I never knew this, but there’s a corner of France scattered with 1,000-year-old castles on top of hills.
Travel down towards the Pyrénées, into the region of Languedoc, and there is a whole area known as Pays Cathare – or Cathar Country – close to the Spanish border. And you’ll immediately notice that there are lots of châteaux cathares – incredible castles in various states of decay that once belonged to the Cathars.
About-France.com says this of the Cathars:
The “Cathars” themselves were not a race, or a people; they were the followers of a dissident church that flourished in several parts of Europe during the early Medieval period.
Catharism – meaning literally “purity” (as in catharsis) – was a sort of proto-Protestantism that promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity, and turned its back on the pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth of the Catholic church of the time.
By the early 13th century, Catharism had such a strong hold in the Languedoc region that in 1208,
Pope Innocent III launched the notorious Albigensian Crusade – a crusade aimed not against the Infidels, but against the “heretical” Cathars. For twenty years, crusaders, led by the Barons of France including Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, sacked and pillaged the area, massacring Cathars or converting them by force to Catholicism.
In the early 1220s, the Cathars’ fortunes revived, prompting a second wave of Crusading this time led by King Louis VIII and later Louis IX. Finally, most of the area was subjugated, and in 1229, the Treaty of Meaux-Paris was signed, bringing almost the whole of Occitania into the realm of the French crown. Pockets of Cathar resistance held out for the next twenty-six years.
There are so many castles, you could probably find one every six miles or so by road. Looking from one hilltop to another, one can spot other castles almost within bellowing distance. I am immediately reminded of the scene in Lord of the Rings, when the fires are lit and a message transmitted across the mountain landscape.
Yet these Cathar castles might have been at war with one another. Remarkably, each castle was the high point, the ruling seat, of an entire tiny country. France was a lot smaller back then, broken up into little departments that didn’t necessarily speak the same language as each other (hence the name Languedoc, a contraction of Les langues d’oc, or the family of languages known as Occitanian which was somewhere between Spanish and French).
Today, you see quite a lot of Catalan flags in Cathar Country, signalling contemporary allegiances – at least from some of the residents – to the part of the world that is currently part of Spain. Historians estimate that
the persecution of the Cathars in Languedoc in the 13th century caused half a million deaths. In cultural terms, the suppression of the Cathar heresy and the consolidation of French power in Occitania led to the strangling of of one of the great cultures of medieval Europe.
However, most people in the area continued to speak forms of Occitanian until well into the nineteenth century, and Occitanian languages are still alive as patois even to this day.
Carcassonne is also a Cathar citadel, which is obvious from its incredible walls and structure.
The most impressive Cathar castle we visited is probably Peyrepertuse, which in square meterage is actually as big as Carcassonne!
Here are a few more photos of Cathar Castles – all in all, we probably visited about six or seven …