Two centuries after the death of Christ, Mani, an exceptional magus and prophet, rose to prominence in Persia. He mixed the religion on his country, Zoroastrianism, with a fiery interpretation of Christianity. Mani himself would not end well, as the shah eventually had him executed, yet his followers would multiply. These faithful soon emigrated, reappearing in Asia Minor in the isolated city of Divrigi under the name Paulicians. (I once had the opportunity to visit this city, which is home to what is probably the strangest and most beautiful mosque in all of Turkey.) Later, these same faithful resurfaced yet again in Bulgaria, now under the name of Bogomils before ultimately arriving in southern France, where they flourished under the name of the Cathars.
Amusement and entertainment were not on the program for the Cathars, who ate very little, forbid alcohol, and eschewed sex. The Cathars were pure men, equal parts honest and generous, and above all incorruptible, a combination that alarmed the Holy See. Soon the Cathars won favor with the local seigniors, most prominently the Count of Toulouse, who saw in the Cathars a means towards achieving further independence. This prospect aroused the wrath of the French monarchy, and in short order the armies of both the king and the papacy were hammering down upon the Cathars.
To illustrate the state of mind on these fierce opponents of heresy we need to look no further than the famous response of the Pope’s legate during Crusade against the Cathars. After taking Béziers, the victors asked the legate what should be done with the survivors of the siege. The legate ordered them to be massacred. The hardened soldiers protested, informing the legate that there were a number of faithful Catholics among the prisoners. “Tough luck,” replied the legate, “Kill them all, God will recognize our own.” And so these marvelous flowers of culture, of tolerance, and of purity who blossomed in southern France were savagely stomped out and destroyed.
Some time ago I visited what are referred to as the Cathar chateaux, in particular Montségur, the most famous of the lot, which witnessed the end of this marvelous adventure of heresy. Behind the walls of this fortress, the last of the Cathars sustained a long siege before finally surrendering. Following their surrender, more than two hundred of them refused to convert to Catholicism and were subsequently burned at the stake at the foot of the hill. As I climbed the steep path to the fortress I became very anxious, owing to the atmosphere surrounding me. So much violence, so much suffering, and so many brutal deaths, certainly not a recipe for a serene ambiance; above all I was acutely aware of the fact that I descend from the man responsible for wiping out the Cathars. However, when entering the fortress of Monségur, I overcome with a feeling of tranquility, of peace even, and against every expectation I felt welcomed by the invisible habitants. “Prince who’s ancestors burned us long ago, you are welcome here,” I though I heard murmured softly in my ear.