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A.6 Bogomils and Cathars

The Bogomils and the Cathars brought again to live a dualistic religiosity in Medieval Europe, centuries after orthodox Christianity had triumphed over its main dualistic enemy, Manichaeism, the only other universal religion beside Christianity. This renaissance of dualism, after centuries of obscurity, occurred at the same time that some reformist and anti-clerical movements in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Dualists and reformists shared the same aim of apostolic life, piety, and asceticism as well as with a complete opposition to the Catholic Church hierarchy that was accused of having abandoned the apostolic tradition. The Dualists claimed to be the true Christians and the successors to the Apostles, but their teaching differed from the orthodox dogma in many ways.

Dualism is defined as the religion of the two principles, the good one represented by God and Jesus Christ, and the bad one that represents the power of Satan and of all evils. The cosmos is viewed as the outcome and the battleground of the two opposed principles, good and evil or light and darkness.

Bogomilism is, by tradition, believed to have originated in Macedonia and Thrace, while the priest Bogomil is generally credited for its crystallization and spread. It is probable that he borrowed many elements of his doctrine from previous heretical traditions such as Paulician, Massalian, Manichean, Marcionite as well as from other Gnostic influences. However his doctrine that emerged in the tenth century was very specific and different in its teaching and purpose.

The dualistic movement in Western Europe, that reached its climax in the twelfth century, was mainly represented by the Cathars who were well implanted in Northern Italy and in the Languedoc, South of France. The Catholic Church was very much afraid of this movement and the Pope asked the King of France to suppress this heresy. The Albigensian crusade lead at first by Simon de Montfort and then by his son, with the help of the Inquisition, finally exterminated the Cathars from the South of France at the end of the thirteenth century, and the Languedoc region became part of the French Kingdom.

Initiation into Bogomil and Cathar teachings proceeded gradually and the ordinary believers were not introduced to the inner doctrine that was only taught to the “perfecti”, those who had received the “Consolamentum” and, as a result, were assumed to be able to understand the “Mysteries of the Kingdom of God”. Moreover, due to their initiation and status, the “perfecti” received the title of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Theotokos or God-Bearer) as they were seen as a receptacle of the Holy Spirit, and as giving birth to the world. The orthodox records of the Bogomil course of initiation show that the believers were initially introduced to teachings and ethics similar to evangelical Christianity. This was followed by a gradual introduction to heretical precepts until, finally, the basic dualistic doctrine was explained to the neophyte. However the dualistic dogmas were revealed only at the end of further initiation, and only to those who chose to enter the probatory period of two or three years required before the chosen candidates were elevated to the highest dualistic grade of “perfecti” and receiving the “Consolamentum”. Only then could the successful candidates have access to the full secrets and mysteries of the Cathars. As accomplished theologians, they mastered a system of allegorical interpretation of the scriptures that was widely used during missionary tours and the theological debates pursued by the “teachers of the heresy”.

The Bogomil missionaries and scribes elaborated a dualistic mythology that has been preserved in parts until now in the Orthodox accounts of the heresy. They are known as “satanic fables”. Apart from the canonical scriptures, the dualistic Bogomil doctrine used widely the themes and imagery from the apocryphal literature of the Orthodox east. This included early Christian texts and important Jewish apocalyptic texts such as the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and The Visions of Isaiah (used also by the Cathars). The only Bogomil tract that reached us, Liber Secretum or Interrogatio Iohannes, was brought to Italy were it became the basic text for the moderate Italian Cathars. It was also used in Languedoc.

“The Book of the Two Principles” was written in Desenzano, Italy, and became the reference book of the more radical Italian Cathars. The Cathar initiation into the inner sanctum of the “perfecti” is similar to the procedure followed by the Bogomils, although the two groups did not share some teachings. For instance, not all the dualists accepted the validity of the claim of the “perfecti” to esoteric knowledge of the “divine mysteries”, and many heretical books, both Cathar and Bogomil, were burned. Most of the information concerning the teachings of the medieval Dualists is to be found in Orthodox and catholic writings; obviously the comments are very negative. (5)

The crusade, or “final solution” to the problem of unorthodox movement of Cathar heresy in the south of France, lasted more than twenty years in the early thirteenth century. Pope Innocent III suggested the crusade, but it suited also the interests of the French king who wanted to extent his political influence in this region by annexing it to his kingdom. During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries a unique society, known as Occitania, flourished in Southern France where the inhabitants spoke a language known as “langue d’Oc”. Their culture was well ahead of the European average, and they were quite tolerant of minorities such as the Jews and unorthodox Christians who lived there in relative peace, whereas the rest of Western Europe was hostile towards them. The region was also the centre of the “troubadours”, or wandering mistrels, who defined romantic love.

The pope was especially afraid of the Cathars who regarded the orthodox Catholic Church as a creature of the Devil. In 1178 a Catholic mission was sent to Toulouse to try to solve the problem but it failed. At the same time the French king was interested to consolidate his power in this region, whereas the local feudal lords did all they could to increase their autonomy. In 1199 Pope Innocent III proclaimed that the heretics should be treated as traitors and annihilated. As the situation did not improve in the following years, Innocent III called for a crusade against the Christian “Albigensians”. According to the Pope, the participation in the war against the heretics would please God, and at the same time redeem the sins of the soldiers. Many feudal lords and knights of Northern France, under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, joined the crusade as, in addition, they were allowed to plunder the conquered land. The first important battle was fought in Beziers in 1209 where the crusaders massacred the whole population, Cathars or not, and plundered the town. The Pope’s representative with the crusade is reported to have said: “Kill them all, and let God sort them out”. The next town to fall was Carcassonne and the war went on until 1229. The Cathars captured by the crusaders, especially the “Perfecti”, were generally burned at the stake (140 died this way at Minerve and 400 at Lavaur). The crusaders did succeed to take Toulouse where Simon de Montfort was killed in 1219. His son, Amalrich took over as leader of the crusade, but he was not so successful as his father was. In 1229 the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII, concluded a peace treaty in exchange for giving back most of his properties and land to the Church and to the King of France.

The crusade did not succeed in eliminating completely Catharism but Royal and Papal authority had been restored, and the Occitanian liberties were crushed forever. The Inquisition, created at Toulouse in 1233, and some more military campaigns, finally eliminated Catharism from Languedoc.

The Cathars, or Albigensians, were heretics, members of an unorthodox sect of Christianity or better Catholicism. They were especially numerous in Southern France during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The first Cathar bishop was based in Albi and this explains why they are also known as Albigensians. (7)

Basil the Bogomil was an important leader of the Bogomil movement in the early twelfth century. During the century and a half since their foundation, the Bogomils had organised themselves into a church similar to the Orthodox Church of Byzantium and Basil was the Bogomil bishop of Constinople. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius, invited him to explain his doctrine. While Basil was talking to the Emperor a scribe took note of everything that was said. The Emperor confronted Basil with what he had said and asked him to renounce his heretic faith but he refused, and he was sent to jail. After visiting Basil many times, but to no avail, Alexius ordered that Basil should be burned at the stake. (7)

As the founder of the heresy that bears his name Bogomil, a Macedonian priest, created a strong form of unorthodox Christianity. His doctrine was a major bridge between the ancient doctrine of Gnosticism, and the major heresies of the later middle age in Western Europe. He lived during the mid-tenth century in Macedonia. His name means “lover of God”. He was a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church in Macedonia, which was part of the kingdom of Bulgaria. Bulgaria had adopted Christianism less than a century before he was born and, at the same time, a feudal system was introduced in which all the land belonged to the aristocratic class from which the church hierarchy was part. The peasants were very poor and resented the role of the aristocrats and of the church. Bogomil gave a religious expression to the peasants’ plight.

Bogomil’s doctrines were inspired by the dualistic beliefs of the ancient Gnostics. Bogomil left the orthodox Christian Church and went from village to village to preach his heretical doctrine. He believed that the world was not created by a good God but, on the opposite, by an evil being that was opposed to God since the beginning of time. Christ came to tell the people of the heavenly world of God beyond, and to liberate people from the evil. According to him the rich priests and nobles were the Devil’s servants. He pointed the difference of lifestyle between the rich priests and Jesus Christ, as told in the Gospels. Frugality was Bogomil’s way of life. His message was well received by the poor of Macedonia and from the Byzantine-controlled Thracian region. The Orthodox Church viewed his teaching as a resurgence of Manichaeism and violent persecution followed.

Bogomilism was one of the more important heresies of the Middle age. From is beginning in Macedonia of the tenth century it spread to Byzantium and then to all the Balkans. Some variants of Bogomilism became the state religions in Bosnia and Hungary, and it is believed to be at the origin of the Cathars in Southern France.

The Bogomil leaders were mainly priests and monks who had left the Orthodox Christian Church; they were known as the “Perfecti”. They abstained from manual work, sex, and meat-eating because these activities were linked to the earth, the devil’s creation. The “Perfecti” often travelled on missionary work and taught the members of their faith. As proof of their rank, the “Perfecti” had to go through a ceremony called “Consolamentum”. Most Bogomils did not live like the “Perfecti” but married, lived an ordinary life, and provided for the material needs of the “Perfecti”. Very often an ordinary Bogomil would receive the “Consolamentum” before dying. Due to its simplicity and its anti-establishment attitude, Bogomilism spread rapidly and was seen as a major thread to the Orthodox Church that persecuted them, but without much success. A Bogomil priest called Basil tried to convert Emperor Alexius but he failed, and was burned at the stake.

With time the Bogomil doctrine became less radical; the earth after all was not created by the Devil but by Satanael, Christ’s older brother. Satanael rebelled against God and trapped some Angels in material bodies. We are these angels, and Christ came on earth to liberate them and defeat Satanael who, with his name shortened to Satan, nevertheless went on ruling the world through his servants, the nobles, and the priests. Satan was also responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. In the twelfth century some Bogomil missionaries went to Languedoc, France, and Italy where they helped to create the Cathar heresy that followed the same doctrine. Byzantium had conquered Bulgaria in 1018 and the Bogomils identified it with Satan. In this way Bogomilism became a nationalistic rallying point for the Bulgarians. When Bulgaria became independent again in 1155, Bogomilism should have becomes the state religion but, instead, the new rulers turned to the Pope for advice and, among other suggestions, he asked the authorities to suppress Bogomilism. In the politically unstable Balkans of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Bogomil missionaries pointed out the evil of the world and compared it to the divine heaven. As a result Bogomilism grew again in Serbia and Hungary, while becoming the state religion in Bosnia despite the Inquisition and a small crusade. Bogomilism disappeared in these countries when the Moslems invaded them at the end of the fourteenth century, and the inhabitants became Moslems. In Hungary too Bogomilism became the state religion for a short period of time when the Tartars attacked this country but, in 1450, it became a Roman Catholic State and the Bogomils disappeared. (7)

The Cathar movement was the major heresy in Western Europe of the Middle Age. The Orthodox Catholic Church recognised the danger and a crusade of Christians against Christians and the creation of the Inquisition solved the Church’s problem. It is believed that the Cathars first appeared as an organisation in Cologne, Germany, in 1143. They also appeared in different locations in France in the next four years and they were firmly installed in Languedoc and Northern Italy by 1160. In 1166 thirty Cathar missionaries were sent to England but the authorities captured them and they died following their punishment.

There were two doctrines at the beginning. The moderate dualist Cathars believed that God created all spiritual beings and that Satanael rebelled and was thrown out from heaven. He then created the material world and imprisoned some Angels in physical bodies, human or from animals, which are the jails of divine beings, who want to be delivered. Christ was sent on earth, in a body made of light, to teach the people the way of liberation. Those people who fail to reach spiritual perfection during their lifetime continue to be reincarnated until they do. In the more radical version, the evil creator of the world was thought to be God’s eternal enemy, rather than a rebel Satanael.

Cathars rejects material wealth and worldly treasures as being parts of Satanael’s tricks to keep humans locked in their bodies. This was in total contradiction with the Catholic Church that was interested in money and power, and this was considered by the Cathars as a sign of servility to the Devil. This appealed to the poorer class of citizens who resented paying high taxes and tithes to support the luxury of the Catholic bishops. The nobles and merchants were well inclined towards the Cathars hoping to become independent of the Church and, perhaps, to take over their properties.

There is no doubt that the Cathars copied the Bogomil organisational structure. Their more spiritually advanced members, men or women, were known as “perfecti” or the”Perfect ones”, they ate no meat and refrained totally from sexual activity. The “Perfecti” often lived in communal houses in town, they worked to support themselves, but they did not accumulate wealth. They went on preaching missions, and cared for the sick. The less advanced Cathars, “credentes” or believers, were not subject to the strict lifestyle of the “perfecti” whom they revered, and from whom they received spiritual guidance. To become a perfected one, a believer had to follow the ritual, learn the doctrine, be initiated and receive the “Consolamentum”. Many believers chose to receive the “Consolamentum” on their deathbed. In doing it they could die with the highest spiritual rank without having to follow the duties of the “perfecti” during all their life.

The word “Cathar” is of Greek origin and means “the pure ones”.

Every region where many Cathars were living had their own bishop. In 1167 a grand council of French perfecti was held under the chairmanship of Nicetas, a Bogomil leader from Constantinople. Catholic authorities became alarmed because their effort to eliminate them had failed. They accused the Cathars of devil worship, orgies, murdering children, and of practising sodomy as a method of birth control. This last accusation explains in part why they were called “bougres” in France (French for Bulgars from which the English word bugger is derived). It has also been said that “Cathar” comes from the Latin word “cattus” or cat and, as a result, the Cathars were also accused of worshipping Satan in the shape of a cat. As the popularity of the Cathars continued to increase the Pope Lucius III created the Inquisition in 1184. It was not very efficient at first but, in 1194, Pope Innocent III took direct control of the Inquisition and improved its action.

In 1206 a monk called Dominic followed the lifestyle of the Cathar leaders and preached in Languedoc against them and, wherever possible, debating their doctrine with their perfecti. He was not very successful at first, but as the Pope allowed him to create his own Order (the Dominican Order). In 1233 Pope Gregory IX put the Dominican Order in charge of the Inquisition, and a reign of terror began. During the early thirteenth century the Cathars acted openly in Southern France, the Catholic priests were powerless, and the nobles of the region were independent of the control of the papal and French State authorities. The Pope and the King of France organised a crusade that murdered thousand of Cathars and non-Cathars alike. Under the combined effort of the Albigensian crusade and of the Inquisition the Cathars were driven in the countryside, and the movement ceased any open activity after the fall of Montsegur in 1244 and Queribus in 1255. Catharism survived during all the thirteenth century in Northern Italy but it was finally uprooted and the last isolated groups disappeared at the beginning of the fourteenth century. A Cathar Church came back to life in France in the nineteenth century but its claim of a direct link with the past has never been proved. Today several Gnostic schools claim to preserve the secret teaching of the Cathars but here again nothing is proved. (7)

The “Consolamentum” is a religious ritual that was central to both the Bogomil and the Cathar faith. This sacrament initiated the applicants into the highest rank of the religion. In the Bogomil ritual someone with the rank of Perfectus places a copy of the Gospel of John on the applicant’s head, who afterwards must live a strict moral life. The ritual Cathar derived from the previous one. The Initiator, normally a “perfecti” placed a hand on the head of the candidate, transferring spiritual power, and the accompanying moral obligations. After receiving the “Consolamentum” the person -man or woman- could not anymore eat meat or have sexual relations. It was very often given shortly before death so that the person could live a normal life and would not fall into temptation after receiving the sacrament. The Cathar tradition spoke also of “Endura” or ritual suicide. This means that when a “perfecti” decided that it was time for him to die, he would stop eating, and “fast unto death”. Some mentions of collective suicides have been mentioned but no link with “Endura” has ever been proved. (7)