We notched our belts with three (count them, three!) Cathar castles this week. First up was the glorious castle ruin we saw when we initially arrived in the area, only about five minutes away from us. It demanded our attention! So we happily gave it.
Considered the least known of the Cathar castles, it is nevertheless one of the largest and possibly the oldest, since carbon-dating analysis on a fragment of charcoal from the dungeon gives an approximate date of 900 for its construction. It was re-constructed between the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and then remodeled in the 16th century.
The chateau (castle) perches in the foothills of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains) and boasts stunning views of an exceptional landscape with the Pyrenees on the horizon.
Although it is now in ruins, Saissac castle retains an extensive part of its original structure, and the layout of the principal rooms, towers, and fortifications are clearly visible.
Certainly it was the chateau with the easiest access! Surprisingly, the visitor descends through the village to reach the castle, which is unusual—typically castles are perched on the highest ground with the village lying below!
In the 12th century, Bertrand de Saissac was an illustrious character in Cathar Country: he was protector of the troubadours and the Cathars. The politics and construction details related to the castle are all too complicated to iterate here, but suffice it to say that it faced its fair share of conflict during the Albigensian Crusade.
Later on, during the French Revolution, Saissac Castle was confiscated and sold as national property. It then passed through the hands of various owners, including a company of treasure hunters. Legend claimed hidden treasure was there somewhere, and they dynamited and excavated the castle several times in vain, which partially explains its current state of ruin.
Treasure was discovered in 1979 by construction workers helping to stabilize the castle walls. A hoard of coins was unearthed at the bottom of a garden in a clay pot that contained 1954 deniers and 3 obules dated between 1180 and 1270, the largest cache ever found buried in Languedoc, with nearly all the coins stamped with the seal of Saint Louis.
Before you get too excited, a denier is the medieval French equivalent of a penny. Two thousand deniers would not be a lot of money—perhaps enough to buy two or three sheep, or a cow. Most likely this hoard was the savings of a villager and not the treasure of the Lord of Saissac.
On the basis of its find, a museography is contained in two rooms with pedagogical information panels telling the story of coinage: from extraction of ore to commercial exchanges.
Alongside the castle stands an ancient church, Eglise St. Michel, built in the 14th century, although most of the current building is a 17th century reconstruction after fire damage destroyed much of the original church.
Following this outing, we made an overnight booking in the village of Cucagnan (coo-kan-YON) so we could visit two “Citadelles du Vertige,” or, in English (thanks to Google Translate), “Citadels of Vertigo.” (They are also called “vertiginous citadels.”) And, in fact, I did experience some vertigo during the second castle visit (see picture below).
Our first castle is called “Quéribus,” and it sheltered many Cathars up until 1256, when the region's de facto ruler was captured and forced to hand it over, the last of the Cathar Castles to fall into the hands of the Crusaders.
Situated spectacularly above the Grau de Maury pass, Quéribus balances on a storm-battered rock pinnacle above sheer cliffs. Because of the cramped topography, the space within the walls is stepped in terraces linked by a precarious stairway and dominated by a polygonal keep.
A highlight for me was seeing the “Salle du Pilier,” which features a vaulted ceiling supported by a graceful pillar that sprouts a canopy of intersecting ribs, resembling gothic church construction. It was breathtaking. The audio tour spoke meaningfully of the Cathars in this space, mentioning how “We are not of this world… and this world is not of us…” It rang down through the ages and gave me chills.
Afterwards, we made our way up the narrow spiral staircase leading to the roof terrace, providing fantastic views in every direction—including the sight of our next destination, another Cathar castle!
“Somebody” (-ahem-) should have brought lunch along so that we might have enjoyed it up there in the sunshine, celebrating our triumphant achievement of reaching the top.
We rented the audio tour, but it was fairly awful. It was in English, but it featured a character with an artificial French accent (sort of defeating the purpose of it being in English), and he was horridly over-dramatic at times while providing little narrative of interest.
Coming down was much easier than going up! The wind had abated, and thus we were less buffeted by the “eternal fury of the wind.”
We gobbled our lunch in the car and made our way across the valley and now approached the Château de Peyrepertuse. This castle was acquired by treaty with the Kingdom of Aragón in 1258, and most of the existing fortifications were built afterwards, remaining in use until 1789.
It was intimidating to peer up at it from the parking lot, knowing we planned to soon make our way all the way up there. Apparently access is banned during fierce summer thunderstorms when (as with Quéribus) the ridge makes an ideal lightning target! Yikes!
Once again we rented the audio tour, and (once again) the fake French voice was awful. Because we were running short on time, I simply quit listening to it.
Perhaps because we were tired—or because we are O-L-D—this castle was a difficult and lengthy climb to the top, although worth it in the end. You make your way along a path that all humans and animals have used since the 13th century. The official guide even says the site is maintained in a spirit of authenticity “in the exploration of a place that was designed to be inaccessible.” So, take that! (Despite this difficulty, close to 100,000 visitors visit it every year.)
The site was occupied during Roman times from the beginning of the 1st century BC as shown by recent archaeological excavations. The earliest historical references to the castle structure appeared in 806.
Resembling a gigantic ship, it is draped along the length of a jagged rock-spine with sheer drops along the way. It is called “Celestial Carcassonne” because it is the biggest of the main Cathar castles and is as vast as Carcassonne Cité.
Once you arrive at the ruins, you have two large areas to explore: one that you first enter, and then another that you reach by a long path that guides you to a steep staircase that must be mounted in order to get to the second area.
(It was on that staircase where I got shaky and felt some vertigo, even though I made a point of not looking down and thereby frightening myself. My body knew I was up too high! And this was without wind or—god forbid—rain!)
The site was large enough to contain a small army, but only about 25 people were in residence at any one time. It even houses a little parish church dated to the 11th century and dedicated to St. Mary.
After Louis IX took possession in 1240 after expelling Guilhem de Peyrepertuse, a Cathar resistor, he decided to build a symbol of domination, the San Jordi “keep.” This complex provided the fortress with modern buildings and endowed it with the power of real deterrence. Standing at an altitude of 1/2 mile, it was reached by the Saint-Louis staircase, its 60 stair steps carved into the rock.
From this highest point (which made us feel dizzy down in the parking lot just looking up at it), one enjoys astounding views, among them the Quéribus Chateau where we had been that morning, looking like a lonely sentinel standing on its lonely cliff. Robin shot a short video describing what we saw: https://youtu.be/BRhULoBkDac
It felt like an enormous achievement to conquer these two citadels, but we barely scratched the surface of Cathar citadels given how many there are. But some of them will have to wait for another visit.
What we did take in, however, whilst we were in transit to the chateaux, was the Museum of Master Cabestany. I got wind of it online, and immediately begged: TAKE ME THERE!
Romanesque stone carvers were anonymous and unknown (Gislebertus may be a rare exception), but while doing restoration work at the parish church of Cabestany in the 1930s, a Romanesque-style tympanum was discovered tucked inside a thick interior wall.
The high quality and technical detail of the carving, in combination with the originality of the theme, drew the interest of medieval art scholars, who began to compare this sculpture with other works, ultimately concluding the carver was likewise responsible for sculpting capitals, sarcophagi, and corbels in myriad religious structures. All of them had been created by the same unknown artist who came to be dubbed Le Maître de Cabestany (“the Master of Cabestany”)
By the 1940s, 121 sculptures in total had been attributed to the Master and/or his studio due to a peculiar style unlike that of most Romanesque sculptors. According to the museum, “His human figures have low, triangular faces; crushed chins; high, deeply carved ears; almond-shaped eyes with trepanning holes at either end; hands with long, tapering fingers; many folds in the drapery; and a great deal of detailed work identifying the principal figures.”
In the year 1994, the town of Cabestany acquired an old winemaking cave, which became a center devoted to Master Cabestany’s sculpture in June 2004.
What they did (which I think is really cool) was to form a committee that selected the most important and most representative of the Master's sculptures. On that basis, the town initiated making copies of them using a molding method that could reproduce the same grain and color as the originals so that they look identical to the original sculptures.
As of 2007, over 60 castings were taken and installed, allowing the museum visitor to view all of the sculptures in a single location, and thereby compare and enjoy them as one elaborate art installation (rather than multiple artworks spread out over several countries).
They claim they are not a museum but rather an interpretation center—but whatever they are, I was tickled pink to visit this hidden gem on Easter Sunday and enjoy the work of this unknown 11th century sculptor.
Robin shot a little video of the exhibition, and it may be found here: https://youtu.be/5dpyP57xHis
On our way back home, Robin was excited to observe green leaves forming on the ancient grapevines that had been barren only a day or two previously.
New French wines are on their way!
Later in the week we visited another museum that caught our interest, the Cathar Museum in Mazamet, which laid out the story of the Cathars, not unlike the story I unfolded last week. We enjoyed this exhibition enormously…
Having said that, the past week or so has been devoted to researching the possibility that there never were any Cathars, and they are a mythical and romantic figment of the popular imagination. How can this be, you ask? Well, the academic arguments are recent, and rather fascinating… The Cathar Heresy has been likened to the witch hunts of the medieval period, which occurred on a much grander scale. Witches were accused of belonging to an organized cult of satanic devil-worshipers that was nefariously undermining the Catholic church—and historically we know that simply isn’t true.
Despite any lack of evidence, 35,000 to 50,000 executions (often of old peasant women) occurred on the basis of this nefarious conspiracy theory. In the same vein, just because the Inquisitors said there were heretic Cathars did not necessarily mean there were Cathars, and, curiously, no one called themselves a Cathar before the Inquisition started; only the Inquisitors named them that (which is rather fishy, doncha think?). In short, no significant records from the time support the idea that a single religious movement called the “Cathars” ever existed across southern France. Ouch!
Apparently the conversation around the existence of Cathars is contentious, most likely because Cathars are seen as rebellious folk heroes, not unlike Robin Hood or the flower-child war protestors of the American 1960s. People want them to be real, regardless of the lack of academic evidence proving their existence. One commentator noted, “Myths are the very foundation of a social group or of a civilization, a sometimes indispensable cement of societies,” and then observed how “The myth of the Cathars is even stronger because it allows people to identify with the vanquished of history.” Ultimately, the Cathar heresy may be revealed as a fable on the scale of Arthurian legend—inspiring but in reality a mythopoetic invention.
This has caused me to introspect my own enthrallment with the Cathars, and my resistance to its being debunked as merely a grand conspiracy theory. The answer to the question I daresay lies in my type pattern, so I have had an interesting time looking at my own foibles and fantasies.
For our visit in Montolieu, the wind is changing… that means change is in the air, and we will be entering liminal space and transitioning into a new phase starting this weekend.
The most thrilling harbinger is my sassy new French haircut!
After nine months of wild Covid hair, it was tamed by a lovely French hair stylist who set me to rights in preparation for the upcoming Eranos conference in Switzerland, (which will probably be the topic of my next newsletter, along with Arles and Avignon). Check out these "before" and "after" images taken surreptitiously by my paparazzi.
I’m still developing my virtual presentation that is coming up soon: the one on “The Masks We Wear; The Masks We Hide.” It will be presented to the Bay Area Chapter of the Association for Psychological Type on Saturday, May 14. The research has been delicious, and I’m excited about it because I’ll be pulling together threads from a variety of sources, which should make it quite interesting, experiential, and depth psychological—my favorite combination. You can sign up for the session using this link: http://events.constantcontact.com/register/event?llr=ubwe6bnab&oeidk=a07ej5izdslf7f9edb8
In the meantime, wish us luck as we depart this gorgeous location where we have been for so many weeks now. The weather has not been terribly kind, but the house has been delightful; the views have been exceptional; and we barely scratched the surface of thrilling sightseeing.
May we return one day and sample more of the extraordinary land of Occitane!
warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo