On March 16, 1244, after a year-long siege, more than two hundred Cathars were captured in their fortress stronghold of Montsegur in the Pyrenees of southern France and burned alive by troops of the Inquisition.
Montsegur had been home to a community of men, women and children known as the “Cathars”, the term itself deriving from the Greek word Katheroi meaning “Pure Ones”.
According to legend, one of the secret purposes of Montsegur was to protect the most sacred treasure, the Holy Grail. The safekeeping of the Grail was allegedly part of the function of the Cathars.
Unfortunately all their writings and possessions were burned by the Inquisition along with their bodies in a mass suppression of their culture right across southern France.
They were, it seemed, above all else, a deeply religious people who practiced vegetarianism, non-violence, and tolerance. At the time their influence across Europe was enormous.
The crusade against the Cathars began in 1209 under the Roman Catholic Church. The religious beliefs of the Cathars were in direct opposition to the Catholic reading of the Bible, and their growing power in a forgotten rural part of the empire became a threat.
Although there are a many theories and speculation, it is not exactly known why the Church chose to annihilate the Cathars in this terrible way. The fact the Inquisitors did not arrest and interrogate their targets as they were wont to do, and no official document or charge was levelled against the Cathars, other than the ambiguous “heresy” tag, indicates the Church saw Catharism as a major threat.
Coins and sacred objects left behind by the Cathars were distributed to the conquering army and officials, but according to Inquisition records, the real treasure vanished the night before the sacking.
History has it that four high-ranking Cathars carried a treasure of great importance out of the fortress the night before its fall. They were said to have escaped down the steepest side of the mountain and disappeared.
Speculation still exists about the nature of the treasure and where it may be hidden today. Historians and researchers have sweated over possible contenders for such a relic including sacred texts, uncensored religious writings, or perhaps even the Holy Grail itself.
Many believe that it may still reside in one of the many limestone caves that surround Montsegur, or in an abandoned, water-logged mine in the Ariage.
It was this kind of speculation that led rebel Huguenots of the 17th century and members of Hitler’s S.S. to scour Europe for the treasure.
While the subject of the Cathars has been tackled countless times, I believe Jean Markale’s book Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars is the best.
A poet, philosopher, and experienced historian, Jean Markale doesn’t get weighed down by the legends and mythology of the Cathars. He presents a very focused and fascinating treatise with enough detail to satisfy even the most knowledgeable Cathar scholar.
Markale is the author of more than 40 books, including The Templar Treasure at Gisors, The Druids, The Celts, Merlin, and Women of the Celts and has spent years researching pre-Christian and medieval culture and spirituality. His style of writing and research is always clear and direct. His work Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars is no different.
The book is in three parts, the first of which is The Sights, a fantastic introduction to the various areas of southern France associated with the Cathars and what it was like to be alive in feudal France.
Part two, Who Were the Cathars?, covers Markale's indepth research into the Cathar sect. He points out that the origins of the Cathar movement can be traced to the missionary work of the Bogomils, a dualistic sect that emerged in south eastern Europe in the 11th century.
Markale presents an enlightening view into their philosophy and practice. He covers Mazdaism, the Manicheaism brought to Gaul in the 8th century by missionaries from Bulgaria, Croatia and Bosnia, and the concept of duality central to the Cathar Gnostics. Markale provides a perceptive understanding of how creeds and religious cultures develop over time.
The third part of the work is titled The Cathar Enigma, and deals with modern-day manifestations of Catharism, its relation to Druidism and Norse culture, and evidence the Cathars built Montsegur as a solar temple.
The last chapter also investigates the connections between the Cathars and the Knights Templar, and of course the enduring legend of the Holy Grail within Montsegur. All of these topics are covered with minimal fantasy and maximum scholarship.
In all, an essential part of any library dealing with the historical relevance of Catharism and the progression of religious thought.
– Robert Buratti
© Copyright 2004 by New Dawn Magazine and the respective authors.
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