I’m going to take my life in my hands here and say it: ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Okay, settle down at the back.
The novel, as you will remember, was the Fifty Shades of the last decade, the book everyone had to read but everyone said was terrible.
One of the ideas (not Dan’s) in the book was that Mary Magdalene was pregnant to Jesus at the time of the crucifixion and afterwards fled to Gaul.
There was a lot of other stuff that was complete hooey, but because of this premise the book did touch on one of the great cataclysms of history – the Albigensian Crusade.
The crusade (1209-1229) was initiated by the inappropriately named Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in the Languedoc in the south of France.
What was Catharism and why did the Pope get his knickers in a bunch over it?
The thirteenth century Cistercian chronicler Peter de Vaux de Carney claimed the Cathars believed that the earthly Jesus had a relationship with Mary.
But that wasn’t the whole picture; that was just the frame.
The Cathars had their own entire theology. They held that all matter was evil and only spirit was good; itself a fundamental challenge to established Roman teachings.
Their basic tenet was that the physical world was by the devil, Rex Mundi (in Latin, “King of the World”), while God was pure spirit, unsullied by the taint of matter.
They grew to become a popular mass movement in the Languedoc.
Their priests were known as perfecti; these were the spiritual elite, highly respected even by Christians for leading holy lives of austerity and charity – in contrast to the clergy of the time, who had more bling and booty calls than hip hop musicians.
The Cathars ordained women priests and further believed that civil authority had no claim on them, since they did not recognize the physical world.
So their growing popularity was a threat not only to the Pope but to the King of France as well.
Innocence’s crusade pitted northern French nobility against those of the south. Their enthusiasm for the war was inspired by a papal decree permitting the confiscation of lands owned by Cathars and their supporters.
So the barons of Orleans and the Champagne and Burgundy took up the cross to do battle for God and for real estate.
They had churchmen with them to advise on how to proceed with the war and they proved particularly zealous. During the siege of Béziers in 1209, Arnaud-Amaury, the Cistercian abbot-commander, was asked how to tell Cathars from Catholics.
His reply: “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own.”
What remained of the city was razed by fire. Arnaud-Amaury wrote to the Pope. “Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”
The war ended twenty years later with the Treaty of Meaux-Paris, which decimated the power of the counts of Toulouse and the cultural autonomy of the Languedoc.
In 1233, the Inquisition was created to crush what remained of Catharism.
It could be described as a hybrid of the Gestapo and the National Library of Congress, both terrorizing and documenting the lives of the individuals in their purview.
One of their documents, discovered in the Vatican archives in the 1960s, is the oldest known account of the daily lives of ordinary people in the thirteenth century.
It was translated by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and was an excellent resource for my book.
The last decisive military engagement was the nine month siege of Montségur.
In May 1243 the seneschal Hugues de Arcis led 10,000 royal troops against the castle, the last refuge of about 100 armed soldiers as well as almost 200 perfecti, (who as pacifists did not participate in combat) and a number of civilian refugees.
After the Castle surrendered, safe passage was offered to all those who would renounce the Cathar faith.
Astonishly, a number of defenders converted to Catharism after the surrender and chose to die an agonizing death along with the Cathar priests rather than walk free.
It is claimed that some Cathars had already escaped in order to recover a treasure buried in a nearby forest.
What was the treasure?
Documents? Jewels? Relics? If it existed, no one knows what it was, or what happened to it.
Some say the treasure was the Holy Grail – whatever, or whoever, that is. But now we’ve strayed into Dan Brown territory.
So it’s time for me to stop.
I don’t have the code for any of that.
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