The name is taken from Albi, Department of Tarn, France. It refers to several small groups of heretics in the Languedoc region of France, Catharists and sometimes waldensians among them, who played an important
role in the religion and politics of the region from the mid-twelfth to the late fourteenth century. The cathari were eastern heretics with roots in Gnosticism who had made inroads in Western Europe around the middle of the twelfth century. Another principal group were the bogomils from Bulgaria, but there were probably multiple sources.
What characterized these groups was their dualistic belief, either absolute or limited, which maintained that God was responsible only for the spiritual world while Satan ruled the material world. In its absolute form, God created only the spiritual world, Jesus had no real human form, matter having been created by the devil. There were no positive values to marriage nor were there any material goods. These ideas were not new—they had been present in Manichaeism in the fourth century, when St. Augustine had at first joined them for nine years and later argued against them after his conversion. Westerners, therefore, identified Catharism with Manichaeism, though there was no direct connection. The indirect link was through Gnosticism, which had remained influential in the East, especially in monastic circles. The appeal of Gnosticism lay both in its strict separation of good and evil as well as in its rich myth-making tradition, which reworked and elaborated the Christian story to fit its view of the world and to broaden its appeal.
Catharism found fertile soil in many places in the West during periods of monastic reform in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. During this time there was increased contact between East and West and a greater receptivity to eastern forms of monasticism. During the twelfth century, the monastic revival began to impact the laity, finding a welcome among those belonging to confraternities. Recent research has also shown how this piety influenced members of the lesser nobility. Catharism did not, however, spread evenly throughout Europe. Its largest following was to be found in Mediterranean Europe.
One of the most difficult, but very important problems in measuring the Catharist influence lies in assessing their numbers. The popularly accepted statements based on contemporary sources regarding the extent of heresy have almost always proved wrong when examined closely. Even where they were numerous, as in parts of Languedoc, it is unlikely that the Catharists formed a majority save in some relatively small places. Where studies have examined this issue in detail, it seems clear that their influence was chiefly due to family members, who gave them shelter, or a measure of power they received from local authorities whom they supported against their enemies. This factor became more important as the intentions of the French monarchy in the Midi became clearer.
It is evident that neither the popes nor the bishops had a definite policy regarding heresy in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Their efforts to establish a policy was complicated by numerous groups of lower clergy and laity who sought to embrace the apostolic life (vita apostolica ), and whose zeal led them to preach at times without permission from their bishops. The most noted group, though by no means the only, were the followers of Peter Valdes (Waldo), a pious merchant of Lyons, whose zeal brought him into conflict with the episcopacy and the papacy. Although sometimes lumped with the Catharists as noted above, the Waldensians were not dualists. They opposed clerical abuses, and, in some cases, rejected priestly authority, but they were generally orthodox. Many were reconciled to the church in the early thirteenth century. Although St. Francis of Assisi and his followers were strong opponents of the Cathari, they did appeal directly to Christians who might otherwise have followed the Waldensians through their emphasis on apostolic poverty and their profound religious enthusiasm.
The rise of heresy in this period had a profound impact on the church. In 1184, Pope Lucius III, then in Verona, condemned various heretical groups by name in Ad abolendam. Among those mentioned were the followers of arnold of brescia, the humiliati, and the Cathari. But Ad abolendam seems to have been directed chiefly to the concerns of Bishop Adelard of Verona. It had no effect on Humiliati outside that area, but it may have tinged their reputation, as evidenced by a letter of Innocent III which recognized them as Catholic religious. This letter did not shape papal policy in the late twelfth century, however. Of much greater importance were Innocent III's efforts to develop a policy that combined strict penalties for heresy with efforts to reconcile as many heretics as possible and to broaden the view of the church in regard to the laity who were pursuing the vita apostolica. Canon Law, which developed rapidly in importance in this period, however, reflected only part of this policy. It is represented in the decretal Vergentis in senium (1199), which was directed against the problem of persistent heretics in Viterbo, within the papal state, where Innocent exercised both spiritual and temporal authority. This decretal was in response to the murder of the podestà, Parenzo. Its provisions were, however, somewhat mitigated by the decree "Excommunicamus," at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. By that time, moreover, Innocent had behind him the experience of the Albigensian Crusade (1208–), triggered by the assassination of the Cistercian peter of castelnau, one of his legates in Languedoc, by an official of Count Raymond of Toulouse's court. This crusade, which was an obstacle to the successful preaching of the Cistercians and of Bishop Diego de Osma and his associate, Dominic de Guzman, also hindered Innocent's plans for a crusade to free the holy places in the East. Moreover, it led indirectly to the French monarchy's dominance over the region. Innocent's effort to resolve the issues of succession in the south of France at the Fourth Lateran Council ran afoul of the opposition of the French bishops. His efforts at compromise failed.
By the 1220s, the papacy had enlisted the support of the Dominicans and Franciscans. The work of popular preaching continued and was probably the most effective instrument in combating heresy. Ironically, as heresy seems to have declined, the church placed more reliance on judicial means to seek out heretics. The inquisition, which evolved gradually around the middle of the thirteenth century, resulted from the recognition that it was becoming more difficult to identify heretics. This technique of judicial inquiry enabled the inquisitors, usually members of the mendicant orders, to secure testimony about suspected heretics. Although Catharism had virtually ceased to exist in Languedoc by the end of the fourteenth century, the effects of the crusade had transformed the region politically, and the Inquisition had led many to view repression as almost the only effective means to combat heresy.
Bibliography: Sources. j. von dÖllinger, Beiträge zur Sektengeschichte des Mittelalters, 2 v. in 1 (Munich 1890; repr. New York, 1960). c. douais, Documents pour servir … l'histoire de l'Inquisition dans le Languedoc, 2 v. (Paris 1900). w. wakefield and a. p. evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York 1969). e. m. peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe (London 1980). Literature. f. andrews, The Early Humiliati (Cambridge 1999). a. borst, Die Katharer (Stuttgart 1953). Cahiers de Fanjeaux, 1966–. j. duvernoy, Le Catharisme, 2 v. (Toulouse 1976–9). b. hamilton, The Medieval Inquisition (London 1981). g. rottenwÖhrer, Der Katharismus, 4 v. (Bad Honnef, 1982–1993); Unde Malum? Herkunft und Gestalt des Bösen nach heterdoxer Lehre von Markion bis zu den Katharern (Bad Honnef 1986). m. lambert, The Cathars (Oxford 1998). e. m. peters, Inquisition (Berkeley 1988). k. rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco 1987). j. strayer, The Albigensian Crusades, 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor 1992). w. wakefield, Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Southern France (Berkeley 1974).
[j. m. powell]