In order to understand the region and its history, it is nigh on impossible to overlook the impact of the Cathare religion and the events that surround it.

Most of the castles, bastides, villages and sites including Carcassonne, Monts̩gur, St F̩lix de Lauragais Рto name but a few Рbore witness to the atrocities that were committed in the name of religion and especially to the eradication of Catharism during the crusades,1209 Р1229, against the Cathare heretics headed by Simon de Montfort in the name of the Catholic church and the Pope.

The religion was founded in Bulgaria and spread to the Balkans around 950AD and was the official religion of state in Bosnia for over two centuries, up until the Turkish invasion which imposed Islam as the dominant religion in the region.

It later spread to Italy, especially in Lombardy, where it lasted longer than it did in France.

The first recorded burning at the stake of Cathar heretics is recorded in Orleans in 1022.

Nevertheless, the country where Catharism thrived the most was the Midi of France, and especially in the region which is now The Midi-Pyrénées, with over 50% of the population, in all strata of society, devoted to the heretic religion.

All the villages in the region have a history that is coloured by Catharism.

The Cathars were mockingly named “Parfaits” or perfect, who adhered to a religion that was fundamentally anti-catholic, anti-church and anti-Pope – as it disagreed with the Catholic Church’s disregard for the poverty, simplicity and ideals of Jesus, shunning the luxury and richness in which the catholic church dignitaries lived, the riches of the church and monasteries of the time along with the anti-religious lifestyles of the majority of the clergy.

Alongside the Parfaits, who led the most austere lifestyle and who had received the “Consolamentum”, were the believers, who lived their lives normally but were given the “Consolamentum” if their lives were threatened and were raised to the level of Parfait.

The Consolamentum, was given only once in a lifetime and after receiving this sacrament, they were forced to live their lives as parfaits.

Catharism was a form of primitive Christianity, which attempts to return to the simplicity, purity, and roots of the religion – following the Gospel of Saint John, with the guiding tenet of both a good God and a bad God.

The bad God (the devil) being the creator of all material things, with hell being on earth and not below us in some dark abyss.

The good God is the creator of all things spiritual, the spirit, the world and all that happens after death – which is perhaps one of the reasons that so many Cathars who voluntarily went to the stake to be burnt during the crusades against Catharism.

The parfaits were vegetarians, shunning all worldly good and material possessions, never swore, nor lied and led a very austere lifestyle.

They believed in reincarnation in the bodies of animals, which was why they were strict vegetarians – many women were condemned to be burnt alive at refusing to cut the head off of a chicken!

The dynasty of the Trencavels, favoured the growth of Catharism in the region Рin 1167, they inaugurated the Synod or counsel of St F̩lix de Lauragais (the name at the time was St F̩lix de Caraman or Carmaing), where Papa Nic̩tas, Archbishop of the Bogomiles of Constantinople, enthroned 6 Cathare Archbishops:

1. Robert dEpernon, Archbishop of the French (probably from the heretic the homelands in the Champagne region)

2. Sicard Cellerier – Archbishop of Albi

3. Marc, Archbishop of Lombardy

4. Bernard Raimond – Archbishop of Toulouse

5. Guiraud Mercier – Archbishop of Carcassonne

6. Raimond de Casalis – Archbishop of Agen

The Abbot of Clairvaux was engaged by the Pope to investigate the growth of the heretic religion in the Midi of France, and in 1178, declared Roger II Trencavel, the proclaimed protector of the Cathars as a heretic and traitor and excommunicated him, but this didn’t halt the growth of Catharism in the region – quite the opposite.

The Pope asked the King Philippe-Auguste to deploy his army he refused and he decided to use more violent methods to rid the land of the heretics, the crusade was partly triggered by the murder of an envoy of the Pope, Pierre de Castelnau, by a squire of the Count of Toulouse.

The crusader army of 50,000 men was assembled in the North of France, made up of Counts, knights and Archbishops, with the same advantages and rights as the crusades that were sent to The Holy Land, the knights were allowed to seize the excommunicated nobles and seize their lands and properties.

The army attacked Beziers, which was the land of the Viscount Raymond Roger, who sought refuge in the castle of Carcassonne along with some of his loyal noblemen, who prepared to resist the huge crusade army led by Simon de Montfort.

The Viscount Raymond Roger had got together a strong garrison at Carcassonne, but the crowds of refugees behind the walls hampered the defence of the castle and the resupply of food and water.

The King of Aragon joined the crusaders and the Pope’s representative offered the Viscount and 12 noblemen, along with their baggages and horses, safe passage from the castle if they surrendered, which the Viscount refused and continued the fight against the siege.

Finally as food and water supplies dried up, due to the numerous mouths to feed behind the walls of the castle, the Viscount came out to negotiate terms with de Montfort but was taken prisoner.

The inhabitants and refugees of the castle were freed and had to leave Carcassonne 15th August 1209.

The Viscount was imprisoned in the tower of the castle and died there 10th November 1209.

He was given a funeral with dignity and was mourned by the whole town and proclaimed as the man who sacrificed himself for their freedom.

De Montfort then attacked Minerve, where hundreds of heretics threw themselves into the flames rather than surrender to him.

It was then the turn of the Lauragais to undergo the terror and torment of the crusaders, but an attempt was made by the Count of Toulouse and the Count of Foix to stop them, but they were defeated convincingly just near Castelnaudary in 1211.

In the same year Simon de Montfort set his sights on Montferrand and Les Cassés.

He laid siege to Les Cassès, where Alazaïs de Roqueville – parfait, his son Raymond a knight and his wife Raymonde – who was later arrested in 1245 and burnt alive.

Les Cassés underwent a siege that lasted only a short while, until the clergy of the crusader army attempted to convert the heretics to Catholicism in vain and where a huge fire was lit before 60 cathares were thrown to their death onto it and the village destroyed.

Today the old village is just visible as an outcrop looking onto the plain of the Lauragais facing the Pyrénées, about 1 kilometer from where the existing village stands today.

Subsequently the whole area was ravaged and ruined by the crusaders, from Montferrand to Avignonet, before the Battle of Muret 12th September 1213 which pitched the counts of Toulouse and Foix, helped by King Pierre of Aragon against de Montfort, who won the battle convincingly, killing King Pierre of Aragon and promoting de Montfort to Count of Toulouse and Duke of Narbonne, where Arnaud Almaric was the Archbishop.

The rivalry between de Montfort and Almaric was so intense that the Archbishop excommunicated de Monfort.

Everywhere the effects of the crusade had real impacts on the population – villages burnt and taken, nobles wiped out and their lands taken and the introduction of the conquerer’s language and customs with the Northern French setting up everywhere to keep a close eye on the defeated population.

In 1218 Toulouse revolted against the conquering army, de Montfort was killed during the siege by a large stone that hit him square in the head – smashing bone, tooth, eyes completely destroyed and the forehead smashed to a pulp – the Count fell to the ground black and bleeding (from a troubadour’s song of the crusade).

De Montfort’s son, Amaury, wanted to avenge the death of his father and continued the siege, attempting and failing twice to burn the city down, but after a month of failed siege he retreated with the embalmed body of his father, which was first laid to rest in the cathedral of Carcassonne before being returned to the monastery of Hautes-Bruyeres, near to the Montfort-Amaury family home, to the west of Paris, enveloped in the skin of an ox.

The treaty of Meaux came into place on 12 April 1229 until 1270 between the Count of Toulouse and King Louis IX, when it became part of the Domaine Royale, which ordered all the fortified towns and villages to be opened, which meant that Avignonet Lauragais and 30 other sites were forced to tear down their fortifications and fill in their moats.

Simon de Montfort was even more extreme, confiscating all the lands and properties of the local nobles and handed them over to the church and the nobles from the north of France. In 1229 the royal administration started some token reinstatements of properties, although most of the land treated as a conquered territory handing out fines, confiscations, imprisonment and death sentences to those accused of heresy.

The upshot of this was that the Catholic church grew richer and richer, which enabled the building of monasteries, especially in towns and villages where there were few heretics. In 1223, after the death of Saint Dominique, the Pope Gregory IX installed the courts of the Inquisition, which were governed by the strict and ancient rules of Rome.

This meant that those accused were not allowed to be represented and could not testify their innocence nor put up any defence to the accusations brought against them and, if need be, could be tortured in order to extract their confessions as the verdict could only be given when the accused confessed to the crimes brought against them.

There is a chilling museum of torture in the castle at Carcassonne which makes one go cold thinking of what people endured in the name of their faith.

Nevertheless, there were a lot of acquittals or ‘minor’ sentences handed out, including enforced pilgrimages, visits to the church, imprisonment, being walled-up, confiscation of property and of course the death penalty.

The 12th September 1240 the descendants of Trencavel, at the head of a small band of soldiers, turned up at the gates of Carcassonne, which were opened to them by the townsfolk, who witnessed the soldiers massacre 33 priests before taking the castle, whence they stayed until the Royal army dislodged them on the 8 October.

Trencavel fled to Aragon, some of the nobles held out to the death whilst others fled to the chateau of Buc, where several dozen of them were later hanged.

The local population suffered greatly after the revolt, Montolieu was burnt to the ground along with the villages and bourgs of Carcassonne, where the population was expelled and had to live in exile.

After the death of the Pope Gregory XI in August 1241, the violence once again erupted in the region and the new pope was supported by the King in his quest to completely weed out the Cathare religion once and for all from the region – they had to find a reason to wage total war.

At the end of May 1242 the inquisitors left Sorrèze, near Revel for Avignonet Lauragais, where they arrived just before the feast of the Ascension, when they were attacked and killed whilst sleeping by a group of heretics who came from Montségur, Le Mas Sainte Puelles.

The killers made of with spoils left by the inquisitors, although there was very little: books, candlesticks, a box of ginger, some clothes and some coins – Pierre Roger de Mirépoix, who was awaiting his men nearby, complained that they hadn’t brought him the head of Guilhaume Arnaud, of which he wanted to make a cup edged with gold – the assailants, in their defence, told him that Arnaud’s head was too badly crushed during the attack to be of any use.

The bodies of the murdered Inquisitors were taken to Toulouse and buried by Benedictine monks. Raimond VII, who was the suspected instigator of the attack on the Inquisitors was excommunicated then pardoned by Pope Innocent IV in 1243, when he was forced to help the new Inquisition, which increased their violence in their attempts to eradicate Catharism in the region.

The reprisals were terrible, rumours spread that the murderers had come from Montségur Castle, which was taken in 1244 after a long siège, in the village of Baraignes, all of the graveyard where suspected Cathars were buried were dug up and burnt.

The diocese of St Papoul was created in 1318 by “Bulle Papal” under Pope John XXII, which comprised 44 parishes and helped to bring a more peaceful climate to the region which had suffered so badly for a 100 years. In 1329, a ship from Crimea brought to Europe the Black Death, which was to decimate 1/3 of the population of Europe, it reached the Lauragais in 1348 and decimated 50% of the population.

The Black Prince, the son of Edward III, Prince of Wales, assembled an army of 1,500 lancers, 11,000 archers and 3,000 light infantry in 1355 in Bordeaux, this was the start of the 100 Years War – this wasn’t really an English army, but a mixture of soldiers and peasants from the Landes, Basque, Bordelais with very few English troops.

They arrived outside Toulouse, which they avoided, burnt Castanet, Montgiscard, Avignonet, Villefranche de Lauragais and Le Mas Saintes Puelles on 31 October 1355. They arrived in Castelnaudary which was a flourishing town, with a fine château and plenty of wealth, but totally unfortified and undefended.

The people of Castelnaudary were massacred, the town was pillaged and taken before the army turned its focus on Carcassonne, burning Fanjeaux to the ground en route.

The Black Prince stopped at the walls of the city of Carcassonne, which was defended by Aymeric, and turned to the town of Limoux, which was in turn pillaged and burnt along with Montr̩al before they headed back to Bordeaux Рcutting down all the fruit trees in their path and burning all the vineyards down.

In 1373, just to add to the Black Death, there was a failed harvest due to the wheat being diseased, which caused famine in the Lauragais and once again the deaths of many of its inhabitants.

As you can see, the region has suffered greatly through religion, zealotry, famine and disease – this will, I hope give a background to the visits that you will make to the local countryside and villages. I will go into more detail in the individual sections on each village so that you can get a better idea of the history and culture that surrounds us.

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