“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.”
I am in Occitanie, formerly 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.
The security-conscious Man of God the passerby is talking about 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.