Beziers has fallen!
Clerks, women, children:
They killed Christians too.
I rode out,
I couldn’t see nor hear a living creature.
I saw Simon de Montefort.
His beard glistened in the sun.
They killed seven thousand people!
Seven thousand souls who sought sanctuary
In St. Madeline’s.
The steps of the altar were wet with blood.
The church echoed with their cries.
Guiraut Riquier, troubadour (Translated by Martin Best)
In 1130, the master builder Gervais built a Romanesque cathedral in the thriving episcopal town of Béziers. Built eighty years before Notre Dame de Paris, it had a comparable nave height as that Gothic masterpiece and was 50 meters long. Evidence given at the time indicates that it was a truly remarkable structure but it lasted only 79 years. The Cathedral of Saint Nazaire was burnt to the ground on July 22, 1209.
We went to Béziers in the hopes of finding what remained of Gervais’ masterpiece. Most commentators indicate that the Romanesque structure is completely gone and that Saint Nazaire is now a Gothic church, but we came into some luck. As we were setting up our cameras, a small energetic man approached us to talk. This can be bad news when an officious gardien sometimes takes it upon himself to investigate our activities. This time, however, was different. The man was Norbert Breton, who had recently published a book entitled Enquête Sur La Cathédrale Romane De Béziers, which translates into “Inquiry into the Romanesque Cathedral of Béziers”. Breton has studied the Gothic cathedral in detail and determined which parts of the destroyed Romanesque structure remain in place. He was kind enough to show us the elements in the Cathedral and even arranged for us to see the (usually closed) Eglise Saint-Jacques on the other side of town. He was informative, kind, and anxious to share his insights into the beloved churches of his Béziers. We gladly bought a copy of his book which took the Editions Zodiaque as a model, even to the box that the volume came in.
During the three days that we were in the region the weather was quite beautiful and the people hospitable, but we found the town unsettling. Perhaps it is the martial aspect of the cathedral with its crenellated towers and fortress-like appearance that dominates the town above the Orb River below. Perhaps it is the violence of the Transmontana winds that blow from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Or perhaps it is the violence that occurred on a July day eight hundred and two years earlier.
View of the Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
On July 21, 1209, a crusading army came to besiege Béziers because of the presence of a few dozen heretics. The forces were headed by Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux and head of the Cistercian order.
Amalric’s own version of the siege, described in his letter to Pope Innocent III in August 1209 , stated, “While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying “to arms, to arms!”, within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt.”
Nave of the Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The terrified citizens of the town sought refuge from the slaughter in the churches. At the Église Sainte Madeleine in the center of town, thousands were butchered by the rampaging routiers (the unarmed servants and camp followers who initiated the attack). As many as 6,000 more sought sanctuary in the great cathedral but were immolated when the structure was set afire. The intense heat of the fire caused the cathedral to explode “like a grenade;” it split in two and collapsed in an inferno on those sheltering within.
Transept corbel, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The number of the dead has been reported as high as 60,000, but since the population of the town at that time was about 14,500, the number is an over-estimate. The Cistercian monk Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay wrote the Historia Albigensis about the crusade and reported that 7,000 were slain in the Church of Saint Magdalene alone.
About twenty years later, the German Cistercian monk Cesar d’ Heisterbach in his Dialogus Miraculorum added a gruesome anecdote that has passed for fact for centuries because it fits the political agenda of many anti-clerical factions. “When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius – “Kill them all, God will know His own,” and so countless numbers in that town were slain.”
Gothic cloister, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey
Whether there is any truth to this is questionable; before Caesarius’ account there was no whisper of this horrifying phrase uttered by a Shepherd of the Faithful. The slaughter of men in a city that resisted siege was not uncommon, although normally women and children would be spared. But in this case, the siege proper had not even begun because the army had arrived only the day before. But the Crusaders did nothing to stop the slaughter and only went into action when the routiers started looting, an activity reserved for the knights themselves.
Cloister, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey
Béziers burned for three days and the massacre, called the “gran mazel” in Occitan – the “big butchery” – was infamous throughout the Christian world. For a century, a massive ruin crowned the hill where the town once stood. All that remained was a blackened heap of rubble and stones.
North transept arch, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey
Eventually the town was resettled, the Cathedral rebuilt into today’s large, aisle-less structure, beautiful and powerful, but still containing the bones of its violated predecessor. It is one of the great sadnesses of our work to find evidence of these horrible internecine slaughters. The religious wars of the 16th Century followed those of the 13th. The French Revolution followed those wars, and in all of them, Frenchman assailed and slaughtered other Frenchmen and destroyed the work of centuries as they killed. The 20th Century brought the mechanization of war and industrialized killing and destruction on a massively efficient scale. Yet the French have always recovered and found a way to make their land bountiful and beautiful. It is their great gift.
Choir windows, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey
In my imagination, the buffeting of the Transmontana winds is like the buffeting of history in Béziers, a reminder of violence and insanity committed in the name of the most sacred. Perhaps it is the rushing of the souls of the killers as they try to flee the torments of their hells and are sucked back into the maelstrom of darkness, fire and death that mirrors that which they created in July 1209.
Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey
Today Riquier’s lament that “Bezier has fallen!” has been replaced by the more benign “Si Deus in terris, vellet habitare Biterris,” freely translated as “If God were on earth, he would live in Béziers.” Looking at this sunny hilltop city assailed by the force of the transmontana winds, I can only think that for the city to adopt this motto after the events of July 22, 1209 shows the resilience of the human spirit.
Or it might signify something else, something unsettling on its own. As I struggle to lose the sense of the present and seek a dim phantom of that terrible past, I find that it recedes in time and there remains only the faintest trace. That an act on this scale of horror can disappear in time perhaps shows the impossibility of human memory. And this means, of course, that we will never learn and that as a race we are doomed to repeat our abominations over and over until we destroy even ourselves.
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