In the year 1209 Pope Innocent III decreed a ferocious crusade against a movement that between the 12th and 13th centuries had taken root in the south of France, which constituted in its rites and doctrine an alternative absolutely opposed to the Catholic Church, and which was putting into question its power and influence after beginning to have an echo in other parts of Europe. We are referring to Catharism, whose practitioners were the object of a real extermination. According to chronicles of the time, such as the one written in Latin by the Cistercian monk Caesarius of Heisterbach in his work Dialogus Miraculorum (The Dialogue on Miracles), episodes such as the one that occurred upon the arrival of the crusaders in the town of Béziers, where the command of the troops, taking into account that said city was inhabited by thousands of people, decided to consult with the representative of the Pope, Arnaud Amalric, on how to find out who the Cathars were among such a large population. The response was wildly terrifying.
The aforementioned work, in the chapter entitled Of the heresy of the Albigenses -name with which the Catholic Church initially designated the Cathars-, states that:
In the time of pope Innocent, the predecessor of the present pope, Honorius, (...) the envy of the devil caused the Albigensian heresy to sprout forth, or to speak more strictly, to ripen. So great was its Strength, that all the wheat of the faith of that nation seemed changed into the tares of error. Abbots of our Order with certain bishops were despatched to root up the tares with the harrow of Catholic teaching ; but by the resistance of the enemy who had sown those tares, they had little success.
And then the following dialogue begins between the monk and a novice:
Novice. — What was their error?
Monk. — Their leaders had collected some points from the Manichaean dogma, and some of the errors which Origen is said to have written (...), and very many which they had fashioned out of their own heads. They follow Manichaeus in believing that there are two sources of life, a good God and a wicked God, i.e. the devil ; and they say that the wicked God created all bodies, and the good God all souls.
Novice. — Moses makes it certain that God created both soul and body, when he says: The Lord God formed man, i.e. the body, of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen. ii. 7) i.e. the soul.
Monk. — If they received Moses and the prophets, there would be no heretics. They deny the resurrection of the body; they mock at any benefit coming to the dead from the living; they say that there is no profit in going to church, or in praying there ; and in these things they are worse than Jews or Pagans, who believe them all. They have repudiated baptism, and blaspheme the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Novice. — Why do they endure such severe persecutions from the faithful, if they expect no recompense for them in the future?
Monk. — They say that they look forward to the glory of the spirit. One of the aforesaid abbots, who was a monk, seeing a certain knight sitting on a horse and talking to his ploughman, and thinking him to be a heretic, as indeed he was, drew near to him and asked: «Will you tell me, good Sir, whose field this is?» and when the other answered that it was his, he continued: «And what do you do with its fruits?» «Both my family», he said, «and I live upon them, and I bestow some part of them upon the poor.» When the monk went on: «What advantage do you hope to gain from such alms?» the knight made this reply: «That my spirit may walk in glory after death.» The monk asked, «Where will it go?» and the knight said: «In accordance with its merit. If it has lived a good life, and won this reward from God, it will, when it leaves my body, enter into that of some future prince or king, or of some other illustrious personage, in which it will find happiness; or if it has lived ill, it will enter the body of someone both poor and wretched, in which it will find suffering.» The fool believed, as the other Albigenses do, that, in accordance with its merit, the soul will pass through different bodies, even those of animals and reptiles.
Novice.— What a foul heresy!
From the words of Caesarius of Heisterbach, it can be intuited that the Cathars bet on the divine origin of the soul, which had to coexist and purify itself in the material body, of corrupt origin. Hence, they directed their efforts in life to cultivate their spirit, to which they gave true relevance, far above the material needs of the human being. So, maybe that's why their reluctance to attend mass and other ceremonies of the Catholic religion, considering what was preached contradictory, like poverty, while the ecclesiastical hierarchy embraced the opposite, the accumulation of power and wealth, as well as the struggle to maintain their status as a privileged caste, for which it was essential to keep the people in complete ignorance, denying them knowledge, even being severely punished for access to it, turning it into an easily manipulated mass.
In addition, from the monk's writings it is also clear that the practitioners of Catharism believed in a kind of law of karma during their existence -their behavior and way of life-, that would be decisive in the reincarnation of the soul after death, which collided head-on with the resurrection defended by Catholic doctrine.
«Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius»
And it is in the following fragment of the conversation where mention is made of the taking of Béziers and the events alluded to at the beginning of this article:
Monk.— The errors of the Albigenses spread to such an extent that in a short time it had infected more than a thousand towns, and if it had not been cut back by the swords of the faithful, I think it would have corrupted the whole of Europe. In the year of our Lord 1210, a crusade was preached against the Albigenses throughout Germany and France, and in the following year there arose against them from Germany, Leopold, Duke of Austria, Engilbert, then provost, and afterwards archbishop of Cologne, and his brother Adolphus, Count of Altenberg, William, Count of Julich, and many others of all ranks and dignities. The same thing took place in France, Normandy and Poitou; and the preacher and leader of them all was Arnold, abbot of Citeaux, afterwards archbishop of Narbonne¹.
When they came to the great city of Beziers; which is said to have contained more than a hundred thousand men, they laid siege to it; and in the sight of them all the heretics defiled in an unspeakable manner the book of the sacred gospel, and then cast it from the wall towards the Christians, and sending arrows after it, cried: «There is your law, miserable wretches!» But Christ, the author of the gospel, did not suffer such an insult to be hurled at Him unavenged. For some of His followers, burning with zeal for the faith, placed ladders against the wall, and like lions, after the example of those of whom we read in the book of the Maccabees (2 Macc. xi. 11), fearlessly climbed the walls, and while the heretics were stricken with panic from on high and fled, they opened the gates to the others, and so gained possession of the city.
When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics, they said to the abbot, «Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.» The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied: «Kill them all; for the Lord knoweth them that are His (2 Tim. ii. 19)» and so countless numbers in that town were slain.
Novice.— If there had been learned men among these heretics, perhaps they would not have strayed so far.
Monk.— When learned men begin to fall into error, they are driven by the devil to display even greater and more grievous folly than the illiterate.
Epic and biased
It must be kept in mind that these chronicles were biased written, based on the religious fervor of one of the parties in conflict and using a strong epic tone, which to be reinforced uses exaggeration on occasions, such as the data that is offered regarding the population of Béziers and its «more than 100,000 men», when more reliable historical sources in this sense speak of between 20 and 30 thousand inhabitants.
While there are those who accept the attribution of said phrase to Amalric, in Latin «Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius», there are also those who show their skepticism towards it. In fact, if we take the original source in Latin, the expression «fertur dixisse» can be read, which literally means «It is said that he said». Furthermore, regarding the second part of the expression, «Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius (For the Lord knows who are His)», it is collected in the Second Letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verse 19. And so it appears quoted in the work of the Cistercian Monk. Therefore, Amalric himself would have supposedly echoed said epistolary fragment to complete the terrifying sentence. Apart from the controversy around it, the fact is that while some lost their lives for going beyond the official line, others kept their possessions, without forgetting those who not only maintained but also reinforced their power and influence.
(1) Arnaldus, Arnold, Arnaud Amalric, Amalarico, Amalrico, Amaury o Almeric was made legate of Pope Innocent III in 1204 and later Archbishop of Narbonne (1212-1225).