In the year 1209, the Catholic Church began its first and only crusade against fellow Christian Europeans: a crusade against a group known as “the Cathars.” The word “Cathar” came from “Cathari”, meaning “the Pure Ones”, although they were also called “Albigensians” because they had first been publicly condemned by an ecclesiastical council at the Languedoc town of Albi. The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect who believed that one could commune with the True God through the spiritual experience of “Gnosis” - direct knowledge of the divine. They did not believe in the crucifixion or honor the cross. They also believed that the “Jehovah” of the Bible was actually a demiurge, Rex Mundi, the King of the World, who had created the corrupt world of matter in order to entrap men’s souls. The goal of Gnosis, then, was to free oneself from the bonds of creation, much like the Buddhist concept of “Nirvana.” They were fish-eating vegetarians, and practiced birth control to prevent innocent children from being brought into the corrupt world of matter. Oh, and one other thing: they were rumored to have possessed a vast treasure that included the “Holy Grail.”
The Languedoc region of France was a bastion of Cathar thought, where it had threatened to become the dominant religion. Nearly 30% of all Cathar priests were drawn from Languedoc nobility, and even non-Cathars in the region usually maintained a cold attitude towards the Church of Rome. The Languedoc was at that time an independent principality, with a distinct culture of esoteric thought and higher learning. So when the “Albigensian crusade”, as it came to be called, began, even many non-Cathar locals defended their home-grown heretics to the death.
For the next forty years, the Church attempted to wipe out the Albigensian menace. The destruction of Catharism, which tended to run in families, was so complete that the Crusade is now considered by historians to be Europe’s first genocide. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting were arrested and tortured by the Dominican Order’s Holy Inquisition. The Church’s army spared no one, not even non-Cathars, who stood in the way of their stated goal. When Pope Innocent III was asked how the soldiers should know the heretics from the true Christians, he responded with the oft-quoted line, “Kill them all. God will know His own.”
And that they did. The Cathars and their defenders fought bravely, but in the end it was no use. Some of the
few remaining Cathar strongholds, towards the end, were those in Arques, Narbonne, Toulouse, Carcassonne,
and Rennes-le -Chateau. But the final fortress to capitulate was that of Montsegur, “poised”, as
Holy Blood, Holy Grail relates, “like a celestial ark above the surrounding valleys.” It was besieged by the invaders for ten months, and finally fell in March of 1244.
On the first of March, the less than 400 remaining defenders, 180 of them actual Cathars, and the remainder mercenary soldiers, were offered terms for surrender. The soldiers would receive full pardon, and the heretics would only have to renounce their beliefs and make a full confession. The Cathars agreed to a two-week truce while they considered the terms, with the understanding that if anyone tried to escape, they would be immediately executed. They took the whole two weeks, but in the end, the Cathars refused the terms, and were immediately burned to death.
Yet according to the legends, the night before the end of the ceasefire, a small group of Cathars managed to sneak out of the fortress carrying some unnamed treasure - one quite separate and distinct from the famed hordes of gold and other booty the heretics possessed, which had been smuggled out safely much earlier in the siege. Given the importance of the date, which was Easter, March 14, the day of the Spring Equinox, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail assumed that the “treasure” must have been some sort of holy relic, which they had needed to hold onto until that point for use in their Spring Equinox ritual. Records indicate that an equinox ritual did indeed take place. Whatever it consisted of was in all probability the reason why at least twenty of the mercenary soldiers who were defending the Cathars converted to their religion at the last moment, thus sealing their death warrants. The writers of Holy Blood, Holy Grail have presumed that the ritual had more to do with the equinox than with the Christian Easter, since Easter celebrated Christ’s resurrection after the crucifixion, and the Cathars did not believe that Christ had died on the cross. But could it not have been both an observance of the equinox and an Easter ritual - one that actually repudiated the crucifixion? A letter written by Jean de Joinville, friend to French King Louis IX during the 13th century, stated that , “The king once told me how several men from among the Albigenses had gone to the Comte de Montfort... and asked him to come look at the body of Our Lord, which had become flesh and blood in the hands of their priest.” Perhaps the Cathars did possess the true Body of Christ, and perhaps something about that body provided proof that Christ had not been crucified. Then again, as we were later to discover, Christ was not the only being whom the Cathars may have called “Lord.” Nor were they the only possible possessors of the Holy Grail and the secret traditions of Christ whom the Catholic Church would decide to root out in the coming years.