Land of the Cathars

In late summer 2012 me and my girlfriend spent our holidays in the very South of France. I had never really been to France save for Paris when I was a teenager and passing through on my way to the UK. ‘Cathar country’ had been on my wishlist for quite a while. Why? Perhaps that romantic view on the Cathars, being curious about what is left and of course the environment over there. We found a place to stay quite near to the most famous castle of the Cathars, Montségur and had found a few other things that we wanted to see. I must say, a week of visiting Cathar sites (and some other things) has put the subject into some perspective.

What I did not really expect is that the Cathars are actually the main tourist feature of the region and many, many tourists set off to southern France for that, too many! There are Cathar car-tours, every ruin has to be paid for to get in, you are never alone when you visit a site, there is some sort of Cathar passport that you can use to collect stamps when you visit a site, but this includes sites that I have not found the Cathar connection with. It is a craze actually. Visiting some sites, buying books, reading the information provided to tourists, etc. has mostly flattened my (slumbering) ideas of before. A few thoughts.

Montségur is a famous ruin where 240 Cathars were burned when they did not convert to Roman Catholism. Of course this is something you want to see or experience. From our holiday cabin we drove up the mountain to the village of Montségur, visiting the nice museum. Then we continued up the mountain (by car of course, we are lazy tourists) up to the massive parking lot which was completely full. From the parking lot you have a steep, 30 minute walk up to the ruin. There were so many people that we literally walked up in a row, of course at the speed of the slowest fellow tourist. This is as it is, nothing to do about it, but how many people (especially country-mates…) try to go faster by wringing themselves alongside the row, trying cut-offs, etc… On reaching the ruin, there was a complete circus of people shouting, ignoring prohibition signs, running up and down the ancient walls, trampling bushes and grasses, disappointment is an understatement.
Besides, when you read about the ruin, this gets more. Montségur was built in 1204 and the Cathars were swiped in 1244. After that the castle has had several new owners who changed it until it was abandoned and fell to ruins. What you see now, is most likely not much like it was in the few years that Cathars lived there, so what about these theories about the solar temple (in a part that the official leaflet lists as “prison”!), which is there, but from what time?

We visited other ruins, such as Queribus, Peyrepertuse and Puivert, always with a load of other people, also on weekdays. Actually, most of these ruins are not Cathar-castles, they were of people with Cathar sympathies either or not dispossessed of their castles by the inquisition. Now that I mention them anyway, ‘castle-wise’ Montségur is the simplest of them all, the others are more interesting to visit, since they are larger and more complex buildings. Puivert even has a tower in tact in which the original rooms (a chapel, a dining room and a music room) can be visited. The main site to see, though, is the fortified town of Carcassone which may be a magnet for tourists but is certainly the most interesting thing to see in the area.

To the Cathars then. I do not know if, and if so what, you have read about them, but when I look at myself, this concerns mostly overly romantic versions of contemporary ‘gnostics’ and thrill-seekers in the league of popular science (no Dan Brown by the way). I probably just never thought about it, but the Cathars were no strange sect living in castles, Catharism was just another faith of the people who lived together with Catholics in their villages or who, more often, were simple people with a faith mixing Catholicism and Catharism. The main feature of Catharism was the consolamentum, a sort of baptism that washes away all sins. Many people waited with this consolamentum until their death-beds so they could live as they wanted and die sinlessly. Catholicism had other such good features, so many people took the best of both. Because the ‘real’ Cathars, the so-called parfaits or ‘perfects’ helped out people on their lands, when they were sick, etc. many people had sympathy for the Cathars and for many years everything seemed perfect. Then when Rome thought that it was time to turn everybody into Catholics they started to apply gentle pressure in the beginning and install the inquisition in the end. These harsch actions came in waves and, to name the famous example again, Montségur was built as a refuse when Rome had been busy for some time already. In the same way, Cathars moved to Northern Italy and back, had a Bulgarian form a structure like the Roman example for the Cathar faith, make some structure, etc. This is one thing that I wonder about, is not just every non-Roman Christian faith called “Catharism” nowadays? I get the idea that this umbrella covers too many “herecies” to make it look larger and more structured than it actually was and nowadays everything is linked to the drama at Montségur so tourists will come to have a gaze.

The whole legend of the Cathars has even taken such a flight that many people come to Languedoc to (apparently) seek Cathar spirituality. The Dutch neo-Rosicrucian organisation Lectorium Rosicrucianum got linked to a native of the area who was not only speleologue (potholer?) but also “the last Cathar patriarch”. The Lectorium is certainly one of those organisations who the Cathar museum accuses of creating an imaginary Catharism (about which later). Now I have a book by/about this Antonin Gadal in which he tells about the caves that he discovered around his village of birth, one of which is the Cathar initiation cave (that he) called “Bethlehem” or “Bethleem”. This cave is not in the booklets or tourists maps, but we set out to find it, finding it in a prohibited area just a bit higher up the mountain from the village Ussat-le-Bain. We proved to be not alone! This cave swarms with people ‘meditating’ in and around it, people acting interestingly with a recently published book published by the Lectorium Rosicrucianum about Cathar initiations in their hands (all Dutch of course!) I only heard about this book when we came home again, should I read it…?

Then there is a the strange ambiguity of the people involved in entertaining tourists. Some booklets make easy claims about Cathars and Catharism throwing everything on one heap, finding Cathars where I doubt there were any, sending tourists to ‘normal’ (but beautiful) abbeys, etc. On the other hand you find information about people trying to strip the whole Cathar legend from the stories that are woven around them by over-enthousiastic writers, esotericists and sensation-writers alike. I have the idea that many people prefer the sensations and/or that all these Cathar things are just something that you ‘have to see’ some time. How many of them are really interested in the drama of the Cathars? Are they people who see in the demise of Catharism an example of intollerance in religion, are their intentions anti-Roman? Do they just follow the traces of writers in the tradition of Dan Brown or in the tradition of the Dutch neo-Rosicrucians? Or are they just like me, interested to see what is what and return home with a more serious/factual view on this black page of history?

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