“La vérité n’est point a nous, nous n’en sommes que les témoins, les défenseurs, et les dépositaires.” Jean Baptiste Massillon (1663-1742)
Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile in Albi is a church of immense contrasts. From the exterior it is a forbidding and dominating fortress. Within, it is a splendid and opulent medieval shrine. The cathedral was built in this manner because of its founding between two great wars in the Languedoc – the Hundred Years War and the Albigensian Crusade.
The intervening years were not peaceful. The Cathars were a heretical religious sect, aggressive and often violent. When the Count of Béziers accepted a censure of the local Cathars he was murdered in the cathedral of Béziers by an uprising of his people. Forty years later to the very day of that murder, Béziers endured the most brutal of retributions.
Sainte-Cécile d’Albi was built by Bernard, Cardinal de Castanets, the local bishop who detested and was in return detested by his own people of Albi, of whom he was the feudal master. He built his cathedral as a fortress bulwark against the rebellious Albigensians. This was not an imprudent move. All of the Languedoc was at war and the countryside was described by a visiting bishop as, “On all sides is the image of death, villages are in ashes, churches in ruin, and the inhabitants living like beasts.”
The Cathars called themselves the Bons-Hommes, the good people. They were dedicated to eradicating poverty and to reforming the Church. Eventually, that reforming zeal became the denial of the authority of the church and they are looked on as the predecessors to the Protestant movement of subsequent centuries.
We read today of the peaceful Cathars destroyed by the intolerant Catholics of the day, but the truth is far more complex.
Catharism actually derived from the much earlier Manichean heresy, re-imported to Europe during the Crusades. It found fertile soil in the Languedoc where the people decried the excesses of the church. This Gnostic reform movement believed that two principles, good and evil, ruled the universe. Jehovah of the Old Testament created the visible world, which is Hell. Moses was a sorcerer and a thief. John the Baptist was an incarnation of the Devil. Christ was the God of Good who created the world of the spirits and the Albigensians denied his earthly existence. In practice, the Cathars believed that life on earth was Hell and suicide a virtue. They did not believe in clergy and held that marriage was sinful and sexual license acceptable.
These beliefs were not only anti-Christian as practiced in Europe, but threatening to the social fabric. Many attempts were made to mend this breach in the Church, but the Cathars were not always the peaceful brethren as portrayed in most fiction. Bernard de Clairvaux, the most beloved man of his generation in Europe, was stoned in the streets of the Midi.
The Church in Rome recognized the danger and attempted diplomatic negotiations for a century, but in 1208 the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered by retainers of Count Raymond of Toulouse and a crusade was declared by Innocent III. This war of northern France against southern Languedoc became the most terrible conflict of its age. Elizabeth Boyle O’Reilly wrote, “Cruelty and perfidy marked both sides. The Midi lords boasted that no crusader escaped them with eyes, fists, or feet, and they cut into little pieces the nephew of Albéric de Humbert, archbishop-builder of Rheims Cathedral. In retaliation Simon de Montfort cut off heretics’ ears and noses.”
That such a devastating religious conflict could produce a church of the undeniable beauty of the Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile is one of those miracles of faith and history. The interior vault was painted at the same time as the Sistine Chapel and Prosper Mérimée called Albi’s screen “a splendid folly before which one is ashamed to be wise.”
We read in these bloody histories some familiar lessons. The overweening pride of the established powers provokes reform and rebellion. The arrogance of the true believer creates a conviction that anything is justified in pursuit of the truth. Somewhere in the middle, the bulk of humanity is brutalized and butchered as they are forced to choose between the two.
Location: 43.928530° 2.142699°