The whole land was filled with blood, castles were taken by storm, villages were lying in ruins, bonfires were blazing everywhere burning hundreds of people, the population was almost destroyed by the Crusader army led by Simon de Montfort hired by the pope. Did you think it happened somewhere in Palestine? No. It was Languedoc, France, which 800 years ago was named Occitania or Pays Cathare and belonged to the Cathars, people who dared to think about Jesus Christ in their own way, not according to the pope’s way. The head of the Catholic Church declared this doctrine to be the Cathar heresy and tested in Occitania a new method of getting rid of unwanted people—burning them at the stake—which would later became known as the Holy Inquisition.
Why burn people? Why not just kill them with well proven methods? Because their graves and memorial stones could remain and become places of worship for new heretics. Instead, nothing but ashes would be left after a fire. However, the pope was wrong. Memorial stones on the fields of mass burnings of Cathars in Languedoc were established, and today, we will stand near one of them at the foot of the famous ruins of the Cathar castle, Chateau de Montsegur.
In Europe, the 13th century was marked by a terrible disaster—a crusade of Christians against Christians. The war declared by the pope and the French monarch on the Cathar heresy quickly returned many cities to a their place under the wing of the official church, but only in the castles of Languedoc, Cathars and noble knights who sympathized with them kept up a defense for a long time—in some places for ten years, in others 20 and even 50.
Most of the Cathar castles are located on the tops of harsh rocks. All of them eventually fell under attacks of Crusaders and now stand empty. They became victims of war, but they still remember their good times. They are unique. Unlike many other European castles, the Cathar castles retained the distinctive look of the austere fortress where everything was made with a single goal: to protect its inhabitants from enemies.
Of course, the most famous French castles are located in the Loire Valley, but they are more the palaces of the nobility of the 17th 18th centuries. You will also find many medieval castles in the province of Perigord bordering on Languedoc, but the Cathar castles in Languedoc-Roussillon in the southern France are special.
The fortified city of Carcassonne is not the capital of Languedoc, but it is the heart of the Pays Cathare. For ten days, Carcassonne became our temporary home and starting point for the trips to the towns, villages, and castles scattered around, where Cathars who had not renounced their faith ascended in the first fires of the Inquisition. Every day of this trip brought us a new story about the Good Men (Bons Hommes) as they called themselves.
Pays Cathare: Chateaux de Lastours, 18 km from Carcassonne, 22 minutes by car, 3 hours and 34 minutes by foot
The village of Aude clings to the slope of the mountain above the thundering L’Orbiel River. Although roads are very narrow here, we reached the village without problems and found a well-equipped free parking lot in the center of it. The ruins of the three Cathar castles are situated on the cliffs right above the village. Even today, their “assault” seems not an easy task. I wonder whose descendants inhabit the village of Aude today, surviving Cathars or their conquerors?
The road splits in the parking lot. You can go straight to the castles or to the so-called Belvedere. We guessed there must be a place where Chateaux de Lastours could be viewed not only from the bottom up, but from the top down. The name “Belvedere” itself hinted at this. The steep climb took 40 minutes, although the viewpoint can be reached by car. There, you will find a parking lot and well-equipped camping area. Our efforts paid off—all the Lastours Castles were in full view.
Pierre Roger de Cabaret, the owner of the Chateaux de Lastours, was a Cathar like his wife and two of his daughters and their husbands. The first time, the Chateaux de Lastours were besieged in 1209 by troops of the pope and the French king, led by Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester, but the Cathars resisted fiercely and the siege was lifted. Note that in those days, there were only three castles. The square tower of Surdespine (or Thorn flower) and the Quertinheux castle stood on the way to the master Cabaret castle. Two sons-in-law of the baron kept up the defense of the first two castles, Pierre Roger de Cabaret defended the main castle where the rest of his family and simple people were sheltered. When in 1226 the Cathar bishop of Carcassonne took refuge in the castles, the Chateaux de Lastours were besieged again.
The local landscape resembles illustrations for a book of fairy tales: the ruins of the four castles sit on hills covered by wildflowers. Although every castle stands on its own rock, they are located just within several hundred meters of each other.
Pierre-Roger de Cabaret resisted Simon de Montfort for many years, but in 1227, the castles were again besieged by Humbert de Beaujeu. In 1229, Cabaret capitulated, and the Castles of Lastours along with the villages around them were plundered.
This was about 15 years before the fall of the Montsegur, the main Cathar castle.
Pays Cathare: the Chateau de Montsegur, 71 km from Carcassonne, 1 hour and 15 minutes by car, 14 hours by foot
The Chateau de Montsegur is the most mysterious and famous castle in Pays Cathare of France. We arrived there in the afternoon after visiting the no-less-famous village of Rennes-le-Chateau. (You can read how in 1891, the poor village priest momentarily became the richest man in the south of France.) Note that the Languedoc region is the mountainous province of France, but the mount of Montsegur with its pyramid shape dominated the neighboring landscape. It even occurred to me that the form of the peak of Montsegur resembles another sacred mountain—Mount Kailash in Tibet. At different times, in different languages, Montsegur is called the impregnable mountain, the hill of safety, and the mountain of sun. The Cathar castle on its top was impregnable from three sides, but unfortunately only from three.
In the summer of 1243, the army of Crusaders besieged the Chateau de Montsegur. For almost a year, 15 knights and 50 soldiers confronted a well-armed French royal army of 6,000 people. The balance of forces was one against 90.
On March 16, 1244, the legendary Cathar castle fell. The same day, 225 defenders of the castle who did not want to renounce their faith were burned at the foot of the castle which they so desperately defended. Now, this place called Prat dels Cremats or the Field of the Burned, and has a modest memorial stone. Sometimes, sympathizers bring flowers to it.
We did not go up to the fortress on top. These are the ruins of a much later period of history. The original Montsegur Castle has not existed for seven centuries. Back in 1244, the pope ordered it completely demolished, but legends, rumors, and speculation still envelop the Chateau de Montsegur.
This castle was the center of Cathar heresy in Languedoc. People say that at one time it held the Holy Grail. The night before the surrender of Montsegur, four Cathars escaped from the castle having descended its steep rocks at the risk of falling to their deaths. According to the rumors and legends, they took away from the castle SOMETHING that in the modern world is called the Cup of Christ or the Holy Grail. As a result, the mysterious SOMETHING was hidden or lost, and the search still continues.
Nobody doubted that the Montsegur castle would fall. Besiegers offered exceptionally favorable conditions to the surviving defenders of the castle: two weeks of truce and their life in exchange for a renunciation of their Cathar faith. Why were they so generous after ten months of siege? Apparently, the winners were very interested in some trophy, but one can’t get information from a dead man, so they were forced to show their “generosity and kindness.”
When two weeks were up, on March 16, 1244, about 200 Cathars entered the pyre and perished voluntarily in the flames.
The executioners did not celebrate their victory because Montsegur was empty. Even under torture, none of the surviving defenders told where the hidden treasures were and what relics they contained.
Was the Holy Grail real? This question has occupied many people and is still left unanswered. One day, a German boy Otto from the tiny Michelstadt in the southern Germany also caught the Cathar heresy. The beautiful Cathar doctrine of eternal service to the Light for the sake of the eternal struggle against Darkness fascinated him. Later, Otto Rahn decided that the Cathar Montsegur was nothing but the mystical castle of Montsalvat where according to the medieval troubadours and mystics the Holy Grail was kept. He sat down to write the book, Crusade Against the Grail: The Struggle between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome, which made him famous.
The idea of Montsalvat having charming romantic Otto Rahn, also captured the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the head of Ahnenerbe, the organization whose task was to prove the superiority of Aryans over other races, by finding the historical evidence. This department of the SS was interested in Tibet, the Spear of Destiny, the crystal skulls, and of course the Holy Grail. Nazis managed to organize two expeditions to Montsegur.
In 1944, the Nazi army was suffering one defeat after another. One defensive point of the Germans was the legendary Chateau de Montsegur. The order from Berlin demanded to keep the castle at any cost, and the soldiers kept it. They fought to the last bullet, to the last man, until the last breath.
A few days before the complete defeat of this Nazi group, a large flag with the ancient pagan symbol, the Celtic cross, was hoisted over the ruins of Montsegur. Generally, people only turned to this old Germanic ritual when they needed the help of higher powers. In vain. Nothing would help the Nazis, and the castle, the descendant of the Cathar Montsegur, was completely destroyed by Allied bombing.
Numerous post-war expeditions found nothing here. We have just puzzles and the mountain of the sun—the place of unreal power. Ira’s fingers did not obey when she photographed the Field of the Burned. She was literally shaking under the walls of the fortress. Of course, she is very impressionable, but this inexplicable commotion stopped as suddenly as it began when we walked away a couple of hundred meters from the foot of the mountain of Montsegur.
Pays Cathare, Languedoc, France, is the land of castles of heretics. You will learn their history by moving from castle to castle along forest paths. Long before you, perfecti walked there, devotees who bravely rose in the fires of the Inquisition, and who believed in the triumph of good over evil, and nonetheless were killed by good Catholics.