Your cultural guide to the 2023 Tour de France Femmes: stage 5

Join José Been for a history lesson on the Cathars of Occitania.

The Château de Montségur, a Cathar stronghold. (Image: MDanis/Wikimedia Commons)

For every stage of the 2023 Tour de France – men’s and women’s – José Been is bringing you stories about the history, castles, geology, culture, food, and people around the race. A bit of couleur locale while you enjoy lush fields of sunflowers, beautiful mountains, and pretty little villages, oh, and the bike race too.

We are racing today in the old French region of Occitania. You will spot the red flags with the Occitan cross on the side of the road. The region is more a cultural and language entity than a political entity. Although the administrative region now bears the name, in history there was never one Occitania. Like Bretagne where they speak Breton, the Occitan language is not recognized by the French government but is widely spoken in the region. Many place signs are bilingual. 

Occitania was also the home of the Cathars. Their other name was Albigensans, named after our finish town of Albi where they had a stronghold.

The Albigensians formed a Christian community in the 13th century that opposed the teachings and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. They were fiercely opposed by the Catholic Church through prayer and military punitive expeditions. Their teaching is based on the eternal battle between the spiritual and the “carnal,” the good and the bad, or God and Satan. 

The Cathars believed the human soul could be delivered from the grip of the diabolical “flesh” by a baptism of the spirit, so there was no water involved. Those who underwent such an initiation, the perfecti, were subject to a strict discipline of poverty, fasting, and sexual abstinence. Luckily for mankind not many Albigensians made it to the baptism – if everyone had been baptised, sexual abstinence as one if its main virtues would automatically have lead to the end of the Cathars.

The Catholic popes couldn’t wait that long. There were many crusades against the Cathars who not only resisted the wealth of the Catholic church but also claimed their Christianity was the purest form. The word “Cathar” comes from the Greek catharos, meaning “pure.” The first crusade by Pope Alexander III was in 1179. They destroyed some areas around Albi and then returned back home. 

Pope Innocent III decided to take stronger action. In 1209 he managed to rally an army for a crusade to Occitania. In 1229 Albi was returned to the French crown as were most cities in the Cathar region. After three crusades, the crusaders finally attacked the important castle Montségur, the final stronghold of the Albigensians, roughly 150 km to the south of Albi, in 1243.

At Christmas, a party of the 6,000 besiegers in total climbed up and seized a watchtower that stood on the hill at the far end of the plateau where the castle was built. There they were finally able to install their trébuchet, which then started launching stones at the fortifications of the village. About a month later, gaps appeared in the defenses and the inhabitants could do little more than surrender.

On March 1, 1244, the leader of the defending troops negotiated with the attackers and agreed that the lives of the soldiers and non-Cathars would be spared. This also applied to the Cathars who would give up their faith. The Cathars who did not would be given two weeks to prepare for their death. 

A pyre was then erected on March 16 on which 220 Cathars were put to death. The fortifications and the entire village were razed to the ground. It was the end of the Albigensian or Cathar movement in the southwest of France. 

What did you think of this story?