Whenever the Templars are mentioned, the Cathars are generally not far behind. Tied together with some interesting data and facts, they tend to be the focus of intense esoteric and mystical knowledge. Taking a look at them with the facts we have may answer questions, or create deeper ones.
The Cathars were the followers of a 12th to 14th C.E. Gnostic movement in Southern France and Italy. This movement, Catharism, comes from the Greek word katharoi, or “Pure Ones.” Scholars agree that the people who practiced this religion did not call themselves by this name; in all honesty, it seems unclear what they did call themselves except “The Good Christians.” The movement first took hold in the small town of Albi, in France, and the followers were also known as the Albigensians, especially to the Catholics. The ideas of Catharism were around for centuries before this larger movement took place, and possibly has its roots in what is called Paulicianism.
In the Paulicianism belief system, the adherents do not believe in the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and in fact believe that Jesus was “adopted” by God to be his “son” and endure the necessary trials. Paulicianism was vibrant around the 7th to 9th centuries C.E., particularly in Armenia. Cathars, like the Paulicians, primarily believed in a dualistic Christian system, wherein the were two “Gods,” one good, one evil, as well as deeper Gnostic concepts. The basic tenants of the Cathar religion seem to have come from a single priest, Bogomil, during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 10th century C.E. as a response to the rise of feudalism. In other words, the oppression and slavery of Feudalistic ideas spurred this priest and his followers toward a mindset of individual freewill and worth. Like later Cathars, Bogomilism did not believe in the ecclesiastical hierarchy nor did they believe in the need for church buildings. In a sense, Bogomils, and then Cathars, were an itinerant religion, spread by men and women of the church elite – Travelers.
Most of their beliefs were radical to a still-struggling Catholic Church, and in a time prior to Luther, Catholic ideas were the only “Christian” meal to be had. The church had struggled for over a thousand years to get itself “right,” and it did not need yet one more renegade group to get in its way. Cathars believed in reincarnation of humans and animals, and did not eat the flesh of animals for this reason. They had a vibrant tradition in their troubadours, and were traveling craftsmen of many trades. Men and women were mainly seen as equals, although it is thought that their last incarnation needed to be male in order to be “close to God.” Their Good God was the creator of all that was spiritual, ethereal and thought, while the Evil God was the creator all that was material. They did not believe in hell, it being the earth in which we currently live, but heaven was populated by angels and spirits performing the will of the Good God. By living their aesthetic life, they believed themselves to be the truest Christians, where the Catholic Church was a corruption of all of the Christian teachings.
Cathars had two levels of knowledge, for lack of a better term, to distinguish the teachers from the lay follower. Know as “Perfects,” or “Parfaits,” both men and women could be come one of the elites and were both known to travel and spread the doctrine. This seems to mimic some of the early Christian sects, who also adopted from the Cult of Mithras, Bacchus, and a few other mystery schools.
What is important to note as that for the first 500 to 700 years of its life, Christianity was nowhere near the juggernaut that it became in the 14th to 19th centuries. Out of the remains of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church rose to reinvent itself to be that empire once again, using religion instead of soldiers to find its way. There was not just one Council of Nicaea but seven over the course of 400 years.
The doctrine of the church was not set in stone – more like several tributaries that were flowing to a single great river. It took hundreds of years and thousands of theological discussions to get to where it is today – still fragmented but fairly solid. It is in the period of the Bogomils and Cathars that we see the Catholic Church coming into its own power, and asserting its right as the divine authority over layman and royalty alike all through Western Europe. It is also important to remember that this was a time before Luther – before the idea that the human could come to God in other ways and not via their connection to a priest. At this time, the spiritual afterlife of every person lay in the hands of the Catholic Church.
Clearly, the Catholic Church had money. And royalty. There was not much that was going to get in the way of it becoming the dominant force in Western Europe. In fact, many new ideas of suppression were tried on the Cathars, tools the Catholic Church would further expand as it moved through Europe imposing its will. The Catholic Church did see the Cathars as a heretical sect; yet, they debated whether they were even Christians. Either way, they could not survive.
In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade on the Albigensian region of Languedoc, which was not part of France at the time but its own kingdom. Known as the Albigensian Crusade, or later by the name of Cathar Wars, the killing of human beings was indiscriminate. Many Catholics, Jews, and Cathars died in these wars. This genocide bred the first use of the now-common phrase, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” This was the first time a crusade had been waged within the confines of conventional Western Europe, and by all accounts the Catholic Church called it a success. This was followed by what would be called the first Inquisition, whereupon torture and death were used to force conversation back to the true religion, Catholicism. The Crusade itself was ended in 1244, the date when the castle at Montsegur fell to the crusaders. The Inquisition continued well into the 14th century. The last known Cathar elite (called Perfect, as was their custom) was burned there in 1321 C.E..
Cathars did continue to exist in hiding and by all accounts, had eventually died off as a continuing sect. There are some who believe that that elements of the Cathar religion rose with Luther and Protestantism but there are no real supporting documents or links to this supposition.
Additionally, there was and is a supposition that the Cathars held a secret “treasure” which was spirited away prior to the fall of Montsegur; no evidence has been found of this treasure, although some believe it is knowledge rather than an actual treasure. There is also an idea that this treasure went to the Knights Templar, who were just being formed. Indeed, the one link between the Templars and the Cathars was Bernard of Clarvaux, later St. Bernard. Bernard is seen to have held some of the same ideas of the Cathars, even if he did see them as heretics to be eradicated. He had continued correspondence with a bishop of the Cathars and indeed visited. Bernard was also prominent in bringing the worship of the Virgin Mary to popularity, which was in keeping with Cathar beliefs.
The Cathars were and are an interesting off-shoot of the Christian religion from its earliest days, and it is a shame that not more of its own writings exists. Many have speculated if the Cathars still exist and if so, in what form. It may just be a single, dead branch of a tree that has its roots in far older and mysterious teachings. There are a few books about the Cathars; the one by Malcom Barber, who also wrote about the Templars, is interesting and factual. There is also another book about a woman who remembers her past life as a Cathar, in the 13th century C.E., titled “The Cathars and Reincarnation,” by Arthur Guirdham. It is relatively short with some descriptions of places and drawings associated with them. It is an entertaining read, and will leave it up to the reader to validate their own beliefs about the teller’s story. There is also a very thorough website, which has a lot of great references for anyone who wants to know more.