and the mysterious Bosnian Church?
Any serious discussion of the Albigensians must unfortunately begin with the recognition that none of these four seemingly essential questions can be definitively answered. In the absence of historical documents showing what the Albigensians thought and believed, writing about them in recent years has proceeded in two opposed and, it seems to me, equally problematical directions. On the one hand, books pullulate with fanciful imaginings, some of them clearly intended for the lower end of the mysticism market. On the other, volumes appear offering extensive descriptions of daily life in Languedoc, but telling us very little about the broader reality of the Albigensians and the crusades against them.
Stephen O'Shea's The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Albigensians  exemplifies the first approach. Although there are no primary source materials by Cathar adherents, this book is written in an active voice, with an affirmative attitude redolent of certitude. He portrays the Albigensians as they were perceived by their persecutors, but in more vivid detail.
For example, near the beginning of his narrative, O'Shea depicts a meeting in the village of St. Félix de Caraman in May, 1167, of "dualist grandees—heresiarchs—from distant lands… gathered… to talk openly, without fear… at a great conclave in the castle of a local noble." The townspeople, we are told, "no doubt greeted the robed heresiarchs by bowing deeply and reciting a prayer… known as the melioramentum [which] marked the supplicants as believers in the Cathar message." Further, the visitors to St. Félix were "living saints… equal in stature… to Jesus' apostles." There follows a description of this subversive assembly, which included a certain Nicetas, "whose identity has never been fully established, [but] most probably the bishop of Constantinople for the Bogomil faith."
Such deliberate ambiguities mask the unfortunate fact that this and other narratives like it fly under false colors. This is not history, not even a popularization of history; it is fiction, but of a special kind. Rather than composing a novelistic tale derived from established historical events and personages, O'Shea has fabricated an "historical" text based in great part on barely known and dimly perceived legends, beliefs, and accusations, filtered through secondary, tertiary, and even more remote sources. O'Shea's book is profusely footnoted. But when we consult the notes for the vignette above we find that the only record of the St. Félix assembly was composed in the seventeenth century, or a half millennium after the fact, supposedly from a lost document of 1223. The details of ritual and belief are unsourced, aside from a reference to a doctoral dissertation, a full entry for which is missing from the "selected bibliography."
According to the body of inquisitorial accusations and creative interpretations on which O'Shea has drawn, thousands of Christian peasants in Languedoc had committed themselves to a radical reinterpretation of their faith. They embraced dualism and antinomianism, professing that Satan had equal power with God and that the material world, including the church hierarchy, was ruled by the Evil One. Further, their theory of creation identified Satan with the God of the Old Testament— which scripture they rejected. In an additional Gnostic shading, they wavered between rejecting the physicality of Jesus and merely denying the reality of his Passion, claiming that human incarnation of the divine was impossible. The dualist or Manichaean and Gnostic elements of the Albigensian heresy are conceived as having survived in some underground form through hundreds of years from the first Christian centuries and to have arrived in Languedoc from across a relatively immense geographical reach since the traditional area of influence of the religion of Mani and the Gnostic sects was Persia.
Two other presumptive aspects of Catharism must be mentioned. The first is the purported adoption of extremely ascetic habits; the Albigensians are said to have sworn off all the activities associated with the material world, including sexual intercourse, marriage, procreation, and the consumption of meat. The second is the development of rituals, above all the so-called endura, or fasting on one's deathbed, and the consolamentum or initiation into elite or "perfect" ranking.
In fact, the lack of information makes the Albigensians the "perfect" topic for historical writing in a period like our own, when traditional rules of inquiry into the past have been, to a considerable degree, abandoned. An academic historical cadre that has surrendered itself to such overriding interests as homosexuality among pirates or the defense of American Communism as an indigenous, patriotic phenomenon will have no problem accepting the existence, without adequate documentation, of a medieval heresy. By a most peculiar irony, academics who believe the American Communists were falsely accused of treason readily embrace the charges advanced by inquisitors six-hundred years ago.
All these habits of mind on display in the trade version of O'Shea are equally visible in the work of Malcolm Barber, a professor of history at the University of Reading, whose volume  appears in a series for use in schools. Both authors are on considerably firmer ground when they take up the crusades launched against the purported heretics and the accompanying wars between religious authorities and nobles. It is beyond argument that in 1208 a papal representative, Peter of Castelnau, a Cistercian who had participated in a nonviolent campaign to reinforce church authority in Languedoc, was murdered. After several years of preaching, he had engaged in a controversy with a local lord, Raymond VI of Toulouse, whom he demanded should initiate the repression of alleged heretics in his domain. Raymond refused flatly; he, like King Peter II of Aragon, had slight interest in the harassment of his subjects on religious pretexts. Peter of Castelnau then excommunicated Raymond: the probable cause of his assassination.
Peter of Castelnau was survived by his superior in his efforts, Arnau Amalric, head of the Cistercian order. Within months of Peter of Castelnau's death, Arnau was appointed by Pope Innocent III to head a crusade against the Albigensians. There ensued two decades of chaos in Languedoc, as the crusaders sacked cities, wrecked castles, and tormented and burned accused offenders. In 1209, Arnau Amalric is said to have committed the one act widely recalled from the history of the crusade: in the brutal seizure of the town of Béziers, he was supposedly asked how to distinguish the loyal Christians from the heretics. He replied, "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" ("Kill all of them. God will know his own").
But the massacre at Béziers brings up yet another analytical problem in dealing with the crusade against the Albigensians. As O'Shea indicates, without clearly understanding it, Béziers, like Barcelona and other cities of the eastern Mediterranean littoral, had evolved a strong, autonomous municipal identity; its civic councilors were unwilling to bend to the demands of either aristocrats or clerics. Here is a major gap in virtually all of these studies: consideration of the probability that the Albigensian crusades had, in fact, very little to do with elusive religious differences and everything to do with rivalries between the rising towns, and the rural nobles allied with them, and a religious hierarchy avid to increase its political control and economic assets. Incredibly enough, almost none of the writers on the "Cathar phenomenon" seem to have considered this simple elucidation of the whole sequence of events, which would explain another aspect of the matter, also essentially unaddressed: the protection of the alleged heretics by local rulers of unquestioned piety, such as the Aragonese Peter II, famed for crusading against Muslims in Spain.
Why should this be? Mainly, I think, because warfare between competing feudal classes is a great deal more prosaic than legends of occult resistance to an established church. Few modern readers, aside from specialists, have much interest in the constitutional arrangements inhering to municipal powers in the late medieval period— although it should be noted that in Spain, where the tradition of local communalism remains extremely strong, such topics are a well-known feature of popular culture.
And even if we believe that the peasants of Languedoc had in fact embraced certain heterodox religious ideas, could this not also be explained by simpler and more convincing hypotheses than the survival of Asiatic theosophies, and their sudden reemergence, distant in time and place from their origins? The foundation for such a theory is the "borderland effect." Three of the European areas in which dualist and Gnostic atavisms are presumed to have thrived—Languedoc and Catalonia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Bulgaria and Macedonia—were, and to a great extent remain, classic frontier zones. The first and last stood for centuries between Christian and Muslim spheres of influence, while Bosnia and Hercegovina appeared astride the line dividing the Catholic and Orthodox dispensations, and then, like the others, at the outer wall of Christendom faced with Islamic expansion.
Borderlands are nearly always places of upheaval and ferment. Symbolic of the first part of this syndrome, we need only consider the tragedy of Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War and the dolorous appearance of Bosnia and Macedonia in more recent headlines. While the spiritual and intellectual attainments of the Balkan territories are obscure to the outer world, the cultural achievements of Catalonia, the land of Picasso, Miró, Gaudí, and Dalí, require no elaboration. What historically distinguished Languedoc and Catalonia was immense commercial power, based on the long and substantial trade between the Christian domains and Islamic Spain. Given such wealth, it may have been in some manner predictable that the burghers and nobles of the region would assert their independence. Thus, Languedoc appears as a sort of medieval California, prosperous from trade, open to foreign influences, and indeed rich and freethinking to a point where it seems to have embraced a kind of moral relativism.
Such a condition would also allow another option in explaining the Albigensian epic ignored by virtually all the more recent writers: the possibility of Muslim influence on the emergence of variant Christian practices. Basing his analysis on solid academic research, the Swiss essayist Denis de Rougemont in his pioneering Love in the Western World (rev. ed. 1983) marked out for a wider audience the path by which Islamic love poetry was transformed into troubadour verse. As is visible in nearly all commentaries on the Cathars, the troubadours have entered the popular understanding as the literary beneficiaries of the heretics' noble protectors.
But it is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, whose Montaillou (1978) inaugurated the tradition of filling the void of sure knowledge about the Albigensians with extraordinarily detailed sociological inventories, who may have provided a foundation for the most useful theory of the origin of Cathar heterodoxies. He observed that shepherds from Montaillou functioned in a "community of culture, at once Moorish, Andalusian, Catalan, and Occitan," in which the local and migrant peasants of Languedoc "were involved at so many levels." Unlike medieval Christendom, the Islamic world of that epoch was a vast theater of esoteric discourse, ranging from the Gnostic tendencies visible in Sunni doctrine to lightly camouflaged expressions of dualism in the works of distinguished Sufis. Such Christian philosophers as the fourteenth-century Mallorcan polymath Ramón Lull expressed their admiration for the Islamic mystical classics—as did the influential kabbalistic rabbis of the Jewish communities that flourished in Languedoc contemporaneously with the troubadours. But effectively studying such phenomena requires rare—thouogh not hierophantic—knowledge and discipline and a certain sympathy for Islamic civilization.
For the ordinary reader, alongside the "occultist" volumes of O'Shea and Barber are the works like Montaillou that try to fill the factual vacuum with quotidian details and encyclopedic accounts of heresies. The latest example is The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars by René Weis, a professor of English literature at University College, London.  This volume is essentially a continuation of Montaillou, though lacking its brilliance.
The most useful exemplar of the dictionary genre is, without doubt, the new edition of a compendious survey of dualism by the Bulgarian scholar Yuri Stoyanov which has been reissued under the title The Other God.  This work evinces so extraordinary a reach of research as to glut the reader with data, ranging to the creation myths of the most obscure Eurasian nomads, the sacred classics of the pre-Islamic Persians, and forgotten novelties of Orthodox Christian theology. While Stoyanov's volume belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in these topics, his sweep of erudition does not compensate for his sharing in the weaknesses common to his competitors: excessive confidence in the veridical nature of the account of Christian non-conformity and an indifference to Islam—the latter predictable in a scholar from a Slavic Orthodox environment.
What significance do the Cathars possess today? We can sympathize with the quest of the peasants, nobles, and urban citizens of Languedoc for autonomy, especially in the intellectual realm. But if there is a parallel for our time, it seems an ominous one: these medieval folk may have ceased to care whether Christians or Muslims ruled over them, so long as they were left to their own pursuits. In that, some may believe they were wrong. Others, however, will not concur. For myself, I am not yet ready to decide.