The Albigensian Crusade
By the middle of the 12th century, control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land was no longer the only goal of the Crusades. Rather, Crusading became a special class of war called by the pope against the enemies of the faith, who were by no means confined to the Levant. Crusades continued in the Baltic region against pagans and in Spain against Muslims. Yet in the heart of Europe a more serious threat faced Christendom—heresy. In the medieval world, heresy did not represent benign religious diversity but was seen as a cancerous threat to the salvation of souls. It was held to be even more dangerous than the faraway Muslims, because it harmed the body of Christ from within.
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Crusader, possibly King Henry III of England, giving homage. The image depicts the armour worn by a Crusading knight and emphasizes the importance to medieval knights of military service to God and the church; from the Westminster Psalter, c. 1200, drawing from c. 1250; in the British Library (Royal MS 2 A XXII, fol. 220).
By permission of the British Library
The most vibrant heresy in Europe was Catharism, also known as Albigensianism for the Albi, a city in southern France where it flourished. A dualist belief, Catharism held that the universe was a battleground between good, which was spirit, and evil, which was matter. Human beings were believed to be spirits trapped in physical bodies. The leaders of the religion, the perfects, lived with great austerity, remaining chaste and avoiding all foods that came from sexual union.
The church had attempted for years to root out the heresy from southern France, where it remained popular, particularly among the nobility. St. Dominic, who was sent to the region to preach to the people and debate the Cathar leaders, formed his Order of Preachers (Dominicans) in response to the heresy. All efforts at eradication failed, however, largely because of the tolerance of the Cathari maintained by Raymond VI of Toulouse, the greatest baron of the area, and by most secular lords in the region. Shortly after his excommunication for abetting the heretics, Raymond was implicated in the murder of a papal legate sent to investigate the situation. For Pope Innocent III that was the final straw. In March 1208 he called for a Crusade against Raymond and the heretics of Languedoc, which began the following year.
The Albigensian Crusade was immensely popular in northern France because it gave pious warriors an opportunity to win a Crusade indulgence without traveling far from home or serving more than 40 days. During the first season the Crusaders captured Béziers in the heart of Cathar territory and—following the instructions of the papal legate who allegedly said, “Kill them all. God will know his own,” when asked how the Crusaders should distinguish the heretics from true Christians—massacred almost the entire population of the city. With the exception of Carcassonne, which held out for a few months, much of the territory of the Albigeois surrendered to the Crusaders. Command of the Crusade was then given to Simon, lord of Montfort and earl of Leicester, who had served during the Fourth Crusade. Abandoning the Crusade after it attacked the Christians at Zadar, Simon went to fight in the Holy Land.
The Albigensian Crusade dragged on for several years, with new recruits arriving each spring to assist Simon. By the end of the summer, however, they would all return home, leaving him with a skeleton force to defend his gains. By 1215, when the fourth Lateran Council met to consider the state of the church, Simon had captured most of the region, including Toulouse. The council gave the lands to Simon and then rescinded the Crusade indulgence for the war so that a new Crusade to the East could be organized.
A few years later a rebellion against the northerners that crystallized around Raymond and his son, Raymond VII, recaptured much lost territory. Simon was killed during a siege of Toulouse. The Albigensian Crusade was finally brought to a close by the French King Louis VIII. Although he died soon after his victory in the south, Louis restored northern control over the region in 1226 and dashed the hopes of Raymond’s family for an independent Toulouse. In 1229 the younger Raymond accepted a peace through which all his ancestral lands would go to the royal house of the Capetians at his death. It was, therefore, the French crown, which came to the Crusade quite late, that was the ultimate victor.
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For all of its violence and destruction, the Albigensian Crusade failed to remove the Cathar heresy from Languedoc. It did, however, provide a solid framework of new secular lords willing to work with the church against the heretics. Through the subsequent efforts of the Dominican inquisitors, Catharism was virtually eliminated in Languedoc within a century.