Zarathushtra, Mani, And The Cathars

This article covers philosophers Zarathushtra, Mani, and The Cathars.

The word that wounds is this:
When a man speaks a word
for the sake of the killing of a man
or the killing of beasts or the killing of trees
and the “Cross of Light,”
the lying word, and that of anger and that of fury,
or a corrupt and viciously obscene word
or a quarrelsome word that one flings at his brother ­
this is the hurtful word.
Mani, Kephalaia 211:9-14



Zarathushtra is said to have lived 258 years before Alexander. Since Alexander had taken over the Persian empire by 330 BC when Darius III died, and as Zarathushtra was about forty years old when he converted King Vishtapa and lived to be 77, the approximate dates of his life are 628-551 BC. Other traditions hold that he was born long before that, and some scholars believe he lived between 1400 and 1200 BC. It is also possible that there could have been more than one Zarathushtra. Little is known about the life of Zarathushtra, who was called Zoroaster by the Greeks, but his influence on Iranian religion was very great. The name Zarathushtra has been translated as “he of the golden Light,” and legend indicates that as a child he glowed with radiant light.

The Aryans, who settled in Iran and those who invaded India, shared a common religion originally, as indicated by a Mitannian treaty with Hittites from the 14th century BC which acknowledged the Vedic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and the two Nasatyas. The names Mitra and Varuna were often linked together in the Hindu Vedas as a dual compound. The Iranian god Ahura shared the characteristics of the early Varuna, and Zarathushtra added the attribute of wisdom (Mazda) and declared that the one true God is Ahura Mazda. Apparently when the split occurred between the Hindus and the Iranians, they eventually demonized some of each other gods and spirits. The divinities the Hindus call devas became evil spirits or devils to the Iranians and Zarathushtra, while the Hindus called evil spirits asuras.

According to tradition Zarathushtra was born smiling or laughing as the third of five sons in the Spitama family in the pastoral Median town of Rhages near what is now Tehran; he was initiated into the priesthood at age fifteen. He left home on a spiritual quest when he was twenty and at thirty recognized the Wise Lord (Mazda Ahura) when Good Thought (Vohu Manah) came to him and asked him who he was. Zarathushtra declared that he was a foe to the Liar and a supporter of what is right. Zarathushtra criticized aggressive violators of order as followers of the Lie, and his teachings were opposed by the religious authorities. Zarathushtra was tempted to give up his new faith but continued on with great determination. For ten years he wandered around with very few followers.

Traveling east as he preached, Zarathushtra struggled for two years to convert a Chorasmian prince named Vishtapa. Opposed by greedy Karpan priests and critical of their corruption, intoxicated orgies, and animal sacrifices, Zarathushtra was put in prison until he was aided by Vishtapa’s consort Hutaosa; then Vishtapa accepted the new faith and promoted it actively. The court of Vishtapa was drawn into the religion, Zarathushtra marrying a daughter of one of the nobles whose brother married Zarathushtra’s daughter by his first wife. The new religion was promulgated so actively that two holy wars were fought in its defense, and in the second one Zarathushtra was killed at the age of 77 while attending a fire ceremony.

The teachings of Zarathushtra were passed down through the ancient poetry of the Gathas. Zarathushtra declared that there is one God, the Wise Lord he called Ahura Mazda, transforming the polytheism of the Aryan religion into monotheism. This God he identified as the creator and governor of the universe through the Holy Spirit. The most important characteristic of God is Asha, which means truth or what is right (justice, law). This God is profoundly ethical, rewarding the thoughts, words, and actions of the good, and bringing recompense to those of the evil. All spirits and beings are free to choose between the good and evil. The twenty names Zarathushtra gave to God are I am, Giver of Herds, Strong One, Perfect Holiness, All-Good, Understanding, Having Understanding, Knowledge, Having Knowledge, Blessing, Causing Blessing, Lord, Most Beneficent, Not Harming, Unconquerable, Truthful, All-Seeing, Healing, Creator, and Wise (or Omniscient).

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster

Zarathushtra taught that God has seven major attributes. Spenta Mainyu is the Holy Spirit through which everything is created. God communicated to Zarathushtra through the Vohu Manah or Good Mind. Asha Vahishta means best order or justice. The Khshathra Vairya, which obviously has the same etymology as the Kshatriya or ruling caste of India, means Absolute Power, Desirable Dominion, and the Ultimate Paradise to be established on Earth in the end time which came to be called the kingdom or sovereignty of heaven by Jesus. Yasna 41:2 states, “May we be granted thy good government (khshathra) for ever and ever, O Wise Lord. May a good governor, whether it be a man or a woman, rule over us in the two worlds.”1 The two worlds refer to the spiritual and material worlds. Armaiti means Devotion and Piety and came to be associated with the sustaining nurturing of Mother Earth. Haurvatat is Wholeness, Health, and Perfection. The seventh attribute Ameretat is Immortality.

Because God allows free choice, some spirits, who were originally created by the one God, chose badly and became Druj or the spirit of Deceit that can lead people astray. All thoughts, words, and actions have their consequences for good or bad. The Yazata or Adorable Ones give rewards to the good. The Guardian Spirit of humanity is called Sraosha, who along with Mithra and Rashnu, judges the souls after death. Sraosha also has a sister called Ashi Vanguhi, which means Holy Blessing or Good Reward of Deeds. She also protects married life and guards the chastity of women, while abhorring the unfaithful wife. Mithra listens to appeals and represents contracts. He and Rashnu represent truth and light, and the sin of deceiving Mithra can even affect one’s family.

For Zarathushtra fire was a symbol of the divine flame and pure truth that glows in the heart of every being. Xerxes, who found an ever-burning lamp in the temple of Athere Polias at Delos, spared the sanctuary out of respect for Zarathushtran fire worship. The Holy Spirit is the highest next to God, but it is opposed by the Evil Spirit and its offspring, the daevas, providing a constant challenge for humans to choose wisely. The human soul (urvan) and spirit (fravashi) use the faculties of knowing energy (khratu), wisdom and consideration (chisti), intelligence and perception (ushi), mind (manas), consciousness and memory (bodha), practical conscience (ahu), free will (kama), speech (vachas), and action (shyaothna) as well as the instrument of the living body (tanu). Above all these is daena, the gift of vision or revealed religion.

In addition to the strong mandates to tell the truth and be just, Zarathushtra also taught practical things like tilling the soil, raising grain, growing fruits, rooting out weeds, reclaiming wasteland, irrigating barren ground, and treating animals kindly, especially cows who serve farmers. He severely castigated the Turanian nomads, who after killing cattle as sacrifices went out on violent raids, destroying fields and produce.

After death the soul comes to the Bridge of the Separator, and all one’s actions, words, and thoughts are evaluated in terms of good and evil. The good are able to cross the bridge into the heavenly world, but the bad fall down below. However, Gatha 49:11 makes it clear that Zarathushtra originally taught that such souls come back to Earth by reincarnation, though this concept was later dropped from the religion.

But among evil rulers, evil doers, evil speakers,
among evil egos, evil thinkers, and followers of Untruth,
Souls do come back by reason of dim insight;
truly they are dwellers in the Abode of Untruth.2

This makes sense because Zarathushtra taught that eventually all souls will be purified and brought out of hell when the world enters a new cycle free of all evil and misery, ever young and rejoicing with all souls, enjoying ineffable bliss and glory. This is also referred to as the Resurrection (Ristakhez), another idea that greatly influenced Judeo-Christian religion. The essence of the teachings of Zarathushtra can ultimately be summed up in three words, “BE LIKE GOD.”

Through missionaries the religion of Zarathushtra spread rapidly throughout the Persian empire. Darius I showed in his own proclamations that survived in inscriptions how much he was influenced by Zarathushtra’s emphasis on truth and justice. At Behistun, Darius declared that Ahura Mazda helped him because he was not disloyal and did not follow the Lie. He did not do wrong but walked in justice. He wronged neither the weak nor the powerful. He was warned not to befriend those who do wrong but punish them. In the Naqshi-i Rustama inscription Darius praised Ahura Mazda, who created the Earth, sky, humans, human happiness, and who bestowed wisdom on him. He declared that the weak should not have wrong done to them by the powerful nor the reverse. He claimed that he controlled his anger by his thinking power. Darius also wrote that he rewards those who cooperate and punishes those who do harm according to the damage they have done.




Mani was born in Babylonia on April 14, 216 soon after Caracalla overthrew Vologeses V and made his brother Artaban IV (r. 215-26) the last Parthian king. When Mani was twelve, he was told in a vision to withdraw from a baptizing sect associated with Elkhasai. This revelation coincided with Ardashir’s overcoming the Parthians and reviving the Persian empire. Near his 24th birthday Mani was told by his higher self or angelic teacher to proclaim himself a prophet. Two years later Shapur I became the king of Persia. Mani’s mission took him to Ctesiphon and then into western India for two years. There he wrote a book diplomatically praising Shapur. Hindus found his teaching of celibacy too strict; but in 243 he had more success in Khurasan, where he converted Governor Feroz, who told his brother, King Shapur, that Mani had no political ambitions but wanted to unify the people of the empire with this universal religion.

After Mani spent a year in a cave making paintings, Shapur invited the prophet to his court in 245, and Mani requested and received royal letters to all the Persian governors telling them not to hinder his mission. For the next ten years Mani was able to spread his teachings throughout the Persian empire, establishing many churches and sending out disciples. Adda and Pateg carried the teachings of Mani to Egypt. When people made fun of an ugly saint, Mani pointed out that the soul is beautiful and is to be rescued from the material body.

In 255 Zarathustrian magi led by Kartir persuaded Shapur to break with Mani and promote their religion in the empire, causing Mani to go into exile. In the next eighteen years the prophet returned to Khurasan and traveled in central Asia as far as western China, returning by way of Tibet and Kashmir. In 272 Shapur died and was succeeded by his son Hormizd I, governor of Khurasan, who supported the Manichaeans; but he died after reigning one year. His younger brother Bahram I loved pleasure and was cruel. He was persuaded by the magi to end toleration of heresies and foreign cults in order to promote the orthodox Sassanid religion. Mani tried to meet with the new king at his winter palace in Ctesiphon but failed to do so. Mani was said to have been related to the Parthian Arsacid dynasty, and his association with King Baat, possibly a Parthian Armenian, as he lectured to his disciples at Phargalia, may have led to Mani’s arrest at Gondeshapur (Belapat).

Mani was brought before an angry King Bahram and said he had done no harm but had helped the royal family by freeing their servants of demons and by healing them. The king accused Mani of supporting the defeated Parthian cause. Mani replied that God sent him to bring the perfect commandments of Christ that he received from God through an angel so that many souls might be saved and escape punishment. Bahram asked why God did not reveal this to him, the king. Mani replied that God commands and decides whom to teach. The angry king silenced the prophet and had him chained in order to please the magi. Mani said that he had been protected by Shapur and Hormizd, but Bahram sentenced him to death and scourging. Mani was chained heavily in prison for 26 days. There he consoled his disciples and appointed Sisin as his successor. Mani died in prison on February 26 in 274 or 277, described as the messenger of the Light withdrawing his soul from the body. Public distress at the news stimulated the king to order Mani’s body fed to birds and his head placed on a gate. So began persecution of the Manichaeans in the Persian empire that would continue sporadically for centuries.

Four years of persecution occurred before Sisin could organize the church. Many died as martyrs, and many fled to Khurasan or Turkestan. Some went west, and Pateg is said to have preached against the Old Testament in Rome by 280. Bahram II lost Ctesiphon and Seleucia to the Roman emperor Aurelius Carus in 282, while Amu traveled in central Asia and Adda put together scriptures in Africa. About five years later African proconsul Julian warned Diocletian that this strange religion’s ideas on sex, war, agriculture, and civic duties endangered Roman society. By 290 Manichaeism was flourishing in the Fayyum district of Egypt, and the Syriac Psalms would soon be translated into Coptic. Terrible persecution broke out in the Persian empire in 291. Bahram II killed Sisin himself, and many Manichaeans were slaughtered. Innai became the leader and is reported to have healed the king by prayer, giving peace to the new religion for a while.

In 296 Diocletian extended the Christian persecution to the Manichaeans, resulting in numerous martyrs in Egypt and North Africa. Although Persian king Narsi (r. 296-303) lost Mesopotamia and western provinces to Rome after he was defeated by Galerius, he left the Manichaeans in peace. In 303 Hormizd II executed Innai, and the next four Manichaean leaders were also killed. In the fourth century Manichaeism spread throughout the Roman empire. Two Christians, Archelaus in his Disputation with Manes and Alexander of Lycopolis in his “Of the Manichaeans,” treated Manichaeism as a Christian heresy instead of a new religion, because Mani acknowledged Jesus as the Christ. In 372 Valentinian I prohibited all meetings, and Augustine adopted the faith for a decade until Christians urged Theodosius I to take away their civil rights in 381; the next year he decreed Manichaean elders put to death, and in 383 Theodosius banished all Manichaeans. Exile was again decreed by Valentinian II, and in Rome their property was confiscated in 389.

Since Mani believed that other religions had deteriorated because their original founders did not write down their teachings, he wrote several books himself in the Aramaic language of Syriac and made sure that they were accurately copied. His first book, Shabuhragan, honored King Shapur I and assured him that he had no political ambitions. The Living Gospel was written and illustrated in the Turkestan cave and contains an account of the mission of Jesus. Mani began this book and his letters by referring to himself as the messenger of Jesus. The Treasure of Life describes how the soul comes from the pure Light and the body from the bad darkness. Although Manichaeism is similar and has been compared to Gnosticism, this book refutes the Marcionite doctrine of a third intermediary principle, and it gives cures for errors. The Book of Mysteries teaches that souls are purged and educated through reincarnation, and it aims to cut away false beliefs. The Pragmateia suggests what ought to be done. His other main works are The Book of Giants, Letters, and The Book of Psalms and Prayers.

Although these books were faithfully copied and translated into many languages as the religion spread, the many persecutions eventually destroyed the books. As Manichaeism faded into Catharist movements in the 13th century, the religion disappeared. In the 20th century Coptic documents were found at al-Fayyum in Egypt, and texts were also found in Turfan and Dun-huang in China. The Chinese catechism noted a book illustrating the two great principles, which may have been based on Mani’s paintings made for those who cannot read. The largest work found at al-Fayyum, the Kephalaia, contains the principal teachings of Mani described by disciples. These discoveries, though difficult to piece together because the texts were deteriorating, provide a more balanced view to the already known Christian works refuting Mani.

Mani taught there are two sources that are unborn and eternal – God (Light) and matter (darkness). God as good has nothing in common with evil, because “a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.” Mani explained the universe as having three moments involving these two substances. In the past Spirit and matter were at first separate. Then Spirit entered into matter as souls incarnated into bodies, which is the present condition. Mani as a messenger of Light is helping souls become liberated from their bodies. The third moment is the future when the world will end as Spirit becomes purified again from matter. Somehow the king of darkness decided to enter the region of Light. God had no evil with which to punish, so Spirit entered into matter as souls went into bodies with the five faculties of intuition, thought, will, consideration, and reason. As souls mixed with matter they began to feel material and thus became trapped in bodies. When the Mother of Life, the First Man, and the Living Spirit prayed to the Great Father, that one sent a Messenger with the following twelve virtues: royalty, wisdom, victory, contentment, purity, truth, faith, patience, sincerity, kindness, justice, and Light.

According to Mani, Jesus lifted up the first man Adam to taste the Tree of Life. Mani also taught the trinity of the Father (God of truth), the beloved Son (Christ), and the Holy Spirit (Mother of Life). The five dark rulers may express themselves as the tyranny of rulers, arrogance of officials, idolatrous errors, superstitious rites, and sorcery. Previous messengers of God include Zarathustra, Buddha, and Jesus. True messengers may be known by the following five characteristics: gentleness, austerity, beauty, wisdom, and transformation. Their mission is to teach and convert living beings in order to save them from their suffering. Mani planted good seeds of truth and strengthened his church, sending out envoys to many lands. He fought greed and lust in order to teach people wisdom and knowledge. The Psalms refer to the divine medicine that heals wounds, crushes evil while crowning godliness, purifies the Light from the darkness, and gives rest to the souls. The Great Father is Love who gives oneself for everything. Souls are divine; even though they have fallen into the world, they will return to God.

Although the Manichaean community had a hierarchy of five levels including Mani’s successor and twelve masters (teachers), 72 illuminates (overseers), elders (priests), the rest of the elect, and hearers, the main distinction was between the elect and the hearers. The elect have their hearts, hands, and mouths sealed by celibacy, non-injury, and abstinence from alcohol and meat. The elect eat only a little in the morning and one meal in the evening. In their strict poverty their only possession was one garment that was replaced once a year. The elect teach by grace, wisdom, and faith. The duties of the hearers are to fast, pray, and give charity. They are to fast and be celibate on Sundays, and hearers pray four times a day. Giving charity includes providing food for the elect, who do no injurious work such as farming, giving a relative to be one of the elect, and building a temple or dwelling place. The hearers could work in the fields and have one wife, but they were forbidden to fight in wars. The hearers confess to the elect, and the elect confess to one another.

The soul is from on high but is imprisoned in the body waiting to be liberated. Mani taught renouncing the world’s possessions to find the peace of poverty. He advised wisely and skillfully strengthening oneself around the body’s gates lest the sin of the body prevail and extinguish the Light. His religious methods include singing and chanting spiritual words, reading and studying, discriminating with wisdom and accepting pure commands, always being clean in actions of body, mouth, and mind, practicing kind deeds, being gentle and amiable, bearing humiliation, following good rules and habits, resting the mind in the place of liberation, and leaping for joy in standing firm in the right way. Mani warned against, lying, anger, and hurtful words that may come from speaking for the sake of killing a man, beasts, or trees. Kindness and sincerity are for saints a base for brightness and a wonderful gate which lets one see everywhere while walking a straight path.

Like the Mahayana Buddhists, Mani promised such would be born in a Pure Land, where they would be free of penalties and could rejoice in calmness. The Light-mind of the Christ awakens those who sleep and gathers those who are scattered abroad. God sends the soul to the judge of the dead that appears as in a mirror. The Great Judge has no partiality but knows how to forgive those who have repented. No one can hide when that one searches out their actions and repays them according to their deserts. The saints go to the heaven of Light and are at peace. Unstained by ignorance, passion, and desire, they are not pressed into rebirth.

Cathars and the Inquisition

Defenseless Languedoc Cathars are cut down by French Catholic Crusaders. From the fourteenth century Chronique de France

Defenseless Languedoc Cathars are cut down by French Catholic Crusaders. From the fourteenth century Chronique de France (Chronique de St Denis), British Library, Royal 16, g VI f374v. This is the right hand side of a two panel illustration (The left half is shown above). In this panel The leading crusader can be identified by his coat of arms as Simon de Montfort .

Cathars, meaning the pure ones, believed in a dualistic theology that derived from the Manichaeans by way of the Paulicians and Bogomils. From Bulgaria they moved west; by 1143 a well organized group in Cologne was reported to Bernard of Clairvaux for rejecting the mass because they believed the papacy and priesthood were so corrupt. Cathars spread south into Italy and France. They participated in a public debate near Albi in 1165. At a council there Narbonne archbishop Pons d’Arsac, six bishops, eight abbots, provosts, archdeacons, Louis VII’s sister Constance of Toulouse, and Viscount Trencavel of Albi and Béziers confirmed the condemnation of the Cathars as heretics. In 1167 some Cathars were burned at Vézelay. That year Cathars met at Saint Felix south of Toulouse, and Nicetas from Constantinople consecrated bishops for Toulouse and Carcasonne and perhaps Agen to add to one Cathar bishop in northern France and another at Albi. In 1177 Toulouse count Raymond V wrote to the Cistercians that heresy was spreading. Perhaps because Cathar believers did not have to renounce their wealth, many of the nobility joined the movement. Cathars did not preach against usury, and they had less restrictions on marriage than the Catholic Church, which had increasingly complicated prohibitions against consanguinity.

Cathars held that the evil in the world was created by Satan and not God. Like some Gnostics, they identified the creator God of the Old Testament with Satan while accepting the divine Christ of the New Testament as an angel sent from God to help trapped souls find release. They recognized the sacrament of communion but believed that any good person could consecrate the host. Confession could be made to anyone, but Cathars did not go in for physical penance. Yet their beliefs made them disciplined as their initiated perfecti renounced sexual intercourse, violence, and all animal food. In this way souls could be liberated from the Devil’s world, while other souls would have additional opportunity through reincarnation. Cathars rejected the priesthood because they believed everyone could contact God directly by prayer. They criticized the worldly power and corruption of the Church, though they did have bishops and deacons for leadership.

Like the Waldensians, the perfecti refused to take oaths, fight, or kill anyone. The Cathar perfecti also practiced apostolic poverty and expected to be persecuted as Jesus had warned them they would be hated by the world because they are not of the world. After a year or more of training, the laying on of hands in the consolamentum initiated the perfecti. The perfecti wore black or dark blue, and the men let their hair and beards grow. Like Manichaeans, the perfecti devoted their lives to prayer and preaching and were supported by the believers. The perfecti lived and traveled in pairs of the same sex, and they were prohibited from participating in wars or killing any living beings. Although the Cathar believers (credentes) were allowed to eat meat, have sex, and fight in wars, they were expected to live peacefully and do good without lying, stealing, committing violence, or taking oaths; before they died, believers hoped to receive the consolamentum and salvation. The perfecti often worked as craftsmen or physicians, which explains the laws barring heretics from practicing medicine.

At the third Lateran council of 1179 Cathars were damned as heretics, and anathema was declared for anyone giving them hospitality. Vassals no longer had to do homage to nobles supporting Cathars, and the Church offered two years’ indulgence to those taking up arms against them. Archbishop Pons sent letters ordering all bishops to excommunicate heretics and their supporters. In 1181 Henry de Marsiac led local knights against Lavaur, where the Cathar bishop of Toulouse resided. Viscountess Adela surrendered the town, and Bernard Raymond and Raymond de Baimiac were captured, taken to Le Puy, abjured their beliefs, and were made Catholic canons. In 1184 the papal bull of Lucius III issued at Verona condemned all heretics, including Cathars and Waldensians.

After Innocent III became pope in 1198, he sent two legates to preach against heresy in Languedoc and Barcelona; in 1200 he pronounced loss of property as the penalty for heresy. Innocent renewed the excommunication of heretics and the indulgence for those using arms against them. In 1203 the Pope appointed the Langedoc native Pierre of Castelnau to preach, and the next year he was joined by the Cistercian abbot of Clairvaux, Arnald-Amalric. They were authorized to suspend bishops who failed to excommunicate heretics. The bishop of Béziers was suspended in 1203 and was killed by his own people two years later. The corrupt Raymond Rabastens, bishop of Toulouse, was replaced by Fulk of Marseilles in 1206. Narbonne archbishop Raymond-Berenger resisted several attempts to depose him and managed to stay in office until 1212. Yet the Cathar movement continued to flourish, and an assembly of 600 Cathar perfecti at Mirepoix in 1206 resolved their internal differences.

As papal legates traveled around preaching with their elaborate retinues, the poverty of their rival perfecti offered a stark contrast. The legates were ridiculed and abused until Diego of Osma and Dominic of Guzman persuaded them to adopt a simpler approach. Pierre of Castelnau became so unpopular in Béziers that he fled for his life. At Montreal, Cathars accused Diego and Dominic of representing the Church of the devil, and in the debate at Foix, Catholic missionaries told Count Raymond-Roger’s sister Esclarmonde, who had become a Cathar, that she should attend to her spinning. Most of the abbots gave up preaching. Dominic said that where gentle persuasion failed, a thick stick would succeed when they roused the princes and prelates against them; he predicted that nations assembled would cause many to perish by the sword. Dominic did make some conversions, notably the Waldensian Durand of Huesca, who founded the orthodox Poor Catholics. Dominic founded a convent at Prouille for poor daughters and continued his missionary work there during the war. After the Albigensian crusade the convent was enriched by the spoils from wealthy heretics.

Innocent III wrote to French king Philip II in 1204 and 1205 offering indulgence if he would attack the heretics; but Philip was too busy fighting the English to launch a crusade in the south. Toulouse count Raymond VI agreed to persecute heretics and dismiss his mercenaries; but the Count was excommunicated by legate Pierre after refusing to drive out heretics in the name of peace. In 1208 after an angry meeting Pierre was murdered by one of the Count’s officers. Innocent reacted by proclaiming a crusade that became known as the Albigensian crusade after Albi, a center for Cathars. Arnald-Amalric was appointed to lead it, and at the annual meeting of the Cistercians he promulgated the Pope’s bull offering a full indulgence for only forty days military service. In May 1209 King Philip II summoned a parliament but refused to join the war. However, the duke of Burgundy and several counts and bishops volunteered. The army organized was reported to be the largest ever in the Christian world.

Toulouse count Raymond VI sought reconciliation by offering seven castles, and he was publicly flogged by papal legate Milo before taking the cross. Raymond denied that he had favored heretics, and he promised to obey the Church, including not supporting mercenaries, not allowing Jews to hold public office, and abolishing new tolls. By joining the crusade, Raymond’s lands in Languedoc would not be attacked. However, his nephew Raymond-Roger Trencavel was not reconciled with Milo. Viscount Trencavel and the Jews left Béziers for Carcasonne before it was attacked. Béziers had successfully resisted pressure to surrender heretics in 1205 and tried to hold out; but camp followers without orders quickly broke into the city and massacred all the inhabitants. The Cistercian abbot Arnald-Amalric was reported to have said to kill them all, because God would know his own. The day after he did write to Pope Innocent, “Nearly twenty thousand of these people were put to the sword, without regard for age or sex.”3 His figure is probably exaggerated since modern scholars estimate Béziers to have had about 10,000 people. Simon de Montfort was rewarded for his role in the slaughter and was later elected commander.

Narbonne submitted and promised to give up heretics and the property of Béziers Jews. As the crusaders marched to Carcasonne, Arnald-Amalric reported that more than a hundred fortified villages surrendered. In August 1209 the suburbs of Carcasonne were destroyed, and King Pedro II of Aragon arrived to mediate for his vassal Raymond-Roger; but the viscount refused the offer made, and the king withdrew. After their water was exhausted and Raymond-Roger was captured, the city capitulated. The viscount died in prison in November, and Pedro II, suspecting the new leader de Montfort of his murder, refused at first to accept his homage but invested him in 1211 so he could campaign against the Moors. Southern towns surrendered, and in the north Albi submitted. Then most crusaders returned to northern France, and Simon had to pay about 500 remaining soldiers double wages.

Persecution began with the burning of Cathars when the town of Castres capitulated. In the next spring new crusaders arrived from the north. Crusaders besieged Minerve in June 1210; after it surrendered, 140 perfecti were burned. A year later after a siege of one month Simon de Montfort ordered the Lavaur leaders, a brother and sister, and eighty knights executed; he recorded that then more than 400 heretics were burned to the joy of the crusaders. Simon deliberately used terror; a garrison at Bram had all their eyes but one put out so they could be led to Cabaret. At the University of Paris logic teacher Amalric taught that a new age was coming that would supersede the Catholic Church; nine clergy who shared his views were burned for heresy in 1210.

Meanwhile Toulouse refused to surrender heretics and was put under an interdict. Arnald-Amalric ordered preaching against usury in order to get at wealthy supporters of the Cathars in Toulouse, where Bishop Fulk organized a “white fraternity;” but they lost credibility after joining the persecution at Lavaur. As they attacked the houses of money-lenders, a “black fraternity” sprung up in opposition. Simon de Montfort continued to capture castles and burn Cathars. After sixty heretics were burned at Casses, the perfecti stopped seeking refuge in fortresses. Apparently these initiates still did not turn to violence, but they gave up their distinctive dress and hid among the people. Simon assaulted Toulouse in 1211; but it was too strong, and he withdrew after twelve days to devastate the county of Foix. As the crusading army dissolved again in September, Raymond VI gathered resistance fighters in the south. Another crusade was preached in northern France that winter, and Simon once again had fresh troops in the spring of 1212. In December of that year he held a parliament at Pamiers and imposed French laws on Languedoc. Heresy was made a crime that could be judged by the Church. Property on which heretics were living could be forfeited. Daughters were excluded from inheritance, and women with rights to fortresses were forbidden to marry southerners.

Pedro II was commended by the Pope for helping to defeat Muslims at Tolosa, but his offer to mediate in Toulouse was declined. In 1213 the combined armies of Aragon and Toulouse greatly outnumbered Simon de Montfort’s crusaders near Muret; but Pedro was killed early in the battle, and Raymond VI fled. In 1215 King Philip’s son Louis led a southern crusade. That November at the Fourth Lateran Council, Simon was given the conquered lands; Raymond VI received only a pension of 400 marks, though his son Raymond VII when he came of age would get the unconquered lands now controlled by the Church. Raymond VI went to Aragon for aid. Honorius succeeded Innocent as Pope in 1216 and proclaimed another Albigensian crusade. After more destruction Simon made a truce with Raymond VII, whose father returned in 1217 and gained support from nobles dispossessed by Simon. Fulk of Marseilles brought crusaders from the north; but Simon de Montfort was killed in 1218. His son Amaury could not pay the soldiers and withdrew to Carcasonne. Now many Provence troubadours criticized the crusade as an invasion of the south by northerners. Prince Louis led another crusade and massacred the surrendered inhabitants of Marmande in 1219. In the next two years southerners regained many castles, but Raymond VI died in 1222.

In 1226 Cardinal Romanus excommunicated Raymond VII and preached another crusade, imposing a clerical tax of a tenth. King Louis VIII led this crusade but died. Yet that year the Cathar bishop of Toulouse summoned a council of a hundred perfecti that appointed a new bishop for Razés. Raymond VII made peace at Meaux with the Pope and the French crown in 1229 by promising to enforce heresy laws. The Count also had to agree to destroy the walls of Toulouse and was imprisoned in the Louvre for six months until this was accomplished. That November at the council of Toulouse papal legate Romanus obliged Count Raymond VII to contribute 4,000 silver marks annually for the Catholic university there, and strict rules for pursuing heretics were devised. In each parish a priest and two or three lay persons were to search every house and hiding place. Where a heretic was found, the house was to be burned and the property forfeited. Negligent bailiffs were to lose their post and their goods. Any heretic who returned to the Catholic Faith out of fear of death was to be imprisoned. Every person from the age of puberty up had to abjure heresy and swear loyalty to the Catholic Church. Heads of households were required to attend Mass on Sundays and holidays or pay a fine unless they had a legitimate excuse. Lay people were not allowed to possess an Old Testament nor a New Testament.

Two prominent perfecti were arrested by Count Raymond VII. The Albigensian bishop was burned as Romanus watched; but William de Solier converted to Catholicism and denounced other Cathars. Toulouse bishop Fulk became so unpopular for persecuting heretics that he could not raise tithes and died in 1231, succeeded by the Dominican Raymond de Fauga. That year a high mountain fortress at Montségur became a Cathar refuge and an arsenal, and the next year Guilhabert de Castres presided over a meeting there. More Cathars gathered at the Roquefort castle in 1232 to hear William Vidal preach; but after that the three Cathar bishops of Toulouse, Agen, and Razes resided at Montségur. During the persecution of the 1230s many Cathars emigrated to Lombardy.

In 1233 Pope Gregory IX appointed Stephen de Burnin legate for southern France and northern Spain, giving the Dominican Order responsibility to launch the Inquisition against heretics. At Toulouse Peter Seila and William Arnald were chosen to be the first official Inquisitors. They began by capturing, trying, and executing the leading heretic Vigoros de Baconia. Peter Seila stayed in Toulouse while William Arnald toured the province. The Inquisitors acted as prosecutors and judges, and the suspected heretics were not allowed lawyers. In fact lawyers could lose their right to practice law if they helped a heretic. Trials were held in secret, and no appeals were allowed. They offered light penance to get people to come forward voluntarily; but only those whose information led to the arrest of perfecti and believers were given indulgence. Those who converted back to Catholicism were required to wear two yellow crosses on their clothes, which resulted in ostracism; or they could volunteer to go on a crusade for a number of years. Some were only required to take care of a poor person for years or the rest of their life. Dominicans also established tribunals at Albi, Cahors, and Moissac, where 210 persons were burned to death.

Two Inquisitors were murdered in Cordes during an uprising as early as 1233, and the terror of the Inquisition caused riots to break out at Narbonne in 1234. At Toulouse three consuls refused to cooperate in enforcing the dictates of Arnald, who was compelled to leave the city; he went to Carcassonne and excommunicated the consuls. The consuls ordered the Dominican monks to leave Toulouse and had them thrown out into the street; since no one was allowed to take them in, they left. Bishop Raymond de Fauga was also expelled. Count Raymond VII wrote to the Pope asking that the inquisitorial powers be curtailed. In 1236 Pope Gregory wrote to his legate to curb him, but little changed. Posthumous trials were held, and corpses were dug up to be burned so that their estates could be confiscated. Prisoners could be held for years without being condemned, and anyone was subject to re-arrest. Eventually at least 5,600 people would be interrogated by the Inquisition in Toulouse alone. By the time King Philip III granted amnesty to heretics in 1279 as many as 507 people had been condemned at Toulouse, most losing their property. Many more had to wear the yellow crosses.

In 1235 Count Raymond VII sent knights and bailiffs to Montségur, but they did nothing. A third attempt resulted in a deacon and three perfecti being taken away to Toulouse, where they were burned. The Inquisition returned to Toulouse in 1236; but Count Raymond’s protests got it suspended by the Pope from 1238 to 1241. The Inquisition had been established at Barcelona in 1233, and in 1238 it was authorized in Castille, Leon, and Navarre. In 1239 the count of Champagne, the king of Navarre, and sixteen bishops presided over the burning of 183 Cathars at Montwimer. The next year Raymond Trencavel led a revolt with Catalan and Aragonese troops and was joined by Occitan rebels in liberating Limoux, Alet, Montreal, and the region. They besieged Carcassonne for a month, and the people murdered 33 priests there. A French army forced Trencavel to lift the siege, and then he was besieged at Montreal. Raymond VII stayed neutral and mediated a truce by which his cousin Trancavel returned to Spain. Towns that had rebelled were sacked, and Toulouse count Raymond pledged fealty to young Louis IX, promising to drive out heretics and capture Montségur.

Lacking a son, Raymond VII tried to arrange a diplomatic marriage but failed. He did join a coalition against France with Henry de Lusignan of Poitou and Henry III of England while making alliances with the kings of Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and even Friedrich II. In March 1242 Raymond VII fell seriously ill but was supported in the revolt by the counts of Armagnac, Comminges, Rodez, Foix, and several viscounts. Louis IX invaded Saintonge with his French army. In May while hosting Dominican inquisitors, Raymond d’Alfro sent for knights from Montségur led by Pierre-Roger of Mirepoix. The seven monks and their four servants at Avignonet were murdered with axes, and the murderers escaped to Montségur. The war was on, and Raymond Trencavel gained territory; but the revolt soon ended after Hugues de Lusignan and Henry III were defeated that summer. The count of Foix deserted the cause, and in January 1243 Count Raymond VII once again promised to fulfill the terms of 1229.

In 1243 the archbishop of Narbonne, the bishop of Albi, and the royal seneschal in Carcassonne besieged Montségur with an army; but they could not prevent supplies getting in, and the siege lasted ten months. In March 1244 surrender followed a short truce. The fighting believers were pardoned, even for the murders at Avignonet. They were given only light penances if they abjured their heretical beliefs; but the nearly two hundred nonresisting perfecti and the six women and eleven knights, who took the consolamentum rather than recant, were all burned at the stake. Four Cathars did escape to carry the secrets of their treasures to others. Languedoc became part of France. In 1246 Raymond Trencavel submitted to Louis IX, received a pension, and went on the crusade. A council at Béziers in 1246 instructed inquisitors to imprison heretics for life, and that year King Louis ordered special prisons constructed. In 1248 many prisoners were released to go on crusade with Louis. In 1249 the Count of Toulouse had eighty Cathar believers burned at Agen before he died that year. Louis IX’s brother Alphonse of Poitiers became count of Toulouse and made his vassals in Languedoc enforce the laws against heresy. The first handbook with instructions for conducting an inquisition was published by 1249.

In 1252 Pope Innocent IV issued the bull Ad Extirpanda that first authorized the use of torture to gain information but not recantation since forced confession was considered worthless. The torture was not to shed blood, mutilate, nor cause death. Toulouse and Carcassonne were relieved of the Inquisition in 1249, but it was restored with greater powers by Pope Alexander IV in 1255. One of the last Cathar refuges in Languedoc was captured that year when Quéribus was taken. The Cathars continued to flourish in Italy and Bosnia. Although Friedrich II detested heresy, he had not allowed the Inquisition to operate in his empire; his policy was continued by most of his successors until Louis’ brother Charles of Anjou became king of Sicily in 1266. He enabled the Church to institute the Inquisition in his Sicilian kingdom in 1269. Voices of dissent were squelched by the Albigensian crusade and the Inquisition; even the eminent theologian Thomas Aquinas justified such persecution of heresy. The della Scalas of Verona attacked Sirmione in 1276 and imprisoned 174 perfecti, who were burned with other Cathars in the Verona amphitheater two years later. Peter Autier and his brother Guillem were trained as perfecti in Lombardy and began a revival in western Languedoc in 1298; but the Inquisition regained its powers, and Peter Autier was executed in 1311.

This horrendous history of the Albigensian crusade shows that the zeal of the “Christian” crusades was not only directed against the Muslims in Palestine but against the peace-loving Cathars in southern France as well. Hundreds of the perfecti were burned to death; still they did not fight back with violence, although their supporters did attempt to fight for their independence.

By Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. And it is borrowed from it.


  1. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism by R. C. Zaehner, p. 74.
  2. The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra tr. Irach J. S. Taraporewala, Yasna 49:11, p. 727.
  3. Massacre at Montségur by Zoé Oldenbourg, tr. Peter Green, p. 184.

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