Monday, August 2, 2010

The Cathars in Occitania

Why did they choose the south of France?
Why did these dualist beliefs implant themselves so successfully in Occitania? In contrast to Italy, where Catharism assumed a strongly urban base, Occitanian villages provided the principal stronghold for Cathar believers. Certainly Toulouse, which Cistercian preachers decry as the caput erroris, represented a centre for heresy and resistance to the Roman Church. The invaluable research of J. H. Mundy has illuminated the socio-historical background of Catharism in that comital city and helped to establish that Cathar believers belonged to all social classes. Mundy has also brought to light the attacks on heretics and usurers waged by the White Confraternity under Bishop Fulk of Toulouse in the early thirteenth century. Although earlier research sought explanations for the success of Catharism in Occitania among these and other economic factors, they do not appear to provide a solid explanation.

The castrum, the fortified village or town organized around a castle, and not the city, offered Catharism its most frequent foyer and the path for its dissemination from household to household. The Occitanian system of partible inheritance probably accounts for the representation of all social classes among the Cathars. Southern nobles, many of whom were impoverished as individual land holdings diminished because of repeated subdivisions, often lived among their subjects in the castra. Some famous castra were hill or mountain-top villages, although those developed later than the villages built near rivers or at lower elevations. Ruins of various villages are now being excavated, notably the castrum at Montségur. Three important centres of Catharism - Verfeil, Lombers and Fanjeaux - were inhabited by numerous nobles. Catharism was perhaps introduced by the upper class and then filtered down to other classes, but it also spread horizontally, from one family to the next. Villages allowed extraordinary freedom for Cathars to teach, worship and live together in community, and some families passed between city and country in search of refuge. Cathar houses played a religious and socio-economic role, as we have seen; people were welcomed there for instruction in trades and religion.

Recent research has explored the evidence for literacy among the Cathars. Although the language of Catharism was predominantly the vernacular, its scholarly leaders composed treatises and other documents in Latin. Peter Biller, surveying the use of written materials among the Cathars, underscores the evidence for formal correspondence among Cathar leaders. Letters conveyed between Occitania and Lombardy must have been written in Latin. Liturgical texts in Occitan contain headings and some prayers in Latin; extant theological works were written in Latin, and references are made to others composed in Latin or in a mixture of Latin and vernacular. Furthermore, there are numerous references to Cathars reading and commenting on books, and also to learned Cathar perfecti.

The fact that Catharism flourished in Occitania at the same time as troubadour poetry has provoked much speculation on possible causal relationships. The notion that troubadour songs, particularly the hermetic genre of trobar clus, constituted encoded statements of Cathar beliefs and thereby a type of mysticism has been refuted resoundingly by historians of Catharism and romance philologists. The connections that historians of Catharism have established between Cathar followers and poets of courtly love are primarily political. It was logical for the poets to favour the cause of Catharism, a product of their native soil, while the crusaders were considered foreigners whose invasion devastated Occitan society.

What intrigues us is the possibility that medieval clerics perceived a link between courtly love and heresy which parallels the opinion now refuted by historians. René Nelli asserted that the friars disapproved of the courtly love poetry of the Midi because of its exaltation of adulterous relationships and considered it responsible for the lax morality that fostered heresy. Romance philologists have shared this view to explain the eventual shift in troubadour lyrics from praise of the lady to that of the Virgin. To what extent the friars' unedited writings such as sermons reflect such notions and whether Cistercians shared the same suspicions constitute interesting questions for further research.

Certainly Cathar beliefs and the courtly love of the troubadours were tolerated in the same milieu, even though they did not proceed from the same principles. Some Occitanian nobles protected both Cathars and troubadours. Moreover, the Cathar perfects probably tolerated the sensual love praised by the troubadours at least as much as the institution of marriage, although they opposed both in theory. Such attitudes certainly would have provoked the anger of the orthodox clergy, who routinely denounced the Cathars for their opposition to marriage and for feigning chastity. If the Cistercians connected Cathar practices to troubadour poetry, Bishop Fulk would have had strong reason to be embarrassed by his youthful poetry. (Read entire article.)


R J said...

This is very interesting. When I was an undergraduate it was taken as unassailable truth (certainly I had neither the desire nor the information to dispute it) that (a) the troubadours were crypto-Cathars, (b) this was all to the troubadors' credit.

But then my old campus was probably the last refuge in the Western world of every stupid and/or pernicious historical heresy you can imagine. I'm sure that on the premises there, even now, is a nonagenarian Stalinist who still maintains - to the limited extent that he can convey any thesis through his toothless gums - that Katyn's victims committed suicide.

elena maria vidal said...

I think some of the troubadours were influenced by Catharism but certainly not all. Poor R.J.! I was blessed to have some fine professors in graduate school who put facts over ideology.

R J said...

Oh, I had a few extremely good professors too (in my undergraduate days; I never went to graduate school). It was just that the good ones were waaaaaaay outnumbered by the "They had to build the Berlin Wall to keep the West out" types.

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, I had plenty of that type, too!!