Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – The Albigenses


So much has been written in this country about the Albigenses and Saint Dominic that we give here a condensed sketch of that heresy. At the beginning of the third century a Persian named Manes – or, in Latin, Manichaeus – announced himself to be the Paraclete promised by our Saviour, and he taught a doctrine that was a mixture of pantheism and of the ancient Zoroastrian belief of the Persians of the existence of two co-eternal principles, the one good and the other evil. This was engrafted on the older heresy of the Gnostics, and its contagion spread rapidly through the East. It was partly stamped out by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities there, but found a refuge north of the Danube. Slowly and by degrees it worked its way from Bulgaria, through Dalmatia and Lombardy, into the south of France. The south of France has from early ages been occupied by a people of warm imagination and a contentious spirit. Inhabited first by Celtic clans, centuries before Christ it received a Greek colony, which spread out from its centre at Massilia – the modern Marseilles – to be overrun still later by the Roman legionaries and their families, who settled upon it as a province of the empire. Its, geographical situation made it a receptacle also for fragments of the various migrating races that passed over it. With the Gauls, Greeks, and Romans were mingled, during the decline of the Roman Empire, hordes of Goths and Visigoths. To add to the seething confusion of races there came, in the eighth century of our era, a blighting wave of Saracens, who crossed the Pyrenees from Spain, and, though finally checked in their advance, added their share to the population of the country. The Jews, too, always numerous there, had probably gained a foothold among the Greeks of Massilia, and still greater numbers came in with the Saracen invasion and remained to thrive amid the contentions of other races. These Jews were of the very highest class, and at a time when constant wars, invasions, civil tumults, and immigrations had put a check on the development of learning, they took care of their own interests, and at the same time became indispensable to others by their proficiency in the sciences, and especially in medicine, and they held offices of importance every where throughout this region. The culture of Celt and Greek and Roman had perished under the Goths, and hence it happened that in the eleventh, twelfth, and even in the thirteenth centuries much of whatever intelligence was to be found outside the monasteries belonged to men of Saracenic or Jewish origin, if not belief. Christianity was the law of the land, but its practice was often degraded by gross superstition, or else was an outward pretence of men who in their hearts or in secret meetings hated and derided Christianity. The drift left by Arian Goths and Mohammedan Moors, and carefully preserved by Jewish influences, contributed to choke the growth of living Christianity in the south of France.

The clergy were not zealous, and Saint Bernard’s efforts against their avarice and luxury had met with slight success; for most of the bishops owed their sees to family influence rather than fitness, and were in every sense worldly men. Some of these bishops were proficient in the arts of minstrelsy, but few of them were watchful shepherds of their flocks. The Bulgarian heresy of the Manichseans found, therefore, a ready field in Provence and Languedoc and the neighbor ing regions. Heresy is constantly changing its form, and the heresy in question added a distorted Arianism – lingering since the Goths – to its other errors, and thus was able to mask its wickedness under a pseudo-Christian exterior. The new heretics, known in history as Albigenses, from the name of the town where the first provincial council was held that condemned them, were popularly called Boulgres, or Bougres – a name which still survives with infamous import. In outdoor life the Albigenses were austere and often contrasted favorably with the worldly manners of many of the Catholics; but among themselves and in their secret conventicles they were given to nameless abominations. With them Lucifer was the Good Principle, and they believed that, though for a period prostrate, he would yet arise and recover his rightful dominion over the world. Of course they denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Such a belief would naturally reverse the whole moral as well as dogmatic scheme of Christianity among its adherents, as it did. Besides being bitterly hostile to the Catholic religion, it was opposed to the laws of marriage and property, and to the respect due to authority, civil as well as ecclesiastical; for, in fact, the Albigenses maintained that marriage and the birth of children were the work of the Evil Principle, and they deemed themselves pure from all sin and independent of any control whatever. Christian symbolical art was especially odious to them, and, wherever they could, they destroyed crucifixes, statues, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, altars, and churches.

The destructive work begun by the Albigenses was after wards to be carried on in the same region by the Huguenots, and still later by the Red Eepublicans and the newer atheistical Socialists. There is also little doubt that the vices which caused the suppression of the Knights Templars had their origin in commanderies of that order in the south of France. It was also a favorite land with the operative Free masons of the middle ages, who travelled about in companies, or lodges, wherever they could find work to do, and it is possible that from the south of France wandering lodges brought into England the socialistic errors which flourished among the Lollards and other followers of Wyckliffe.

It was at Toulouse, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, that the heresy of the Albigenses found its strong support in the warlike Count Raymond, whose ancestor had fought in the Holy Land under Godfrey. Bloodshed and rapine were rife, and Pope Innocent III. appointed three monks of the abbey of Citeaux as legates apostolic for the reformation of the clergy and the rooting out of the heresy. The efforts of the legates were of little avail, for they were coldly met by most of the bishops, and when they approached the heretics they were taunted with the shortcomings of the clergy. But help came to them in the bishop of Osma, in Spain, and his companion, Domingo de Guzman, the great Saint Dominic of history, who was then a canon-regular of the Bishop of Osma’s chapter. The language of Spain and of the south of France at that time was substantially one, and Dominic’s stirring eloquence, solid learning, and saintly life made many converts. Raymond, who had been excommunicated for his heretical leanings, hypocritically professed a desire to be reconciled to the Church; but the legate, Peter of Castelnau, on going to Saint Gilles for an interview with the count, was treacherously assassinated by two of the count’s retainers, 17 January 1208. This horrible crime aroused the indignation of the Catholics of all Europe, and was the signal for a war upon the Albigenses that began as a crusade for the true faith, and ended, it is sad to have to say, as a mere war of conquest and spoliation for the benefit of some of the Catholic leaders. Cruelties were perpetrated on both sides, but through it all Dominic, who was meantime organizing the new order of preaching friars, did his best to destroy heresy, but to save the heretics.

The inquisitorial courts of the middle ages were the precursors of our equity courts. The entire jurisprudence of our courts is the outgrowth of canon law as administered in the ecclesiastical courts of former times. Then the equity court, bishop’s court, or court of inquisition (for these were one and the same thing) took note of offences and wrongs that were outside of the common-law jurisdiction – delinquencies of the clergy and religious, heresy, blasphemy, perjury, and offences against marriage and the marriage relation, as well as trusts, the rights of orphans, minors, and heirs, etc.; and this court gave relief in the form of an injunction to do or not to do in cases where the common law would not or could not act until the evil were done, and then only by way of allowing compensation for the damage done. These inquisitorial courts were set up in every diocese and were under the bishop’s authority. The members of the court were ecclesiastics skilled in the civil and the canon law. No courts of law were held in such affectionate regard by the people as was the bishop’s court, or inquisition, of the middle ages, on account of its straightforward, even-handed, and cheap justice, as distinguished from the chicane with which the common lawyers too often surrounded the administration of justice in the civil or common-law courts. Heresy, like blasphemy, following the system inherited from the Roman Empire, had always been deemed a most grievous crime against the commonwealth. Being subversive of the established order of things, heresy was thought to be at least as mischievous as high treason; and, indeed, it was regarded, by canon and civil lawyers alike, as technically treason against God as well as against the state. One peculiarity, however, of the inquisitions was that they never decreed the penalty of death; all they did in case the accused was found guilty was to exhort him to repentance and to inflict on him the canonical penance, which might involve confinement in prison. But the state, which in England, as late as the early part of this century, punished common felonies, such as burglary, arson, and highway-robbery, with hanging, in the middle ages held heresy also to be deserving of death, and demanded and took the culprit from the ecclesiastical court for the infliction of the penalty.

The Albigenses were beaten in 1213, in the decisive battle of Muret, by the Catholics under Simon de Montfort, and two years later the Fourth Lateran Council formally condemned the heresy and took measures for undoing the evils resulting from the lack of evangelical zeal among the clergy of Languedoc and Provence. The Count of Toulouse submitted to the Church, and the same year (1215) saw the first foundation of Dominic’s order of friars, at Toulouse, and the Dominican friars were soon actively employed, in harmony with the papal legates, in healing the wounds caused by heresy and civil war. The Albigensian heresy came to an end in Languedoc, and soon disappeared altogether.

MLA Citation

  • “The Albigenses”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1884. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 January 2017. Web. 25 November 2020. <>