One of the most fascinating features of the history of Languedoc-Roussillon comes from the influence in the Middle Ages of the Cathar religious movement. Establishing a home in the region, the Cathars came into direct conflict with the might of the Catholic Church during a period when a lack of religious tolerance led to bloodshed throughout Europe and beyond.
The ultimate suppression of the Cathars at the hands of Catholicism was not enough to remove the legacy of this intriguing sect from the region. Today, many magnificent remains of this era can be seen, with none more impressive than the mighty citadel of Carcassone.
Conflict and beliefs
The origins of the Cathars are a matter of great debate among religious scholars and historians alike. Coming to prominence in the 11th century, it is thought that the Cathars arrived in southern France from the Byzantine Empire by way of Bulgaria and the Netherlands. Bringing their beliefs to what was, at the time, a tolerant and liberal part of Europe, the Cathars were able to flourish in Languedoc-Roussillon, only to invoke the ire of the Catholic Church.
The conflict with Catholicism stemmed from the differences in belief; the Cathars were critical of the moral and political corruption of the church and adopt a more progressive and liberal outlook regarding the equality of men and women, contraception, suicide, and more. As such, the Catholic Church declared the Cathars heretics and, under Pope Innocent III, embarked on a crusade to suppress its opponents.
Beginning in 1208, the Albigensian Crusade would last decades and leave the Cathars and the people of Languedoc-Roussillon decimated by years of bloodshed and violence. The conflict would even invoke the involvement of the crown, with the kings' Peter II of Aragon and Louis VIII of France being direct victims of the crusade. By the end of the military campaign, the Cathars had succumbed to the strength of the Catholic Church; any remaining followers were excommunicated or killed.
While the crusade against the Cathars had the desired effect of all but eliminating the faith throughout the Languedoc region, there remain several landmarks that recall the era when Catharism flourished. The impressive fortified town of Carcassone is arguably the greatest monument from the period, with its 53 towers and collection of drawbridges highlighting the military importance of the citadel throughout the years of conflict.
Also notable among the remains of the Cathars is the hilltop Château de Montsegur. The last stronghold of the Cathars, it would take a ten-month siege before it was conquered, and its demise mirrored the fall of the Cathar religion in southern France. Ascend the 1,200m altitude today and discover the magnificent remains of one of the finest Cathar castles still standing.