The medieval Cathars have often been thought of as distinctively Southern French. In fact, they are first securely documented, and named, as a distinct group in the mid-12th-century Rhineland. These Cathars were probably directly influenced by 11th-century sectaries in the Byzantine Empire - one suggested derivation of 'Cathar' is from Greek katharós, 'pure' - and in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were almost certainly more Cathars in Italy than Southern France. But it was, uniquely, the Cathars of the Languedoc who were denounced as heretics so dangerous, so devilish - another possible derivation of 'Cathar' is 'cat's bum kisser', that is, one who participates in obscene rites with Satan in the form of a cat - that the Papacy launched against them first a Crusade, then the Inquisition; and within a century the last Cathars in France had been brutally stamped out. Dissident, persecuted, but effectively forgotten, except by a few ecclesiastical polemicists, from the 14th century to the 19th, the Cathars have since acquired a spurious reputation as pacifist, feminist and libertarian, appealing, as such, to a range of modern nonconformists and romantics, above all in France.
LRB 7 June 2001 | PDF Download