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Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition

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The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition, by René Weis

The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329, by René Weis

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church worked vigorously to suppress any challenges to its authority, both inside and outside Europe. One of the victims of those efforts was Catharism, an offshoot of Christianity which preached a doctrine of peace and love. Differing from orthodox Christianity on a number of important points, they were targeted by the Inquisition for elimination.

Summary

Title: The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329
Author: René Weis
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0375704418

Pro:
• Excellent and very detailed history of Cathar beliefs and their extermination
• Provides personal stories and personal connections between prominent families

Con:
• Very detailed book - perhaps too much so far casual readers

Description:
• History of the repression of the Cathars at the hands of the Inquisition and Catholicism
• Explanation of Cathar beliefs and how they differed from orthodox Christianity
• Focuses on later period of repression when Cathars were exterminated

Book Review

The Cathars came from the region west-north-west of Marseilles on Golfe du Lion, the old province of Languedoc. Their theology was Gnostic in nature: they believed that there were two “gods,” one malevolent and one good.

The former was in charge of all visible and material things and was held responsible for all the atrocities in the Old Testament. The benevolent god was the one they worshipped as responsible for the message of Jesus. Accordingly, they made every effort to follow the teachings of Jesus as closely as possible.

This was often in direct contradiction to how the Catholic Church conducted business, especially with regards to the issues of poverty and the moral character of priests. Bernard Gui gives a good summary of their position, of which this is a portion:

    “In the first place, they usually say of themselves that they are good Christians, who do not swear, or lie, or speak evil of others; that they do not kill any man or animal, nor anything having the breath of life, and that they hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel as the apostles taught. They assert that they occupy the place of the apostles, and that, on account of the above-mentioned things, they of the Roman Church, namely the prelates, clerks, and monks, and especially the inquisitors of heresy persecute them and call them heretics, although they are good men and good Christians, and that they are persecuted just as Christ and his apostles were by the Pharisees.”

On the whole, their faith tended to be a gentle and peaceful one, promising an eventual universal salvation available to all humans. Cathars eschewed killing in all forms, even the killing of animals, and they tended very much to forgive those who persecuted them.

Indeed, their abhorrence of lying caused captured Cathar Perfects (equivalent of a priest) to inform upon their brethren rather than tell a falsehood.

    “The Albigensian creed was predicated on the spirituality and metaphors of St. John’s Gospel, and it specifically outlawed any violence. It singled out the shedding of blood and the killing of anything living, even the slaughtering of a chicken or the ensnaring of a squirrel, as a mortal sin. The Catholic church repeatedly forced its Cathar prisoners to admit that they considered even judicial executions to be sinful, notwithstanding the Bible’s authority to the contrary. But the Church’s Bible was that of retribution whereas the Cathars’, in theory, was that of Christ’s meekness and forgiveness.”

It is odd that a religious group which considered flesh and the material world to be an evil creation to also be so opposed to the killing of flesh and the destruction of our material form. One might expect the opposite, normally.

In 1208 they were condemned to death by Pope Innocent III, and in 1209 Simon de Montfort led a papal army of more than 30,000 soldiers against the region. The killing went on for 35 years, claiming thousands of lives of men, women and children.

The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition, by René Weis

The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329, by René Weis

Most books on the Cathars concern themselves with fleshing out the above, but The Yellow Cross is different — it deals with a later period, from 1290 through 1329, when the last Cathars were rooted out and exterminated. Weis also does not write a conventional history, focusing simply on names and events. Instead, he constructs a geographic history, spending a lot of time describing the actual places in great detail.

He also follows families in particular towns, always pinpointing their locations in space and their locations in extended relationships across Southern France. This was important, because the strong links of blood and family allowed Catharism to survive so long. In this extremely rural area, men and women depended upon each other to a degree that people today could have trouble recognizing. Thus, mapping out major family groups plays as much of a role in this book as does mapping out towns and regions.

If you are looking for a general book about the history of the Cathars, this is probably not for you. If you are interested in delving more deeply into the sorts of people who were involved in such movements and the actual geography where it all took place, there is probably nothing better.

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