Copyright © Peter Vronsky 2002
The dualist Cathar heretic religion has been over time both demonized and romanticized. At the peak of their existence in 13th century Europe, primarily in France and Italy, they were characterized as satanic demon worshipers. Today the Cathars are most often portrayed as pacifist vegetarian feminists; medieval New Agers who were ruthlessly put down by a supposedly reactionary and corrupt Catholic Church. While there are elements of some truth in these portrayals, the reality of the Cathar faith falls somewhat short of the fuzzy-warm puppy-loving reputation attributed to it.
The origin of Cathar beliefs has never been precisely identified, but most historians link them to the dualist Bogomil sect in the Byzantine sphere. Like the Bogomils, Cathars were Christian dualists--a doctrine that has existed in various forms as long as there has been Christianity and before. The dualists attempt to confront the question of how can a God that is all powerful, merciful and good, allow monstrous evil to exist. Their response is that there must be two equally powerful gods--one good and one evil. Unlike Christianity, which demoted Satan beneath God's authority, dualists see the forces of evil and good as equally powerful.
According to the Cathar approach to dualism, a good god made the heavens and the human soul, while an evil god entrapped that soul to suffer in the flesh of the human body and in material and worldly things of the earth--an evil place. Salvation, according to the Cathars, lay in the human soul's escape to the spiritual realm from its prison of flesh in the material world.
Cathars rejected sex as a continuation of the human soul's entrapment in earth-bound carnal evil. According to Cathars, marriage was a form of prostitution. Children were born as demons until they could be consciously lead to choose salvation in the Cathar path. Cathars believed that the human soul could pass on its journey through animal life, thus they were vegetarians: they did not eat meat, eggs, cheese or any fat except vegetable oil and fish. The Cathars rejected oath taking and violence in principle; they conveniently hired mercenaries to do violence on their behalf.
Cathars considered themselves Christians but rejected the Old Testament and the vengeful and angry God described within it. The God of the Old Testament was the one who created the world, thus he was the other "evil" god. The values, however, such as the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament were espoused by the Cathars. They rejected the humanity of Jesus and the doctrine of virgin birth, insisting that Christ was pure spirit which was "concealed" until birth in Mary's body--she had no power of intercession. They did not believe that Christ died on the cross, as Christ could only be spirit and they rejected any idea of bodily resurrection, since material things of the body were evil. It is unclear what sort of burial or cremation rites were practiced by Cathars.
The origin of the term Cathar is in dispute. Some link it to the Greek term katharos--"pure." Some historians believe that the term Cathar comes from a 12th century German play on words implying that the Cathars kissed cats' asses. In France, the Cathars were insultingly know as Texerants--from the practice of weaving--a trade considered in medieval times as an inhonesta mercimonia--an questionable activity practiced in cellars and prohibited to Catholic priests. As for themselves, the Cathars only referred to themselves as "good Christians" and their church as "The Church of God."
The Cathar religion was divided between a majority of credenti--(croyants)--the believers, or followers, and a minority of perfecti--(parfaits)--the "perfect ones"--those who had committed themselves to the celibate and dietary rigors of the Cathar faith and had passed through a ritual known as consolamentum--"consoling"--a type of Cathar born-again baptism carried through with a laying of hands instead of water. Only perfecti were considered as "members" of the Church.
The Cathars had no lavish church properties--services were held in homes or out in fields and forests. But while there were no priests as in the Catholic Church, the perfecti in fact functioned as priests--in a manner more restrictive than in the Catholic Church. In the Cathar Church, a mere credent was considered too impure to have his or her prayer heard by God. Only the perfecti's prayer could reach the ears of God. The credenti were required to abase themselves before the perfecti and beg them to pray for their souls in a ritual known as the melioramentum. The credent would fall to their knees and place their palms to the ground, bowing deeply three times and begging the perfect to pray on his or her behalf: "Bless us Lord", or "good Christian" or "good Lady" and on the third bow, "Lord, pray God for this sinner that he deliver him from an evil death and lead him to a good end."
The fact that women could become a perfecta and perform the melioramentum leads many modern commentators to portray the Cathar Church as a feminist institution where both men and women served equally as church functionaries. That was not the case in fact. The Cathar religion had an episcopate as structured as that of the Catholic Church, with territorial titles and geographical demarcations of dioceses, and an ambitious leadership. There were elected Cathar bishops, two subordinate ranks of filius major and filius minor and a diaconate. These were exclusively the domain of males: none of these positions were open to female perfectae.
Nor were female perfectae allowed to perform the ritual of consolomentum; the raising of a credent to the rank of a perfect was also an exclusive privilege of male Cathar perfecti.
While not expressly forbidden, female perfectae did not preach extensively either, as often implied by modern rosy accounts of the Cathars. In the records of the Languedoc Inquisition of 1245-46, female perfectae are reported in witness statements on 1,435 occasions--but only on twelve of those occasions are they reported to be preaching. Of three hundred eighteen named perfectae, only eleven are identified as having preached.1 In other words, Cathar perfectae basically had a status not much different from Catholic nuns, the primary difference being that they were not cloistered and isolated from the populace as were Catholic nuns. Moreover, there was a foundation of class behind those female perfectae who preached--almost all leading women in the Cathar Church came from powerful noble families and by virtue of their secular education, wealth, and power, they gathered around them both male and female followers.
Catharism was in some ways darkly hostile to maternity and family. Pregnant credents were admonished that they carried demons in their bellies. A perfecta advised a follower to pray to God that she be liberated from the demon in her belly; another warned a pregnant woman that if she died in pregnancy she could not be saved.2 Because the Cathars believed that baptism had to be consciously understood, children who died in infancy could not be considered as saved either.
Statistical analysis of Inquisition records show that of 719 identified active perfecti and perfectae, 318 were women -- a little under 45 percent. This is a very high number, compared to how many women were nuns in the Catholic Church compared to all the priests, officials, monks, friars, clerks and other men engaged in official Church duty. Thus the elite strata of the faith drew women. On the other hand, in analyzing 466 identified credenti followers or believers, only 125 were women -- roughly 28 percent--indicating that Cathar beliefs were of less interest to the average medieval woman, who probably found the anti-procreative ideology repellent. Nonetheless, female perfectae played a more direct and crucial role in forming and sustaining Cathar nuclei; as there were no formal churches, their homes became religious centers.
The Cathar Church in comparison to the corrupt practices of the medieval Catholic Church, was an honest and dedicated movement that rejected the trappings of wealth, lust and power. There were no church buildings or property. The Cathar Church did not demand tithes of its members and it educated its children, both male and female. As such it was a threat to the Catholic Church, and after numerous failed attempts to sway Cathar followers away by persuasion, the Pope finally sponsored a bloody crusade to put down the Cathars by fire and sword in 1209.1. Medieval Studies,XLI, (1979), pp. 227-228
2. Wakefield Journal of Medieval History, XII, pp. 232-233
and Lambert, Malcolm The Cathars Oxford:1998. p.151