And over the next couple of centuries, there were several more Crusades—most of which weren’t directed against Muslims, but at fellow Christians in both Europe and Byzantium, Christian sects and kings who remained opposed to the Roman Church, and even ordinary Italian families who’d come to be regarded as hostile to the pope of the moment.
Of course, not all of the Church’s priests approved of such wanton violence in the name of God—so what about them?
Well, while various factions within the Christian community had more or less been going their own way, or trying to, almost from the beginning, in 1208 Pope Innocent III—a truly laughable name for someone who most historians would eventually come to regard as responsible for the greatest mass genocide in all history until the coming of Hitler—called for the first Crusade to be aimed squarely at other Christians: in this case, the Cathars.
Innocent III, born Lotario dei Conti di Segni into a powerful, aristocratic Italian family around 1160—a family that over some five centuries would come to count no less than thirteen popes, three antipopes, several cardinals, and even a queen among its more celebrated members—had been a mere 37-year old church deacon at the time of his election to the papacy, and so according to Church Law, had needed to be rushed through ordination into the priesthood before he could actually be consecrated as Pope.
At his consecration as one one of the youngest Popes in history, Segni took the name Innocent—the third to do so—and had hardly gotten comfortable on the Throne of St. Peter before he set about making it the seat of power throughout western Christendom.
For this Pope boldly claimed supremacy over all of Europe’s kings—the first to ever do so—more or less introducing the argument that henceforth he and all future Popes should be viewed as the sun, or the world’s sole source of light; and the kings, or secular rulers—up to and including the Holy Roman Emperor himself—as but so many moons that merely reflected the sun’s light and were of no real value, much less grandeur without it.
Secondly, he was determined that everyone in Christendom should follow his spiritual lead: that the Church should suffer no freethinkers within, and certainly no backtalkers. And it was here that he found the Carthars especially problematic—since while presenting themselves as good Christians, they bristled under his spiritual leadership, prohibition of birth control, and many burdensome Church taxes.
Sometimes referred to by historians as Albigensians, since their movement was believed to emanate from the commune of Albi, in southern France—the Cathars were an anti-materialist faction of the Church that had reacted to the increasingly dissolute, scandalous lifestyle of the Catholic clergy by calling for a return to the original Christian values of spiritual living, poverty, preaching, and personal example as the proper way to seek converts: a call that over the last few decades, had steadily been gaining support amongst the Catholic laity, along with some sympathetic clergy.
Innocent found the Cathars increasingly annoying, and several diplomatic attempts to roll back their movement had met with little success; and so in 1208, following the murder of his personal envoy to the Cathars and others in the area while attempting to arbitrate a problem between the Count of Baux and the Count of Tolouse, Raymond VI—an assassination in which he suspected Raymond, a known Cathar sympathizer who only a few days before had been excommunicated at the recommendation of the envoy, to have been complicit—he declared a Holy War against the Cathars, ordering them completely stamped out and offering their lands to any French nobleman willing to take up arms against them.
The Cathars were an easy target. Over the past two centuries, they’d aroused the ire of the local, French Catholic hierarchy to the point that as the first Crusade was coming to an end in 1199, Pope Lucius III had created the Church’s first Inquisition specifically to investigate the Cathar movement in that part of France; during which, no less than eight Church Councils pointedly convened there had accused the Cathars, among other things, of trying to breathe life back into a couple of old Gnostic beliefs that seriously challenged official Catholic doctrine—with some members of the last council actually suggesting that they were heretics who should be unceremoniously thrown in prison and have all their property confiscated.
Setting out in the summer of of 1209 under the command of the new papal legate Arnaud Amalric, these new Crusaders managed to capture a few small French towns with little resistance, and then headed for the town of Béziers—population, about twenty-five thousand.
Arriving before its main gate on June 21st, Amalric called for the city’s Catholics to come out and join his forces—and then demanded that its Cathar community immediately surrender. However, neither group complied.
So after the town fell the next day, Amalric apparently decided to make an example of the place—ordering his troops to break into the town’s church and kill its Cathar clergy upon their own altar, then slaughter the town’s entire population—men, women and children, including its Catholics simply because they’d refused to turn over their ‘heretical’ friends and neighbors—and finally, to burn whatever was left to the ground. Indeed, no Nazi officer would ever make his point more magnificently.
* * *
News of the disaster quickly spread; and for awhile afterward, many Cathar settlements would surrender without a fight. On the other hand, when the Crusaders attacked the town of Lastours and the adjacent castle of Cabaret the following December, they were repulsed by the castle forces led by its owner, Pierre-Roger de Cabaret.
* * *
After laying siege to the town of Minerve for a month and managing to gain its surrender only when it ran out of drinking water, Amalric had one hundred forty-seven Cathars who refused to re-convert to Catholicism burned at the stake.
* * *
In August, with the Cathar stronghold of Termes under a seemingly unbreakable siege despite repeated attempts by Pierre-Roger de Cabaret to come to the aid of the defenders, the Cathars within managed to avoid a similar fate only by slipping outside the walls one night and running off.
* * *
By the spring of 1211, the actions of Amalric and his Crusaders had alienated several important French lords, including an outraged Count Raymond de Toulouse—who was again promptly excommunicated.
* * *
In May, the Crusaders took the Cathar castle of Aimery de Montréal, hanged its lord and some of his more defiant knights, and then burned at the stake several hundred Cathars who’d taken refuge there .
* * *
Toulouse subsequently gathered some forces and went on the offensive against the Pope’s; but after managing to take more than thirty towns back from the Crusaders, his counter-attack ground to a halt as winter approached, when he was defeated by a far superior army at Lastours.
* * *
The Pope’s crusade against the Cathars would ultimately last twenty years and cost an estimated million lives; while in the end, the Cathars were virtually wiped out.
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