Bogomils and Cathars

views updated

Bogomils and Cathars

The Bogomils and Cathars were radical dualistic Christian sects that differed from mainstream Christianity on a number of important doctrinal issues. The Bogomils and Cathars challenged traditional medieval Christian views about marriage, sex, and the religious authority of women. Although both groups ultimately were dismissed as heretical, the alternative notions of sex and gender they purposed had an impact on the development of Christianity.


The Bogomils emerged in the late tenth century when a Bulgarian priest who took the name Bogomil, meaning "worthy of the pity of God," broke with mainstream Roman Catholicism and professed a belief in a dualistic form of Christianity. He preached about a world starkly divided between the forces of good (God) and those of evil (Satan). That interpretation of Christianity quickly spread throughout medieval Europe. In Languedoc in southern France dualistic Christians eventually adopted the name Cathari, "the Pure Ones," or Cathars (also known as Albigensians for the town of Albi, which had a high concentration of Cathars). The rest of this entry will employ the designation Cathar. By the twelfth century ce the Cathars were the most popular sect in the Christian world and were persecuted vigorously as heretics by the Roman Catholic authorities.


The Bogomils and Cathars were Christians who believed in the salvific power of Jesus Christ but differed from mainstream Christianity in their emphasis on a radically dualistic worldview. At the center of Bogomil and Cathar doctrine was the belief that existence is predicated on a battle between good and evil.

That dualism took two forms. The first was a mitigated dualism in which God (the force of good) is the ultimate authority and Satan (the force of evil) is God's subordinate. The other form was an absolute dualism that maintained that good and evil have always coexisted. In both systems the Cathars believed that God is the creator of the spiritual realm but Satan is responsible for material creation, including the earth and bodily existence. The soul technically belongs to the spiritual realm, but it fell and was imprisoned by Satan in the human body. According to Catharism, Adam and Eve were the first captured souls. Cathar myth describes Adam and Eve succumbing to Satan through sexual seduction. Cathar belief also held that the fall of spiritual souls is strongly linked to the expression of sexuality and that imprisonment in the body is punishment for the overt sexuality of the fallen soul. The goal of Cathar religious practice was for the soul to do penance for its sexual transgression so that it could be freed from its bodily prison and return to the spiritual realm.

The Cathar understanding of creation and the plight of humanity shares significant details with Gnostic and particularly Manichaean mythology and its aversion to sex and sexuality. This has led a number of scholars to speculate that Cathar doctrine was influenced by remnants of underground Gnostic communities that migrated to Turkey and central Eurasia after their eradication by the Roman Empire. Others have argued that dualism was an inherent aspect of central European culture and that Catharism was a product of indigenous beliefs.

Because the Cathars regarded the material world as the evil creation of Satan and believed that sexuality plays a significant role in separating the soul from its true nature, Cathar practice focused on antimaterialist asceticism. The Cathars rejected anything related to sex or materialism. Their refusal to marry was meant as a repudiation of sexual intercourse. They also refused to consume foods that they regarded as products of sexual generation. This included eggs, meats (as the product of sex), and most dairy products (owing to their connection to reproductive milk). The Cathars also disengaged themselves from worldly matters such as war, politics, and the swearing of oaths.

The rigorous asceticism of Cathar belief proved impractical for all but a few members of the Cathar community. The few Cathars who actually followed the prohibitions on sex, food, and worldly involvement formed an elite group known as the Perfecti, "the Perfect Ones." The majority of Cathars lived lives similar to those of mainstream Christians, accruing spiritual benefits from their contact with and support of the Perfecti.


Unlike the Roman Catholic priesthood, both men and women could become Perfecti. The ritual of initiation known as Consolamentum, or spiritual baptism, was open to both men and women and could be administered by both. Cathar women also were allowed to perform priestly duties such as hearing confession, absolving people of their sins, and leading communal prayers. The highly visible role of women in Cathar ritual has caused scholars to speculate that women made up a large proportion of the Cathar community and that women may have provided support to Catharism. The equality with which women participated in Cathar ritual as well as the repudiation of marriage and sex also may indicate that Catharism did not subscribe to traditional notions of gender. It is possible that because the Cathars saw gender distinctions as a by-product of the unfortunate material embodiment of the soul, such distinctions do not reflect the true nature of the soul and therefore categories of male and female and the rules and restrictions associated with gender were of no consequence to the Cathars. This is only speculation: It is impossible to know with certainty how the Cathars viewed gender, but their inclusion of women in rituals definitely deviates from the position of contemporaneous mainstream Christianity on appropriate gender roles.


The departure of Catharism from normative Roman Catholic beliefs and practices caused the Cathars to be branded as heretics. In 1208 the Roman Catholic pope instigated a crusade against the Cathars. Known as the Albigensian Crusade, it lasted twenty years and decimated the Cathar community. The few Cathar men and women who survived the crusade were subjected to the Inquisition. By the middle of the fourteenth century Catharism essentially had disappeared, leaving only traces of its thoughts and practices to continue to be debated and disavowed within the mainstream Christian community.

see also Christianity, Early and Medieval.


Hollister, C. Warren. 1994. Medieval Europe: A Short History. 7th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Peters, Edward. 1980. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

                                              Jennifer Hart