The Corbieres have been inhabited since pre-history. The tiny village of Pepieux, for example, hosts one of the largest excavated dolmens in southern Europe. The Roman sites of this region are also very well known, and the medieval abbeys, churches and villages, many with their bastides still in evidence, are still there for all to see. What many visitors do not know, however, is that this part of France saw the first Crusades, not the Holy Land, and that it is believed that around half a million people died as a result of these Crusades. Originally known as the Albigensian Crusades, they later took the name of the Cathar religion.
The Cathars were the followers of a dissident church that flourished in several parts of Europe during the early Medieval period. Cathar means literally purity and was a sort of Protestantism that promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity, and turned its back on the pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth of the Catholic church of the time. Cathars believed that Earth was ruled by a malevolent God, and that Heaven was the world of the good God: this dualist concept of God was not unique to Catharism, but it was sufficient cause for the Catholic church of the time to brand Catharism as a heresy.
Catharism did not have a founder, nor a designated leader, and it did not only take root in one place. It appears to have originated in the Byzantine world, and to have spread to Europe via churches in Bulgaria. By the eleventh century, there were Cathar believers all over Europe, including England. But one of the places in which the Cathar church really flourished, and the place with which the word Cathar is now strongly associated, is the southern half of the French region of Occitanie (Languedoc and Midi-Pyrénées).
As in later centuries, religious dissent was not just a theological statement; it was a way by which local rulers and people could assert their differences and their cultural independence from the great European powers of the day, the Catholic church and the Kings of France. Thus a large part of the Languedoc, people and nobles, adopted the Cathar heresy, and by so doing distanced themselves from the French and from Rome. By the early 13th century, Catharism had taken such a strong hold in the area, that in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the notorious Albigensian Crusade - a crusade aimed not against the Infidels, but against the "heretical" Cathars. For twenty years, crusaders, led by the Barons of France including Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, sacked and pillaged the area, massacring Cathars or converting them by force to Catholicism. In the early 1220s, the Cathars' fortunes revived, prompting a second wave of Crusading this time led by King Louis VIII and later Louis IX. Finally, most of the area was subjugated, and in 1229, the Treaty of Meaux-Paris was signed, bringing almost the whole of Occitania into the realm of the French crown. Pockets of Cathar resistance held out for the next twenty-six years
The castle at Montségur remained a Cathar stronghold until 1244, when it was finally taken and 200 Cathar prisoners taken were burned alive. The last Cathar stronghold, the Chateau de Peyrepertuse, fell in 1255. The last known Cathar parfait, Guilhem Belibaste was burnt alive in 1321 at Villerouge Termenes (this is situated just 20 km from Thezan des Corbieres).
In the early Middle Ages, France was a much smaller country than now; the area that is France today was then a hotchpotch of kingdoms, duchies and counties, some with allegiance to the French crown, others with different loyalties. "Languedoc" was the generic name given to the southern half of the country, where they did not speak French at all, but a family of languages between French and Spanish known as "les langues d'oc", or Occitanian. Some areas in this "Occitania" were largely independent, others belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, others - including parts of "Cathar country" to the kingdom of Aragon. Above all, territories in this frontier region far from the power houses of Europe - Paris, London and Rome - changed hands frequently following alliances and power struggles, marriages and deaths, among the local rulers, the most important of whom were the Counts of Toulouse.
Fortified hilltops, castles, villages and towns remain to this day as a stark reminder of the the area's turbulent history. Many of the castles predate the period of the Cathar heresy, having been built in earlier centuries as defensive positions along the changing border area between Aragon and France. During the Albigensian crusade period, many castles and other fortified positions served as strongholds for beseiged Cathars, and many witnessed atrocious massacres. The Albigensian Crusade has been described as the first act of genocide in Europe, though medieval wars were cruel, and acts that would be classed today as crimes against humanity, were in those days part and parcel of the strategy of conquest.
You can visit all of the Cathar Castles; some like Villerouge Termenes are easily accessible, others you have to climb to reach, and quite a strenuous climb too (take water and do not attempt in high Summer). The castles are situated in areas in extremely beautiful locations, but usually very high up with winding roads on the way, so the drive can take longer than you anticipate. The drive is well worth it as the scenery is outstanding.
Cathars expelled from Carcassonne 1224
There are many non fiction books about the Cathar religion in the Languedoc, there are also excellent fiction books, two of which are :
Labrynthe : Kate Mosse
Montsegur : Catherine de Courcy