The Cathars, who considered themselves Christians, but not Roman Catholics, flourished in the south of France (and in Corsica and the north of Italy) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. By the end of the twelfth century there were eleven Cathar ‘bishops’, six of them in Italy. Their equivalent of the Catholic priest was the Goodman or Perfect, and the ordinary believer was known as a ‘credens’. Also (like the later Quakers) they had no sacraments as such, though they did practise the ‘consolamentum’, a ‘laying on of hands’, when a man or woman was ordained as a Perfect or was approaching death. They had little time for the Old Testament: their Scriptures were the four Gospels (they especially revered the Fourth Gospel) and the letters of St Paul. They were, to some extent at least, dualists, distinguishing between this world, the world of the children of darkness, and the Kingdom of God, the world of the children of light. They identified ‘the Prince of this World’ with the Pope of Rome. They seem to have believed in reincarnation, and were in theory against all forms of killing (including war and judicial execution).
A distinction must be made between the two categories of Cathars, the perfecti and the credenti. The perfecti were those who had attained a high level of not only initiation but purity. Having received the consolamentum on request, they could be regarded as the only true Cathars. Practising austerity, sexual abstinence, and vegetarianism, they were, according to Cathar belief, ready to return to the kingdom of God with no need of reincarnating again to purify and free themselves of the slavery of matter, a satanic creation. They could not bear arms or perform tasks considered degrading, and they devoted themselves to meditation, preaching, and cultural practices. The credenti were not held to the same austere standards because they had not attained the same degree of wisdom and purity. They knew they would have to live again in order to complete their initiation and become entirely purified. They did not have the same prohibitions, particularly concerning food and sex. (Jean Markale, Montségur and the Mystery of the Cathars)
It should be said that the Perfects were non-meat-eaters rather than strict vegetarians; being a Perfect was a capital crime, and the Inquisition could always distinguish Perfects by their habit of eating fish.
These Perfects wandered the countryside in pairs, preaching their gospel, and the ordinary people had only to compare this with the rich, corrupt Roman Church to decide which they preferred.
During the twelfth century, the Cathar Church grew exponentially. Many of the noble families of the Midi (Languedoc) became converts.
A clash was inevitable.
In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade against them. At that time, Languedoc was not officially part of the Kingdom of France, so the Crusade had the enthusiastic support of the King of France, intent on enlarging his kingdom, and of the French nobles from the north, greedy for land. Slowly the Cathars were driven back to their final stronghold, the hilltop fortress of Montségur. Here, after a long seige, they surrendered. Hundreds were burnt.
It was over.
The Albigensian Crusade and the fall of Montségur and of Quéribus was the beginning of the end for the Cathars. However, descendants of the survivors of that brave “crusade” lingered on in Italy and in the south of France and north of Spain for several generations, generations (for a full account of these survivors see The Yellow Cross by René Weis) and it is one of these who makes an appearance in The Rose of Sharon, the first of the Mariana books.