Although vineyards now surround the Unesco-listed town of Carcassonne, its history is much less peaceful. In 1209, it was a refuge for Occitan Cathars but, crowded with refugees, fell in seven days to the crusading army of Simon de Montfort after the water supply was cut.
Languedoc – Long Read

Last stronghold of the Cathars

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Languedoc – Long Read Last stronghold of the Cathars

Hello Languedoc, where the mysterious Cathars were besieged by the Crusaders in their mountaintop castles and hunted down by the Inquisition. Now visitors flock to the picturesque villages and ruins that still define a place apart, with a language more closely related to Catalan than French.

Dan Hayes
Dan Hayes Travel Writer

“It looks more like a fortress than a church, doesn’t it?” A passerby stops to share his opinion as I peer up at the solid, impregnable-looking brickwork of Albi’s medieval cathedral of St Cecilia. He follows my gaze with his. “It’s because it was, you know. The bishop was so scared he hid himself away in there. He didn’t like the idea of what might happen to him…” He pauses. “That’s because this was Cathar country.”

The security-conscious Man of God in question was one Bernard de Castanet, 13th-century Bishop of Albi and Inquisitor of Languedoc. He had every reason to be wary of his flock – even though work actually began on this building in 1282, long after the Cathar heresy had been crushed. Memories were still vivid of the day, 50 years before, when the then bishop was pursued into the previous cathedral by an angry mob, from which precarious position he excommunicated the populace en masse.

De Castanet was well aware of the region’s history. He knew locals might still harbor sympathies for the Cathars and that resentment about the way in which the movement had been crushed might still smolder. Hence the cathedral: massive, imposing and a lasting reminder of where power lay. As I walk around it, I can see it has no transept – it is not cross-shaped but rectangular, with 32 pillar-like buttresses, watchtowers and an obviously flat roof. That towering roof – some say it is the largest brick building in the world – would be a handy place to mass your defenders and bombard unwelcome visitors. It is more reminiscent of a colossal bunker than a traditional place of worship.

The Cathars whose memory occupied the mind of the bishop were a Christian sect whose teachings sparked a bloody crusade within France itself between 1209 and 1255. At the most basic level, they believed there were two deities at work in the world, one good, the other evil. They associated the “good” god with the New Testament and the spiritual life of the soul. The “evil” god’s realm was the material and the corporeal. Inspired by this dualism, the most radical members of the sect steered clear of sex – they had no desire to introduce another poor unfortunate into a world of trouble and strife. They also shunned meat – ultimately that was the product of fleshy sin.

The Catholic church, the king and the nobles of northern France found all this rather hard to stomach and, after a series of increasingly heated debates and the murder of a Papal representative, Pope Innocent III launched what became known as the Albigensian Crusade – named after the city of Albi – against the Languedoc region in general and the Cathars in particular. The defenders, led by the counts of Toulouse and Carcassone, did have several factors in their favor. For one, they had a solid regional support base. For another, they could rely on mountainous terrain that was hard for an invading force to navigate. The key to their defensive strategy, though, was a line of castles, built high up on hilltops and strung out across a 160km front.


Leaving Albi’s solidly brick-red cathedral-fortress behind – pausing only to visit the fascinating Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and enjoy some of the fine local cuisine – I drive south. Passing through quiet, shuttered-down villages, I enjoy roads where Renault and Citroën vans in varied states of modernity seem to make up the majority of traffic. Vineyards stretch to the horizon, a rolling green landscape broken only by the bright color of sunflower fields.

My first stop lies just off the winding D118: the village of Lastours, about 15km to the north-east of the famously fortified city of Carcassone. Here, on a succession of rocky outcrops, I find four towers in various states of preservation. Bleak and rather battered they may appear, but they were once the headquarters of local nobleman Pierre-Roger de Cabaret and a centre of resistance to the crusading forces led by Simon de Montfort – father of the knight who would later play a major part in forcing through Magna Carta in England. Leaving the car in the quiet streets of the village, I begin the ascent towards the lofty fortifications. Not for the first time, my mind dwells on those who must have passed this way before – both Cathar and crusader.

One contemporary chronicler, a Cistercian monk named Peter de les Vaux-de-Cernay, wrote of the fortification as being, “a veritable fountain of heresy”. De Montfort thought so too and the path where I am now walking witnessed one of the more grisly episodes in what was a thoroughly gory episode of European history. In 1209, after an unsuccessful siege of the castle, the crusader general showed his wrath in a particularly gruesome manner. He sent 100 of the defenders of Bram, a village 40km away, minus their noses, lips and eyes, stumbling to the gates of Lastours. At the head of the column was a man who had been left with one eye intact – so he could lead the way.

The place should be thick with ghosts, but seemingly not today. A warming sun beats down and cicadas chirp in the thick underbrush and shapely poplar trees as I ascend towards the gates of the castle. Here, I meet Ingrid Sparbier, an expert on the region and a fount of knowledge about its fortifications and wider history. Lastours, she says, is one of the most dramatic sites in Languedoc. “There is so much to see here – natural and man-made defensive systems, the ruins of a Romanesque church, a fortified village. It all helps tell the story of the crusade against the Cathars, but it’s also fantastic just to walk around the place and enjoy the views.”

As to that grim tale with which the place is synonymous, she suggests, with just a hint of a Gallic shrug, that De Montfort’s cruelty must be seen in the context of its time: “You have to remember it was the Middle Ages. That was the kind of thing that happened.”

That was the kind of thing that happened

She has a point, for all the savagery of the tale it pales into insignificance when compared with what occurred on July 22, 1209, when almost the entire population of Béziers – perhaps as many as 15,000 people – was put to the sword by the invading forces. Supposedly the bloodshed was encouraged by one of the crusader leaders – a monk by the name of Arnaud Amalric – who is reputed to have said: “Kill them all. God will know his own.” This tale would have been known to the defenders of Lastours and the appearance of their mangled comrades provided the impetus to de Cabaret to broker a negotiated settlement before the situation got further out of hand.

As we wander amid the walls and turrets of the site, Sparbier offers a few more insights. “People are often surprised when I tell them that what they can see here – and elsewhere too – isn’t really a Cathar castle. After their victory the royalist forces rebuilt all the fortresses and used them to defend the border with Spain.” With that in mind we head south, past the castle of Termes, ruined but imposing on a peak surrounded by low trees. Peter de les Vaux-de-Cernay, who may well have seen it for himself, described the place as being “marvelously indeed unbelievably, strong and in human estimation… quite impregnable.” Even so, it fell to de Montfort in 1210.

The Spanish, and behind them the Moorish, influence can still be tasted in the local cuisine, with hearty bowls of beans and olives, fish stew colored with saffron and such dishes as crema catalana and paella. The 17th-century playwright Racine said after a visit to his uncle’s village in Languedoc that it “would support 20 caterers but a bookseller would starve to death” – a comment the down-to-earth peasantry no doubt saw as a simple compliment. The most typical dish of the region also reflects this agricultural richness: a cassoulet with duck, goose and pork, all salted and cooked in fat. Languedoc is also the world’s largest wine-producing region, with Vin de Pays d’Oc being perhaps its most famous brand.

My next stop is 20km further on, near the village of Cucugnan, where the neighboring fortresses of Peyrepertuse and Quéribus – perched high up on limestone cliffs – formed a strongpoint of the Cathar cause. Today, this dramatic pair lie close to the Sentier Cathare, a 250km long-distance trail that links many of the most famous sights from the period – including nine castles – and often follows the line of paths that connected villages and settlements in the 13th century. Along the trail – and elsewhere – the Pays Cathare logo is prevalent. Black and white and reminiscent of a yin and yang symbol, it provides, Ingrid says, both a reminder of the rising sun and moon and the dualism of the Cathar faith.

The castle seems to merge with the rock

Ignoring for the moment the craft stalls and Romanesque church of Cucugnan, I turn my attention to Peyrepertuse – one of largest of the Cathar castles. The mercury is rising and it’s not a climb for the faint-hearted – the castle is 800 meters above sea level and seems to merge with the rock on which it stands, hence its name – which means “pierced stone”. Roughly triangular in shape, with the remains of a keep and adjacent church at one corner and a further bastion at its apex, it is an impressive site – one of the most complete of all the fortresses of the region and dubbed “a celestial Carcassone” by French historian Michel Roquebert.

Looking east from the crumbled ramparts of Peyrepertuse I can see Quéribus. It is only a few kilometers away, but the walk means a steep climb along a rough track. As with its neighbor, though, the views alone are well worth the effort, stretching off towards Perpignan and the hazy outline of the Pyrénées. Quéribus has at its heart an unexpected architectural gem, the hall of the pillar – a room where one immense upright soars up to the ceiling. Light streams in from a double bay window and two rows of stone benches run the length of walls. It feels as though this chamber could have been some kind of inner sanctum and I find it easy to imagine Cathar leaders at their prayers overlooking the wide vistas of their domains.

“It certainly isn’t something you’d necessarily expect in a military building,” says Ingrid. “For some reason they created this room that was more sophisticated, but we don’t know now whether it was some kind of chapel, or a place to house guests, or the living quarters of a commander.” The chamber may be something of a mystery, but what is still easy to see is that the castle was built on three levels. To get to the upper keep any potential attacker would have had to pass two lower towers along a narrow path, hemmed in by a wall. It seems a very dangerous proposition, but even so both Quéribus and its near-neighbor were eventually captured.

Perhaps the most dramatic act of Catharism, however, came 60km west of here, at Montségur. The castle is probably the most emotive and recognizable relic of Catharism in the region and is perched 1,200 meters high on top of a hill that itself rises unfeasibly steeply from the surrounding terrain. It is challenging enough to climb without having to dodge arrows and spears. Known as the “Synagogue of Satan” by the crusaders, this was where many of the leading Cathars staged their last stand. It was here also that around 200 men, women and children were burned alive – a punishment beloved of Inquisition priests wary of the sin of shedding blood – after the fortress fell. A small, understated memorial marks the spot where this took place, its inscription now eroded and hard to decipher.

A garrison of a mere 100 men

In spring 1243, the royalist army laid siege to Montségur. The castle commander, a knight called Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix, had a garrison of a mere 100 men. The 200 priestly Cathars – known as the Perfect, according to the Inquisition, but by themselves merely as “Good Christians” – who had taken refuge here were forbidden from fighting by their beliefs. The siege dragged on until December, when a group of Gascon soldiers clambered up a steep rock face to capture a bastion at the easternmost edge of the summit ridge.

With this foothold the royal army brought up reinforcements and Montségur finally surrendered in March 1244. The Royalist commander offered a pardon to any of the 200 Perfect who would renounce their faith, saying that if any chose to decline his proposal they would be burned. Not only did none of them accept, but a further 20 or so of their mercenary soldiers asked to be admitted to the higher ranks and to share their fate.

As we pass through the castle’s gateways and passages, stopping to investigate its three-meter thick curtain wall, water cistern and arrow slits facing the courtyard – the keep was designed to hold out even if attackers breached the walls – Ingrid says: “Montségur is the most famous castle of them all, but you have to remember there would have been a larger Cathar settlement here than the ruins suggest. There would have been both a fortress and a village, but there is hardly any sign of them now. What you see is a military castle built years afterwards. So you really have to use your imagination as to what it would have been like.”

The bare facts do little to deter from the drama of the site and, standing up here as the sun begins to set, I can understand why Montségur has been suggested as a hiding place for the Holy Grail – or at the very least Cathar treasures and secrets. In the 1930s, German historian and archeologist Otto Rahn was captivated by Montségur and wrote two books focusing on the Cathars, the Knights Templar and speculating about the presence of the Grail. His work brought him to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, a man with a more than passing interest in the occult – who is reputed to have ordered excavations at the site during World War II.

If the Nazis did go digging at Montségur then, as far as anyone knows, they found nothing unexpected but there is nonetheless a slight twist to the tale. Rahn himself came to a bad and unexplained end, being discovered frozen to death on an Austrian mountainside in 1939. The official verdict was suicide, but many a conspiracy theorist would dispute that. Sparbier gives short shrift to any such tales and speculation. “There’s so much interesting history here anyway, there’s no need for those stories,” she says.

It was not a simple case of North versus South

As a buzzard glides past the ramparts at eye level, our conversation turns to a more recent political phenomenon, the Occitan movement that preaches the cause of self-government for the south west of France. “You will always find some people fighting for the independence of Occitania, but their thinking is often a mixture of different theories and motivations,” she says.

“The Albigensian crusade was not a simple case of North versus South. There were Frankish people [northerners] here in the 7th century. It was then that the counts of Toulouse were given land here – they were from the north, but they just arrived here earlier. The Cathar period was extremely important in this area. Everything changed here after the crusade – the language, the relationship between nobility and people, the architecture – the Gothic style appears earlier in this region than elsewhere. And those are all very real things you can still see today.”

For proof of the truth of that last remark, I need only think of Albi’s impressively buttressed cathedral. Inside, it is a revelation: a colorful, gilded, light-infused outpouring of Gothic creativity that could hardly be in greater contrast both to its own hulking exterior or to the stark, enduringly dramatic remains of Montségur.

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