Friday 5 May 2017

The Cathars - A Medieval Gnostic Heresy

During the Middle Ages in southern France and northern Spain, a Gnostic belief spread that the Catholic Church declared to be a heresy. That belief came to called Catharism, although exactly when it got that name is unknown. The Cathars beliefs came from the eastern Mediterranean from the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey. Gnosticism was primarily an eastern belief and it was rare for it to spread to Europe. But it gathered a strong following in the area of France known as the Occitan.

The Cathars were Christians but they believed in two Gods, the God of the Old Testament who was God of the physical world, which was evil. And in the God of the New Testament who was the God of the spiritual world, which was good. So that left a question, if Jesus died upon the cross to atone for the sins of mankind then he was physical and if he was physical then he was evil!

How can the savour of man be evil?

The Cathars had an answer, Jesus was not physical, he was a spirit, he was the symbol of the triumph of the God of the New Testament over the God of the Old Testament. Jesus suffering was regarded as metaphysical instead of physical.

The Catholic Church regarded all of this as wrong, it said that there was one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost or Spirit. It also said that Jesus suffered on the cross to atone for the sins of mankind. It asked the question, how could a spirit suffer? It's answer was that it couldn't, the Cathar beliefs took Jesus, who was the centre piece of Christian theology and turned him into nothing more than a symbol.

None of this was acceptable to the Catholic Church and over many decades they sent missionaries into the region to remind people of Catholic doctrine. But the Cathar beliefs had spread into the Church and to the Nobility. Various Popes were involved in trying to stem the spread of this belief, the Dominican Order was founded in part to do this work. In 1209 the Papal Legate was murdered after excommunicating the Count of Toulouse and the Pope ordered that a Crusade be preached against the Cathars, the Crusade is known as the Albigensian Crusade.

The Crusade lasted for 20 years and was quite brutal. The most infamous incident was the massacre at Beziers were the new Papal Legate was asked how would the Crusaders be able to distinguish between Cathars and Catholics, he replied "Kill them all, the Lord will recognize his own".

After the Crusade finished in 1229 the Cathars while greatly weakened continued to exist. The Church created the Inquisition. In general there were four Inquisitions, the Medieval, the Roman and the Spanish and Portuguese. The Spanish Inquisition has acquired quite a reputation, the Roman Inquisition still exists and is mostly concerned with books than people. The Medieval Inquisition was simply known as the Inquisition. It was mostly concerned with bringing people back into the Catholic fold and it continued in this task for another century.

In the 1960's some documents were discovered that came from the Inquisition in the early 1300's. These documents are unique as they are the earliest documents anywhere in the world to include the observations and opinions of ordinary people. The Inquisition would summon people and ask them questions to see if they were still Cathars, they didn't ask them questions about theology but mostly about ordinary life. They were like an Intelligence Service, they were looking for flaws in people's thinking and for information on how other people thought. And they wrote it all down, what people thought about religion, what they did for work, how they lived, who they liked and didn't like and all the gossip covering a thirty year period, 1294-1324.

A book was written from this information, Montaillou, the book was written by a French academic and you can tell. Having said that if you can read between the lines you will enjoy this book. One thing from the book has stayed with me "Everything is forbidden, there fore everything is allowed". This was a rather cynical joke the last Cathars told each other, it is pure Gnostic thinking. As the physical world is evil, so are you, and so is everything you do, in other words everything in this life is forbidden. But as everything is forbidden then whats the difference between doing something wrong and doing something really wrong?

These Cathars saw both the absurdity of their beliefs and they took advantage of them "Everything is forbidden, there fore everything is allowed".

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  1. JESUS according to the Cathars existed as an image. NOT a real person who died a real death. The Council of Nicaea decided the issue that JESUS was a real person of three substances simultaneously. NOT merely believed by Catholics but by Orthodox as well. And still is.

  2. The Inquisition in my opinion [Spanish at least] much melodramatic by current histories. By the records of the Inquisition about 5,000 persons executed in a 100 year period. That works out to be about one a week. About the same number of persons as would have been hit and killed by lightning. Trivial almost meaningless numbers in comparison to other disaster such as the Black Death.