by Malcolm Barber
‘Attack the followers of heresy’, wrote Pope Innocent III in March 1208, ‘more fearlessly even than the Saracens—since they are more evil—with a strong hand and a stretched out arm’. Thus, in militant Old Testament language, the pope called upon the nobility and people of the ecclesiastical provinces of Narbonne, Arles, Embrun, Aix, and Vienne, ‘to avenge this righteous blood’, by which he meant the murder of a papal legate, Peter of Castelnau, two months before, by a vassal of Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. ‘Forward then soldiers of Christ! Forward, brave recruits to the Christian army! Let the universal cry of grief of the Holy Church arouse you, let pious zeal inspire you to avenge this monstrous crime against your God!’ Consciously evoking the imagery of the jealous God of Deuteronomy, whose faithful shall have no other gods, he presents the crusade against the enemy within Latin Christendom as more vital than the war against the external enemy, Islam, which had dominated papal thinking for more than a hundred years [since Pope Urban II] . . .
The call for ‘soldiers of Christ’ was reinforced by a vigorous propaganda campaign. For Innocent, a pope deeply imbued with the idea of personal sacrifice for the faith, Peter of Castelnau was a Christian martyr; indeed, he presents his death quite overtly as the means by which Christians could be awakened to the danger which they faced:
We believe it is expedient that one man should die for it rather than that it should all perish; for it is indeed so contaminated by the contagion of heresy that it may well be recalled from error more readily by the voice of the blood of its victim than by anything he could have done had he gone on living.
Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay, who quotes this letter verbatim in his chronicle, eagerly followed the papal lead. According to him, when, after a long period, Peter of Castelnau’s body was transferred from the monks’ cloister at St. Gilles to the church proper, ‘it was found to be as whole and unimpaired as if it had been buried that very day. A marvellous perfume arose from his body and clothing’. In contrast the heretics were utterly depraved. Peter claimed that one, called Hugo Faber, ‘fell into such depths of madness that he emptied his bowels beside the altar in a church and by way of showing his contempt for God wiped himself with the altar cloth’.
For Peter, the count of Toulouse was the evil counterpart to the good avenger, Simon of Montfort who, after the fall of Carcassonne in August 1209, became the leader of the crusade.
Moreover, the Count was a vicious and lecherous man to the extent
that . . .he abused his own sister as the way of showing contempt for the Christian religion. Again, from early youth he lost no opportunity to seek out his father’s concubines and felt no compunction about bedding them—indeed none of them could please him unless he knew his father had previously slept with her. So it came about that his father frequently threatened to disinherit him, for this enormity as much as for his heresy.
Just as the Church drew on its long tradition of just wars to legitimise the crusade against heretics, so too were there many precedents for salacious stories. Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay’s claim that Cathars believed they ‘could sin in safety and without restraint’ was the lineal descendent of stories like that of the Chartrain monk, Paul of St Père de Chartres who, writing some half-century after the events, alleged that the heretics discovered in Orléans in 1022 held orgies at night in which indiscriminate sexual intercourse took place and that the ashes derived from the cremation of children born of such unions were used as a viaticum for the terminally ill . . .
Not all Catholics, though, were as convinced of Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay. King Philip II of France, aware that Raymond of Toulouse had not been formally condemned as a heretic . . .did not respond to papal pleas in 1204 and 1205, nor was he willing ‘to eliminate such harmful filth’, as Innocent put it, when called upon directly in 1207 . . . Those who did actually participate took the matter very seriously, making careful arrangements for their dependents and appropriate grants either to local monasteries or to important foundations in the south like St. Dominic’s nunnery at Prouille.
Thus two armies were assembled, the more formidable of which mustered at Lyon in July 1209, led by the papal legate, Arnald Amalric, Abbot of Cîteaux, and including two the king’s leading vassals, Odo III, Duke of Burgundy, and Herve of Donzy, Count of Nevers . . . The three major narrative accounts of the Albigensian Crusade all accept, with varying degrees on enthusiasm, that the use of force had become inevitable. Naturally, Peter of Les Vaux-de-Cernay was the most unequivocal.
With so many thousands of the faithful in France already taking up the cross to avenge the wrong done to our God, and others yet to join the Crusade, nothing remained but for the Lord God of Hosts to dispatch his armies to destroy the cruel murderers—God who with his customary goodness and inborn love had shown compassion to his enemies, the heretics and their supporters, and sent his preachers to them—not one, but many, not once, but often; but they persisted in their perversity and were obstinate in their wickedness; some of the preachers they heaped with abuse, others they even killed.
William of Tudela claims that he foresaw it all.
He [William himself] had long studied geomancy and was skilled in this art, so that he knew that fire and devastation would lay the whole region waste, that the rich citizens would lose all the wealth they had stored up, and the knights would flee, sad and defeated, into exile in other lands, all because of the insane belief held in that country.
Thus it was in Rome that they [the pope, Arnald Amalric, and Master Milo, papal notary and legate from March 1209] ‘made the decision that led to so much sorrow, that left so many men dead with their guts spilled out and so many great ladies and pretty girls naked and cold, stripped of gown and cloak. From beyond Montpellier as far as Bordeaux, any that rebelled were to be utterly destroyed’. . . .
The fatalism of these writers was rooted in the belief that it was axiomatic that heresy should be overcome, and in the knowledge that past efforts had failed to do so. From the time of his accession to the papal throne ten years before Innocent III had given the matter high priority, for unity under Rome was essential in order to continue the just war against external enemies, a war which was the path to salvation for all those sincerely took up God’s cause. Indeed, one of his first acts had been to promise those who were willing to respond to his legates’ request for help when combatting heretics in Languedoc the indulgence ‘which we accord to those visiting sanctuaries of Sts. Peter and James’, putting such activity on an equal footing with the great pilgrimages to Rome and Compostela, although it is most likely that he had yet formed the idea of instigating a crusade in the manner of 1209 . . . [107-112]