Nantes is a bright, beautiful city. A city with a soul. That much was evident from the first moment I set foot in the place, though I was in no state to appreciate its subtle grace at the time; I was too busy thinking about how to stay alive long enough to solve Boom’s puzzle. First off I had to find somewhere to stay. Normally I would have made enquiries at the train station, but that would only have made life easier for my pursuers once they tracked my movements to Nantes. So I went straight out and wandered the streets looking for a small hotel. It did not take too long to find what I needed. The Hotel Kéraban-le-Têtu, despite its rather outlandish name, nestled unobtrusively on a one-way street just outside the city centre. Fortunately they had vacancies so I booked in for three nights, paying in cash. As soon as I had dropped off my rucksack I went straight back out. I was desperate for a shower but there was no time to lose. Madame Prigent, the propriétaire, kindly pointed me in the direction of the nearest ‘internet café’ (which turned out to be a few computers squashed into the corner of a bookshop) and within ten minutes of leaving the hotel I was logged on.
My research did not begin well. After opening a search engine and typing in ‘Catholic,’ ‘Catholics,’ then ‘Catholicism’, ‘Catholic Church,’ ‘History of the Catholic Church’ and God knows what else I found myself faced with a vast mountain of information and absolutely no idea where to begin. I did not even know what it was I was looking for. An hour of increasingly frantic effort brought nothing but a splitting headache and a strong desire to burst into tears. But I knew I could not afford to give up. I racked what was left of my brains: surely there had to be a way of narrowing my terms of reference? I decided to turn my attention to the Benedictine Order as the probable ‘Bs’ in the formula Caths/Bs←Ps. I already knew the order was named after its founder St Benedict, but I was hoping some alternative name beginning with the letter ‘p’ was going to turn up somewhere. I was dismayed to find it did not. I was now completely out of ideas and starting to panic. Just to give myself something to do I turned my attention to some of the other medieval monastic orders to see if any of them had an alternative name beginning with ‘p’. I was clutching at straws, I knew it, but anything was better than doing nothing. And as it happened one of those straws led to an unexpected breakthrough.
The breakthrough came from an article about the early life of Saint Dominic. In 1205 prior Dominic de Guzman went to Rome seeking permission to travel to the steppes beyond the Black Sea to preach the Gospel to the nomadic tribes that roamed those wild, faraway lands. But the pope refused, deciding the young cleric’s powers of oratory were needed much closer to home. In the Languedoc region of southern France to be precise, where, despite all efforts to counter it, a foul heresy was sweeping through the land. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw the name of the heresy’s adherents: Cathars.*
So that was what Boom meant by ‘Caths’! This discovery re-energised me, which was fortunate, for I soon saw I would be needing all the energy I could muster to get to the bottom of a subject that was fraught with difficulties and no little mystery. Much of the history of Catharism still remained obscure: even the meaning of the word ‘Cathar’ was disputed. The majority of scholars believed it had been derived from katharoi, the Greek word for ‘pure’. However a significant number begged to differ, pointing out that there was no record of the Cathars ever using the term to describe themselves. That being the case they argued, would the Catholic Church, who did use it, have described a group they vehemently despised as ‘the Pure Ones’? I found myself quite swayed by this line of argument, though I stopped short of siding with the twelfth century theologian Alain of Lille, who believed the word was derived from the heretics’ practice of kissing a certain part of Satan’s anatomy, who used to appear to them in the form of a cat.
One thing about Catharism that was beyond dispute was that by the beginning of the thirteenth century it had become so widespread in northern Italy and southern France as to represent a real challenge to the Church of Rome. Indeed things had come to such a pass in the Languedoc that it looked as if the region might soon be lost to the heretics altogether. And so, on 10 March 1208 in an act that demonstrated the extreme gravity of the situation, His Holiness Pope Innocent III issued a solemn call to arms, demanding that all God-fearing Christians descend on the Languedoc and rid the land of heresy once and for all. Although the pope described the Cathars as being “even more evil than the Saracens” I still found it hard to believe how anyone would have been persuaded to participate in what was in effect a holy war against fellow Christians. But of course I was being naïve. Armed conflict, on the flimsiest of pretexts, was part of the day-to-day fabric of feudal society and besides, the pope offered any would-be crusaders a number of powerful incentives. Firstly they would be granted, like those fighting for the Cross in the Holy Land, full remission of sins. And we should not underestimate what this must have meant to people who believed what they did in this life would determine where they would be spending the rest of eternity in the next. A crusade was also an opportunity to achieve fame and fortune. The prestige associated with vanquishing the enemies of Christ almost goes without saying, but there were real material benefits to be had as well, since Innocent had declared all property confiscated from the heretics (and, more importantly, their wealthy land-owning sympathisers) was to be divided amongst the crusaders. Furthermore it seems as if the Albigensian Crusade, as it came to be known, was seen as a convenient ‘get-out clause’ for those who had pledged to fight in the Holy Land but were now having cold feet. Now they could fulfil their obligations without ever having to leave Europe’s shores. Whatever the reasons, the pope had little difficulty in recruiting enough knights and men-at-arms for his purpose, with the bulk of the force being drawn from northern France. The crusade was launched in the summer of 1209 and raged for the next twenty years, claiming tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives.
It was not difficult to see why the Church hated and feared the Cathars so much: the differences between the two were profound and completely irreconcilable. The Cathars rejected outright a great deal of what we would consider to be the very foundations of Christian belief. They did not believe, for example, in the virgin birth, or Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. They did not even accept the story of Creation as laid out in the Book of Genesis, arguing instead that the universe and all living things had not been created by God at all, but by Satan. How could this world of ours, they asked, so steeped in misery and sin, be the work of a God that was perfect in every way and capable only of good? This rather pessimistic worldview may be termed ‘dualist’ in the sense it stemmed from an ancient belief in a universe governed by two co-equal and opposite divinities, one wholly good, the other wholly evil. The good God, whom the Cathars identified as the God of the New Testament, ruled a purely spiritual realm and could have no contact with the physical world, the dominion of the Evil One or Demiurge. Dualism had been the founding principle of a number of ancient eastern religions and it seemed strange to find it cropping up in a medieval Christian heresy in the heart of Europe. But as I read on I was to discover that Christianity had had a strong connection with dualism from its very early days.
The Bible tells us that the Apostles and their successors went forth into the world to spread the word of the Lord and that many of those who came to hear them were so deeply moved they immediately opened their hearts to receive His message. But things, it appeared, were not quite that simple. Whilst some undoubtedly did embrace their new faith without reservation, others preferred to hedge their bets. These more cautious converts did not reject their former beliefs, opting instead to overlay them with those aspects of Christianity they found to their liking. This pragmatic ‘mix and match’ approach to religion may seem strange to the modern mind, but two thousand years ago was quite the norm. The Roman Empire, with all its different peoples, cultures, traditions and faiths was home to a multitude of gods, demi-gods, spirits and demons, happily co-existing side by side. It was considered prudent to put your faith in whichever combination of deities was most likely to secure you a happy and prosperous existence. Ethical and theological considerations were, for most people, of very minor importance.
Such attitudes meant that Christian ideas intermingled quite freely with those of other belief systems, with the result being that by the beginning of the second century the Roman world was dotted with all manner of more or less Christian sects, each convinced that theirs was the true interpretation of Christ’s message. Many such groups were labelled ‘Gnostic’ because although they might differ in other ways, all believed that salvation was only possible through the mediation of gnosis, a revelatory knowledge of the divine secrets. Interestingly these Gnostic groups were, like the Cathars, strongly dualist in their outlook. However Gnosticism, along with other non-standard versions of Christianity, had been completely stamped out by the fourth or fifth century and I could not see how there could be a direct link between such groups and the Cathars. But then if there was no link, where did Catharism come from? Finding the answer to that particular question did not prove to be anywhere near as difficult as I expected. And it was to lead me straight to the next two pieces of Boom’s puzzle.
The very first article I found on the origins of Catharism described how the movement was derived from Bogomilism, a tenth century dualist heresy founded by a Bulgarian priest named Bogomil. There could little doubt therefore, that the Bogomils were the ‘B’s’ of Boom’s magic formula.
The beliefs and practices of the Bogomils were indeed strikingly similar to those subsequently adopted by the Cathars. As dualists they believed the world had been created by Satan, and refused to accept that Christ had ever taken human form. Like the Cathars they despised the wealth and splendour of the established Church, organising themselves into simple communities led by a small number of adepts who had been initiated into the inner mysteries of the movement.
The heresy proved popular, aided by the social and political conditions of tenth century Bulgaria, a recently pagan realm that had been forced to accept Christianity by its powerful neighbour the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium went on to conquer Bulgaria in 1018, which did nothing to quell the heresy and actually made it easier for Bogomil missionaries to move freely within the empire. They wasted little time establishing a thriving underground community in Constantinople. For some reason Bogomilism found particular favour amongst the capital’s aristocratic elite, a worrying development that prompted the direct intervention of the emperor, Alexius Comnenus. Alexius sent for the suspected leader of the heretics, a physician named Basil, and let it be known he wished to be converted. This was, however, merely a ruse designed to lure the good doctor into revealing his beliefs. Basil, perhaps dazzled by the possibility of gaining the ultimate convert, was more than happy to give a detailed exposition of Bogomil theology, his every word being carefully recorded by a stenographer the emperor had secreted behind a curtain. Once unmasked Basil refused to recant, despite the best efforts of Alexius to make him see the error of his ways, and was eventually burnt at the stake. The execution of Basil and the subsequent arrest of many of his followers dealt a severe blow to Bogomilism. But it did not stamp it out altogether. Nor did it prevent its spread to Western Europe.
It seemed to be generally accepted that what came to be known as Catharism was brought to Italy and the Languedoc by Bogomil missionaries travelling overland through the Balkans or via the trade routes of the Adriatic. Yet once again I came across an intriguing theory that went against the prevailing point of view. And once again the evidence given to support it was quite convincing. For one thing, not one medieval chronicle dealing with the Cathars ever mentions Bogomil missionary activity, and the first Cathars to be uncovered by the Church authorities were practising not in southern Europe as one might expect, but in the Rhineland. For another, the Cathars’ own historical records describe how the movement originated in northern France and then spread southwards. This, it was argued, was the work of ‘Frankish’ (that is northern French) merchants who had converted to Bogomilism whilst living in Constantinople. There they had the scriptures and other key texts of their new faith translated from Greek into Latin. And it was this westernised form of the heresy that they brought back with them when they returned to France.
Whatever the truth of the matter, I was now satisfied I had acquired a clear understanding of the relationship between the Cathars and the Bogomils. I was even confident about the identity of the mysterious ‘P’s’ in Boom’s formula: the name of an earlier group of dualist heretics, the Paulicians, had cropped up several times during my research into Bogomilism.
The Paulicians were an odd bunch, known as much for their military prowess as their religious fervour. Their origins were obscure, but as far as I could tell they had emerged in Mesopotamia sometime in the seventh century. Paulicianism started off as an adoptionist heresy, that is one whose adherents believed that Christ was not divine at birth, but had been ‘adopted’ by God on his baptism at the age of thirty. At some point in their history—no-one seemed to know when or why—they gave up on their adoptionist beliefs and embraced dualism.
Paulicianism spread to the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. It was condemned by the church authorities and a campaign of violent persecution was instituted. In all likelihood the heresy would have been completely eradicated were it not for the accession of the so-called ‘Iconoclast’ emperors in the mid eighth century. The Iconoclasts, who believed the use of religious imagery was idolatrous, saw the Paulicians, notorious iconoclasts themselves, as potential kindred spirits. Their leader Timothy was summoned by the Patriarch of Constantinople, examined and declared orthodox. However by the beginning of the ninth century the Iconoclast controversy had been brought to an end and with it the policy of tolerance towards the Paulicians. Persecution was resumed with renewed vigour and thousands of heretics were put to the sword. Many more fled east into the Arab held territories beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Here they joined forces with the local emirs and began to mount raids against Byzantium. The relationship between the Paulicians and their hosts was clearly a close one because they were even allowed to form their own principality on the upper Euphrates.
Paulician incursions deep into Byzantine territory continued and became so worrying that the emperor Basil I decided it would be wise to try and make peace with the heretics. However the diplomatic mission he sent to the Paulician capital Tephrice in 869 did not go as planned. The rebel leader John Chrysocheir treated Basil’s overtures with contempt, even demanding the emperor renounce all Byzantine territory east of the Bosphorus or face ‘being driven from the throne by the servants of the Lord’. Basil was not long in applying force where diplomacy had failed, but the military campaign he led in 870 suffered a crushing defeat and he himself was lucky to escape with his life. Suitably chastened, Basil resorted to daily prayer, beseeching the Archangel Michael and Prophet Elijah to vanquish his enemies and deliver him the head of their godless leader. He also organised another military campaign, this time appointing his son-in-law Christopher as head of the new expeditionary force. Christopher appears to have been a far better tactician than his father-in-law and in 872 he managed to trap the Paulician forces, heavily laden with booty from their latest raid, in a neat pincer movement. The victory was decisive and John Chrysocheir’s head was duly delivered to the Emperor.
Basil’s subsequent annexation of the Paulician state spelt the end of Paulicianism as a religious and political force. But it did not mean the end of the heresy itself. In the aftermath of the defeat of 872 many Paulicians again fled east to Arab held lands and continued to practise their faith there. But a century later they found themselves back inside the Byzantine Empire as the conquests of Emperor John Tzimisces pushed his borders further eastwards. It was felt ill-advised to leave subjects of questionable loyalty so near to the Arabs and so in 975 John relocated thousands of Paulicians to the western province of Thrace. Here they encountered communities of Paulicians that had been sent there two centuries before by Constantine V during the iconoclast period. The earlier group had been involved in missionary activity in nearby Bulgaria for some time and the belief is that it was these missionaries who had given Bogomil his first taste of Christian dualism. But instead of becoming a convert, Bogomil modified Paulicianism to create his own movement.
So far so good. Boom’s magic formula—or at least one part of it—was starting to make sense. The trouble was that at no point in my research had I come across any mention of ‘treasure,’ literal or metaphorical. This was deeply worrying because I was sure the notation ‘Treasure’ Caths/Bs←Ps was meant to indicate that the treasure, whatever it might be, was present at every stage of the heresy’s historical development. I was missing something, presumably another key piece of information Boom had received from his contact in the O.C.C. How I wished I had access to just one of those insights! But there was no point pulling my hair out. All I could do was keep on looking in the hope that some clue might present itself.
*Since the events depicted in this narrative I have developed a keen interest in medieval Christian heresy and have done a fair amount of reading on the subject. It will not therefore, always be possible to separate what I know now from what I discovered then.