Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire de Béziers (Dennis Aubrey)

Beziers has fallen!
They’re dead.
Clerks, women, children:
No quarter.

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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33 thoughts on “Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire de Béziers (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis, you say that there are some parts of the Romanesque structure still in place. Are these visible in the photos above?

    1. Two places, Trish. The capital is Romanesque. Also, the last shot shows one of the most significant sections. The great arch is partly gothic and partly romanesque – notice that the oculus is not properly centered on the arch but is far to the left. And notice the superimposition of the two arcs – one is round and the other is ogive.

      1. Ok, thanks. I’ve just finished reading all the comments (so far) to this post. You have a way of stimulating thoughtful conversation, Dennis. You’ve made me remember a weird sadness I felt when staying in an apartment in Paris for 3 weeks, in an old passage between 2 streets. There was a small plaque on the wall outside telling me that the residents of the apartments in the passage during the 1930s and 40s were mostly Jews who were all cleared out during the roundup. I would sit in my groundfloor apartment and think how I could escape if I were in that situation. They are all so compact and close together (the intimacy that we now love in Paris) that there would have been nowhere to hide.
        But the place was beautifully decorated, homely, comfortable and very quiet. I would never have guessed its tragic history. The small plaque was the only reminder. I started noticing other small plaques around Paris, signifying Holocaust losses. It’s better than not doing anything, I suppose.

      2. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that hits the hardest. When I was a young boy, we lived in Verdun, not far from the great WWI battlefields. My father was a soldier, so we spent many hours walking the battlefields, learning what happened, and being struck by the incredible slaughter of humanity – seven hundred thousand deaths. But the thing that always moved me profoundly was a clearing below the fort of Douaumont. On a bare spot of ground was a sign that read “Ici etait Fleury.” It was all that was left to remind us that there was once a village of 322 inhabitants on that spot. To this day, six of the nine villages that were destroyed have never been rebuilt. They stay on the roll of communes in France as a memorial to the battle.


        I think that we can only hope that someone notices and remembers. Maybe you were that one in Paris, Trish.

  2. I find myself with teary eyes reading your commentary, Dennis. The last paragraph says what I was feeling as I read through the previous paragraphs. I am not an optimist. I would like to believe I live in hope and that hope is not pointless, but there is too much evidence to the contrary to be optimistic. The human species’ capacity for violence is not only destructive but self-destructive. Our final exceptionalism may well be that we are the only species that destroyed itself.

    As I’ve pondered your reflection, I’ve gone back to a source that often heartens me in times when the darkness overwhelms, the Funeral Service from The Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church, 1946). There is a Prayer of Confession that reads as follows.

    “Almighty and everlasting God, who alone amid the changes of this mortal life abides ever the same: We confess before Thee the uncertanty of our life upon the earth. Thou hast made our days as a handbreath; and our age is as nothing before Thee. All flesh is grass; and all the goodliness thereofe is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth; the flower fadeth; but the Word of our God shall stand for ever. Therein is our hope, for Thou art our Father. We confess, even in the valley of the shadow of death, that Thou art with us. O Lord, make us to know our end, and the measure of our days, what it is, that we may know how frail we are. Hear our prayer, and give ear unto our cry. Hold not Thy peace at our tears; for we are strangers with Thee and sojourners, as all our fathers were. But Thou art the same, and Thy years have no end.”

    Anyway, thank you, Dennis and PJ, for your cameras and for the eyes and hearts and minds that stand behind the lenses to speak the truths of beauty and of sorrow alike without cosmetics. Grace and Peace.

    1. As I wrote the final piece, Gordon, the design was to end on the “Si Deus in terris, vellet habitare Biterris” quote and the resilience of the human spirit. But something kept me going and the last paragraph came out on its own. The lesson of Béziers affected me in the writing. Thanks for the kindness of your thoughts and words, Gordon. It means a great deal to me.

      1. I understand. If you have time to swing by, you might have interest in the sermon “Josh, Alfred and You” and “The Moment to Decide”. It takes courage to write your last paragraph. We all want to end on a hopeful note. Hope “peeks through behind” the darkness. Peace to you and bless your boldness.

  3. Your descriptions and photos encircle the reader’s heart and gently presses in an 802 year old sadness, and memory, of brutality in the name of faith. So many souls so savagely butchered, a wrecked church, a destroyed city. No wonder Our Lord spoke to St. Francis of Assisi at this time and said, “My Church is falling into ruin. Help Me rebuild it.”
    St. Francis’ genius was to rebuild the Church’s spirit and vision based on Christ’s command of love for God and mutual love and respect for neighbor. It is a lesson, as people of faith, we can never forget.
    Thank you for this post.

    1. Paul, one thing that I did not write but that caused a great deal of pain was the role of Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux. He was head of the Cistercian order at the height of the reforms and Bernard of Clairvaux’s abbot. Bernard is one of my heroes from that time and I have so much trouble reconciling this. I know that it was a different world, and I know the Amalric probably was not responsible for the slaughter, but how could he not have condemned it in the strongest terms. I am researching this more now, which is why it did not make it into the current post. Last night I was thinking that this may become an anniversary post on every July 22nd, just to try to help the human memory.

      1. Excellent questions about what they knew, when they knew it, and their response – vocal, or, in the recesses of their hearts.
        This is the quest of a historian, yet, it does nothing to heal the wounds and the palpable pain that you and PJ felt when you were there.
        The atrocity must be as great as the reports indicate for the spiritual sadness, and terror, of all of those souls crying out to be felt 802 years later.
        Men and women can be great saints of the Church, and yet, still have weaknesses that show how human a saint truly is.
        Do not view Bernard too harshly, for it is unlikely that we will ever determine his or his abbot’s motivation, support, or shame in the incident. They might have done great penance, in their monastery, once they learned of the truth.
        The fight against dogmatic and doctrinal heresy during the Middle Ages is such a sad and sorry witness to the spiritual immaturity of the laity and some of the secular and Church leaders and their inability to explain the truth of the Faith and to teach what it really means without resorting to violence, coercion, and intimidation.

      2. Paul, if I ever start to feel harshly about Bernard, I have only to read his eulogy for his brother, Gerard. I did a post that expresses my feeling for Bernard that you might enjoy.

        I think a great deal about the human failings that resulted in such horrors as the massacre at Béziers or the destruction of my beloved churches. Reading just today about the damage done to the Hamat Tiberius mosaic in Israel by Ultra-Orthodox Jews. To make it worse, the article says, “Public servants who safeguard our historical heritage have also been threatened recently,” Avshalom-Gorni added. “It’s definitely a frightening situation.”

        What is wrong with us?

      3. Thank you.
        Yes, a beautiful tribute to Gerard;
        as for the Hamat Tiberius mosaic, its desecration leaves one speechless. The same animus, I really think the same evil animus and ignorance, incited the murderers to commit the atrocities at Beziers.
        “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

  4. Excellent commentary, Dennis. If history were taught like this in schools, with emotion and fact intertwined, there wouldn’t be so many students who roll their eyes at the mere mention of the past! Thank you for teaching me with this.

    1. Merci, Ann. Who can forget standing in the cold wind at Oradour-sur-Glane and seeing the ruination of the village, an atrocity at the time only 25 years old? Or standing on the grey battlefields of Verdun looking at the rows and rows of crosses and marveling at the statistic that over this giant battlefield an average of one projectile per square centimeter was thrown against the human beings burrowing in the blood-soaked mud. Or riding to school from Etain with rows of black crosses on one side of the road for the German graves and rows of white crosses for the French dead. It was real and I felt it deeply.

    1. You are very welcome, Michael. What started out as a simple post on a lovely church ended up in a different direction. Only the photographs remained constant. And I love the shots from up in the bell tower looking down on the nave and apse. These are PJ’s and i saw them for the first time yesterday.

  5. You say “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 excessive” – any number murdered is excessive, no matter what the motivation. I can only assume you meant to say “a wild over-estimate”.
    Plus ça change, plus c’est la mème chose …you only have to look at the slaughter going on today in Syria to realise how unreasoningly ghastly the human race can be. I wrote ‘bestial,’ but few beasts kill other than for food. I wrote a poem Warum? to express my horror at wanton killing.

    Your story distressed me so that I failed to appreciate the wonders of your photography. I will come back and look again when I have calmed down!

    1. I’m sorry that the post distressed you so, Viv, but it just sort of came out that way. It’s like all of these pent-up feelings just roiled over when it came time to write.

  6. Beautiful shots as always, and a very moving post. It is unfathomable how such acts can be committed in the name of religion. Truly, we humans are the most intelligent yet most cruel species to walk this earth. At least the animals mostly kill to eat…

    1. Vivien, it is like a form of insanity. It is impossible to read the news and not see evidence of the enmity of religions. Christians, Muslims and Jews are in perpetual conflict with each other. Sects of Christianity are in perpetual conflict. Sects of Islam are in perpetual conflict. The question for me is whether or not it is the religion that is responsible or it is the religious believers? Is it the system or the adherents? The Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths all arise from the same place and believe in the same God, and all three are ethical systems that aim to make the world a better place. They are there to provide comfort, hope, and a sense of purpose. But in the name of that same God, each has perpetrated horrific crimes on believers and non-believers alike.

      1. IMO, not the religion but the believers. It’s so easy to use God as an excuse for any action. And majority people I find have ‘sheep mentality’. All you need is one person to instigate something, and everyone follows blindly. I was brought up a Christian. In fact, still consider myself one although I question the ways of the church sometimes. But I have seen people follow the words of their priest/pastor blindly, even when they are clearly wrong. They don’t seem to understand that their priest/pastor are human too, and hence subject to human failing and frailty just like the rest of us. I’m sure that would be the case with other religions too. So all you need is one crazy person, with a loud voice, who claims that ‘God told him so’ and you will have a group of ‘sheep’ following him.

      2. One of my favorite books is Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. There is a behavior that is accepted in the actions of crowds that would be abhorred in the individual. I, too, completely believe that it is the action of the individuals that twists the tenets of the religion. Who can believe Saint Francis of Assisi is part of the same church as those who burnt Béziers?

  7. Thanks for the extra photo of the village that once was Fleury devant Douaumont. When I was in Lyon in 2004 someone told me that it had been 60 years since France was at war, which is the longest period that France had gone without being at war with someone. And I naively asked, “the longest period since when?”. “Since France has been France!” they said. Think, Dennis, how many churches have not been blown up or burnt down since 1944…

    1. War has not destroyed any for some time, but time and neglect are continuing. The NY Times reported: “Béatrice de Andia, the founder and president of the Religious Heritage Observatory, in Paris, estimates that there are about 90,000 church buildings in France, of which about 17,000 are under government protection for their historic or architectural value, giving France the greatest density of religious buildings of any European country. About 10 percent of the protected churches are in perilous condition, she says, because of a lack of government financing for their preservation.”

      Theft and vandalism continue to plague the country churches, but have not exempted even the greatest of the monuments.

  8. On 4 July 2012, the codex was found in the garage of a former employee of the Cathedral. The former employee, considered the intellectual author of the theft and three other members of his family were detained and questioned until one of them disclosed the location of the codex. There were also several other objects of worth stolen from the Cathedral found in the home of the former employee. The codex appeared to be in perfect condition but an in depth analysis will have to be performed in order to verify it. The former cathedral employee was convicted of the theft of the codex and of EUR 2.4 million from collection boxes, and was sentenced to ten years in prison in February 2015.

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