I wake early and listen to the silence in the Centre. No one is about. The only sound is the hydro-electric humming, its spin matching the spinning of my thoughts.
I am one day’s ride from the last Meridian marker. I have come a direct if serpentine route, snaking around but holding to the axis of the Meridian. So why have I booked three nights here? To allow myself, I realise, time to ponder. My headlong journey has tumbled me down the neck of a chemistry (or alchemy) flask; this bowl, cupped in the steep green velvet mountains, is the bulb. Which may become an alembic. To distill my experiences. Remembering Melville’s injunction, ‘why try to “enlarge” the mind? Subtilise it.’
I am in ‘The Land of the Cathars’ Around me are ‘The Cathar Castles’. But that is just tourist talk. What can I learn from ‘heresy’, and ‘crusade’, from beliefs held here, and from beliefs about beliefs, Esterhazy’s ‘history’, ‘legend’, and ‘fantasy’?
Long ago, I came upon (I don’t remember how) ‘Gnostic’. A word, like ‘Troubadour’, ‘Cathar’ that drew me, a brilliant light, not to lose myself in, but to be illuminated by. I was touched by the Gnostic idea that in each of us is a spark of the original light, a fragment of the pure essence, that is trapped, and obscured from oneself, by matter. Not just the matter of the material, but the matter of ideas and conditioning. It was particularly resonant with me because, at the end of my education, I had felt that in gaining what I had, I had lost touch with what I had been. I had lost touch with a vital spark, a touchstone necessary to animate my life. And my life not in its contingency but in its essence. I had learned knowledge and skills I could apply productively and profitably in society. And I had been taught how to control. But I had lost the ability to experience. Directly. I read, ‘I begin to see objects only when I leave off understanding them – and remember afterwards that I did not appreciate them before’. And it made sense. My knowledge and understanding was a veil in front of, not an illumination of. I had lost myself. ‘Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.’ And so I went into the desert (well, the seaside in winter) to ‘find myself’. (This was the sixties!) I thought that by letting go of control, the ‘real me’ would emerge. Instead, I fell apart. Just in time (or a moment to soon? One never knows) I fled back to the city, and got a job (using the credentials from my education) in the bookshop.
There I learned a subtler story of the trapped light, from Plato, Plotinus, Lao Tzu, mystics. Beyond (behind, at the back of) being, goes the story, is The One, simple, ineffable, unknowable, unnamable. ‘The Tao that can be told is not the absolute Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.’ The One emanates nous, consciousness, which through the demiurge, the maker, crafts, out of formless, chaotic matter, the phenomenal world, the world we can experience. ‘The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly; Life like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the white radiance of Eternity.’
Stains, but also expresses. We may aspire to purify ourselves of the material in order to rise up towards the nous. But we can only express ourselves through the material world, by descending into matter, where the light is progressively obscured, and we begin to lose ourselves, forget ourselves in storms of passions and in the lifeless material. To live well one has to negotiate between, ‘stripping oneself of passion in order to know the secret of life’, and ‘experiencing life with passion in order to know its manifest forms.’
Is this true? There is no way of knowing. But, ‘even supposing the pure principles to be illusions, it is something gained to have thought them.’ It is a matter not of believing, but of entertaining that which helps one live more fully. While trying, at times, to recover the experience of the first man, ‘face to face with the earth, the sun, the night; face to face with himself, with nothing between; no wall of tradition; no built-up system of culture – the naked mind confronted by naked earth.’
I tried to live, sometimes stripped of passion and rising towards the mystery, sometimes experiencing with passion and descending into its manifest forms. And to do that, having realised that the learning of my education, and the work it fitted me for, took me too deeply into and lost me in, the material, especially the material of given ideas and patterns, I had to leave all that behind. I had to begin again, a beginner in my mid-twenties, in unskilled work and manual crafts. I found there less achievement, but more light.
The Gothic, as I saw at Amiens and Saint-Denis, with its soaring vaults, vast coloured windows, apsidal orient illumination, is one of the great expressions of the One in the material, of descending into manifest forms in order to rise toward the mystery. Abbot Suger wrote of the church of Saint-Denis, ‘the work which shines here so nobly should enlighten the hearts so that through true light they can reach the One true light’. His building was much influenced by the neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius. Indeed he had Abelard charged with heresy for stating that Pseudo-Dionysius and Saint Denis were not the same person. (Abelard was right, but that didn’t save him.)
But why, as Suger was initiating the Gothic in the North in 1140s, was his ally Bernard against Abelard preaching through the South against ideas that owed much to neoplatonism? And why, half a century later, as the Gothic was approaching its perfection at Amiens, were Northern armies waging a Crusade through the Christian South?
Cathars The traditional answer, from the eleventh century to recent times, would be, because the Cathars were dualists, believing that the material world was the creation of a fallen angel, an evil god, ultimately, the devil. This would question God as three in one, the incarnation, transubstantiation, the resurrection of the body, and other essential tenets of the Catholic church, arrived at through centuries of discussion, schism, establishment of dogma and organisation. A rival church, with its own parallel dogma and organisation, was too much of a threat to a church already buffeted by rapid economic and political change across Europe. But was there such a church?
Much turns on the word ‘Cathar’. ‘Heresy’ was a charge routinely laid against opponents at this time. (As ‘revisionist’, or ‘counter-revolutionary’ were in recent political times – and the church of the medieval period was nothing if not political.) What Eckbert did in his influential Sermons against the Cathars (1163-7) was to conflate within ‘Cathar heresy’ a range of beliefs, different and often at odds, from mild dissent to extreme heresy. (Not unlike Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’.) And, further, he confused two sects described by St Augustine: the Novatians, known as cathari (pure), a Christian sect obsessed with sexual purity; and the Manichees, dualists who believed that an evil deity had created the material world, including the bodies in which human souls were imprisoned. So Cathars were now dualists, and Augustine (a convert from Manichaeism) could be cited against them. (As an aside: Diocletian in 296 decreed the sentence for unrepentant Manichees was to be burnt alive. And, by a curious twist, the Cathars were treated, by the Inquisition of hard questioning and torture, and by burning alive, as if their souls could only be saved by being violently released from the imprisonment of their bodies. As well, the very sect that was heretical because, supposedly, it rejected the material world because made by the evil god, ie the devil, was routinely charged with worshipping the devil. It doesn’t help that ‘demiurge’ is often taken to mean the evil god, when it is simply the Greek word for ‘creator’.)
The third-century Manichee church had a hierarchy of Elect and Listeners, and an organised church of bishops and saints. So that in Peter of Les-Vaux-de-Cernay’s official chronicle of the Crusade, it is a given that the Cathars were dualist, had a hierarchy of Perfected ones and Believers, and a church structure parallel to the Catholic church. Were those persecuted in the South dualists? Were they heretics? Was there an organised church? Or were they rather seekers after a simpler, more apostolic faith, outside the church (physical and organisational), and victims of the politics of the time? Perhaps I will have a better idea tonight. Today I am going to Montségur, the famous ‘last stand’ of the Cathars, where 220 were burned alive in 1244. And Montaillou, where the Cathar faith was finally wiped out in the 1320s.
An excellent buffet from which to select breakfast. Being an outdoor centre, there is that attractive coming together of all sorts of active, focussed people, alert and eager, stoking up before dispersing to their activities. I eat outside in the warm morning air, to the sound of the rushing Aude, with the sun striking the tops of the surrounding green slopes.
I cycle out of the surrounding hills that rise sharply all around, mostly tree-clothed, which softens the effect, but with steep white cliffs higher. Down into town and take the turn towards Montségur.
Without panniers on my bike I feel like a carthorse released from its load, at first expecting to be able to frisk like a youngster and sprint like a thoroughbred. But, after a failed caper or two, and as I climb the steep hill out of Quillan and begin to puff and strain, I realise that without my load, I am still an old carthorse. I almost wish for my load back, so I can plod. I’m quickly up to 500m.
I cycle west along a broad, shallow valley of good agricultural land that rises quickly up in the south into impressive, rocky mountains rising, wave upon wave, to the crest of the Pyrenees. I will have to cross one formidable ridge the day after tomorrow. I haven’t worked out how. The fields are a patchwork of cut hay and pasture. It is a warm, sunny day, and even into a wind, it’s pleasant cycling. There is a squirrel flattened on the road. But at least it is a red squirrel. I cross from Aude to Ariège, the last department before Spain.
Into Bélesta to buy food. The street market is just winding down. A stall sells cous cous and paella as ready meals. On one wall is a fading ‘Byrrh vin tonique’ mural. The hotel is ‘Palais Cathare’. On the village plan, to ‘Bélesta’ has been added, in felt-tip, ’la ville de la gandga’, with a heart.
In the village is the château of the Lévis, a family whose history claims it as second only to Clovis, but were in fact Île de France arrivistes whose son joined his liege-lord, Simon de Montfort on the crusade in 1209, on the make, and was rewarded with the lordship of Mirepoix. It is an example of the go-ahead, but poor Northern families, who replaced easy-going Southern lords, too lax in raising taxes for the crown, tithes for the church, and suppressing heresy. In the South were small-scale societies, of face to face contact, in which all classes mingled, where cortezia, a courtesy extending to love, was central. One Catholic lord, asked by the bishop why he didn’t expel the ‘good men’, replied, ‘How can we? We have been brought up side by side with them. Our closest kinsmen are numbered among them. Every day we see them living worthy and honourable lives in our midst.’
It became the Lévis’ base for centuries of carefully-cultivated closeness to power. There were several archbishops, and a mignon (literally ‘darling’, a favourite) of King Henry III during the Wars of Religion. He took part in the ‘Duel of The Darlings’ in 1578, and was one of the four mignons who died in the masquerade that got out of hand. They also married into the Ventadour family of Ussel. It is another reminder of the politics that lay behind the crusade.
Several villagers were reported as having visited Montségur in the months before it fell. I take the Montségur turning. The ‘safe mountain’ is soon visible, an impossibly steep and high nob of rock, with a fringe of stone wall at the top.
Just outside Bélesta I notice that the stream beside the road is unusually deep, green and fast-flowing. I soon come to La Fontaine de Fontestorbes, an ‘intermittent exurgence of the Vauclusian type’. In a gloomy cave, green water surges up with unimagined force from unmeasured depths. Rain and snow fall high above, and slowly percolate and dissolve through the limestone before emerging. It can take hundreds, even thousands of years. I drink the water. Perhaps it is the rain that fell on the Cathars at Montségur as they burned. Or perhaps it was dripping through the cave as the palaeolithic artists were expressing the spirit of life at the Grotte de Niaux, just too far for me to reach today. There is a sudden release and rush of water every 60 to 90 minutes. But not while I’m there.
Through the small village of Fougax-et-Barrineuf. It is a key place in Samuel Becket’s Oh Les Beaux Jours, his French version of Happy Days. Winnie, buried to her waist, says (I translate), ‘I close my eyes, and I’m once more sat on Charlot Chassepot’s knee, in the yard at Fougax-et-Barrineuf, behind the house, under the robinia. Oh the beautiful happy days!’ (‘Oh les beaux jours de bonheur!’) Later Winnie, now buried up to her neck, says, ‘what a curse – mobility!’ In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon’s one plan to escape from endless waiting by the tree for Godot, is to go walking in the Ariège. (Pyrenees in the English version.) The last words of the play are:
Vladimir: ‘Well, shall we go?’
Estragon: ‘Yes, let’s go.’
Stage direction: They do not move.
This morning, I read, ‘The idea of the pilgrimage is to get away from the endless and nameless circumstances of everyday existence, which by degrees build a wall about the mind so that it travels in a constantly narrowing circle. This tether of the faculties tends to make them accept present knowledge, and present things, as all that can be attained to. This is all, there is nothing more, is the iterated preaching of house life.’ Jeffries.
In the village is a sign to Montaillou, ‘the last village which actively supported the Cathar heresy’. Although armed resistance ended with the fall of Montségur in 1244, the good men and their followers continued quietly in the Pyrenean villages, fed by contacts across the border, as the Montaillou shepherds took their flocks into Catalonia in the annual transhumance. The Inquisition even arrested the whole village in 1308. But the end came with the appointment in 1317 of the Cistercian Jacques Fournier as Bishop of Pamiers. He was ambitious (he was elected pope in 1334), and implacable in both rooting out ‘heresy’, and collecting tithes. By1324 all those charged had been sentenced, to wearing the yellow cross, prison, or been burned. With them died the ‘heresy’. His meticulous records give us a fascinating picture of a society of clever (not to say cunning), self-sufficient, easygoing peasants.
I cycle on, surrounded by sunlit mountains, towards the distinctive dome of Montségur, and am soon at the foot of the Col de Montségur. There is a sign for cyclists: it is 9km to the top, rises 494m, with an average gradient 5.5%, and 9.5% at its steepest.
I cycle most of it, up through woodland, with occasional views of the mountains all around, and then out onto the bare, sunlit shoulder of land on which the village sits, with the sugar-loaf pog, brilliant white and vivid green rising a further 200m. A path winds up to the ruins of the castle. The road widens to create a parking area. There are several cars and motor homes. Visitors come and go.
Montségur By 1243 the armed resistance to the crusade had all but ended. After 25 years in which town after town had been sacked, villages and fields laid waste, hundreds had been burned, thousands had died, thousands more had had their land confiscated, the kings of England, France and Barcelona had at times been involved, the Count of Toulouse, for all his manoeuvrings and changing sides had at last had to swear fealty to the French king, many of the minor lords had been dispossessed by crusaders, the Dominicans had been given charge of the Inquisition, and the University of Toulouse founded to educate the clerks who would ‘cause the Catholic Faith to flourish in these parts’. The papal church, with its growing control over peoples’ lives (this was the time when confession to a priest became mandatory) and demands on their purses, now held sway. The South was now part of France. It was the end of a society of informal relationships, little disparity of wealth, run on cortezia, in which troubadours could thrive, and men of religion were respected, not because they had authority and power but because they were ‘good men’.
In 1243 the Count of Toulouse had finally submitted. After men from Montségur killed papal legates at Avignonet, to show his obedience the count organised, with several archbishops, the siege of the last Cathar stronghold. It had become, over the decades, a refuge for the faithful, and for faidits, the minor aristocrats dispossessed by the crusade. Or, as an official reporter had it, ‘a public refuge for all sorts of malefactors and heretics, a synagogue of Satan’. A chilling conflation of heretics, criminals, Jews and the devil. Its defences were organised by Raymond of Péreille, and the faidit Pierre-Roger of Mirepoix. It was remote, strongly defended and well-provisioned. The heart of any soldier marching towards it must have sunk, seeing from miles away the impregnable city in the sky. They arrived 13 May, 1343.
I walk past a garden, with a life-size long-nosed puppet with blond plaits on a swing, and one in dungarees bent over his spade. I follow the sign up through the fields. I reach ‘The Field of the Burned Ones’, where the heretics died. Some reports have them fettered, dragged and thrown into an iron cage on the faggots. Others have them walking serenely into the fire. They included Raymond’s mother, wife and daughter. There is a stone, erected in 1960, that reads, in Catalan, ‘The Cathars, martyrs of pure Christian love.’
What had they expected, taking refuge on a hilltop with no means of escape? That they would be beamed directly up to heaven? No.
First, that the besiegers would, as they had done twice before, give up. But they stayed, for 10 months, through a Pyrenean winter. There would be no escape. Eventually ‘the French bishop who was an expert in war machinery’ managed to build a trebuchet within striking distance of the castle. After a pounding, Raymond surrendered without a fight. In a curiously civilised outcome, given the history of the crusade and the length of the siege, a two-week amnesty was granted. After that, all who renounced the heresy were freed.
Second, that if they were taken, they would not renounce their faith, but would die in the body, and so save the soul for its union with the One, and then reincarnation.
Even in the sun, it is a stark place, ‘The Field of the Burnt Ones’. I imagined Gabrielle and Simone here; they had been here the day I met them. “ ‘We went to Montségur,’ Gabrielle says quietly. ‘It’s impossible not to cry when you see the dove. The whole future changed there. You look around and say – what if …? I was looking through the stone dove, and a real dove appeared – within the dove-shaped space created by the stone a real, living, flying dove! And I’m thinking – is this a sign? What does it mean? Tell me!’ ” I look for the dove stone. I can’t find it. (later I discover that the stone dove is at Minerve, another site of mass burning. I had mixed up the two in my memory. How much else have I misremembered, wilfully or not?)
I imagine Gabrielle watching La Camera Explore le Temps, a TV film about the Cathars, broadcast in 1966, that aroused new interest in the sect, and in Occitania. I see her, sixteen, small, intense, entranced by the black and white film, by the handsome poet proclaiming ‘libre l’Occitane!’, by the parfaits, men and women, each going to their fate, reconciled, the soul passing into the great soul, and then into a new body that traps, but also through which it expresses. I see her in Paris in 1968, the black-clad CRS as reincarnations of the armoured crusaders, in the embattled Sorbonne experiencing the warmth of shared love and belief she had identified with in this mountain-top encampment, waiting for an end that would be a new beginning …
I try to imagine the Cathars approaching their death (and by extension me approaching mine). What if, this – what if, what you are thinking, what you believe, what you have in your mind’s eye totally, at precisely the moment of death, becomes, through that intensity, a bubble in eternity, containing the self as it is experiencing itself in that moment of death? Life after death as the echo of belief.
I climb up through woods, buy my ticket at the ticket office, and follow the path that climbs the steep, bare hillside. It reminds me of the climb up Glastonbury Tor. There is the same sense that even though the path is quite straight, I am spiralling up.
But instead of arriving at a summit of chanting and music-making, meditation and earnest conversation, a high, airy place of long views, closer to understanding, I arrive at the castle built by Guy de Lévis after the siege. A tall, empty keep, it walls in as much as it keeps out. He would have been with the besieging army, waiting to take his final possession. He built it as a castle to defend the new extent of France. (All of the so-called ‘Cathar castles’ were built as frontier fortresses in the years after the suppression of the Cathars.) With the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 it became redundant. It decayed, a useful if remote quarry, the quarriers at least having gravity on their side. Until Napoleon Peyrat’s History of the Albigensians, published between 1880 and 1882.
Peyrat was a Protestant pastor, Ariègeois, member of the Félibrige, an Occitan romantic – but above all, a French patriot. He wrote in French, in Paris, and saw a direct line through Cathars, Camisards, the Revolution, to the Republic (struggling into existence at that time, after the defeat by Prussia), opposing and resisting monarchy, aristocracy, and above all, the Catholic church. Montségur was for him the symbol of that resistance, of the faith and sacrifice of the gentle Cathars, of the brutality of the Catholic church. He also introduced esoteric elements, of a great treasure carried away secretly, of the holy grail, of Montségur as a solar temple. On one side, he inspired the Occitan revivalists from the 1950s, on the other, the New Agers from the 1960s.
I descend to ‘The Field of the Burned Ones’. After the wind-blown, sunlit, long-view heights, here there is stillness, and a white emptiness. The fire, the burning up and passing through of the faithful, the finality and yet timelessness of that end day, have made here an empty space, where I cannot think, in which I can only wait. For something, someone, to enter. It is Gabrielle who enters.
How I have invested her with my hopes over the years! That she has taken one of many paths untaken, that I might have taken. I have this idea that in a ‘true’ relationship, however brief, each tells their deepest desires, divines in the other their hopes and possibilities, and however unspoken, blesses them. And that each thereafter lives ready to meet again, and at that meeting can say, ‘look, what I have done, who I have become; see, I have done what you knew I could do, what you helped me to see I could be, that you blessed.’
Only one woman with her (unusual) name has come up in my internet searches. She lives not far from where we shared our time in Aveyron. She is a radical, a green activist. But of course Gabrielle might have married, changed her name.
I walk meditatively back down to my bike. It is a touching place, a place of bravery and simplicity and belief. I look back, up at that high place, then freewheel down the other side of the col, and am soon back on the road to Quillan. I’m tired, but there is a strong wind behind, and I get up the two rises okay before dropping down into Quillan. I even have time to ponder the village speed cameras. I’m always pleased when one registers my passing, a doughty 23kph, in green. I imagine a series of emoji, from a green smiley face (with a thumbs up?), through amber straight face, to red sad face and a wagging finger, to fierce anger (maybe jumping up and down, even an explosion?) for the extreme speeder.
Back in Quillan, I buy a large tin of cassoulet, enough for two days, a bottle of wine, fruit, bread and cake, and creak slowly up to the Centre. I’ve done 64 hilly miles, including one col and a half hour climb up to the top of Montségur, and I’m blitzed.
After a shower, a snooze, and a very big meal, over a glass (or two) of wine, sitting outside in the soft evening air, in the shelter of the green slopes, acknowledging the adventurers as they return, I ponder, yet again, the Cathars.
Cathars ‘The long-cherished “dualist tradition” and the “Cathars of Languedoc” are largely mythical, and the war on heresy was proactive and creative, not reactive and defensive,’ writes Moore in his comprehensive unpicking of the standard narrative that invented missionaries from the East, dualism, and an organised anti-church. But the repetition of untruths finally became the truth. Especially when it justified military intervention. The ‘dodgy dossier’ as an excuse for war has a long history. And just as Internment in N Ireland, and war and detention in the Middle East largely generated the organisation they were designed to suppress, so the ‘good men’, through the war, became more organised, and more militant. How easily we become like our enemies! Their acknowledged leader died at Montségur.
It seems that the beliefs of the good men differed little from other followers of the apostolic life. But their rejection of the church, as building and institution, of infant baptism, transubstantiation, bodily resurrection, the value of prayers for the dead and of relics, struck at the power and (above all) the finances of the church. One reason Fournier went after the peasants of Montaillou in 1320 was because the lord hadn’t been zealous enough in collecting tithes. ‘The prisoners of Montaillou were the last of the last Cathars. But it was not an absolute end. For the brave fight put up by the peasants of the Ariège to preserve the remains of their heterodox beliefs after 1300 foreshadowed the great Protestant revolt two centuries later.’ Ladurie.
Of course the Cathar beliefs were heretical. But rather than the carefully worked-out theology of an organised ‘anti-church’, brought from an ever-threatening Eastern Manichean source, it was the product of the down-to-earth peasant experience. For them, priests were venal outsiders, whereas the ‘good men’ were men like them, who lived and worked among them. And how is it sensible to believe in the resurrection of the body when you’re surrounded by the evidence of bodily decay? – so much easier to believe in the transmigration of souls, when you have so often watched fleas jump from a dead body onto the living. How could transubstantiation be true when, clearly, there was not enough of Jesus’ body to supply every eucharist? (The peasant knows all to well how far a meal of meat does, and doesn’t, stretch.) And what crucified being would want the instrument of his torture and death to be venerated? (A point made hilariously by Bill Hicks 900 years later.) What peasant wouldn’t at some time think of the physical world, the resistant sod he’s trying to turn, the hail that destroys a crop, as malevolent? The tangled and subtle theology of the church, especially that being presented by the schools-trained theologians, was simply too far from their reality to make much sense to peasants.
And the language, too, of the Inquisition, with its scholastic, dialectical logic, was alien, incomprehensible to peasants brought up in a world of ‘both–and’, rather than ‘either/or’. The records of the questionings of peasants by university-trained inquisitors show clearly that they were interactions between people speaking different languages, even when they were conducted in patois. And the language that prevailed was decided by the power relationship. Barthes puts it neatly, discussing the case of M Dominici in 1952, an old peasant found guilty of murder as a result of the ‘dazzling verve’ of the prosecutor’s oratory: ‘Old Dominici was judged by a power which will only hear the language it lends us … To rob a man of his language in the very name of language: every legal murder begins here.’
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: ‘The sperm whale’s head – contrasted view.’
H D Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851 p19.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Alamanac p168.
Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching 1.
P B Shelley, Adonais verse 52.
Tao Te Ching 1.
Richard Jeffries, The Story of my Heart p60.
Ibid p 56.
Diggers and Dreamers p244-5.
R I Moore, The War on Heresy p338.
Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou p xi.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’.