The Albigenses: Bearers of a Bygone Wisdom-Tradition

By Arne Wettermark

Part One

In the early part of the 13th century, the sunny south of France was beginning to slip out of the embrace of the church. The latter's power was seriously threatened. From Bordeaux to Marseilles, from the Pyrenees to Auvergne, heretics were active in different sects and beliefs -- "false prophets," described by their antagonists as follows:

They claim to lead apostolic lives ... They preach without ceasing, go barefoot . . . They will not accept money, eat no meat and drink no wine, content with the simplest food. They consider alms of no value, since no one should possess anything. They refuse the holy sacraments, consider divine services unnecessary, and declare themselves ready to suffer and die for their beliefs. They pretend to do miracles . . . -- Histoire de l'Inquisition au moyen age, 2 vols., Jean Guiraud

Already in the middle of the 12th century the holy Bernard of Clairvaux had deplored the progress of the heretics, and somewhat later Raymond V, Count of Toulouse, had complained: "Heresy has penetrated everywhere. It has sown discord in the homes, dividing man and wife, father and son, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Even the priests have been infected. The churches stand idle and fall into ruins. The foremost men of the country have been dragged in. The masses have followed their example; I neither dare nor can halt the evil."

The reason that the church had lost its grip on the souls was bound in with the deplorable moral condition of the priests; and that all of this should take place in the south of France was hardly surprising. This area had long been the fertile soil of many cultures: Druid, Roman, Arabian, Jewish, Christian, each of which had set its seal on the land and brought about an extraordinary receptivity to spiritual impulses.

It is no coincidence that the swastika, a symbol rich in occult meaning, may be found here in many places carved on road markers and rocks. In Toulouse there was still to be seen at the end of the 19th century (and may perhaps still be seen today) the remains of a Druidic temple. H. P. Blavatsky writes that the Druids "were connected, in their esoteric teachings, with the universal Wisdom Religion" (The Secret Doctrine, II, 756) and that their priests were "initiated masons." Until the year 507, the Western Goths had their capital in Toulouse after the fall in 419 of the Roman Empire. They held an Arianism steeped in Manichaeism, i.e. they denied the Godhood of Christ and rejected the dogma of the Trinity. Hence they were heretics on an important point, according to Catholic terminology. A few centuries later the Saracen invaders had spread Arabic culture in these parts. Owing to the subsequent crusades, the numerous pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher and the Frankish kingdom founded 1099 in Jerusalem, the Mediterranean countries were in constant contact with the Orient. These factors, as well as the West-Goths' Arianism and also the spiritual influences stemming from the Saracen period, should be taken into account when we trace the roots of the heresy in the south of France at the beginning of the 13th century.

During succeeding centuries, the political, economic and social conditions in southern France, its geographic position, the crusades and the active trade relations with foreign lands, all this had broadened the perspective and created a favorable atmosphere for the exchange of both thought and goods. Highways built by the Romans linked the cities, and along these roads contact was made with anti-Catholic northern Italy and also rich Moslem Spain. A mystical brotherhood, the so-called Bridge-builders, was active in improving the communications system. The Mediterranean coast cities Narbonne, Montpellier, Marseilles, and their branches in widely separate parts of the world, carried on a farflung commerce. The Jews especially distinguished themselves in this field, for they constituted a link between the Arabs and the Christians. From the Orient came costly goods, spices, precious stones, perfumes, rugs, musical instruments. Within the country were produced soaps, cloth and perfumes. Trade and industry created a high degree of prosperity. The guilds were powerful and the burghers in the cities enjoyed communal rights, unknown in other parts of France. Feudalism was far from marked, and serfdom as known in the northern parts did not exist. A large part of the aristocracy had embraced the heretical teachings -- whether from conviction, or in the hope of being able to take over the riches of the church.

Not only the material but likewise the spiritual culture was high. The nobility favored art and science and the Provencal literature had attained a fine flowering by the middle of the 12th century, which notably coincides with the liveliest period of heresy. From castle to castle the troubadours journeyed, honoring in symbolic song a singularly beautiful woman, Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, later called Beatrice by Dante -- the troubadours, whose connection with the Arab ideal of knighthood must not be forgotten.

From various sources the ancient wisdom streamed into the consciousness of a receptive populace. These eternal truths were spread by men, who in Spain had dwelt in Toledo, the city of occult science above all others, or who had traveled in the Orient on sundry business -- crusaders, pilgrims, merchants -- and who now returned home either over the Balkans or northern Italy, or by sea via the ports of the Mediterranean.

People were used to thinking freely. Each one might practice his religion without interference from the authorities. The synagogue stood peaceably beside the Christian church and in some areas, if we may believe Guiraud (op. cit., p. 41), heretics and Catholics used the same building for their meetings.

There were great possibilities for those who wanted to acquire inner knowledge. In the larger cities there was access to the works of Aristotle and Plato, translated from the Arabic. They could read the New Testament in their own language, and it contained non-Catholic commentaries, or buy little pamphlets called schedulae, containing extracts from Holy Writ. In Toulouse they could study medicine from Jews and philosophy from Arabs or attend public meetings where Catholic and heretical teachings confronted each other.

Among the heretics who were at this time scattered over the south of France, the Cathars, "the pure" (the word no doubt adapted from the Greek catharsis), known to the common people as "bougres" (Bulgars) were by far the most influential. The appellations Manichaeans, Paulines, Publicans, Patarenes, Texerantes (weavers) and later Albigenses are also found in the records. Under these names, especially the last named, were also comprised other sects incompatible with the papal church, among them the Waldenses, whose beliefs rested on the original Christian fundamentals. When referring to the Albigenses, however, we have in mind only the so-called Cathars specifically.

The Cathars' Eastern teachings appear to have come mainly from the Bulgarian Bogomils, although some of their ideas also reached southern France from Spain, where Manichaeism had penetrated via North Africa and found a receptive soil under the tolerant jurisdiction of the Arabs. The Bogomils seem to have been the spiritual heirs of the Gnostic Paulines, who claimed to follow Christ and the apostle Paul as opposed to the followers of the Catholic pope who sat in the chair of Peter. Here may be traced the antagonism between Peter and Paul. The Paulines are kin to the Manichaeans combated by Augustine. In this connection it would be well to mention that the Cathars are sometimes called Manichaeans in the contemporary records.

Catharism had come to France already at the beginning of the 11th century through students and merchants. A. Luchaire, in his book Innocent III (Paris, 1905) tells how the first preacher-groups were formed in Montpellier, Narbonne and Marseilles. "Thence they wandered from fair to fair, castle to castle, extending their journeyings to the Pyrenees, Toulouse and Agen. Finding takers for their beliefs as well as their wares, they converted nobles, burghers, and farmers . . . "

The infiltration of the Cathars is an interesting chapter in the history of southern France. Dressed in long black robes and with the New Testament tucked into a leather pouch, they wandered about with the sole purpose of awakening the Inner God in those they met and easing the pain of both soul and body among highborn and lowly alike. They were received everywhere, had access to all strata of society. Likewise esteemed as healers and spiritual guides, they were often called to deathbeds and, by virtue of the spiritual force they radiated, they helped many in their last moments. Herein lay one of the causes of their influence not least among the poor.

Another was their pure life, admitted even by their opponents. They were looked up to and people were drawn to them, knowing well that they embodied an ideal that to most people was unattainable. A third cause was undoubtedly their teachings. For example, they declared: "There is no hell, no other purgatory but on earth, no everlasting damnation." Such words must, indeed, have been sweet music to the ears of those who had lived in terror of the doomsday preachments of the papal church.

The Cathars combined an inner religiosity with a sense of the demands of practical life. The realistic burghers were their allies; not only did they win admission to the guilds, which in all ages were channels for theosophic thought, but they also opened numerous workshops where they taught the youth the teachings of Catharism, along with the secrets of the trade. Guiraud says (p. 48) that most of the guilds gradually attached to themselves these teachings and points out that in the Languedoc dialects of that area at the beginning of the 13th century the terms "tisserand" (weaver) and Cather were interchangeable, "for so great was the number of masters and apprentices under the leadership of the Cathars." They were also called Patarenes, mainly in northern Italy. It has been supposed that this word stems from the Delphic "pates," rags, one of their items of merchandise. From rags paper is made, as is well known. There are grounds here for tracing a connection between these Patarenes and the flourishing paper industry in the south of France, which according to H. Bayley (A New Light on the Renaissance, London, 1900) was in the hands of the Cathars. Bayley also shows how the symbols of Catharism were spread after the days of the persecution by means of watermarks impressed in different types of paper.

The Cathar teachings were disseminated in other ways as well. In the cities they operated so-called heretic-houses, a sort of combination school and hostel, where meetings were held and where visitors to the city might put up. They founded numerous convents for both men and women, actually seminaries where children and adults were received and prepared for consolamentum, the Cathar initiation. They were on good terms with the Benedictine convent at Soreze, which should be noted inasmuch as certain Catholic convents served during the Middle Ages as culture centers where the ancient wisdom bloomed in secret.

The connection between the Cathars and the troubadours is a question which we can only surmise. We do know that among the troubadours there was an inner circle which possessed profound knowledge. The Cathars seem to have belonged to this circle.

The influence of the Cathars grew with time and they could by degrees organize their own churches in different towns such as Toulouse, Carcasonne and Albi, probably according to the patterns of the Bogomil mother church in the Near East, thereby creating a firm organization which naturally simplified their further progress.

In 1167 they called a church meeting at S. Felix de Caraman, a suburb of Toulouse, the home of hereticism. It was held under the leadership of a Bulgar named Nicetas, bishop of the church in Constantinople. According to Maurice Magre (Magiciens et Illumines, p. 52), Nicetas left for Sicily in connection with his stay in Toulouse. Magre mentions that after his visit to the island a group was formed there whose members were called fides d'amour and whose teachings were strongly reminiscent of Catharism, and he adds that one of the masters of this group was Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's friend and teacher. Unfortunately the source of this information is not given, but if it is correct, it may be taken to confirm the connection between troubadours and Cathars.

At the head of the different Cathar churches stood a bishop assisted by two men, the so-called filius major and filius minor, who succeeded to the bishop's position in the order named. (It may be noted that the troubadours in their travels were accompanied by two men.) Membership in the church was given only to the true Cathars, also named perfecti, 'perfect,' or boni homines, 'good men.' These constituted the priesthood itself. Other associates of Catharism were named credentes and auditores, 'believers' and 'listeners.' By the term credentes was understood those who were convinced of the truth of the teachings, but who did not yet consider themselves ripe for the ascetic life of the 'perfect.' According to their means and ability they supported the church in its work. The so-called auditores were characterized by a benevolent disposition toward its teachings.

A corresponding gradation is present in the Eleusinian Mysteries and among the Pythagoreans and Essenes. The expression 'perfect' is found in several passages of the New Testament. In Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (3:12,15) the word is used in two senses. In the one case 'perfect' denotes a man irradiated by the Inner God, in the other, a man who has achieved mastery of his lower nature to become accepted in the higher mysteries. (Cf. "The Doctrine of the Resurrection," by A. M. Glass, Theosophical Siftings, Vol. VII, 1894-5.) The name perfectus was accorded to initiates of different orders; those who spoke the bidden wisdom belonging to one and the same universal school of the ancient wisdom. (Cf. Isis Unveiled, II, 337.) Note that Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians (2:6) writes: "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect . . . "

To this school the majority of Albigensic perfecti belonged; on the basis of the records it seems not too bold to call them "initiates" or wise men. H. P. Blavatsky counts the Albigenses, whereby she presumably means their perfecti, among the successors of the Gnostics, and abundant evidence shows that they possessed the true gnosis or wisdom-knowledge. They had taken vows of chastity and poverty; were strict vegetarians and refrained from strong drink. The believers (credentes), who wished to enter the circle of the perfect had to undergo a lengthy period of spiritual training. If they succeeded in passing the difficult tests imposed on them, they received consolamentum, upon vowing to lead unselfish lives and abstaining from wine, meat and women. Consolamentum was the outward sign of an initiation, a transference of spiritual power, which gave entrance into knowledge of invisible worlds. Perfecti were extremely unwilling to give consolamentum to other than dying persons, for woe to him who prematurely receives secret knowledge. He may suffer the fate of Clarence Glyndon in Bulwer Lytton's novel Zanoni.

Consolamentum was to play a decisive role during the persecution. To the fact that those who had received this sacrament no longer seem to have feared death may be ascribed the Albigenses' incredible opposition in this war, which was started for the purpose of completely annihilating them and their wisdom.

Part Two

It is apparent that the Cathars possessed a very comprehensive religious literature, but this has with some few exceptions been destroyed, partly through the Catholic church, and partly by the Cathars themselves during the persecution. This is the more deplorable as there is reason to believe that certain of their writings contained elements of an inner knowledge. The question then arises: Is it possible to trace any of their teachings with the aid of preserved Catholic records? Yes, if they are studied with discrimination; it must be remembered that the Cathars expressed themselves in symbolic and allegorical form and that the risk of distortion is considerable when ideas of this nature are interpreted by those who have not grasped their true content. The teachings of the Cathars and especially the meaning of their moral rules have been highly misunderstood. People have been shocked by their so-called fanaticism and pessimism, their opposition to marriage, which to the modern man is an unnatural attitude to life, and so forth. It is forgotten that the moral regulations differed in accordance with the degree of development. They did not force growth -- this is one of their characteristics.

The Cathars were also dualists. They proclaimed the existence of a good and an evil principle, each of which struggled for mastery in the manifested world. A handbook of the Inquisition clarifies their view:

These heretics recognize two gods . . . the one good, the creator of the invisible spiritual world, the other evil, the creator of the visible world of the senses. They state that the material world did not arise through God, the heavenly Father, or the Lord Jesus, but through the evil God whom they call devil, Satan, the God of cycle, the Ruler of this world. -- Jean Cuiraud, Histoire de l'Inquisition au moyen age 1:43

In other records quoted by Guiraud there is no direct mention of an evil principle creating an evil matter, but rather of a being, a Demiurge, which gives shape to chaotic primeval matter. To the Cathars, Jehovah, Satan and the Demiurge were identical, the synthesis of a number of creators which brought kosmos out of chaos. In The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky postulates a "Logos or a collective 'Creator' of the Universe; a Demi-urgos -- in the sense implied when one speaks of an 'Architect' as the 'Creator' of an edifice . . ." (1:279). It is against the background of such a Demiurge that we must regard the dualism of the Cathars. All dualism is exoteric, and all so-called dualistic religion-philosophies are based on an esoteric teaching of the unity of the fundamental kosmic being.

In the cosmogony of the Cathars we find the well-known myths of Satan's invasion of heaven, of the angels' rebellion and 'fall,' and of the part played by the sense-desires. The world created by the Demiurge was to them an illusion, an appearance, but still a world wherein the "fallen angels," "the divine monads...... the human egos" were destined to be born and reborn according to the laws of involution and evolution, until matter will have become permeated with spirit. The teaching of reincarnation was thus a reality to them.

Man's task during his earth life, while the monad is imprisoned in the body, is to light and inflame the divine spark within himself and in others, by clean thoughts, a noble life, self-sacrifice and altruism, and thus to speed the cyclic chain of events and attain godhood more swiftly. There is no everlasting damnation; nor any purgatory. Hell is the earth, wherein we atone for our misdeeds, now or in a future life. There is no vicarious atonement. Christ, the son of man, came as a teacher, whose task was to impart to us the knowledge of our divine origin so that we might self-consciously achieve the liberation of spirit from matter. Christ, as such, must not be confused with each one's inner God, i.e. the Christos, as Paul used the word in his Epistles to the Galatians (4:19) and to the Ephesians (3:17).

To the Cathars Christ, the son of man, did indeed sacrifice himself and was 'crucified,' but not in the sense of physically having died on the cross. This interpretation of Christ's suffering was likewise held by certain sects among the early Christians, who considered that it was not the real Jesus who died on the cross but an illusory body.

There is a certain danger in directing the attention to the outer, the visible, that which belongs to the form and sense. Hereby we easily lose sight of the spiritual. The Cathars understood this and hence fought the tendency to anthropomorphize. They rejected and opposed the worship of saints and idols, and saw in the cross the sign of the devil, a symbol for the material. They also rejected the sacraments of the church, as they found it impossible to see in the host the body of Christ and his blood in the wine. If this were the case, he who had partaken of these would no more sin. On the contrary, they maintained that "a priest ordained by a bishop of the Holy Church, possesses no more virtue than any layman, since virtue grows out of the goodness of the soul" (Guiraud, 1:158). Hence their contention that a sacrament dispensed by an unworthy priest is without value. Such a view was evidently calculated to undermine confidence in the papacy.

The attitude of the Cathars toward certain rules of moral discipline should be seen in proper perspective, particularly as these were not the same for all. Their prohibition as regards marriage, for example, applied only to the perfecti, the 'perfect,' and all who aspired toward consolamentum, their initiatory rite. The special rules regarding food and drink (refraining from animal food, etc.) applied likewise only to the so-called 'perfect.' It is worth noting also that the Cathars were zealous in their opposition to capital punishment. They held that to take the life of a human being who had not purified himself was wrong, because he would only be confronted with further trials in the after-life state. It was important for each one to prepare himself for death; in fact, all life should be just this: a preparation for death.

Dr. George Sarton (Introduction to the History of Science, II, 158) mentions that the Catholic church reaped a strong, though indirect influence from the Cathars, and considers it probable that the Catholic "last sacrament" is in some way connected with the consolamentum of the Cathars.

When Pope Innocent III took office in 1198 he already had his attention directed to the hereticism in southern France, and as time passed he tried in various ways to arrest it. He sent legates provided with extensive powers; he supported the later canonized Dominicus de Guzman, the Spaniard, when the latter, poor and barefoot, wearing hairshirt and homespun, undertook his ministry through the countryside; he exhorted the French king Philippe Auguste to go to the county of Toulouse and fight the heretics "because of the necessity to bring them back to the truth." But Innocent had little success. The legates, who irritated the people with their arrogant ways and their pomp, failed. The good Dominicus, who became the founder of the Dominican order and one of the foremost figures in the imminent Albigensian war, seems to have lacked psychological insight, for his biographer Jordan Saxo, later the second general of the Dominican order, relates that "the opponents of truth" laughed at Dominicus and threw dirt and other nasty things at him. And as far as Philippe Auguste is concerned, he had other things to do.

Then it came about that at dawn of January 15, 1208, the legate Pierre de Castelnau, on his way to Rome to report to Innocent, was attacked by an unknown assailant and transfixed by a spear.

This murder resulted in a deliberate campaign against them, which in the records became known as "the crusade against the Albigenses." All over France the churchmen began, by order of Pope Innocent, to promise 'remission of sins' to all who partook in it. Adherents were many, for even the temporal benefits were alluring, such as papal protection of all private property and cancellation of debts. And the beautiful cities of southern France were renowned for their riches and well worth plundering in the church's holy cause. From everywhere, from Auvergne, Provence and Limousin, Aquitaine, Garonne and Poitou, people streamed: dukes, counts, barons, knights, burghers and farmers, priests of different degrees, Flemish and Normans, Burgundians and Germans.

A tremendous force gathered. At the head stood the whiteclad Arnaud, abbot of Citeaux. In the summer of 1209 the horde of thousands wound down the river Rhohe and camped on July 22, 1209, the day of holy Magdalen, before Beziers, on the west bank of the river Orb. The city was plundered and burned while the bells tolled. A blood-bath without parallel took place. The cathedral fell prey to the flames, its walls split and buried all who had sought its protection: the elderly, women and children, as well as priests in full regalia. It is told that Arnaud, the legate, was asked before the assault how the faithful might be distinguished from the heretics, whereupon he is said to have replied: 'Kill them all. God will know his own."

The murder of the legate Pierre de Castenau had borne fruit. The crusades against the Albigenses had begun -- they continued for twenty long years. We shall not relate the shifting fortunes of war in detail. Cities were sacked, castles burned, women raped. Incredible cruelties were committed, the vilest urges of human beings were let loose. The year 1213 was critical for the Albigenses. At the battle of Muret, their ally was killed, King Peter of Aragon, the protector and friend of the troubadours, whose young, warm-blooded sister Eleonora had entered wedlock with the South's foremost knight, Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. Five years later the worst enemy of the Albigenses, the fanatic, halfblind Simon de Montfort, the scourge of the land, a living symbol of the destructive forces of war, was killed. The crusade seemed then to be imperiled for the papal power, but the victory was saved by King Philippe Auguste, who now entered the arena. After a few years the opposition of the south was broken.

On April 12, 1229, the Thursday before Easter, outside the portals of the church of Notre Dame in Paris, the peace was signed by Queen Blanche of France and Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, twenty years after the sack of the city of Beziers. This peace paved the way for France's unification and the subsequent effects on her political, cultural, linguistic and religious history. The southern barons lost their position of power and had to submit to the French kingship. The flowering of the Provencal literature was over, and the Catholic church triumphed. In the peace treaty Raymond had to undertake to continue to pursue heretics in a manner specified in the document. This laid the groundwork for the Inquisition as an institution.

The peace in Paris sees the end of the actual crusade against the Albigenses. But even if the political opposition of the south is broken, hereticism is far from exterminated. There begins the underground opposition and the infernal work of the Inquisition. Now the Cathars face greater trials than ever. The prisons of Toulouse are filled to overflowing. On the gallows, corpses swing in the wind. No one is safe. One after another disappears without trace, perhaps denounced by his best friend. Thousands are burnt at the stake or buried alive in underground caves. But the Albigenses remain firm.

A few lines of Maurice Magre may be quoted:

It was then that Guilhabert de Castres, the holy man, translated himself with incredible speed to give consolamentum, the last anointing of the Cathar religion. . . . Disguised as now a beggar, now a pilgrim, he stands at the entrance to the caves, he defies the guards of the Inquisition, . . . his steps sound in the cities' streets when the hour tolls for his comrades. When the pyres burn, the dying need but to see a glimpse of a perfectus hidden among the onlookers, making the mystic sign of salvation, to die without pain and with consolation in his heart. . . .
. . . These perfecti could through consolamentum give the dying the invisible aid, . . . that opened to them the spiritual world. Consolamentum was only the outward symbol. The Albigensian perfecti were heirs to a lost secret, a secret come from the Orient, known to the Gnostics and the early Christians. -- Magiciens et Illumines, p. 89

The epilogue of the Albigensian war took place at Montsegur around the middle of the thirteenth century. High in the Pyrenees at Ariege, 2000 meters above sea level, surrounded by thick pine forests, rushing torrents and vertiginous cliffs, there stands the castle of Montsegur, whose ruins still today are silhouetted against the sky. Here had been brought the Albigensian riches, their holy books, and, according to legend, the sacred cup or Grail. This castle became a last sanctuary from the Inquisition for the Cathar men and women: feudal lords who had been hunted from their castles; artisans and farmers, who preferred to leave hearth and home rather than deny their faith; perfecti, who were not in the thick of battle giving consolamentum. Montsegur was armed, and there was food and grain for years to come in subterranean chambers. Two long years the siege lasted, and would have lasted longer had not treachery entered the game. Under cover of night, soldiers invaded the fortress. Magre has related the fall of Montsegur with epic breadth, how the two hundred perfecti of the fort were burned at the stake:

So red was the flame that rose toward the sky, so high and pillarlike the smoke, that those Toulousains, Lauraguais and Albigeois, who raised their eyes toward Ariege, knew by this sign that their heroic brethren had been annihilated and that the last hope of the south had died.

It may be questioned whether the wind of the spirit ever before in the annals of France had blown so strongly as in Languedoc and Provence during the half-century preceding this tragic war.

(From Sunrise magazine, October, November 1973; copyright © 1973 Theosophical University Press)

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