The Epistemic Mystery of the Cathars

The distinction between the ‘past’ and ‘history’ is not always rigidly enforced. While this is generally of little consequence, it can escalate into truly troublesome epistemic questions when there is no historiographic consensus to be had. The bitter and occasionally hostile debate on the existence of the Cathars is certainly among them.  

The Cathars were a heterodox Christian group, hence heretics, particularly active in Southern France – variously called Languedoc or Occitania, and Northern Italy in the later Middle Ages – though with origins in Eastern Europe. They rejected the hierarchy of the Roman Church, instead establishing their own, led by the spiritual elite of the ascetic ‘Perfecti’, open to women as well as men. Their theology was dualistic, believing that the God of the Old Testament was an evil one, usually identified with Satan, who ruled the material world, while the true God, revealed through Christ, could only be reached through salvation and rejection of the living world. As a result of these grave deviations, they became the target of persecution by the Catholic Church: first through the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) in southern France and subsequently through the inquisitions, effectively disappearing by the end of the fourteenth century.  

Or so the story goes anyway. The aforementioned formulation, dubbed by revisionists of the Traditionalist School, found itself challenged by a series of sceptics in the 1990s. As these things tend to go, calling the opposition ‘the Sceptic School’ implies more unity than is necessarily there, though they all emphasise that the Cathars were a spectre conjured up by contemporary readings of patristic sources and false confessions, being instead idiosyncratic groups with divergent practices.  Indeed, I would generally chart the sceptics into two categories: firstly, those who reject that anything coherent enough to be called Cathars ever existed and secondly those who maintain that they were a local development, emerging after the Albigensian Crusade.  

Beyond a struggle to communicate with each other, the tension between the camps often escalates into thinly veiled animosity. For example, the prominent sceptic Mark Pegg complained about the traditionalist Peter Biller’s comment that he, ‘as an Australian historian who works in the United States,’ was leading the ‘troops’ in a sweeping campaign ‘to dismantle our picture of Catharism.’ Despite the implication of Biller’s comment, Cathar scepticism is by no means a case of Anglicised imposition, as French historians, like Jean-Louis Biget, are among the prominent domestic critics. That said, this tension is understandable, as Pegg admits the stakes are quite high. If there were no Cathars then that means significant parts of medievalist methodology is wrong, and that our conception of Latin Christendom is fundamentally misconstrued, meaning our understanding of the Medieval world itself is deeply flawed. The murky convolutedness of the debate is only heightened by regional differences. The Italian Cather debate, for example, is quite different, since there is nothing close to the same source basis due to the lack of inquisitions, with the brand of heretic often invoked against all opponents of the Pope. I suspect, therefore, that scholars grounded in different contexts than the Occitanian complicate the picture with their different conceptions of the terms and debates. After all, the general assumption is that there is a category of Catharism that can be abstracted from its local context. As a result, any newcomer to the field should be very conscious of whatever stance is taken by the author.  

It is more troublesome when this divide creeps into the study of primary sources. A prominent example of this is a chronicle on the Albigensian Crusade, Chanson de la Croisade contre les Albigeois, which in the most recent English translation by Janet Shirley and was rendered as The Song of the Cathar Wars. The problem is that the term Cathar does not appear in the Chansonor indeed in any Occitan sources of the period, who either stick to the generic heretic, or the more specific if still unclear Albigensian, derived from the heretic stronghold Albi. Part of the problem, as Shirley points out, is that scarcely any of the heretics’ own texts survive, making it quite difficult to discern the true nature of their belief, with the evidence being mainly provided by their enemies. However, she does not extend this doubt to the term Cathar itself, which as Deborah Shulevitz points out, only came in proper use in the twentieth century. Sceptics see this as grounds to dismiss it, while traditionalists maintain it as a useful shorthand for dualist groups. The ambiguity of the term Cathar has by proxy extended into Albigensian, with dubiousness of its utility on both sides. However, as Samuel Power has demonstrated by an exploration into the still largely untapped material of crusader charters, the term Albigensian was used from the outset for the combatted heresy, and not merely after. That reassurance, however, has little use for demonstrating the beliefs of those branded as heretics. 

The fundamental problem with this sort of controversy is that there is no simple resolution. After all, it is not possible to compromise on half of them existing or being partially dualist. As a result, the Traditional School very much retains its established position in popular knowledge and imagination, with no new consensus able to take its place. This is certainly not hindered by it being a very compelling story. Any glance at Wikipedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms as much, the latter not even mentioning any historiographical dissent. Beyond reiterating how poor of a historical resource Britannica is, the situation does illustrate the problem of conflating the past with history. To clarify, I would postulate there are three separate concepts at work. First, there is the past-in-itself, the objective sum of what has happened. Then there is history, which is constructed accounts meant to explain an element of said past, though it necessarily lacks any complete epistemic certainty. Finally, there is the past-as-imagined, which is history that has shed any notion of it being contested or constructed, understood in general consciousness as the past-in-itself. 

A way to ground this notion in something more concrete is how Catharism has been embraced as historical memory in Occitania. As Emily McCaffrey’s insightful study argues, popular memory of heresy and the crusade had all but disappeared from the region by the nineteenth century. It was revived, or rather created, by a new cultural interest in the period instigated by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s novel Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 à 1324, published in 1978. Though it must be said that the crusade had stirred European minds long before, as it was embraced by protestant historiography as demonstrating the enduring struggle of truth against the papacy. Followed by a secular-nationalist turn with the French Revolution of it as foreign squashing of relatively democratic, tolerant regionally conscious society. This view was central in the accounts of nineteenth-century historians like Jules Michelet, who saw it as a struggle of democracy versus rising absolutism. However, the popular turn since the 1980s has seen a coalition of mystics, Occitan nationalists, and tourist entrepreneurs cultivate an image of medieval Occitania as a civilised and humane society, where tolerance, freedom, and independence were jealously defended. Cathar has hence become a geographic description for the region, perhaps most flippantly seen in the leisure centre at Aigues-Vivres called ‘The Kart Are’, referencing its go-carts. Though, in fairness, these overly touristy events are internally somewhat contentious as not taking it seriously enough. More than just tourism, this identity has also been mobilised as a political tool against the enduring centralism of the French state, articulating resistance by equating it to the imposition of the North on the South during the crusade. Crucially, this popular project is not separate from the academy, with historians like Michel Roqubert and Anne Brenon, being attached to the Centre National d’Etudes Cathares (CNEC) in Carcassonne. They act as the faces of popular Catharism, aiding in the mythologisation of Cathars and the need to have historic links with them. Any snobbish disdain for the proles not grasping the difference between past and history is therefore ill-judged, as professional historians themselves are often very much engaged in officialising history and constructing memory.  

To conclude, regardless of however the Cathar debate is resolved, if indeed it ever is, it acts as a very useful reminder of the epistemic and methodological uncertainties at the heart of the discipline. Crucially, these are not always acknowledged, especially in popular history circles and accessible format where most people engage with history. As Shulevitz notes, it reminds us that no certainty can be established of the past, adding that while sources should sometimes be taken at their word, we should also be cautious of assuming practices and beliefs to be constant. Pegg reaches a similar conclusion, asserting that:  

any meditation on the past that starts with the presumption that some things are universal in humans or in human society—never changing, inert, immobile—is to retreat from attempting a historical explanation about previous rhythms of existence. 

As refreshing as I find his unabashed historicist anti-humanism, it is hardly grounds for resolving such a messy debate. If nothing else then, the Cathar controversy reminds us that the construction of history is always contested, and that popular perception is as liable to disagree with the academy as the academy is to disagree with itself.  

Written by Inge Erdal


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Chiu, Hilbert. “Alan of Lille’s Academic Concept of the Manichee.”  Journal of Religious History 35, no. 4 (2011): 492-506.  

Davidson, Lola Sharon. “Montaillou: Cosmology and Social Structure.” Journal of Religious History 35, no. 4 (2011): 516-531. 

Heller, Sarah-Grace. “Mocking Medieval French Fashion Troubadours Debating Trade versus Plunder in the Late Twelfth to Thirteenth Centuries.” French Historical Studies 43, no. 2 (2020):145-166.  

Lake, Justin. “Current approaches to medieval historiography.” History Compass 13, no. 3 (2015): 89-109. 

McCaffrey, Emily. “Imaging the Cathars in Late-Twentieth-Century Languedoc.” Contemporary European History 11, no. 3 (2002): 409-427. 

Pegg, Mark Gregory. A most holy war: the Albigensian Crusade and the battle for ChristendomOxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 

Pegg, Mark Gregory. “Albigenses in the Antipodes: An Australian and the Cathars.” Journal of Religious History 35, no. 4 (2011): 577-600.  

Shirley, Janet. The Song of the Cathar warsA History of the Albigensian CrusadeLondon: Ashgate Publishing, 2000. 

Shulevitz, Deborah. “Historiography of heresy: The debate over “Catharism” in medieval Languedoc.” History Compass 17, no.1 (2019): 1-11. 

Sparks, Chris. Heresy, Inquisition and Life Cycle in Medieval LanguedocWoodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2014. 

Woolf, Daniel. A Global History of HistoryNew York, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

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