The Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon Feature

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Crusading Cathars

Scorched by the southern heat, the dusty ruins perched high atop cliffs in southern Languedoc were once the refuges of the Cathars, the notoriously ascetic religious group persecuted out of existence by the Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Cathars inhabited an area ranging from present-day Germany all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Adherents to this dualistic doctrine of material abnegation and spiritual revelation abstained from fleshly pleasures in all forms, forgoing procreation and the consumption of animal products. In some cases, they even committed suicide by starvation; diminishing the amount of flesh in the world was the ultimate way to foil the forces of evil. However, not thrilled by a religion that did not "go forth and multiply" (and that saw no need to pay taxes to the Church), Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade (Albi was one of the major Cathar strongholds), and Pope Gregory IX rounded up the stragglers during a period of inquisition starting in 1233. All these forces had been given scandalously free rein by the French court, which allowed dukes and counts from northern France to build fortified bastides (fortified medieval towns built along a strict grid plan) through the area to entrap the peasantry.

The counts were more than happy to oblige the pope with a little hounding, an inquisition or two, and some burnings at the stake. Entire towns were judged to be guilty of heresy and inhabitants by the dozens were thrown to their deaths from high town walls. The persecuted "pure" soon took refuge in the Pyrénées Mountains, where they survived for 100 years. Now all that remains of this unhappy sect are their former hideouts, with tour groups visiting the vacant stone staircases and roofless chapels of haunted places like Peyrepertuse and Quéribus. For more information, log on to www.cathar.info or go hiking with medievalist Ingrid Sparbier (www.guide-sud-france.com).

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