I have been writing recently about the methods by which a government really can destroy or eliminate a faith, no matter how strongly we believe that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” In particular, I described the extraordinarily efficient combination of terrorism and secret policing by which seventeenth century Japan destroyed the Catholic church. Catholic Europe had witnessed something similar in earlier centuries, with the Albigenisian or Cathar movement that had become so powerful in France and Italy during the twelfth century. The comparisons between the two repressions – Catholic Inquisition and Japanese shogunate – bring out many striking parallels, which in turn foreshadow modern totalitarian regimes.

By 1200, Catholic authorities were appalled to find just how deeply established Catharism had become as an alternative church in much of southern France, the Languedoc, and insisted on official intervention. Some secular rulers responded, but other lords refused to cooperate, including the powerful Count of Toulouse, and many non-cooperators now suffered excommunication. By 1208, the Pope took the bold step of proclaiming a crusade, enticing believers by promising them any lands seized from heretics, a potent appeal to greed. This crusade was of course directed not against Muslims or unbelievers overseas, but within the lands of a Christian kingdom. Moreover, since Cathars represented only a minority of the forces in southern France, the Papacy was in practice unleashing Christian holy war against other orthodox Christians as well as heretics.

In 1209, armies mainly drawn from northern France invaded the region, marking the start of twenty years of bitter fighting. Even by the standards of contemporary European warfare, the events that followed were extraordinarily violent, and were marked by repeated massacres. Reportedly, nine thousand inhabitants of Béziers were massacred when that city fell in 1209, and seven thousand were slaughtered at Marmande in 1219. A contemporary described the latter incident in harrowing terms:

Terror and massacre began;

Lords, ladies and their little children,

Men and women stripped naked,

All were slashed and cut to shreds by keen-edged swords.

…Not a man or woman was left alive, neither young nor old,

No living creature, except perhaps some well-hidden infant.

Marmond was razed and set alight.

These massacres were in addition to many smaller incidents when groups of hundreds of Cathar leaders (perfecti) were executed in a single mass killing, usually by burning.

Even after the formal end of fighting, heavy repression provoked further risings for years afterwards. Losing all their other refuges, the remaining Cathars held out in the supposedly impregnable mountain fortress of Montségur. The fall of this castle in 1244 – and the burning of the 220 occupants – marked the end the campaign, although a few other tiny centers held out for years afterwards.

Although the Albigensian Crusade is a well-known event in the history of the Middle Ages (and a notorious blemish on the history of the Papacy), less familiar is the decades-long process that built upon that military victory, in which the church painstakingly sought out and destroyed manifestations of Catharism. Eradication had several stages, targeting respectively the prominent lay supporters, then the perfecti and the religious leadership, and ultimately every individual sympathizer. We see close resemblances to later Japanese practices.

Making the task much more difficult was the extremely decentralized nature of their enemy. Although they acknowledged bishops, groups of perfecti were largely self-governing, so that it was not possible to break the movement by decapitating its leadership, metaphorically as well as, sometimes, literally. Nor was there an extensive network of buildings, either churches or monasteries. In consequence, the only way to destroy Catharism was to inquire into the individual opinions of believers and followers, and then to respond appropriately, either by direct sanctions, or by forcing recantation. Given the limitations of government at that time, this was a daunting task.

To accomplish this, the church in 1229 created in southern France a new institution, namely the Inquisition, which was soon imitated across Catholic Europe. The Inquisition enjoyed enormous powers. It was entirely proactive in nature, rather than just responding to ill-considered words, so that heretical sympathizers could not escape attention just by lying low and remaining discreet. Inquisitors traveled from place to place, calling on local communities to confess their heresy, or else to reveal those suspected of Cathar sympathies. The Inquisition could proceed on the basis of anonymous accusation and testimony, with the presumption of guilt always lying upon the accused. Following Roman practice, Inquisitors did use torture on occasion, following the belief that evidence obtained in this way was actually stronger and more reliable than that obtained through non-physical pressure. But Cathars were not difficult to identify: no true follower would take an oath, and they would refuse the Inquisitors’ demand that they kill an animal, usually a chicken.

Conviction for heresy could lead to a death sentence, a consequence that would have been rare before the late twelfth century. Unless they were perfecti, suspects could clear themselves by formal recantation, but such an avenue was only open on one occasion. A second charge could mean conviction as a relapsed heretic, for which the automatic penalty was death. (We have already seen the central role of recantation in the Japanese persecutions).

Executions were common in the emergency atmosphere of the mid-thirteenth century, but declined later: from a hundred or so cases in the region of Montaillou about 1320, only five were executed. Other penalties included public humiliation – the wearing of a prominent yellow cross – as well as imprisonment and loss of property, Adding to the burden of penalties in a society deeply conscious of family, the Inquisition usually confiscated the goods of those convicted, ruining surviving family members, and moreover making the Inquisition self-sustaining financially. Even the dead bodies of heretics were exhumed for burning.

The Inquisition of this era lacked none of the evils that have become so notorious in the proceedings of later witch trials. In terms of its scale, and the number of victims, it was quite as more intrusive, and as destructive, as the more notorious Spanish Inquisition three centuries later.

As so often in episodes of religious persecution, authorities combined repression with new reforms designed to respond to the complaints of the disaffected From the start of the thirteenth century, new orders of friars tried to fill the needs that the Cathars had supplied before them. The Franciscans demonstrated the same kind of radical piety and commitment to absolute poverty as the perfecti, while the Dominicans manifested dedication and learning. The Dominicans also provided the key personnel for the Inquisition, the keenest investigators. As the pun held, they were not just the followers of St. Dominic, but the Domini canes, God’s Watchdogs.

The effect of these campaigns can be summarized quite simply: Catharism was annihilated. At the end of the thirteenth century, a few dedicated perfecti achieved local revivals in various parts of Italy and southern France, but all these centers came under intense investigation. The peasants of remote Montaillou were among the last adherents to be detected and sanctioned. The last known heretical bishop in the West was captured in Italy in 1321, and the last burning of a Cathar took place in 1330. France’s last Cathar believer probably died around 1350. At least, no later examples appear in the records of the vigilant church courts or the Inquisition itself.

In Western Europe, as in Japan, terror worked.


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  • “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

    “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816

    “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” ~Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814