Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Land of the Cathars: Being There

I've wanted to go to the Pyrenees for a very long time. I had read a lot about it, about the so called "Cathar Castles" which is a bit of a misnomer, about how beautiful the place is. But as usual, words and even pictures don't do a place justice.

We stayed near Carcassonne, a place that I found most Americans have never even heard of. People we met would ask us where we were going or where we'd been on the trip, and when I'd get to Carcassonne, they'd go "Where? Is that in Italy?" They've not even heard of one of the most important places of the Medieval period. Or maybe I'm just biased.

We climbed to Montségur, Peyrepertuse and Quéribus. They call these "Cathar Castles" even though they're not really. The fortresses whose ruins we see now, were build after Catharism had been surpressed in the Languedoc. On that semantic note, while I was perusing a book store on my trip, I came across a book on the Albigensian Crusade, whose author was trying to say that the Cathars never existed because they didn't call themselves Cathars and that they weren't a religion. I was a bit bemused by this. Yes, they did not call themselves Cathars, which was a name applied to them after, along with Albigenses, another term for them. They simply were referred to, at least in Inquisition records, as "Good Men" or "Good Women". However, I think from a historical point of view calling them by what they called themselves is a bit cumbersome, and also might be a bit vague if your audience isn't aware of the subject matter. And they were a religion, as they had doctrines that they followed, and doctrines of the Catholic Church that they repudiated. They even elected bishops forgodsake. How crap like that gets published, I'll never know.

At any rate, climbing up to these fortresses is not easy. I had read it was quite a hike, but that's a bit of an understatement. Only the most fit person could climb up with no problem. Most people were stopping every so often, I probably more so than most. I had been working out and walking a lot before the trip, and that didn't prepare me for the trek up to Montségur. And to think that they dragged siege engines up to the top! I could barely walk up carrying my camera!

Montségur: It's a long way up

There are many other fortresses that we didn't have time to visit. So, I gotta go back! It'll be a while though, unless I win the lottery.

Now, Montségur was the hardest hike, but it had the best views. Everything was green, very green and beautiful, with still snow-capped mountains in the distance. However, there's not much left of Montségur, and so the most impressive fortress we went to was Peyrepertuse. There was quite a lot of it left, and I felt it was the most interesting. Quéribus had an interior space left with an impressive column and vaulted ceiling, but the fortress itself was kinda small compared to Peyrepertuse. Again, both of them were quite a hike to get to, not as much as Montségur, but still I don't have any idea how it would have been possible to beseige any of these places. It boggles the mind.


Quéribus: Vaulted Ceiling

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Christianity at War

I have heard some Catholics say that the crusades were done for the benefit of "god." I use that term loosely because really, if you study it in depth, you realize that the crusades, while they may have had a whitewashing of Christianity over them, were really just vile, underhanded acts of property confiscation in the name of religion. On that note, many modern Catholics dismiss the crusades as having nothing to do with religion, and instead only to do with property. But there is a flaw to that logic, because as much as it had to do with property, it had to do with the fact that the people they were taking property from were not Catholic. So therefore, it does indeed boil down to religion.

In fact, if you want an interesting read, you should really check out the Catholic Encyclopedia online. They refer to the Albigensian Crusade as accomplishing "the extermination of the Albigensian heresy." What they really mean is that it was the extermination of people, but let's not nitpick words. Between the heretics that were burned, the people who starved to death because the army ate or destroyed their crops, and the people who were caught in the crossfire, in the sieges and killed because they harbored people who decided they could think for themselves, hundreds of thousands died. And to this day, the Catholic church defends their actions. They defend the Inquisition, saying that it was a necessary evil. And there are people who still think that the Inquisition was a good thing, including many who support modern day torture.

As I mentioned in the first post, I'm reading The Occitan War. I've learned a lot of interesting things that I didn't know before. I had read a lot of books on the Cathar heresy itself but they don't really go in depth about the war itself. I'm not finished with the book yet, but so far the only issue I have with it is that the author seems to justify the atrocities that the crusaders committed because the southern defenders did much the same on some occasions. Perhaps it is not intended but this is how he comes across at points. Of course, some of the things done by the southern side were not right, but in a way, I can't say I blame them. They weren't the ones that ran off somewhere and invaded another person's land over religion.

One of the interesting things I learned is that the Pope had suspended the indulgence for the crusade in early 1213. Indeed, Arnaud Amaury, the Pope's legate who history has made famous by his supposed words, "Kill them all, god will know his own" at the massacre of Béziers (I wouldn't even call it a siege) was replaced by another legate, Peter of Benevento, who reconciled all of the southern lords with the Church. And what did Simon de Montford do? He carried on the crusade as if nothing had happened. He also lied, or at least didn't tell the crusaders who arrived to help their cause, that they were no longer eligible for an indulgence because the Pope had canceled the crusade. You know, from what I had read before, I always had this idea in my head that Simon was an underhanded bastard. Well, I think this confirms it. Simon was in it for the property, the loot, and his own pride, and that's about it. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits he was an ass, but goes on to say he was a great man anyway because of his Catholic zeal, because really, that surely excuses all of the atrocities he carried out.

"It is ever to be deplored that Simon stained his many great qualities by treachery, harshness, and bad faith. His severity became cruelty, and he delivered over many towns to fire and pillage, thus involving many innocent people in the common ruin. This is the more to be regretted, as his intrepid zeal for the Catholic faith, the severe virtue of his private life, and his courage and skill in warfare marked him out as a great man."

At any rate, The Occitan War has made me want to read some of the primary sources that the author uses, like the account by Vaux de Cernay. The only problem is that all but one of the primary sources were written by those sympathetic to the Catholic church. The only source we have that is written from a pro-Southern stance is the latter half of the Chanson de la Croisade Albigeoise, of which said latter half was written by an anonymous person who may have been part of the clergy in Toulouse and loyal to Raymond VI or his son. But even this isn't really a history, as much as it is an epic poem. Sure it probably has a lot of truth to it, but in the end, it was meant to entertain and so we can never be sure that the author didn't take poetic license or exaggerate what happened. Also, he's not very sympathetic to the heretics, as he himself was obviously a loyal Catholic.

And reading the Catholic accounts of the crusade is the equivalent of reading a Gestapo report on the Jews. The picture is obviously slanted. Indeed, almost all we know of Catharism is taken from later Inquisition records, which were written from oral interviews in the vernacular, and then translated into Latin and put into the third person. Now, ignoring all the problems that could cause for knowing what these people thought, it should be obvious that the Inquisitorial scribes could have written almost anything, and there is no way to refute it.

I will do a review of The Occitan War when I am finished with it. I do recommend reading it, if you can't afford to purchase it, go to your local library and ask the reference librarian to inter-library loan it for you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The First Post

Back in the infancy of the Internets, when I thought that Yahoo!Chat was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and even had a client called Cheetah Chat to interface with it so I could customize everything and have a ton of automatic responses (is that even around still?), I also had a free website set up at freeyellow. It basically was a wanna-be blog, before blogs even existed in this simple format, about my research into the Albigensian Crusade and the Cathars. Unfortunately at some point, freeyellow went to a paid service, and so I let the site lapse into oblivion. Some of it still exists in the archives of the way back machine, and I did have a back up on a floppy disk (of all things) of the html code. For a long time I was really too busy to be interested in the Cathars anymore. I hadn't read anything on them in years, and then I wound up with a bunch of credit for Barnes and Noble and I bought a couple of books, including The Occitan War, a rather expensive book that I would never have bought otherwise.

I had the idea that maybe I should start doing research again on them. I am going to be visiting southern France, where the crusade took place, next month in fact. Perhaps I can post some of the pictures I take, and anything I learn while I'm there.