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The Carpark at Montségur



We drove all day to see Montségur, the mountaintop stronghold of the medieval French Cathars. When we got there it was covered with cloud, so we saw nothing apart from a remarkably large car park for so remote a place. When we came back two days later, the sun was shining brightly.


This was appropriate. The story of Montségur is sometimes vivid and sometimes clouded with ambiguity. The good guys were probably wrong, the bad guys were probably right and some might even have been saints. Then again they might have been no better than the Gestapo, and they might have been worse. But whatever the story, many people come to see the place where the Cathars suffered a defeat from which they never recovered.


The Cathars were a Christian sect, who held a dualistic view of the world. Oversimplified, the physical world was of the devil and the spiritual world was of God.  For orthodox Christianity with its belief in the incarnation, this was fighting talk, and the Catholic church had good theological reason to oppose Catharism.


For a considerable period in the 1100’s the Cathars prospered in the South of France. One of the reasons was that believing in the inherent evil of the physical world they lived extremely abstemious, chaste and frugal lives in all of which particulars they notably differed from the Catholic clergy of the time.


But by 1200 or so the Pope could ignore the Cathars no longer. He mounted a campaign against them of terror and force. The terror was provided by the Church in the form of the Inquisition and the force by the King of France in the form of a Crusade.


In the early 1200’s the Cathars were rolled back, not by force of argument, or example, but by fire and the sword. The nobles of Occitaine were forced to stop supporting, or even tolerating, the Cathars but Montségur, remote and high in the Pyrenean  foothills was still thought to be a safe haven, and consequently that was where the majority of the Cathar leadership gathered. This was a bad mistake because eventually in 1243 the French forces launched a major attack on it. Even with 10,000 men it took the French 9 months to force it to surrender.


Terms were agreed. Anyone who was not a Cathar could leave carrying their arms. Cathars would be burnt alive. A period of 15 days was given for the garrison of the castle and the Cathars to make their arrangements. Quite a number of the soldiers of the garrison, who had had no previous connection with Catharism converted to it within those 15 days knowing the date and the manner of the death that lay ahead of them. At the expiry of the grace period over 200 people who hadn’t recanted were herded into a purpose built palisade filled with wood, and whilst the clergy sang their psalms the King’s soldiery set fire to it.  Now it is a paddock smothered with wild flowers,


But Montségur casts a long shadow, and as has been remarked elsewhere the evil that men do lives after them. The Inquisition, developed for the purpose of combating the Cathars, was altogether too powerful a weapon of intimidation, terror and control to be allowed to lapse. Far from fading into history when the Cathars were no longer a threat, new avenues for oppression were quickly found, and in 1252 Pope Innocent IV formally authorised the use of torture. Torture was still being used in Portugal 500 years later in the mid 1700’s. In the Iberian peninsula as a whole it was only the combined efforts of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington in the early 1800’s, and some  600 years after its inception, which finally brought the Inquisition to an end in those parts. For hundreds of years it ruined, tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of people across Europe and the Spanish New World. Galileo spent eight years in an Inquisition gaol to help him remember that the sun went round the earth and St John of the Cross, one of Christianity’s greatest mystics died under the auspices of the Inquisition. He was only deemed to be a saint, not an heretic, 135 years later. A reformed version of the  institution still exists under the name of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the man who, in ruder times would have been known as the Grand Inquisitor was recently appointed the new Pope.


Which brings us to the car park at Montségur. It is huge, which raises the question why so many people go there. I can’t imagine many of them actually believe in Catharism, want to reject the material world, or have the slightest wish to live the chaste and frugal lives of the Cathar Perfects.


But Montségur, I think, is an icon, rather as Auschwitz is an icon. It is a place of pilgrimage, not to something godly but to something diabolical, a place not to be uplifted but to be warned.  Montségur is a sobering reminder of the depths to which the faithful of any religion can sink when they forget that if they abuse their fellow men they abuse God at the same time.


Perhaps on reflection, the car park is too small.







Montségur Castle


Wildflowers where over 200 people were burned alive





View over village from Castle


Eventually the French army stormed the East face, but 300 men kept an army of 10,000 at bay for 9 months.