Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Impressions of a lost history

Message from the writer: apologies for the long silence, I will be mainly working off my travel blog for this year

Last weekend I finally made it to Foix and Montségur. For want of a better word, I can only describe the trip as magical. When we disembarked from the train at Foix it was pouring with rain and the temperature was quickly dropping to zero. This actually made the scene more dramatic: the whistling winds and curtains of mist hanging over the Pyrenean peaks gave the fortress a slightly eerie quality - this was later reinforced at Montségur when we were reminded of the conditions the Catholic soldiers had had to endure throughout the duration of a year long seige! What struck me about Foix was how small the castle and town were in comparison to the power the Counts had once wielded: their sphere of influence stretched from Northern Spain to almost half of the Midi-Pyrenean region, yet the town is situated in one of the most isolated and uninhabited places in France.


Montségur was everything I expected it to be. Towering above a tiny village, the ruins of the castle remain a testament to the impact of the Cathars. For those of you who are interested (if you’re not then I advise you to skip this paragraph), Catharism was a religious movement that flourished in the 11th & 12th centuries (its origins have been traced back to Bulgaria) – the Cathars, or “Cathari” (the purified), believed in dualism and they rejected the material world and the sinful act of fornication… and, infact, anything that had been created through coitus (they did not eat meat or fish). As Catharism spread throughout the Languedoc region in the 1200s, the challenge to the catholic doctrine and papal authority became clearer. In 1209, Innocent III waged a crusade on the whole of Occitania. 45 years of bloodshed and massacre ultimately led to the breakup of Occitanian autonomy, the institutionalisation of the medieval inquisition and the eventual unification of France after the Treaty of Paris in 1229. As Luchaire wrote in 1905, “Everyone, from Innocent III on, had worked, struggled, and suffered, without realising it, for the benefit of the king of France.” It is for this reason that the Albigensian crusades are so pivotal in French history.

The top of Montségur: the views were incredible and the sun even came out for us!

Paradoxically, the fortress that now stands at Montségur was built by the very soldiers that massacred the "perfects" (the most zealous of all those in the Cathar hierarchy) in 1244. The skeletal remains of heretics' settlement can still be seen protruding from the steep slopes of the mountain. What I hadn't grasped was the importance of the site. Montségur had been the Cathars' official headquarters – its downfall in 1244 marked the beginning of the end of heresy in Occitania. It was a self-sufficient, highly pious society - its steep slopes and strong natural defences made it almost impregnable. With only a narrow winding road in the face of high winds as an access point, it is a wonder that a fully-armoured French army were able to besiege the fortress. The site is not without mystery: historians continue to debate how a settlement of 500 people could function without a natural source of water; whilst local inhabitants continue to search for the lost network of caves that are mentoined in medieval documents and most certainly contain the answers to the hundreds of questions that surround Catharism and the crusades.

The shrine that stands at the foot of the mountain - 800 years on, locals still lay wreaths of flowers here in rememberance of the "two hundred men and women [who] joyfully entered the flames rather than betray their religion."

© Francesca Ebel D-504 blog