Montségur, a 13th-century castle in Languedoc, southern France, 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.
The Cathars 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.
It is challenging enough to climb the hill leading to the castle 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.
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 Sparbier, an expert on the region, 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.”