CHAPTER TWELVE | PART THREE
In which the narrator partakes of his ‘last supper’.
I leant back a moment and checked my watch. It was already half past four! No wonder my eyes were aching! I really needed a break so I quickly sought out as many interesting-looking articles on the Cathars as I could find and printed them off, together with a selection of the most informative ones I had already read.
As I made my way back to the hotel I tried to act as normally as possible, but it was difficult not to keep looking over my shoulder, nor could I stop myself eyeing people suspiciously as they walked towards me. Still, I got back without major incident and as I went to claim my key at reception Madame Prigent asked if I would be dining at the hotel that evening. I had not realised the Kéraban-le-Têtu also functioned as a restaurant and readily accepted. Now I would not need to go back outside again and run the risk of being spotted.
Once in my room I treated myself to a shower and a much-needed nap. At seven thirty my travel alarm woke a remarkably refreshed human being. Was it adrenaline? A deluded feeling of hope? I do not know. I was as terrified as ever and yet at the same time I felt a strange kind of inner calm. Perhaps some survival mechanism had been triggered deep in a primal corner of my psyche which, while recognising my death as being imminent, allowed me to function with a rather disturbing sang-froid in the meantime. As I went down to the dining room I decided that since this was likely to be my last supper ever I might as well try to enjoy it. And in any case I was ravenously hungry.
Dinner turned out to be hearty, delicious and, as Madame Prigent pointed out with evident pride, composed entirely of local specialities. I can remember the menu to this day: a starter of Marmite de St Jacques aux petits légumes followed by a main course of Pavé de sandre au beurre blanc (avec garniture de saison). A hefty slice of rum-soaked Gâteau Nantais provided a fitting climax. I rounded things off with a cup of strong black coffee and a brandy. After all that I felt more than ready to resume my research.
I decided to concentrate my efforts on the later development of Catharism and the Albigensian crusade that led to its eventual destruction. As I trawled through the articles I had brought from the internet café one thing in particular began to puzzle me. The Middle Ages were a time when all God-fearing Christians believed that succumbing to any of the Devil’s many wiles could (and almost certainly would) mean spending the rest of eternity burning in the fires of hell. Since the Church made it clear that all heretics were agents of the Evil One, why did so many Catholics abandon the faith they were brought up in and join the Cathars?
Part of the answer, it emerged, lay in the extremely low esteem the Catholic Church was held in at that time. The immorality of church officials, particularly those of high rank, was so bare-faced and so widespread as to be literally proverbial. The acquisition of wealth and power seemed to be the only thing they cared about, with the practice of simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices) being a favoured method of obtaining both, despite being strictly forbidden by canon law. The vow of chastity was also routinely ignored. Many priests were married or lived openly in sin with what were quaintly termed “concubines”. A good number also had second jobs (presumably to help provide for their families) and set up shop as money-lenders, lawyers, doctors, even acrobats and jugglers! The following quote, taken from a contemporary account of the standing of the clergy in the Languedoc was, I suspected, as accurate as it was damning:
They are blind creatures, dumb hounds who can no longer bay, simoniacs who sell justice, damning the poor and giving absolution to the rich. They do not even observe the laws of the Church. They acquire endless benefices, entrusting the priesthood and other ecclesiastical responsibilities to unworthy pastors and illiterate children. Hence the contempt in which both gentry and people hold God and His Church. Throughout this region the prelates are the laughing stock of the laity.
Considering this verdict was delivered not by the enemies of the Church but by Pope Innocent III himself, I could well imagine why, whenever they confronted their Catholic counterparts, the Cathars rarely had difficulty claiming the moral high ground. True, attempts had been made by the Vatican, through a series of reforms initiated in the 1050s, to address the problem of unchaste and corrupt clergy, but these had achieved little. In fact it could be argued they did more harm than good, because they gave the lay community the hope that the Church could actually be restored to the divine purity it had possessed during the Apostolic Age. As the reform movement petered out this hope was dashed, leaving in its wake a feeling of deep disillusionment, if not downright anger. In such circumstances anyone presenting a credible alternative to the Church of Rome was always likely to be given a sympathetic hearing, and the Cathar vision of a simple Christian fellowship untainted by worldly corruption and greed was clearly a powerful one. But the Cathars did not merely present themselves as an attractive alternative to Catholicism, they claimed theirs to be the only true form of Christianity. It was the Cathar church, they argued, and none other, that could be traced all the way back to the original church founded by the Apostles. A bold claim indeed, but one made all the more compelling by the fact that when it came to following in the footsteps of the Apostles, the Cathars, unlike their adversaries, actually practised what they preached.
Actions have always spoken louder than words, and the pious, humble lives led by Cathar wandering preachers as they went from from place to place giving out alms, tending the sick and comforting the old and infirm moved many. So too did the message they brought with them, which was quite simply the love of Christ and one’s fellow man. In an attempt to counter their ever-growing success, the Catholic church tried discrediting the heretics by highlighting those aspects of Cathar theology most at odds with her own. It was a tactic that brought little joy. For one thing the Cathars were careful to play down those beliefs potential converts might have found hard to accept; for another, the two faiths had far more in common than the church authorities cared to admit. And as for those points of doctrine where the two sides did diverge, such differences were, as far as most people were concerned, of little consequence. It is doubtful for example, that many would have seen an important difference between the Cathar vision of a world that was thoroughly debased and corrupted because it had been created by Satan and the Catholic contention that the world had indeed been thoroughly debased and corrupted by Satan, but not created by him. The same could be said for the theological arguments over the nature of Christ. Since both Catholics and Cathars agreed that Christ was the son of God sent down to earth by the Father for the salvation of all mankind, would the average twelfth-century layman really have cared whether the Lord had appeared before His flock through the mediation of dokesis or as a result of the hypostatic union? Even in the unlikely event he had been aware of the two concepts in the first place?
But if the Cathar world-view could be moderated to make it more accessible to ordinary Catholics, it could never be reconciled with Catholicism itself. The Cathars preached openly that the Church of Rome was the Whore of Babylon, a perversity created by Satan to lure people away from the true path to salvation. Given the Church’s woeful reputation in the twelfth century, it is likely a good number of people found this a far from unreasonable point of view. Even so, Catharism could never have flourished in the Languedoc to the extent it did had it not been afforded a level of protection by the ruling elite found nowhere else in Western Christendom.
In the Middle Ages the Church could usually count upon the secular authorities (which in a feudal society tended to mean the nobility and their men-at-arms) to help root out and punish heretics. This partnership worked well throughout Europe except in the Languedoc, where the local barons were notoriously reluctant to perform this most pious of duties. It seems they did not look upon the Cathars, who lived peaceably and posed no threat to the established order, as a particular menace. And since for generations the heretics had been very successful in making converts amongst ladies of noble birth, many of the grands seigneurs of the region could count Cathars amongst close family members. Thus, when Innocent III acceded to the papal throne in 1198 his appeal to the secular authorities in the Languedoc to take up the sword against the enemies of Christ fell largely on deaf ears. As soon as it became clear they were not prepared to help him, Innocent resolved to replace them with people who were.