Register Sunday | December 5 | 2021

Kill Them All

Eight hundred years ago, crusaders slaughtered twenty thousand people in Languedoc, France. Today, fascination with the massacre has turned the region into a tourist trap.

Illustration by Francesco Gallé

Historical anniversaries function as the Hallmark cards of collective memory, and 2009’s birthday boys—Darwin, Lincoln, Poe—have been subjected to the customary crush of commemoration reserved for the good and the great. But not all anniversaries are happy ones.

I learned of one such milestone last spring via a preview of an issue of Pays Cathare—Catharism being the only medieval heresy, incidentally, with its own glossy magazine. The entire publication, four-colour illustrations and all, would be given over to the Cathars’ dreadful summer of 1209. Emails from friends in Languedoc confirmed the news: their region of France would be partying to mark the eight hundredth anniversary of the Sack of Béziers. This gave me pause. Having caught the Cathar bug and written a book about the heresy ten years ago, I knew this celebration would be a devilishly difficult greeting card to send.

For those unacquainted with the tale, the city of Béziers was the site of a mass murder that kicked off the Albigensian Crusade, a bloody twenty-year-long affair unleashed by a papacy desperate to stamp out heresy and abetted by a French monarchy eager to lay its hands on the independent lands of Languedoc, then the centre of Catharism. Béziers was a catastrophe, a war crime, a boys-gone-wild act of brutality. In one account, when some scrupulous crusaders wondered how they were expected to distinguish between the Catholic majority and the Cathar minority in the town, their commander-in-chief, the Abbot of Cîteaux, uttered the infamous order: “Kill them all! God will know his own!” Although the abbot probably never used those words, the phrase is so catchy it has endured as a nihilistic commonplace down to the present day. And even the most academic fact-fetishist can scarcely deny that somebody somewhere must have said something similar on July 22, 1209—for every man, woman and child of the city, which sheltered as many as twenty thousand souls, was put to the sword. The day was a medieval Guernica, the rules of engagement and human mercy jettisoned in the service of spreading terror.

Now how the hell are you supposed to celebrate that? The questions, as the French say, pose themselves. Would the Irish convene a caeli for Oliver Cromwell, river-dancing in homage to the fanatic who led a vandalous army through seventeenth-century Ireland? Would the Cambodians hold a bash for Pol Pot; the Bosnians, a slivovitz-fuelled trip down memory lane to salute Milosevic? For the people of the south of France to celebrate the Albigensian Crusade seemed, at first glance, as unlikely as the folks of Dixie coming out in force to relive Sherman’s March. Both campaigns signalled the ferocious termination of a way of life. On second thought, strike that—Civil War re-enactors, after all, will seize on any excuse to spend a weekend sleeping rough in a ditch. As for the people of modern Languedoc, well, I knew from experience that they were an odd bunch, too.

It’s mid-July, and I’m in Minerve, a cliff-hanging village near Carcassonne. One hundred and forty Cathar clergy—“Bons Hommes” and “Bonnes Femmes” in their parlance—were tossed onto a bonfire here, one year to the day after the Sack of Béziers. Christian Salès, a latter-day troubadour heading a theater company called OC, has chosen the very gorge where the heretics were fried alive as the place to launch his “Cathares La Croisade,” a musical show meant to evoke the events of 1209 and performed in Occitan, the region’s language at that time. Minerve’s crumbling battlements, high above the stage, stand in mute testament to the doomed efforts of the Cathars’ defenders, the fighting nobles of Languedoc and their overlord, Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel.

“What’s the first thing Raymond-Roger Trencavel does in Béziers, as the Crusade arrives from the North?” Salès asks, finding hope in the horror of 1209. “He takes the Bons Hommes and the Jews—there were many Jews in Béziers—and brings them back to the safety of Carcassonne. That’s because we had tolerance here. Many peoples have passed this way, the Greeks, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Saracens, and all contributed to the making of our civilization.”

So, too, with his show: a bit of everything. There are medieval musical instruments accompanied by an electronic backbeat, a naked-to-the-waist jongleur, a couple dozen lamb-to-the-slaughter Cathar extras, Viscount Trencavel mounted on a great draft horse turned destrier for the occasion, and, most effectively, an animated feature projected on the pale cliff walls. Salès has taken the unfinished illuminations of the Canso de la Crosada (an epic of the Crusade wonderfully rendered into English by Janet Shirley as The Song of the Cathar Wars) and given them life, making the soldiery and siege engines of the drawings execute a booming, malevolent dance. The crowd of three hundred or so—OC draws up to forty thousand spectators a summer—is on its feet at the end, clapping and singing along in Occitan.

Little remains of the Cathars, except their legend. “I am an artist, so I go well beyond what is normal to keep my freedom,” says Salès. “The Cathars went even further to hang on to theirs. They went so far that there had to be something important and profound behind it.”

He’s right, though a feel-good historical re-enactment is not, understandably, the venue to discuss it. Catharism, or the Great Heresy, sprang up—or was revived—during the awakening of the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It was transmitted along once-dormant trade routes, its simplicity an attraction for all classes, but especially the new merchant elites longing for a faith that did not reflexively consign them to eternal torment. In the Rhineland, Champagne, the Touraine and England, the religious novelty was crushed instantly, but in the patchwork of loyalties and landowners of Languedoc, nobility and clergy did not come together to do the repressive dirty work, and the creed flourished.

The theology of the ascetic Cathars, who lived not as recluses in some monastic fastness but as exemplars amongst the people, was stark: the material world is a creation of an evil god, or devil; the good god exists in the ethereal and immaterial realm. As we are creatures of matter, our station in life, even our gender, is just an irrelevant accident. It is only by becoming one of the Bons Hommes or Bonnes Femmes that we can attain salvation. If not in this life, then in a future incarnation. So go about your business, free from the threat of damnation, for hell is here and you are living it.

And the Roman Church for the Cathars? It was a monstrous fraud, its sacraments a satanic hoax, its wealth and feudal swank an insult to the life of apostolic poverty described in the Gospels. This adamantine rejection of Rome brought disaster down upon the heads of the Languedoc laity, first through Crusade, then by generations of punitive Inquisition.

That latter memory still rankles, and a Catholic priest admits as much in Mirepoix, a late-thirteenth-century settlement southeast of Toulouse. Father Georges Passerat is here to celebrate Mass in Occitan, as part of the festivities surrounding Mirepoix’s Les Médiévales, a town-wide costume party which this year features Cathars and Crusaders. A thick-necked man who looks as if he belongs in a rugby scrum (as do most men down here), Passerat is a well-respected scholar and professor of religious history, especially heresy. Always game, he celebrates Mass every Feast of St. John the Baptist (the Christianized Midsummer’s Night) at Montségur, the Cathar holy mountain that resisted capture until 1244.

“Sure, I get complaints,” Passerat says over a quick pre-Mass dinner. “The Occitanist clubs are in general very anticlerical. They say it’s scandalous that a curé should come to Montségur to say Mass. I tell them, ‘Look, it’s been eight hundred years and things change.’ The pope recognized the crimes committed by the Inquisition, the Church. But it was the Church of its day, you have to judge it in those terms.”

The Mass proceeds without incident. The first three rows of pews in the broad nave hold a crowd in medieval finery. When the festival used Gaul as its theme, Passerat remembers ruefully, “I had to give communion to Obélix.” Now the priest looks supremely self-assured in his vestments, part Occitan shaman, part Catholic showman, his gestures broad, his voice filling the sanctuary. My pew companion, Jean-Pierre Pétermann, is an Occitan speaker and ebullient Cathar sympathizer whom I first met atop Montségur on March 16, 1999, and who, like me, had made the climb because it was the mountain’s day of renown—its 755th, to be precise—as the site of the last mass burning of the Cathars.

“He’s saying it’s the fortieth anniversary of the moonwalk and that the Russians and Americans went to space to avoid war on earth,” Pétermann translates from the Occitan, clearly surprised at the priest’s use of  historical coincidence to drive home a pacifist point. As a Cathar partisan, however, Pétermann’s patience with the Catholic clergy goes only so far. From the altar now, Passerat beams at a row of adorable children decked out in the livery of Simon de Montfort, the feral military leader of the Crusade. He insists that we need to approach the past less emotionally. Clearly, his words are aimed at many in the congregation, their smiles as pained as Pétermann’s, who were last in a church for their own baptism. In closing remarks in French, the parish priest thanks Passerat and addresses the hostile contingent of lapsed locals by adapting a phrase usually found in the mouths of Parisian pols. “The Church has enemies among its friends,” he concludes tentatively, “but also friends among its enemies.”

As I watch the subsequent torchlight procession of Cathars and Crusaders, Passerat’s wry warning over dinner comes back to me: “Once you label a place as Cathar everyone pounces on it. They’ll take advantage of 1209 to start the machine back up again.” By that, he was referring to the extraordinary afterlife of the long-vanished Cathars, from the Enlightenment down to today. Their agony was used and abused by such polemicists as Voltaire, the troubadour champions of the Félibrige cultural movement, Third Republic anticlericals at war with a reactionary Church and, weirdly, fin de siècle spiritualists at Parisian séances. (One such spiritualist, a friend of Baudelaire and Huysmans, attempted to start a neo-Gnostic Cathar church.) Once their story eventually became a parable for countercultural rebels and regional nationalists in the 1970s, the modern infatuation with them took off.

A dozen or so years ago a southern département—the Aude—branded itself “Cathar Country,” and business followed suit: many restaurants in Languedoc now feature duck-heavy Cathar menus (the Cathars were vegetarians), and in a few towns your soon-to-be-reincarnated loved ones can be handled by the Pompes Funèbres Cathares. Every summer the Ryanair jets from the British Isles, packed with the droves of second-homeowners, descend on the Aéroport de Carcassonne en Pays Cathare. The Cathars’ latest contingent of supporters can be found among the millions of Da Vinci decoders.

But my fears of similar commercialism are allayed in Béziers. On its big day of July 22, a boisterous crowd awaits admittance to the Arènes, a grand bullring built in the late nineteenth century to premiere works composed by Fauré, Massenet and Saint-Saëns. The throng at the entrance falls silent as a half-dozen mounted princesses clop past, then returns to hilarity when two helmeted men, swords drawn, make threatening gestures worthy of warriors celebrating the Sack of Béziers. The unrestrained laughter around me demonstrates that the title of tonight’s show, Tuez-les tous! (Kill Them All!), has not put anyone off. When an usher tears my ticket, I venture, “Is there one side for crusaders, and one for the Cathars?’ He points and deadpans, “If you go this way, you’ll be burned alive; that way, you’ll be impaled.” Beside him, another fellow hawks a souvenir tote bag labelled le sac de Béziers.

The performance is a succession of tableaux vivants, heavy on narration, costume display, and line-fluffing that occasions hoots from the friendly crowd of four thousand. Robert Cavalié, its impresario, explains that he wants people to be aware of their history. A civic administrator turned unofficial cultural commissar, the very trim and talkative seventy-seven-year-old speaks of his city with teasing affection: “They know vaguely that something bad happened in the Middle Ages, they just don’t know what.”

Kill Them All begins with a surprisingly light-hearted account of the years leading up to the disaster. The sexual meanderings of a French king pass in review, accompanied by a snicker-generation allusion to Sarkozy’s speed-dating courtship of Carla Bruni. Similarly anachronistic and amusing is Cavalié’s characterization of the English crusaders as the low-cost locusts of Ryanair—“those English still hungry for our sunny lands.” Then the meat of the show arrives, showing the statecraft of a pope, the nobility of Trencavel, the sincerity of the Cathars—until, with the last tableau, a somber finale of massacre. The audience is enjoined to forgive the crusaders, for they are “guilty but not responsible.” A groan of recognition greets this line. “Abu Ghraib?” I ask Cavalié later, thinking of the Pentagon blowhards as yet unpunished. “No, the contaminated HIV blood scandal. It’s how all our politicians got off the hook.”

Given this level of inspired mischief, I decide to extend my stay to see Cavalié’s other show of the summer, in Béziers’ Church of the Madeleine. (That terrible July day in 1209 was the feast of the town’s patroness, Mary Magdalene, and hundreds of women and children of Béziers were slain in her church.) Despite the setting, Cavalié’s Trial of Simon de Montfort plays out in an atmosphere worthy of Fellini’s Roma. The town folk inside the Madeleine cheer and jeer the actors, all of them lawyers in real life who gesticulate and stride across the stage as if it were a courtroom. The play’s prosecutor is an actual procureur de la République, and he levels charges of spoliation and usurpation (Montfort took Trencavel’s lands) with professional iciness. Whenever a witness strays from those charges and shouts emotionally about Montfort’s many atrocities, the presiding seneschal of Carcassonne (played by an attorney of Béziers) declares the testimony inadmissible, as the court is holding a civil not a criminal proceeding. The crowd dutifully moans in exasperation.

At last, in an exquisite cop-out, the court rules itself illegitimate to pass judgment on Montfort, which occasions a thunder of boos under the white vault of the Madeleine. It is the judgment of God that counts, the seneschal concludes. Cavalié then braves the sullen silence and reads a famous passage from the Canso, where in June of 1218 the women and girls of Toulouse load a catapult and let fly a payload that obliterates Simon de Montfort’s skull. The cheering in the church is now deafening. Proust it is not, but it is immensely satisfying.

(See the rest of issue 35, Winter 2009)