Friday, 11 April 2014

Cathar castles

The donjon of Arques castle.
Today - more photos from my long weekend in the South of France. We hired a car one day and went off looking for castles, and I've never seen anything quite like it! There are so many castles in the Languedoc region that they don't bother putting them all on maps - you drive past a cliff-face or a village and there'll be some ruined stronghold up there, ignored by everyone.

As you can see, they dearly loved to put castles on cliffs. The more ridiculously precipitous the better.


The area around Carcassonne is "Cathar country", and many of the castles (or earlier versions of them) were used as Cathar boltholes during the Albigensian Crusades (1209-1229)*

the "Cathar Castles"
This is Quéribus - it is so bijou and cute you could imagine it as a holiday home.

And you can see your enemies coming for miiiiiiles!

But even that pales into insignificance compared to the location of Peyrepertuse, which sits on a knife-edge limestone ridge:

Looking east along the ridge

Looking west along the ridge
It was the quietest eyrie ever. No traffic noises, no birdsong, no aircraft - and in March, only one other set of tourists. I fell in love with the place.

We only managed to get a close look at three castles in that day. I would certainly go back in order to do more! It's an extraordinary landscape, even discounting all the crummy New-Age / Holy Blood and the Holy Grail / Dan Brown / Kate Mosse fantasy that's built up around it. lots of history, lots of atmosphere, lots of wide open space.

 * A quick 'n' dirty guide to Catharism: It was a quasi-Christian cult (or a different religion altogether, depending on where you draw the line) that sprang up in southern Europe in the Middle Ages. It was dualist (they believed in both a good Creator and a bad/lesser one, and saw the material world as inherently evil while goodness resided only in Spirit). Adherents rejected the hierarchy and the Sacraments of the established Church, as well as the Old Testament - although they identified with the Gospels. Instead they embraced poverty, good works, celibacy, gender-equality, vegetarianism and reincarnation. By medieval standards they were just HERETICS, and a crusade against them was declared in 1209 by the Pope.

This was an episode that really cannot count as Christianity's finest hour, even given the particularly low bar set by the Catholic Church. Only about 10% of the population in the Languedoc region were Cathars, but they had a lot of support from local people including many local nobles, who attempted to protect them. One of the most notorious incidents was when the town of Béziers was besieged by Catholic forces. When they breached the walls the papal legate in charge ordered all the heretics put to death.
"How do we know which ones are heretics?" he was asked.
"Kill them all," he said; "God will sort them out," and 20,000 men, women and children were slaughtered.

The last Cathar parfait was burned alive in the courtyard of  Villerouge-Termines castle. They now have a groovy medieval restaurant there.
Total death toll ...  hard to guess, but possibly around half a million. Catharism was successfully exterminated.

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