July 22, 1209. The Feast of Mary Magdalene is being celebrated by the townsfolk of Béziers, wine and sweetmeats flow freely among merchant houses and warm kitchens. Children's laughter echoes down narrow alleys. The guardsmen on the city walls, however, are not smiling. They pace nervously. Scouts from the borders of the Languedoc region have made it known a large force of mercenaries is marching into the southern region, under the leadership of Arnold Amaury. They come for the viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel, lord over Béziers and its surrounds. Roger himself had met with their leader, pledged allegiance to the Cross, and made many promises. But in the end he was disbelieved and rebuffed, and so returned to the town to warn his troops: hostilities appear imminent. And so the guards gather impatiently, trying to ignore the muted singing rising up for the streets below, alert and waiting for any sign of woe.
They do not wait long. Trencavel’s ally, Raymond, Count of Toulouse had already fallen into deep disfavor during Amaury’s hunt for heresy in France, and Raymond had tried to persuade Trencavel to make concessions to the Inquisition. But the viscount was but twenty-four years of age, and had in fact been raised by the very Cathar heretics whom Arnold Amaury was bent on exterminating in Christ’s name. Béziers was a relatively tolerant town; Jews held some public offices, Catholics mingled with Cathars in the mid-week markets. Still, many of the men worried about their liege’s unwavering toleration in the face of Church doctrine, however cruel. But no whispered fear, hinted at in the darkest shadow, could prepare them for the sight of the approaching armies.
All celebration of the Feast Day in the town ceased, as fluttering banner after banner appeared along the whole length of the northern horizon. The rumors of war had, at first, not greatly shaken the townspeople; Béziers was built along the fast flowing River Orb, and was well-fortified. Provisions had been secured at the first inkling of trouble, so the well-to-do and cautious Biterrois had stocked enough for months; surely they could outwait the traditional 40 day siege of these barbaric northerners.1 One chronicler at the time, William of Tudela, though a churchman, states even after seeing the army settled, which stretched nearly a league around the city, the people of Béziers were still unshaken. “The army won't last a fortnight,” they said confidently, “They haven’t supplies for such a mob!”
It was the height of a summer’s day, with vast plumes of dust swirling on the plain beneath the town. A messenger from the encroaching army carried a list of 222 Béziers habitants to the town wall, which had been prepared beforehand by the clergy of the crusading force. In the name of God, these named and known heretics were to be surrendered immediately, or God’s mercy would bow to God’s wrath.2 The leaders of the town replied these written demands carried little more weight ‘than of a peeled apple’, for the Biterrois had fought hard for their religious and economic freedoms. “We would rather drown in a sea of tears than alter our beliefs,” is how another chronicler records their reply.
Immediately Viscount Raymond Roger embarked to summon his armies from Carcassonne to support the town against the crusaders; while the ten thousand strong army milled like ants on the grasslands south of the city walls. All the trees in sight vanished as small palisades, bridges and earthworks were constructed, as well as cooking fires set. Hundreds of horses whinnied and trotted around tents and beneath the crests and banners of noblemen. Fierce packs of hunting dogs barked and growled; squads of monks and prelates chanted. Arnold Amaury (also called Arnald Amalric), the Church appointed chief negotiator and taskmaster, gathered all the siege engineers and knights together to discuss the complicated logistics of breaching so well-defended and provisioned a city. Some at the meeting proposed infiltration under the walls, possibly using sappers to start fires to collapse a section. Others argued building a ‘chat’, or rolling tower, to go over the wall would be best. The discussions were just beginning to grow heated between all the military commanders, when they noticed people shouting outside, and the ringing of swords and armor. A young squire abruptly burst into the tent. “No time for talk your lordships! The Gates of Béziers are already fallen!”
Apparently, a small group of squire boys and young kitchen help with the crusading force had gone near the southern gates of the city, along the shores of the River Orb to swim a little, and so escape the July glare. They found themselves within shouting distance of the walls, and soon insults were flying back and forth between the townspeople and the churlish young besiegers. One of the truly brash teens walked onto the bridge below the gates of the city and began to taunt the defenders' mothers. This was the last straw for those manning the ramparts. A gang of youth leaped from a crack in the gate and rushed down to pummel the northern bastard. Then they tossed him over the bridge, into the river, and made for his gang of friends. However, at the same time, the teenage hostilities at the gate were noticed by several lowly foot-soldiers down in the crusader camp, who couldn’t believe they’d been beaten to the action by their soup-cooks and horse-handlers. By groups of twos and threes, then a dozen, then a hundred, they swelled forward to get a better look at the action, only then realizing the gates of the city were open. Grabbing sticks, firebrands, butter-knives, whatever they could find since most of their weapons were as yet still packed or back in their tents, they surged up the hillside.
The guards at the Béziers gate screamed in horror and desperation at their children to stop fighting and get back inside the walls as the first curious, then eagerly hostile crowd converged on the road to the gate, having just arrived and itching to fight; but as the brash vigilante gang of young Biterrois scrambled back up the slope, they found themselves caught up in the surrounding swell of crusaders, and soon all were streaming into the city as the church bells of the town rang in a frenzied alarm and arrows, darts and fire poured over the walls into the swirling mass of soldiers. At this point, the archers howled in rage and frustration at the onslaught, and feeling betrayed by Christ tore leaves from their Bibles to adorn the arrowheads which they are firing into the crowd (a 'witness' later records for Innocent's papal chronicle).
Not far off, the hastily mounted horses of the crusader knights could be seen mounting the hillside, as the tardy noblemen raced to squeeze through their own men onto the ‘frontline’ – and it was at this point that one of the knights in front, galloping toward the sea of people, screamed to Arnold Amaury to give his men orders on how to distinguish the Christians from the heretics in the midst of such pandemonium. Amaury yelled back to the knights racing forward around him, “Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius!” Slay them all! God will know his own!3 Interesting choice of words for the head of the Cistercian order and the highest representative of the Pope – and by the dawn of the next day, every church, home and shed in the town was ablaze; with nearly every one of its estimated 20,000 inhabitants put to the sword.4 In a letter to the Pope, Amaury wrote “the workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous.”
1 The ‘quarantine’, i.e. forty day spell, is the French term for the requisite tour of duty a knight or soldier must serve as a crusader in order to garner the theological perks of the violent pilgrimage – those being full pardon from all sins and seizure of any property or lands rightly disposed of infidels. It only took on its medical meaning during the ascendance of Venetian shipping, being the time a foreign vessel must wait offshore before being unloaded, if it had sailed from a city stricken with plague.
2 These demands were suited specifically to revenge the murder of an inquisitor church official some years earlier, in 1208, who was suspected to have been assassinated at the order of Raymond. Raymond had arranged to have himself publicly flogged by a priest to show his submission to the Church, following these suspicions, but clearly he’d been branded by then.
3The Latin title was actually a nodeshell on E2 before the translation, a clear indication that when it comes to sheer fun-in-the-sun antiquarianism, there's nary a site that does it better.
4As for the overall Albegois campaign itself, it raged for nearly 30 years in the end, and decimated Languedoc. At the Cathedral of St. Nazair alone 12,000 souls were taken. Bishop Folque of Toulouse extinguished another 10,000. One chronicler wrote "even the dead were not safe from dishonor, and the worst humiliations were heaped upon women." Papal legates estimated 20,000 dead; other chroniclers between 60-100,000. In the end, the Albigensian crusade killed an estimated one million people, not only Cathars but much of the population of southern France. Contrast this with Gibbon's estimations that during the Roman persecutions under Diocletian about two thousand Christians perished, worldwide. Pope Innocent's Crusade, in its first bloody stroke, killed far more Christians than any pagan Emperor.
Sources: Bernard Hamilton, “The Albigensian Crusade and Heresy”, from The New Cambridge Medieval History, v. 5, ed. D. Abulafia (1999), pp. 164-181; S. O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (NY: Walker & Co., 2000), pp. 75-87; H. Ellerbe (1995) The Dark Side of Christian History (San Raphael: Morningstar); P. de Rosa (1988) Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy (NY: Crown).
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