Having left the grey and moody skies of the Andorran valleys, we were greeted with blazing sun and pure white snow as we wound down from the border into the pristine Ariege. Coupled with the now-customary coffee stop at Tarrascon-sur-Ariege, overlooking the Ariege river itself, we sped by forests, cragged hills and green fields. Eventually, after 3 hours, the Medieval castle of Carcassonne appeared on the horizon, emerging from the heat above a rugged (and currently grape-less) vineyard, although shoots were beginning to appear on the vines. The region is rather famous not only for its Medieval relics and Cathar heritage but also for its production of a rather fine bevy of wines, some of which (of course) it was nothing short of a research duty to sample.
Situated in the Aude region, adjacent to the Ariege, Carcassonne has a long and illustrious history, peppered with violence, most famously during the Albigensian Crusade launched against Occitania. Neolithic, Roman and Visigothic populations have occupied the site, however, in this case, it is the Carcassonne of the Middle Ages which is of greatest interest to us, it being at that point one of the principle strongholds of Cathar belief in Occitania. It should be mentioned that the fortified Medieval cité that one sees now is not authentically Medieval, but rather the creation of reconstructionist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who saved the cite from complete the destruction as ordered in 1849 by the French government due to its ruinous state. Whilst the rebuild could not be called a strictly authentic affair, with many details being erroneous, it is generally agreed that the spirit of the original castle is there, and the hundreds of thousands of tourists that flock to it each year are evidently not put off by any inaccuracies in the slate roofing!
Carcassonne today, peeping above the treetops.
The first known Count of Carcassonne was a relative of Charlemagne, the uniquely named Bello, who founded the Bellonid dynasty and ruled from 790 until his death in 810. The cité stayed within the Bellonid family until it passed over to the Trencavel family in 1067, when Raimond-Bernard Trencavel married the sister of the aged Bellonid Count of Carcassonne. It would be the fate of Raimond’s descendent Raymond-Roger to die in mysterious circumstances whilst negotiating the city’s surrender to the army of the Papal Legate in 1209; yet another of the countless victims of the tragic Albigensian Crusade. In an ironic state of affairs, the foundation stones of the cité’s cathedral was blessed in 1096 by none other than Pope Urban II; less than 150 years later the papal forces would be descending upon Occitania and Carcassonne for a far less benedictory purpose.
Much has been written on the Cathars and their beliefs, ranging from the scholarly study to the scurrilous and sensationalist, ranging from their pursuing a Manichaean-style heresy to their being the custodians of the Holy Grail itself! An examination of their beliefs is best left for another day (and article), but we will briefly surmise where Cathar belief differed from Catholic and indicate the possible reasons for the Church desiring their extinction (aside from the simple motivation of seizing the wealth and lands of Occitania).
Roux-Perino sums Catharism up thus: ‘Fundamentally Christian, the Cathars suggested a dualistic reading of the New Testament, which led them into Docetism and hence into elaborating their own cosmogony with a strong whiff of Gnosticism.’ (Roux-Perino, 2006, 53). Present in Northern Italy and Southern France, it was in Occitania where it rose particularly to prominence among the local dignitaries and peasants (Martin, 2005). They considered themselves to be the authentic Gleisa de Dio, descended from the first church of the Apostles, and opposed the Pontifical Roman Catholic Church. A truly dissident counter-church, it was comprised of a body of clergy (Bons Hommes and Bonnes Femmes) who had taken the Consolament (a Cathar sacrament which served the purposes of baptism, penance, ordination and extreme unction, depending on the situation, given through a laying on of the hands and the New Testament on the head), and a body of the faithful, known as credentes (believers). These credentes were not allowed to say the Paternoster, the primary Cathar prayer, as this was reserved for the clergy, and they would greet a Bon Homme or Bonne Femme by bending at the knee three times. The clergy would wander the roads of Occitania, especially Languedoc, in pairs, preaching from their bibles in villages and towns.
Strayer (1971) has described the Cathar movement as a reaction against the perceived corruption and vast earthly power held by the Roman Catholic Church at the time, and a rejection of papal authority. Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with the Church, who declared Catharism a heresy in the 1176 Church Council held near Albi (hence the term ‘Albigensians’ being applied to Cathars). At that time, the County of Toulouse held a huge amount of power and influence, rivalling the Crown of Aragon, and the local lords and heirs in this region were highly interested in maintaining relative independence from both the French King and the Pope. These factors led Pope Innocent III to send a delegation to Languedoc in 1198 to assess the situation, and they found Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse to be openly supporting and protecting the Cathar movement, leading to his excommunication. This act was lifted some years later after Raymond made efforts at reconciliation with the church, however, he was once again kicked out of the Catholic fold in 1209 for failing to live up to his word in stamping out Catharism. Innocent III then insisted upon a crusade against the Albigensian heresy in Languedoc, officially because he wanted to rid the land of heresy to better protect Christendom’s borders against Saracen incursion, however there is little doubt in historical analyses that the power and wealth of the Languedoc lords, as well as their desire to maintain a level of autonomy from the Church and the King, was also a decisive factor (Roux-Perino, 2006).
The Albigensian Crusade began in the Summer of 1209, with up to ten thousand crusaders gathering at Lyon, before marching towards the Cathar communities of Albi and Carcassonne. The first city to be put to the sword was Béziers, in which the often quoted but unproven exclamation was allegedly uttered in response to determining which of the population were Catholic and which were Cathar: ‘Kill them all! God will know his own.’ A letter to the Pope by papal legate Arnaud Amalric, who was commanding the armies, records up to twenty thousand people being killed, with Strayer noting that no hint of guilt or regret is contained in the letter, not even for the clergy killed in front of their own altar in the town’s cathedral (Strayer, 1971). The effect of this slaughter was that word spread fast, and many subsequent settlements gave up without a fight.
Onwards the Crusade marched, down to Carcassonne, which was under the protection of the aforementioned Raymond Roger Trencaval, and well known for its protection of Cathars. Within six days of leaving the blood-filled streets of Béziers, the Crusaders had covered the forty-five miles between the two towns, arriving on the 1st of August, 1209. The cite was fortified with impressive battlements, however, it had received large amounts of refugees in the past few days, and resources were stretched. Rather than attack directly the crusaders cannily decided to lay siege to the town and cut the water supply. By the 15th August, Carcassonne surrendered, with Raymond having already died in a crusader dungeon some days prior, after trying to negotiate peace terms with the enemy camp. The population of Carcassonne was unceremoniously ordered to leave the town with nothing but the clothes on their back, and Simon de Montfort, a notorious French nobleman, was placed in charge of the crusader army (Roux-Perino, 2006). Following the fall of Carcassonne, the other major towns of the region (Albi, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux etc.) all surrendered without a fight, and by the Autumn, they were all under Crusader control.
This Medieval painting allegedly shows the Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne, as one can see they were booted out without a great deal of their posessions. Image taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/Cathars_expelled.JPG
Over the next few years, various sieges and routs succeeded in toppling Lastours, the castle of Cabaret, Termes and Toulouse. In 1214 Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse escaped to England with his son, during which his lands were gifted to the Pope by Phillip II, King of France. In 1216 Raymond IV and his son Raymond VII (evidently a popular name) returned to the region to initiate an uprising, which found substantial support among the local lords and their soldiers. By 1224, Raymond IV had retaken several towns including Toulouse, and after his death that year his son Raymond VII claimed Carcassonne following de Montfort’s abandoning of it.
However, by 1225 Raymond had been excommunicated (like his father), and the Council of Bourges convened to deal with the Cathar heresy once and for all. Another crusade, led by Louis VIII, set out in the Summer of 1226, and quickly retook Béziers, Carcassonne, Beaucaire and Marseilles without a fight. Avignon was besieged, surrendering in September, and by 1228 Toulouse was also under siege, with the surrounding landscape decimated, and the town surrendered. Having died in November 1226, Louis VIII was succeeded by his son Louis IX, but the Queen-regent Blanche of Castille ruled in his stead, and she offered Raymond Toulouse and the surrounding lands in exchange for his word that he would stamp out Catharism. The Inquisition moved in and began their systematic persecution and execution of any known (and unknown) Cathars. The ‘last bastion’ of the Cathars was the infamous castle of Montsegur, which was besieged for nearly a year, finally surrendering in March 1244. Two hundred Cathar perfecti (the clergy) were offered to convert to Catholicism, refused, and were burnt in the field below the fortress, the prat dels cremats (Oldenbourg, 1962).
After this, any Cathar would practice in secret, and many fled over the Pyrenees into the more tolerant arms of Catalonia, indeed there is still a walking route known as the Cami del Bons Homes which runs from Berga (Catalonia) into and over the Pyrenees, finishing near Montesgur and Foix (Ariege). Strayer suggests that by the mid-fourteenth century, all known presences of the heresy had been wiped out by the Inquisition (Strayer, 1971).
To return to the present, upon entering Carcassonne through the Porte Narbonnaise, one passes over the bridge and into the main gate of the castle, watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary. Surrounding the cite are three kilometres of ramparts, interspersed with no less than fifty-two towers. Immediately the quality of the reconstruction is apparent, as one is thrown right back into the atmosphere if the Middle Ages, with the small winding streets being filled with merchants and their wares (i.e. tourist shops and eager museum touts). Bottles of local wines and Hypocras, a local spicy herbal wine or tonic first made in the Medieval period, vie with stone gargoyles and coats of arms, among the obligatory key chains and wooden swords. As one makes one’s way into the heart of the cite the streets open out into a series of small squares, lined with bars and restaurants, most of which serve the local favourite, cassoulet, a warming and heart-attack inducing mix of beans, pork, sausage and duck confit. Towards the south of the cite lies the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, a building which rather uniquely combines the Romanesque and the Gothic, being constructed between the 9th and 14th centuries. It is recorded that a Carolingian cathedral stood on the site prior to the Basilica, however, no trace of that is seen today (at least visibly). The stained windows within are among the most beautiful in France, representing scenes from the life of Christ and the Apostles, and date to the 13th and 14th centuries. It remained the religious hub of Carcassonne until 1801, when, following the movement of the cité’s inhabitants to the newer town below, it was deprived of the title of cathedral (this going to the lower town’s Church of Sant-Michel), however, it was given the title of Basilica in 1898 by Pope Leo XIII. To the north lies the iconic Chateau Comtal, which defines the cité’s panorama. Dominated by a huge square tower, the castle also consists of a courtyard, two single floored buildings, a palisade, and the private chapel of Sainte-Marie (built in 1150). Much time can be spent nosing around the various nooks and crannies of this castle, with its mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, exhibitions and magnificent views over the river and the modern city below.
The Basilica emerging into view through the Medieval streets.
The leering gargoyles the decorate every inch of the Basilica’s roof.
Speaking of which, within the modern town, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne can be recommended, not just for its collections of Old Masters (from Breughel to Van Goyen) and a huge array of painters from the French School throughout the centuries (including the very fine ‘Combat de Romains et du Gaulois’ by Luminais) but also a fine array of curios. The aforementioned cathedral is also worth a visit. First built in the thirteenth century, it became fortified after war damage in the fourteenth century, and five centuries later was given cathedral status as the modern town began to become more populous than the cite.
A very fine bedroom view!
The next location on this whistlestop tour was our old favourite, Mirepoix. Information on the history of mirepoix can be found in a prior trip report on this website (https://perennialpyrenees.com/2017/08/11/field-report-ariege-tour/), suffice to say that in the Spring sunshine it was even more lovely than before. In addition, the bookshop did not disappoint, providing three more volumes on the Cathars, Rennes-le-Chateau and the myths and legends of the Aude region, for the project’s ever-growing library.
An excellent tipple.
There is nothing like watching the sun go down over some gabled houses, with the cathedral tolling to the left of you, all set within a Medieval square surrounded by swooping swallows and a delightful beer at hand. Magical!
Martin, S. 2005. The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages. Harpendon: Pocket Essentials.
Oldenbourg, Z. 1962. The Massacre at Montsegur. Translated from the French by Peter Green. London: Pantheon Books.
Roux-Perino, J. 2006. The Cathars. Vic-en-Bigorre: MSM Publications.
Strayer, J. 1971. The Albigensian Crusades. Ney York, NY: The Dial Press.