On 14th January 1208 a Papal legate was murdered, thus triggering one of the most terrible demonstrations in history of what happens when people use their religion as an excuse to commit evil deeds.
The medieval Church, led by the pope in Rome, was on the lookout for heresy in all its forms. Any group or sect that did not toe the line was not to be tolerated. This is an unfortunate consequence of religion in all its forms – once you have convinced yourself that you are right, everyone else must therefore be wrong, and if you are fanatical enough there is only one punishment for being wrong, which is that the heretics must not be allowed to live.
The target in 13th century France was the group of Christian puritans known as the Cathars, who were concentrated in the cities of Toulouse and Albi in the southwest. The problem with the Cathars was not so much their devotion to a peaceful and saintly life in which the distractions of the world were set to one side, but the fact that they dared to criticise the Catholic Church for its greed and corruption and their refusal to pay the papal taxes that were part of that corruption.
Pope Innocent III (see picture) sent his legate, Pierre de Castelnau, to Toulouse to demand that Count Raymond suppress the Cathars on pain of excommunication. The Count gave in to the demand and sent the legate on his way, but de Castelnau had not gone far before he was set upon and murdered by a knight in the service of Count Raymond.
It is unlikely that Count Raymond had ordered the killing, but that did not affect the reaction of Pope Innocent who ordered, in effect, the destruction of the entire Cathar community.
This campaign became known as the Albigensian Crusade, because the town of Albi was one of its main targets, and ironically it was by far the most successful (in terms of outcome matching aim) of all the Crusades launched by the Church at that period in history.
The task of wiping out the Cathars was assigned to a French nobleman named Simon de Montfort, who set about his task with ruthless efficiency. City after city was laid waste and the population slaughtered down to the last man, woman and child, although some did manage to escape.
When it was pointed out to Simon that not every inhabitant of a city under siege was a Cathar, and many were loyal Catholics, his response was that everyone should be killed anyway, and the task of sorting out good from bad should be left for God to sort out when their souls got to the Pearly Gates.
Even after the crusade had succeeded in destroying the supposed threat from the Cathars, Simon carried on with the genocide and was only stopped by a rock that was projected from a mangonel on the walls of Toulouse, a weapon which legend states was operated by a group of young women who were desperately trying to defend their city after most of the men had been killed.
The whole episode was a revolting example of what happens when fanaticism holds sway. Examples from much more recent times bear witness to the fact that the worst atrocities seem to occur when religion is a motive.
(Incidentally, Simon’s son, also named Simon, was to have an important part to play in the history of England, being the founder of the first English Parliament and eventually giving his name to the university that employs the current writer on Wednesday evenings!)
© John Welford