Lauragais – soldiers of Christ, travellers of God

Château de Montgey

We are featuring some extracts from Colin Duncan Taylor’s book, Lauragais.

In the first extract last week, we left Colin just about to head into the Château de Montgey.

Chapter Two – Soldiers of Christ, Travellers of God

An hour later, and I am alone in la grande salle, the great hall. In medieval times, this was the centre of life in any castle, and at the Château de Montgey it still is. I look around me. I am standing by a monumental fireplace and its hearth is screened by a simple tapestry. A larger tapestry showing a classical scene decorates the wall at the opposite end of the room, and below it is a piano which Pierre’s mother bought from Debussy’s mistress. The north wall is covered by a collection of portraits, landscapes and still-lifes. I have learned from Pierre that this is the oldest wall in the château; its lower section was built by the Romans two thousand years ago.

I drift towards one of the windows in the south wall and turn my thoughts to the more recent past, to something that happened here eight centuries ago. From this spot, a young man peered out one evening in April 1211 and saw an unusual and alarming sight. His name was Jourdain de Roquefort, and he was wondering what on earth the men pitching camp below his walls thought they were doing. He was the lord of Montgey, but their tents were spreading across his fields like a plague of locusts and the smoke of their camp fires was already obscuring his view of the Montagne Noire. Before long, Jourdain’s informants told him the uninvited guests were pilgrims from Germany, and they planned to stay the night before completing their journey to Lavaur.

I try to imagine what must have passed through Jourdain’s mind as he stood here towards sunset, what inspired him to hatch his murderous plan. Maybe it was the memory of the massacre of 20,000 Cathars at Béziers a couple of years earlier, or perhaps it was the sight of a long line of mountain peaks cutting into the evening sky.

I too gaze into the distance. It is a perfect spring day and  the Pyrenees rise black above the hazy plain. From where I am standing, the twin peaks of Soularac and Saint-Barthélemy dominate the horizon – not because they are the highest but because they are the closest.  No doubt Jourdain searched with his eyes for the Château de Montségur – the ‘safe mountain’ – perched on its rocky outcrop below those twin peaks. Seventy- five kilometres as the crow flies was too far to be able to see it with the naked eye, but he knew exactly where it was. Montségur had been rebuilt a few years earlier and it was a centre of resistance for the heretical Cathars.

Château de Montgey in 1840 by Eugène de Malbos

Even though we are separated by eight centuries, my view of the mountains will be much the same as Jourdain’s, but the land around Montgey has undoubtedly altered. Below me, I see green fields of winter wheat and the brown earth of ploughed fields waiting to be sown with summer crops. In one of them down towards the cemetery, aerial photographs have revealed the foundations of a palatial Roman villa, but in Jourdain’s day much of this land was covered by forest and he would have been able to trace the route of the old road to Lavaur where it passed through the dense trees below him. It was an ideal spot for an ambush, the perfect place to butcher the pilgrims as soon as they set off after breakfast the next morning. There was only one difficulty: Jourdain and his men would need help if they were going to kill all 6,000 of their enemies.

One particular aspect of this story had always intrigued me. Jourdain de Roquefort was a Cathar. Most things I had read about this period of history presented the Cathars as the victims, an enlightened people who put up a heroic and ultimately tragic resistance against the northern hordes unleashed upon them by the pope. Their priests were called the perfect ones – parfaits or parfaites depending on their gender – and around a quarter of them were women. [See 1 below.] These holy men and women abstained from pleasures of the flesh – no meat and no sex – and they led humble lives. They lived in the community from the proceeds of their own labour, and this kept them in close contact with the general population and helped them attract followers from all levels of society,  people who were reacting against what they perceived    as the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Catholic Church.

So why, I had always wondered, would a nice Cathar lord like Jourdain de Roquefort be preparing to slaughter thousands of pilgrims below the walls of his château? I have discovered the answer today during my conversation with Pierre Bouyssou in his study.

Modern pilgrims still travel across the plain below Montgey following the Chemin d’Arles towards Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. They march in peace and leave little behind them apart from footprints and a scattering of euros to help the local economy. In contrast, Jourdain’s visitors had descended on this part of France to impose their own brand of Christianity through force of arms. They were soldiers of Christ and travellers of God at one and the same time. They were crusaders and pilgrims, and they were here on what the Catholic Church described as an affair of peace and faith.

During the twelfth century, the Catholic Church crushed the heresies that had spread across other parts of Europe by capturing and executing the leaders, but divergent beliefs persisted in two main areas: Lombardy in northern Italy, and the area of southern France which would later become known as the Languedoc and has the Lauragais at its heart. The term ‘Cathar’ first appeared around 1160, [see 2 below] but the heretics never referred to themselves as such, preferring instead to call themselves good Christians, or more simply, good men or good women. But their beliefs diverged from the teachings of the Catholic Church when it came to the question of why, if God is all-powerful, does he allow bad things to happen? The Cathars’ answer was a dualism in which a good god ruled the spiritual world and an evil god ruled the material world. What proportion of the population adhered to this alternative faith? It is impossible to say, but they were always in the minority. Some historians have focused on specific villages and come up with figures ranging from five to twenty-five per cent. This wide variation probably had something to do with the inclination of the local lord. There were also those who hedged their bets and maintained links with both religions, including Jourdain de Roquefort and some of his family, as we shall discover later.

When Pope Innocent III was elected in 1198, he resolved to restore the authority of his church and bring the heretics to heel. In the feudal hierarchy of medieval Christendom the Supreme Being was God and his representative on earth was the pope, but without an army of his own the pope depended on his vassals to impose his authority. Innocent III spent the next ten years trying to persuade the French king and his nobles to take up arms against the Cathar heretics. It was only after the murder of a papal legate in 1208 that he made any progress. The crime was blamed on Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, and the pope promptly declared a crusade, later named the Albigensian Crusade after the city of Albi sixty kilometres to the north of Montgey. Next, he needed to recruit some crusaders.

What was it that attracted young men like the German pilgrims camping out in Jourdain de Roquefort’s fields to travel all the way to the south of France to wage war on the pope’s behalf? First, the religious aspect. The pope awarded this expedition the same level of spiritual significance as the earlier crusades to the Holy Land where the enemies had been infidels rather than heretics. All those who joined the new crusade for forty days would, through this single act, have completed their penance for all the sins to which they had confessed. This type of forgiveness was called an indulgence. In addition, Innocent III proclaimed that if you were unable or unwilling to become a crusader yourself, you could pay someone else to go in your place and still receive the indulgences for your own sins.

Another attraction was the prospect of material gain. Before the Albigensian Crusade, religious law prescribed burning at the stake for unrepentant heretics, and excommunication for anyone who aided or protected them. This time the pope decreed an extra punishment for the aiders and abettors: their titles and possessions would be confiscated and given to the crusaders. So the nobility could look forward to picking up a title or two, and the lowly knight or man-at-arms who completed his forty days of crusading would be able to return home with a purified soul and saddlebags bulging with plunder.

Viscount Trencavel

In 1209 the crusaders marched south. According to one contemporary source they numbered 20,000 knights and 200,000 men. Like many estimates of its day, this was probably an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the army was large and powerful. In July 1209, the crusaders achieved an early and unexpectedly-easy victory at Béziers and massacred the inhabitants, Cathars and Catholics alike. The next month they captured Carcassonne and its lord, Viscount Trencavel. True to the pope’s promise, the crusade’s religious leader offered Trencavel’s titles and possessions to the three most powerful barons of the crusade, but one after the other they all declined. They already owned plenty of lands in the north, their forty days were nearly up, and they preferred to return home in one piece with all their sins forgiven. In the end, one of the minor barons had to be ordered to accept the titles and estates of Viscount Trencavel. His name was Simon de Montfort. [See 3 below.]

Simon quickly discovered it was one thing to be awarded Viscount Trencavel’s possessions by the pope’s representative, and quite another to take control of them. Geographically, they stretched east-west from Béziers to Carcassonne and northwards to Albi. For the next nine years, he would spend most of his life on the back of a horse in an endless attempt to impose his authority on his new vassals and to root out the Cathars who sheltered among them.

Château de Cabaret near Lastours

By the time Jourdain de Roquefort was planning his massacre, the crusaders had begun burning the parfaits and parfaites en masse, and many of their protectors had become dispossessed fugitives. At the start of 1211, Simon was trying to clear out the remaining Cathar strongholds in the Montagne Noire north of Carcassonne. Once he had seized the Château de Cabaret near Lastours, he marched on Lavaur and mounted a siege towards the end of March.

There were two people inside the town who were of particular interest to Simon. First was the lord of Lavaur, who was in fact a lady: Guiraude had assumed the title following the death of her husband. She was an ardent Cathar and had given shelter to hundreds of parfaits inside her walls. And then there was her brother, Aimery de Montréal. He was the lord of Laurac and the Lauragais, and before the crusade he had been Viscount Trencavel’s richest vassal. When Carcassonne fell in 1209 he swiftly swore allegiance to its new lord, Simon de Montfort, but soon changed his mind. Now he was holed up in Lavaur with eighty of his knights.

Simon de Montfort wanted the pair of them – brother and sister, traitor and heretic – dead or alive.

The siege dragged on for over a month. When a fresh contingent of German crusaders arrived in Carcassonne they were dispatched immediately to join the army at Lavaur. They broke their journey below the walls of Montgey.

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  1. The terms parfait and parfaite derive from the Latin perfectus, perfecta, but they were always combined with hereticus or heretica when used by the Catholic Church. The phrase hereticus perfectus signified a confirmed heretic or one of the Cathar clergy. It had nothing to do with the concept of perfection or purity.
  2. The origin of the term ‘Cathar’ has been disputed for eight centuries. The polite explanation is that it comes from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘pure’. Another origin was proposed by Alain de Lille sometime between 1185 and 1200 in his De Fide Catholica: ‘Cathar’ comes from the Latin cattus and, according to Alain, signified someone who sodomised felines, because a cat was the form in which Lucifer appeared to the heretic.
  3. This was the fourth Simon de Montfort. It was his youngest son, Simon de Montfort V, Earl of Leicester, who led the rebellion against England’s Henry III in 1264.

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Next week we will be continuing with another extract.  If you can’t wait for that, you can buy Colin’s book in print or ebook format from the main online retailers worldwide. It is also on sale in numerous bookshops, tourist offices and museums in Carcassonne, Toulouse and the Lauragais. Visit his website for a full listing of sales outlets.