3: Montaillou: out of the mouths of Cathars


In Article 2 in this series, I described the Consolamentum, the ultimate blessing given by Cathars to cleanse them of all sins so that they could join the ranks of the Perfect, (Fr:les Parfaits). In Article 3, I hope to go beyond the theories of historians and ethnologists about the Cathars to show you testimonies from the inhabitants of a Pyrenean village very close to where I myself lived. These are no theories, but instead carefully recorded interviews between Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Palmiers in southern France (present day Ariège) between 1318-1325, and villagers under suspicion of having received the Consolamentum.

The Roman Catholic church was in hot pursuit of the Cathars at this stage, determined to wipe them out. They had retreated to the mountains, so the Bishops and cardinals systematically occupied villages and interrogated the inhabitants in order to locate Les Parfaits and exterminate them. It seems that their pure faith was a great threat to the monopolist Roman church, which Les Parfaits referred to as the ‘Church of wolves.’

Although the world today is full of oppression and discrimination despite our best efforts, direct religious persecution, which proliferated in the Middle Ages in Europe, is happily under more control thanks to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It is hard for us to imagine the secrecy and fugitive life the Cathars led, even deep in the high mountains. As mentioned, I have walked their secret pathways, as they moved around receiving alms and administering the Consolamentum, and I have known villagers whose families were certainly converted. The wild mountains with their primeval untouched forests populated by bears, wild deer and hogs, battered by colossal winds, baking sun and 5 metre snow-drifts, was certainly the environment in which to shake off the lust and greed of the Roman clergy luxuriating in the sheltered valleys below.


The Cathars taught metempsychosis, the belief that at the moment of death a soul could migrate into another body or animal to go on learning lessons it had not yet succeeded in. This concept has many links with the Buddhist system, which I will explore in a future article in this series. Of course, the villagers of Montaillou believed in fate and largely accepted that they were not in charge of their destinies because of the omniscience of God who controlled all things, and the Cathar doctrine fitted in well with this position. The following is an explanation of Bernard Bélibaste’s acceptance that he had no free will – (Bélibaste was a well-known Cathar who was later burned in the crag-top chateaux):

When a man steals away someone else’ possessions or commits evil, that man is none other than an evil spirit which enters into him: this spirit makes him commit sins and makes him abandon the good life for the wicked. Everything is full of souls. All the air is full of good and evil spirits. Except when a spirit has been dwelling in the body of a dead person who when he was a live was just and good, the spirit which has just escaped from a dead body is always anxious to be reincarnated. For the evil spirits in the air burn that spirit when it is among them; so they force it to enter into some body of flesh, whether of man or beast; because as long as a human spirit is at rest in a body of flesh, the evil spirits in the air cannot burn it or torment it.’

(pp288, Montaillou, E.L.Ladurie, 2008, Penguin – this is the only book on the topic I will quote from for the purposes of this article)

 Béatrice de Planissoles, a minor aristocrat, who had fled to the mountains and eventually became a Parfait, confessed to the Fournier Inquisition,

Pierre Clergue (known as a Parfait) told me that both man and woman can freely commit any sin they like during their life.  And do whatever they please in this world. Provided only that at the end they are received into the sect or into the faith of the good Christians (les Parfaits). Then they are saved and absolved of all the sins they have committed in their life….thanks to the laying on of hands of these good Christians, as it is received on the brink of death.’ (p327)

At that time, the Roman church ruled that all Catholics made donations or ‘indulgences’ for the salvation of their souls in the face of death, and many people in this village of Montaillou strongly resented this. Many villagers concluded that giving alms to ‘the poor of faith,’ the goodmen, (the Parfaits) was the best. Rixende Cortil of Ascou said,

‘The goodmen, thanks to the heretication (consolamentum) they bestow, can send a soul directly to the Kingdom of the Father after death; to give alms to them is to obtain a great reward in exchange, far superior to what one obtains when one gives to other men.’ (p338)

and Arnaud Vital expressed a similar view,

‘Alms for the goodmen, yes.  For the Catholics, no.” (p338)

Alazais Maurine said,

‘Poor as we are, my husband and I give alms to the goodmen. We abstain from food in order to give it them.  We send them flour, the best flour.’ (p338)

consolamdentum at death

Many of these Cathars devotees were later imprisoned or burned at the stake along with all the Cathars. They staked their own lives on their beliefs.  This was such a strong inspiration to me, and still is.  If I can live my daily life being prepared to die for what I believe in, then I will live beautifully and sincerely.  Buddhists believe strongly that keeping the irrefutable knowledge of death constantly in mind, helps us to live in a meaningful and compassionate way. We also believe in accumulating virtue by giving even and especially when we have little to give.

Cathar devotees were a group of true practitioners of the original Christian teachings. Of course, like most Christians and most people, there is fear of death, and so they will go to extreme lengths to soothe their passage into the invisible world, prepared to buy their salvation. Buddhists also give generously without a thought for their own welfare and are close to death, and it would seem that the Cathars were not afraid of death or deprivation. We think of people of monotheistic faith as god-fearing, living by the grace of an omnipotent often wrathful god, but the Cathars had the ability to overcome all fears and save the souls of sentient beings. Their way of life out in the community without the need for church or outward display of their faith, is reminiscent of Buddhists around the world whose faith has enabled them to practice alone without sacraments or religious communities.

giving alms

It seems that they moved to where they were needed most and provided models of moral discipline while living in society. I encountered many such people during my time in the Pyrenees. They professed to be devout Roman Catholics, but they had no need of stone churches and sermons, of regular confession and other such dependencies. People with a certain light in their eyes who were strong and incorruptible, and a shining beacon of pure faith for its own sake instead of seekers only of benefit. They lived very simply in their family houses without needing to move away from our village, without cars or modern conveniences, moving quietly with radiance and utter humility. I feel so privileged to have shared their lives briefly and received blessings from their existence, as well as to share the same pathway with them for some miles.

Based on my experience and as homage to this amazing sect and all the survivors of their eradication, I am writing a novel entitled ‘Consolamentum,’  which will be published this year on Amazon. This following passage is the meeting of the protagonist, Fabrisse de Caramany, a householder of the village, and an itinerant Parfait called Father August. I have tried to capture the qualities of pure faith or Buddha Nature, I have attempt to describe in this article:

The floor of the threshing yard was strewn with perfectly winnowed barley that day.  The first harvest.  Its ripe creamy grains gathered in the thick flounces of sunshine.  Mmmmm!  Do you know that dry earthy scent which comes off it?

Father August went on squatting, the wet-earth black of his robes perfectly at home in the enclosed courtyard full of our crop.  He could not resist playing with the grains, watching them intensely as if a thousand rosaries had been broken there.  And in a silence between us, as I brushed aside a strand of hair which had blown into my eyes, and he ran his lengthy olive fingers over an arc pattern of grains he was making, he said, “Each grain has an original blessing,” and looked at me full, his head slightly bowed, “like you.”

He trained his rustling eyes down again on the grains saying, “and me.” Behind him a pair of grey and white wagtails boldly pecked, and I shooed them away by a sharp intake of breath, which unnerved him.

“Those wagtails are real scavengers,” I said, irritated by them.  You know, I was irritated by their opportunism, always ready to rush in and thieve, and I felt my cheeks hotter then usual.

He smiled and said, “You have done the work of removing the husks for them.  Look!  They are pleased!”  And at that moment a single hen wagtail moved towards him and pecked at a grain he offered her in the palm of his hand.  He looked for many moments deep into the eyes of this twitchy silvery bird, in a kind of trance like soothsayers lapse into.

Then he said,  “God is here in this flapping feathery spirit.”  He continued in silence to scrutinize it, and then turned to look at me sideways again.

“And God is here in these full lips, and on the sweet breath of Fabrisse of Caramany.”

(p81, Consolamentum, Linden Thorp, to be published in 2013)

feathery spirit

I wonder could this be an evocation of the Dharma? All people of faith, according to their karma and imprints from former lives, are travelling along the network of sandy secret pathways. Their human forms are simply vessels to house their spirits, and death is a diaphanous veil they wear. In Cathar parlance, they are angels trapped in bodies eagerly awaiting their return to their spirit homes, just as Buddhists mediate between the visible and invisible worlds.

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