Updated: Apr 19, 2022
HAPPY EASTER! Finally it is beginning to look and feel like Springtime. My heart has been yearning for the warmth and appeal of summer weather.
This glorious field of yellow flowers cried out to us, so we stopped and snapped some pictures. I believe they are “rapeseed,” which are used to make cooking oil. (I’m not a fan of that name.)
Robin and I pulled on our hiking shoes and took a stroll into the village of Montolieu. We wanted to get a closer look at this amazing stone bridge we crossed over whenever we drove in or out of the village.
Then we spotted a path leading down into a ravine where we found a running stream that was pure delight.
Our one regret was that we hadn’t brought our lunches with us to snack on while we communed with the gurgling cascades we encountered down here.
Robin shot a brief video walkthrough of the area if you would like a virtual visit. The link is here: https://youtu.be/2egEv4AMC8s
We wandered on and visited the local church and a printing museum that Robin wanted to see. I confess: the museum bored me to tears (more so than I expected), but I was tickled by the Underwood typewriters on display.
My friends in the entertainment industry may already know that Jack Warner once disparaged Hollywood screenwriters as “jerks with Underwoods,” and since I have my fair share of experience with screenplays, it was a great laugh to pose with a vintage one.
We set our sights on visiting Lastours: four ruined Cathar castles whose picturesque ruins stood as symbols of heretical memory. We drove there on Wednesday, and the weather was painfully windy and cold—so windy in fact that three of the four castle ruins were closed to the public. We were advised to head away from the castles so we could get a panoramic view of them. This was excellent advice!
It was still cold and miserable, but the site is soo picturesque that it made it entirely worthwhile. We even ambled down a little path and got another delicious view from a slightly different angle, and Robin shot another little video here: https://youtu.be/9GXaCYZxGgI
We didn't want to simply give up and return home afterwards, since we had the sightseeing bug pretty bad. We decided to visit a French cave where the wind couldn't bother us.
Off we went to the Limousis cave, where we enjoyed an hour-long tour of what they claim is the oldest cave to be toured by sightseers on a regular basis in France.
They hosted a wine sampling afterwards (the wines are matured in barrels kept inside the cave), and Robin snagged a couple of bottles for us to enjoy later.
On our way out, we tripped over the remains of an ancient French windmill flying the flag of the Carcassonne region.
We waited two more days before once more undertaking our most ambitious outing in many, many months. We pulled on our hiking shoes and headed back to Lastours. I daresay the weather could not have been any more perfect!
One thing I wish I’d had with me: a Fitbit! It took an astonishing number of steps to climb up, traipse around, and eventually descend this remarkable landscape.
I’ve mentioned “Cathars” several times in recent postings, and I took for granted that readers would know who they are… But there’s no reason why anyone should—so draw up a chair and take a pause while I attempt to lay out a history of the Cathars that hits the highlights but also does their complex story justice. It will require 10 paragraphs, as succinct as I can manage:
The Cathars were a religious group who appeared in western Europe in the eleventh century, and flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries, to the point where Catholic texts warned of the danger of its replacing Catholicism completely. Cathar origins remain a mystery, although its ideas appear to have originated in the Byzantine Empire (a throwback to the Byzantine churches we visited on Cyprus).
Paradoxically, Roman Catholic theologians debated for centuries about whether Cathars were Christian heretics, or whether Cathars were not Christians at all—and that question still lingers. Thus, Roman Catholics to this day refer to Cathar belief as "the Great Heresy," even though the official Catholic position is that Catharism is not Christian at all—a perfect example of trying to have it both ways.
Cathars believed there existed two deistic principles: a good god and his evil adversary (rather like the God and Satan of mainstream Christianity). The good deity created everything immaterial (good, permanent, immutable); while the bad deity created everything material (bad, temporary, perishable). The good god was the God of the New Testament and creator of the spiritual realm, whereas the evil god was the God of the Old Testament and creator of the physical world. This theology claimed that enlightenment was achieved by means of personal religious experience through self-reflection.
Cathars believed in reincarnation, refused to eat meat or other animal products, and were strict regarding biblical injunctions—notably those about not telling lies, not killing, not swearing oaths, and choosing to live in poverty.
Since Cathars are something of an enigma, it is problematic to discern what they did and did not believe, perhaps thereby reflecting a religious tradition more focused on a living encounter with mystery rather than codifying a systematic theology—a dramatic inversion of the practices and orthodoxies of the Roman Catholic Church.
Theologically, the Catholic Church asserted the Cathar recognition of two gods was antithetical to monotheism—a fundamental principle that only one God created all things both visible and invisible. In turn, Cathars criticized the materialism and political maneuverings of the Roman Catholic church and refused to pay tithes to it, which led to their being declared heretics. (At that time in history it was a crime to disagree with Catholic theology, and a capital crime if the disagreement was repeated.)
Pope Innocent III attempted to end Catharism from the start of his reign by sending off missionaries and urging local authorities to denounce the Cathars, but then he turned up the heat in 1209 by launching what is termed the “Albigensian” Crusade, based on the mistaken notion that the Cathar stronghold was centered in the town of Albi. This Crusade set a precedent as the first internal crusade within Christendom that pitted Christian against Christian.
The Pope drummed up enthusiasm for his Crusade by issuing a papal decree permitting the confiscation of lands owned by Cathars and their supporters, which targeted wealthy landowners and all of the nobility who sided with the Cathars, often housing them within their castle walls. This transformed a religious crusade into a war of conquest by noblemen who were hoping to annex new land.
The Crusade defeated the Cathars in 1229, exterminating them by the hundreds, followed by persecution from the Medieval Inquisition*, which succeeded in eradicating Catharism entirely by 1350. The Albigensian Crusade has been described as the first act of genocide in Europe, with an estimated death toll of half a million men, women, and children being massacred—Catholics as well as Cathars. The Crusaders killed locals in the region indiscriminately regardless of their religious affiliation. Abbot Amaury, in charge of a Holy Army about to attack a village, heartlessly and infamously commanded his forces to “Kill them all. God will know his own.”
All of this blood was shed in the name of eliminating heretics who were called by their neighbors "Good Christians." As Voltaire observed, "there was never anything as unjust as the war against the Albigensians."
While Catharism as a religious movement was obliterated, the spirit of its ancestry lingered as a symbol of the region that reverberated in the local imagination—to the point where in the 1980s the local tourist board dubbed it “Pays Cathare” (Cathar Country) in honor of the legends, the legacy, and to entice tourist dollars to the area and revitalize a rural economy in trouble.
Because the Cathars were opposed to materialism, few artifacts from that period so many centuries ago remain, with the exception of sites where massacres occurred and markers were erected as memorials.
Picturesque ruins of French castles, or chateaux, as they are called, are remnants from that time of the Medieval Crusades, when the owners lost their property to marauders bent on stamping out Catharism..
Even these links are tenuous, since in many cases the new owners tore down the castle and built a new one on its foundations, or alongside where the previous one stood. When the region was annexed by France, these bastions were no longer needed to protect the border, and were abandoned centuries ago. There really is nothing to see here.
However, as picturesque symbols of religious freedom and strongholds against tyranny, these ruins appeal to modern sensibilities, and the “Pays Cathare” scheme is working effectively and promoting the region.
And thus we bought our ticket and mounted the steps that took us up to the top of Lastours where we made our way between the ruins of Cabaret, Surdespine, la Tour Régine, and Quertinheux.
They were built at an altitude of nearly 1,000 feet along a rock wall about 1,300 feet long by 165 feet wide. Cabaret, Surdespine, and la Tour Régine all stand in line, while Quertinheux is on a separate pinnacle nearby.
Robin shot a brief video if you’d like a virtual experience. The link is here: https://youtu.be/HVCkJbltilU
These castles existed prior to and during the Albigensian Crusade, and became a center of Cathar religious activity during the 13th century. The castle lords were linked to the Cathars, and the villages surrounding the castles housed many Cathar heretics. In 1229, this became the stronghold of Cathar resistance in the region.
None of this history seemed real atop this rocky spur as we became enchanted by fluttering butterflies and purple irises heralding springtime.
I’m pulling together my upcoming presentation for BAAPT (the Bay Area Association for Psychological Types) on the topic of “The Masks we Wear; The Masks we Hide.” As per usual, I have enough material here to write another dissertation, so I shall be pruning it back significantly. Who knows?! There might be a book in here somewhere. Have you viewed my video promo yet? https://youtu.be/cOzad259JVU
warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo
*The more widely known Spanish Inquisition was initiated around two centuries after the Medieval Inquisition.