The Medieval Crusade Against the Cathars Supplied a Template for Modern Oppression

The French monarchy waged an infamous war of extermination against Christian heretics during the 13th century. The Albigensian crusade was a landmark in the development of an oppressive European social order with crucial legacies for the world today.

Fifteenth-century image of the conquest of Avignon by Louis VIII of France during the Albigensian crusade. (Grandes Chroniques de France / Wikimedia Commons)

In the thirteenth century, the French monarchy fought a ruthless war against some of its own subjects whom the Catholic Church had branded as “heretics.” Unless you have a particular interest in medieval history, you’re mostly likely to have heard about the Cathars and the Albigensian crusade from visiting the south of France, where the “Cathar” castles are a major part of the tourist industry.

The guidebooks tend to tell a simple story of the tolerant, civilized society of the Languedoc region — which was only vaguely under the control of the French crown at the time and to which “France” was a foreign country — being wiped out by ignorant northerners, with alternative religious believers persecuted by orthodox bigotry.

A closer look at the history of the crusade reveals that it was a landmark in the development of an oppressive social order throughout Europe. The ideologies that took shape to legitimize medieval oppression later supplied a template for new systems of class domination in the modern capitalist world.

The Albigensian Crusade

Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian crusade in 1208. Crusades were holy wars instigated by the papacy to be fought by secular recruits. They were initially directed specifically against Muslims in Palestine and Spain but became a way in which popes could attempt to mobilize secular troops against a range of papal enemies.

In the case of the Albigensian crusade, its first target was one man, Raimond VI, Count of Toulouse, whose men had just ambushed and murdered a papal legate. The crusaders, mostly knights from northern France, assembled at Lyons in June 1209, where Raimond of Toulouse rather neatly wrong-footed the crusade against him by joining it. Not for nothing did Innocent call him “changeable and crafty, shifty and inconstant.”

The crusaders set off across Languedoc, first targeting the lands of the viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne, then more generally fighting anyone who got in their way. They were avowedly targeting “heretics,” but since part of their definition of a heretic was anyone who opposed the crusade, this logic was rather self-fulfilling.

There is certainly no shortage of examples of brutality in the history of Albigensian crusade. The most famous is the sack of the town of Béziers in July 1209, in which large numbers of its citizens were killed, but it was not an isolated incident.

The sack of Béziers gave rise to a notorious anecdote about the man who was then leading the crusade, Arnaud Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux. One of the knights was said to have asked Amaury how they could distinguish orthodox Béziers citizens from the heretical ones, to which he replied: “Kill them all — God will know his own.”

While this story does not appear in contemporary accounts, it does typify an attitude toward the people of Languedoc widely demonstrated by the crusaders. Even after the crusade, ecclesiastical elites continued to promote that attitude. Our evidence for Arnaud’s comment, for example, comes from a guide written at a later stage for young recruits to his own Cistercian Order.

An anonymous chronicler from Languedoc left behind a savage portrait of Simon de Montfort, the nobleman who led the crusade until his death at the siege of Toulouse in 1218:

If by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths, by trusting evil counsels, by setting fires, destroying men, dishonouring paratge, seizing lands and encouraging pride, by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above.

The crusade ended in 1229 with the establishment of effective French royal control over Languedoc. The following decade saw the foundation of an Inquisition to track down heretics and make them recant — or burn them if they wouldn’t.

The combined effect of royal and religious rule in Languedoc was considerable. People in Languedoc still perceived themselves to be under foreign occupation well into the fourteenth century, when one of their spokesmen told King Philip IV of France that it was a wonder that the whole land did not tell him, “go away, foreigner.”

Defining Heresy

This may all sound as if the Albigensian crusade was just a standard case of medieval nastiness, without much to tell us today. A Marxist interpretation of heresy and the crusade, however, can show that it was of considerable importance in the development of feudalism and of oppression as a ruling-class tactic to increase feudal control. We can thus properly view the Albigensian crusade as part of the history of class struggle.

In terms of political history, the Albigensian crusade marks the point at which the south of France became definitively part of France, rather than a trans-Pyrenean kingdom made up of Aragon, Catalonia, and Languedoc. In order to understand its wider significance, however, we need to grasp the nature of heresy.

The concept of heresy basically means disobedience to the ecclesiastical authorities. While that could involve following unapproved religious doctrines, an accusation of heresy did not necessitate major doctrinal differences at all. It was possible to have orthodox beliefs but to be labeled a heretic for disobeying the Church in other ways.

In medieval social conflict, religion was very often the location and the language of social protest. This was an expression not only of the Church’s secular power and wealth, but of its central role from the eleventh century onward in the extension and intensification of feudal control.

For secular powers who were prepared to work with it, the Church offered in return an ideological structure that presented exploitation as being divinely ordained, as well as the prospect of increasing control over the day-to-day lives of the exploited to squeeze as much labor out of them as possible. The local church effectively pinned the feet of the peasants to the floor, and then proceeded to mandate when they worked, when they rested, and when they worshipped, all the while serving up a religious justification for the structure of society.

This did not only mean that aristocratic rulers could depict resistance to feudal control as a form of heresy. Criticizing the Church on religious grounds — for example, for becoming wealthy and corrupt and abandoning the apostolic poverty of the early Church — also constituted a challenge to the power structures of society. We can observe the reality of heresy as social protest in the careers of twelfth-century “heretics” like Arnold of Brescia in Rome and William Longbeard in London, two holy men who led class-based revolts, and Éon de l’Étoile, a Breton peasant rebel who believed he was divinely inspired to raid churches and monasteries.

As well as these obviously rebellious examples, religious and secular authorities could see individuals pursuing a religious life as a problem unless one of the religious orders regulated their activity, even though they were merely following the example of the apostles in the Bible. Popular enthusiasm for apostolic poverty, and those who practiced it, was a potential challenge to the established order throughout the medieval period.

A Question of Power

The traditional historiographical view of the issue of heresy in Languedoc sees it as approaching the formation of an alternative Church. According to this version, Catharism was imported to Western Europe from Bulgaria, where there was a heretical Christian tendency known as Bogomilism. With its dualist belief in two Gods, the good God of Heaven and the evil God of this world, it differed so fundamentally from orthodox Christianity that it was effectively a different religion.

This school of thought also suggests that Cathars attempted to create their own ecclesiastic hierarchy, with Cathar bishops and so on. This was an existential threat to the Church’s religious monopoly. The argument effectively concludes that, while we may deprecate the Church’s methods, we should appreciate the fact that they had to respond to the Cathar challenge somehow.

However, there is an alternative view that notes there is very little hard evidence for the existence of organized dualism in the south of France. Far from the region being a center of Catharism, the term “Cathar” was never actually used in Languedoc, where heretics were more usually referred to as “good men” and “good women” or (by the Inquisition) as “followers of the heretical depravity.”

The good men and good women — wandering holy people — were widely seen not as followers of unchristian doctrine but simply as the best Christians, with their simple, ascetic lifestyles. A man who was being arrested by the Toulouse Inquisition in 1234 made this point satirically, exclaiming that since he lied, swore, ate meat, and had sex with his wife, he couldn’t possibly be a heretic.

The question, though, is why figures like the good men and good women became such a heretical threat to the Church in Languedoc. Comparable figures elsewhere — in England, for example — may have represented a challenge to authority of their own, but they did not require the Inquisition to deal with them. The answer is a question of power.

Languedoc in the twelfth century was an area in which feudal control was weak. While this did not mean that it was outside the feudal system altogether, the nobility of the area often exercised real exploitative power over a surprisingly small percentage of the lands they nominally controlled. There were multiple examples of towns and villages behaving as if they were effectively independent, from the commune of Toulouse expelling its count from the city and conducting its own wars, to the small town of Limoux quietly relocating itself at will.

This lack of control meant that the authorities saw as outright heresy behavior that in other cases could be a merely annoying, unregulated religious asceticism. The Albigensian crusade and the formation of the Inquisition were not an isolated reaction to this perceived threat, but part of a Europe-wide strategy for increasing elite control through the practice of the “persecuting society.”

The Persecuting Society

The historian R. I. Moore developed the concept of the persecuting society, noting that the later eleventh and twelfth centuries saw deliberate violence beginning to be directed through state and religious institutions against people who were part of “out-groups”: Jews, lepers, heretics, and so on. This was not because these groups became objectively larger, and nor did it reflect a growth in individual bigotry: rather, it was the product of a ruling-class strategy aimed at increasing elite power and authority.

The point was not simply to suppress certain groups, but to embark on the process of reifying and then persecuting said groups, because this process itself would improve the position of the ruling class. The oppressive activity mattered more than the putative end result.

In identifying the development of the persecuting society, Moore stressed that no consideration of the cultural achievements of the central Middle Ages could be complete without including this dark flipside. He did not take a firm position on whether Europe’s twelfth-century renaissance was connected to the persecuting society, commenting that this was a question historians were not called upon to answer.

However, a materialist analysis of the period should make it clear that the age of the great medieval cathedrals and other cultural “achievements” of the time required the extraction of surplus labor in greater intensity than during previous periods. The practice of the persecuting society helped to facilitate such intensity.

We can see the medieval ruling-class construction of various “others” as the historical origin of the oppression that exists under modern capitalism. European elites developed modern racism, often consciously, from the early modern period on to justify the slave trade. Yet they were not inventing a new prejudice from scratch but rather using models inherited from the medieval period, such as the anti-Irish prejudice that accompanied the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century, or medieval antisemitism.

The historical origins of specific oppressions like racism also, of course, underlines how they form part of the general use of oppression as an enabler of exploitation, which also dates back to the medieval period. The functions that the persecuting society performed — to divide people, break bonds of solidarity, and provide some of the exploited class with marginal benefits from supporting rather than opposing the system — are familiar from a cursory look at modern oppression. Capitalism has continued to use and extend the strategy first developed to enable the intensification of feudal exploitation in the central Middle Ages.

Repression and Resistance

Before the Albigensian crusade, various nobles in Languedoc had shown a passing interest in adopting the practice of the persecuting society to increase their control, including Raimond VI’s father, his predecessor as Count of Toulouse. However, the crusade was the point at which serious ruling-class resources were channeled into the transformation of authority in Languedoc along persecutory lines.

The local population vigorously resisted the imposition of royal and ecclesiastical control which it enabled. In understanding the crusade as a form of class struggle, we should see it not as an isolated event but as the beginning of more than a century of repression and resistance.

This resistance involved, in its earlier stages, opponents of the crusade drawn from the nobility. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, resistance had become much more divided along class lines, culminating in the revolt of the poorer citizens of Carcassonne and Limoux in 1303–05.

The authorities routinely dubbed those resisting as heretics, but they usually did not see themselves as such, nor were they necessarily even particular adherents of the good men and good women. They were simply fighting back against exploitation and oppression. The Albigensian crusade is one of the best-known individual instances of the persecuting society, but it was not to be the last.