Where and when the Cathar community really did meet a literal and spiritual end is now a matter of some controversy – the early Albigensian Crusade and its aftermath did little more than disperse the movement out of the localized area of southern France, while also radicalizing its members by driving it underground. Their early champion, Raymond VI of Toulouse had held out for as long as possible against the occupying Papal forces, but after excommunication in 1211, a renewed attacks in 1213 and as ordered by Honoris III in 1216 - alongside the problem of Berber raiders from Spain – finally the region’s successor, Raymond VII capitulated. In 1229, after nearly twenty years of conflict, he agreed to admitting special Inquisitors into the region, and swore his Court’s compliance with all heresy laws, while also vowing to build a Catholic university in Toulouse and dismantle his regions key fortifications.
The Cathars, however, were already on the move by this point, even as the Inquisition began to seek them out in earnest. In 1232 the Cathar bishops, realizing full-well the potential tenacity of their Dominican pursuers, occupied the castle of Montsegur and placed themselves in the hands or yet another lord, Raymond of Perelha, another Cathar, anti-Roman sympathizer. His men were ordered to garrison the castle and to escort missions of the Cathar ‘perfecti’ in their religious missions to other regions. The Sect had chosen its protectors well – in particular the nobleman Roger of Mirepoix, who on discovering a mission of Inquisitors on their way to the region from Toulouse, single-handedly killed each while they slept as they camped. Unfortunately, by 1244 the Cathar presence at Montsegur had been discovered by the Holy See and the pope’s troops were again dispatched, this time by surprise. Three Cathar bishops and two-hundred ‘prefecti’ clerics were burned after the castle walls gave way to the Church forces.
By 1258, the remaining Cathar ‘perfecti’, novices or initiates, were on the run from Inquisitors and papal agents all over Europe as the Inquisition gathered momentum. Church officials would often simply accuse Cathars of devil worship, just to avoid the philosophical complications inherent in bringing another Christian (albeit a Manichean-influenced one) to trial. The clampdown won the Cathars sympathizers however, and the Sect seemed to suddenly have friends everywhere, though safe harbor rarely helped for long against the deep pockets of the Church. In 1278, 174 Cathars were publicly burned in an amphitheater in Verona. Tribunals of Inquisition were established permanently in Cordoba, Sicily, Venice and Corsica. And the situation grew even more grave – as the sect developed new foes. By 1307, at least in France, Philip IV needed the full assistance of the Inquisition in disposing of a more political problem (yes, you guessed it) the Templar Knights – so he agreed to fully fund the Inquisition’s pursuit of the Cathars1, so long as the Templars were eliminated as well. The last known Cathar perfecti burned in France was Guillem Belibaste, in Flanders, in 1321.
The only place left to run, it seemed then to be the Balkans. In 1325, Pope John XXII made it official, that if you were a European heretic on the run, then Bosnia was the place to be , when he wrote ‘…magna haereticorum caterva de multis et variis partibus congregata as pricipatum Bosnen…’
Note 1 : Funding the Inquisition, as it turns out, was a significant issue – as the Dominicans seemed to (if you’ll pardon the pun) burn through their start-up capital and soon had to seek a new business model – simply lugging around torture equipment and buggering the lay-folk wasn’t keeping them in coin. One of the preferred tactics here (seeing that ascetic Cathars, as spiritualist types, rarely had a dime) was to try to implicate rich dead people in some charge of heresy – because if you could call enough a few witnesses and establish ex post facto that the corpse was a Heretic, or Cathar, or a Satanist, or a Muslim, or whatever (it hardly mattered) then you could dig up the body, burn it, and then seize any of that person’s former assets – regardless of who has inherited them.
Source: Bernard Hamilton, “The Albigensian Crusade and Heresy”, fr. The New Cambridge Medieval History, v. 5 (1999), pp. 174 – 178.
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