Esclarmonde de Foix
There are some individuals who stand out like supernovas from the starry background of history. They are remembered for their achievements but also for their contribution to a quality of being that infuses a whole culture and lifts it to a level of vision and development it might not have reached without them.
The twelfth century has given us an abundance of such individuals: Dante, Heloise and Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, Chrétien de Troyes, Francis of Assisi, to name only a few. (1) Esclarmonde de Foix (1155-1240), like Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), is one of the outstanding women of the Middle Ages. (2) She was what Jung would have called an ‘Anima figure’ at the highest level. It is fascinating that their lives to some extent overlapped with each other. Eleanor of Aquitaine would certainly have known about Esclarmonde de Foix and vice-versa although it is doubtful they ever met.
The word Esclarmonde means ‘Light of the World. It may be that her name came from the Visigoth ‘Is Klar Mun’ meaning ‘Moon of Cristal’ that in time became ‘Esclarmonde’. Whatever its origin, it was a strange name to give one’s daughter, and what a strange destiny she had, born into one of the most revolutionary, creative and secret of all centuries. Why was she remembered in the remote part of France where she was born, the part that borders Spain and has a fascinating and largely unknown history? What vision did she incarnate that led to the discovery, seven hundred years later, of the role she played in one of the greatest tragedies of European history; a role that was treasured by the people of the Languedoc, as this region of France was called, and enshrined in stories that were passed from generation to generation until at last they have reached us?
Esclarmonde was one of the leaders of a group of men and women who were called Cathars or Albanenses after the white robes they wore. The word ‘Cathar’ means pure and Albanenses comes from the Latin word ‘alba’ which means ‘white’. They were called Cathars by the Catholic Church but among the people of the Languedoc, they were not called Cathars but simply, Bonnes Hommes and Bonnes Femmes. Among themselves they spoke of each other as friends of God. They were members of a secret church which served the Holy Spirit and the feminine archetype – imaged as the Holy Grail and presided over by Sophia or Divine Wisdom. The mystery of the Grail infuses the Middle Ages with the image of the sacred quest for the lost feminine element hidden within the outer form of Christianity. As the Christian Church became more and more fused with the Roman model of Imperial power and more and more identified with the masculine archetype, the feminine element had to go underground. It survived as an underground movement after the suppression of the Gnostics in the fourth century AD (under the Emperor Theodosius), surfaced in an extraordinary flowering in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in south-western France and northern Spain, was driven underground again through persecution and genocide, and is once more surfacing in our own time as men and women respond to the need for a different understanding of life and of themselves.
Throughout these two thousand years, it has been kept alive by a series of individuals, drawn from different European countries and from a Jewish as well as a Christian background. This underground stream of secret teaching was hidden in the elaborate code of symbols known as Alchemy, as well as in the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, one of whose principal centres was in Girona, in northern Spain. This secret teaching nourished not only those designated as heretics by the Catholic Church but other groups of individuals within the Order of the Knights Templar as well as Jewish and Islamic mystics. It was woven into the symbolic imagery of the Grail legends and was spread all over Europe by the troubadours, many of whom were initiates of the teaching. It is carved into the masonry of the Gothic Cathedrals, every stone of which proclaims it.
The twelfth century has much in common with our own time which demands from us a creative response as great as the challenge of the immense problems confronting us. The twelfth century offers an image of a gigantic cauldron in which men and women, ideas and institutions were thrown together in a process of transformation that must have seemed almost apocalyptic in its intensity. It was the age which saw the surge of devotion which built the great Gothic cathedrals, which sent thousands of men on Crusades to the Holy Land and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streaming along the roads that led to the shrine of Compostella in northern Spain. It saw the founding of the Cistercian Order and the expansion of the Order of the Knights Templar. It witnessed the rise of the universities and the impact of Aristotelian thought on European philosophy and of the works of Plato and other Greek philosophers reaching France from Arabic Spain via translators working in Toledo. It nurtured the Grail legends which at its beginning were virtually unknown, and by its end were so well known that there can have been hardly a soul in Europe who had not heard of them. It was dominated by two images: the image of the Quest and the image of the Divine Feminine as the object of the Quest. ‘Notre Dame’, as she was called by troubadours, Cistercians, Knights Templar and pilgrims, was the focus of adoration. The three hundred or so Cistercian monasteries built in this century were dedicated to her. Many of the Gothic Cathedrals, built in a miraculously short time, were called Notre Dame. Some, like Chartres, were built on Celtic or Pagan sites that had long been sacred to the Earth Mother.
In the twelfth century, the image of woman was transformed for the culture as a whole although it has taken eight hundred years for that transformation to bear fruit in the gradual ascent of woman and the rehabilitation of the feminine principle that is now taking place. But it was followed by a century that witnessed a horrific act of genocide: the destruction of a people, a culture and a religion in the area of the Languedoc which set a fearful precedent for future centuries—of tyranny, slaughter and barbarism that was perpetrated and justified by both Church and State and never acknowledged to be the atrocity it was. A shadow fell over Europe that has not been lifted even now, because we are the unconscious inheritors in the twenty-first century of the intolerance, cruelty and fanaticism of that one.
France was the cultural centre of Europe at this time and the most culturally advanced part of France was precisely the South-West, the Languedoc, where Esclarmonde was born in 1155. She was born in the castle of Foix, a fairy-tale castle perched high above the town, clinging to an enormous rock that looked out onto the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees. Her father, the count of Foix, was a vassal of the count of Toulouse. Her mother was called Zebelia Trencavel, daughter of the count of Carcassonne. We know that she had a brother called Raimon Roger and a sister, that the family was close and devoted and that her parents welcomed both troubadours and Cathar priests to their famous and cultured court.
I think it is helpful to know a little bit about the history that made this region of France so advanced and so fascinating. To go back a long way, it seems that there may have been Egyptian colonies here before there were Greek or Roman ones. The cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, for example, that was established here and, indeed, in other parts of France, may date from this early period. Secondly, there was a highly developed Roman Province in this area. Rennes-Les-Bains near the (now) better known town of Rennes-le-Chateau was a much frequented Spa-town for retiring Romans officials. Thirdly, there were the Visigoths who, moving from East to West through Europe, conquered Rome in the early fifth century and moved on to establish their own kingdom in the area between the Rhone and Garonne rivers as well as in Iberia as Spain was then called. In 418 this area of France was already recognised by Rome as the kingdom of Toulouse. One tiny detail is fascinating: each Visigoth warrior carried a pouch containing tweezers, a comb, scissors and an ear and tooth pick. They may have inspired terror but at least they took care of their personal hygiene! Moreover, many of them became scholars and welcomed other scholars, particularly the Jewish and Moorish ones who had established themselves in Toulouse and other southern towns, like Narbonne and Béziers as well as Girona in Spain. Eventually a Visigoth princess whose ancestors had intermarried with the Jews, married a Frankish king and started the short-lived Merovingian dynasty of French kings. The fourth influence in this area were the Jews who had a particularly strong community in Toulouse and Narbonne and who, in the late eighth century, established an extensive kingdom called Septimania that extended over northern Spain as well as south-western France. Even after the disappearance of this kingdom, Jewish communities in Spain, particularly in the towns of Cordoba, Toledo, Seville and Girona, never lost their links with with those in South-Western France until the time when the Jews (as well as the Moors), at the instigation of the Inquisition, were expelled from that country in the late fifteenth century.
The Arab or Moorish influence was also strongly established in this area, particularly in Toulouse. The fascinating thing about these three different cultures is that they all apparently got on well together. All were viewed as heretical by the Church of Rome. The main point to remember is that the Hermetic philosophy that scholars and mystics of all three cultures embraced derived ultimately from Egypt and may have flourished here before Roman, Visigoth, Jew or Muslim set foot on this land. There were many unsolved mysteries connected with this area, not least the whereabouts of the Visigoth treasure from the sack of Rome which was said to have been hidden here and which was said to include the Emerald Table from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem that had been seized by the Romans when they sacked the city in AD 70.
The Visigoths loved Toulouse and in the sixth century built one of the most beautiful of all churches—the Cathedral of La Daurade, on the site of the temple of the Roman goddess Minerva. They dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, covered it in gold mosaic and gave it a circular form and round dome like the marvellous Haghia Sophia in Constantinople. The magnificent sculptures that decorated it were fortunately preserved when it was dismantled in the eighteenth century and some of them can be seen in the museum in Toulouse. Toulouse had been a university in Roman times and the tradition of learning was continued by the Visigoths who intermarried with the Jewish community and welcomed Jewish scholars to their great city.
By the twelfth century, Toulouse, or Tolosa as it was called then, was the most prestigious city in Europe after Venice and Rome. The counts of Toulouse ruled over a huge area that was not subject to the laws of the kingdom of France. Toulouse made its own laws. Here scholars from three different cultures – Jewish, Muslim and Christian (the Visigoths had converted to the Arian form of Christianity) – met to learn from each other and lived together in harmony and friendship. Here was the centre of a prosperous, thriving economy that drew merchants and traders from all over the Mediterranean; that was so rich that it increasingly aroused the envy of the north, and so spiritually independent that it drew the enmity of the Papacy in Rome. The feudal lords of this region – among them the counts of Toulouse, Foix and Carcassonne – fostered an extraordinary culture where the cult of beauty, philosophy, poetry, courtly manners and the appreciation of woman flourished. Poetry was the sap of life. We have records of over five hundred troubadours who lived and thrived in this culturally fertile atmosphere, who contributed to its creation. They travelled from court to court all over Europe, carrying with them a secret, hermetic knowledge which they embodied in the Grail legends and which they called “La Gaie Science” or “Le Gaie Savoir”. ‘Gay’ or ‘Gau’ in the Provençal dialect meant ‘cock’ and the cock was one of the main symbols of the Hermetic teaching, partly because it announced the coming of the dawn and partly because it recalled the denial of Christ by Peter on the eve of His Crucifixion — Peter who became the founder of the Christian Church.
The historical role of the troubadours was not only to create through their poetry a cultural climate in which a fixed attitude to woman and the Feminine could be transformed, but which could reanimate the idea of the Quest: the Quest for the spiritual as opposed to the material vision. This idea took root in France, England, Germany and Italy. The troubadours were at once theologians, musicians and poets. They had wonderful voices and prodigious memories. The centre where they were trained was a small town called St. Guilhem-le-Desert, not far from Montpelier, which held a relic of the True Cross in its abbey. At the special meetings of their fraternity, held here or in remote woods and valleys, they wore red cloaks embroidered at the shoulder with a white dove. The dove was a primary symbol of the hidden church of the Grail or the Holy Spirit.
Esclarmonde grew up in the midst of this remarkable culture. In her parents’ castle, she would have missed nothing of the visits of these wandering minstrels and also the quiet, black-robed priests who accompanied them, who were called bons hommes and whose teaching spread like wildfire from court to court and village to village in this part of France. It is possible that she was taught by individuals from both groups. Certainly, by the time she was in her teens, she was celebrated in poetry and song for her beauty, her intelligence and learning. As one troubadour wrote: “Love, I sing your praises for you have made me love Esclarmonde, the most beautiful, and by that, I am lifted so high that to die is a privilege, so great is her nobility. My heart is consumed with love for her.”
The image of woman presented through the poetry of the troubadours was in stark contrast to that which was in common usage among the people – whatever their social rank – at that time. The Courts of Love made a huge contribution towards changing this negative image. These were established by Eleanor of Aquitaine (in Poitiers) and her daughter Marie (in Troyes) in different towns in France, but particularly in those of the Languedoc where Eleanor was a daughter of Duke Guillaume of Aquitaine, himself a renowned troubadour. These Courts gave women a social position and a role apart from that of wife or mother. Here women were queens presiding over Courts where philosophy, poetry and literature could flourish; where the relationship between man and woman, and between man, woman and God could be explored in a context that celebrated life and the aspirations of both genders. Husbands who listened to troubadours singing the praises of the beauty and intelligence of their wives began to look at them with new eyes and paid more attention to their own appearance and their manners. The code of values that grew up here is summed up in the words Pretz et Paradge which can be translated as high ideals, the courage to honour and serve them, a gracious presence and impeccable courtesy, particularly towards women, as well as the ability to compose poetry and play an instrument.
Until these Courts appeared to offer a different view of her, woman was presented to society by the Church as a lewd, wicked, treacherous creature, fatally flawed by the sin of Eve, whose destiny was to be ruled by her husband and to serve him in the same way and on a similar contractual basis, as the medieval vassal served his overlord. How different is the image of woman seen through the eyes of the troubadours and indeed, in the Grail legends, where the Feminine Archetype is portrayed as the actual goal of the Quest, as well as the guiding spirit of it. What a contrast there is between woman as a chattel to be disposed of by her husband, or woman as temptress and sinner as presented by the Church, and woman as the inspiration of a renaissance of spiritual devotion and the celebration of art, poetry, beauty and the marvel of life. The troubadours freed sexuality and eroticism from guilt and freed both man and woman to follow a spiritual path without renouncing the body or the enjoyment of life and human relationships.
Tragically, their vision and their culture died with the Papacy’s Crusade against the Albigensian or Cathar heresy which virtually wiped out an entire civilisation and brought to an end the flowering of the Languedoc. It was, however, preserved in their poetry and in the Grail legends, written down at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century by two great poets: Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wolfram set the Grail castle, its knights and its treasure precisely in this area of France where the Grail tradition was already centuries old. Even his hero Parzival resembles the hero-prince of Carcassonne, Raymond (Raimon) Trencavel, who was Esclarmonde’s nephew and who died in the siege of Carcassone. The name of the Keeper of the Castle in Wolfram’s story, Raymond de Perella (Raimon de Péreilhe), is identical to that of the man who defended the Cathar stronghold of Monségur which belonged to Esclarmonde. The coat of arms of the Sabarthez area ruled by the Counts of Foix shows the motto “Custos Summorum”: “Guardians of the Heights.” The device is strange and interesting: a sixteen rayed sun with a winged cup at its centre, surrounded by a crown of thorns and backed by a pair of crossed spears. It is impossible not to connect it with the cup of the Grail.
For the troubadour, a chosen beloved woman such as Esclarmonde herself, was the earthly image of Divine Wisdom or Sophia. His one desire was to serve her. With his poetry and his music, he invoked not only the image of Sophia herself, Holy Spirit and consort of God, but also the wisdom of his own soul – the wisdom of the archetypal feminine within every human being. He strove to awaken his own soul to the hidden wisdom of the feminine, seeing it reflected in a chosen woman whose beauty and gifts seems to incarnate the qualities of Sophia. Sophia was the image of the wisdom of God inherent in the created world, the immanence of divine spirit in all creation. The Gaie Savoir the troubadours taught was the result of years of initiation into the way the soul could be awakened, like the Sleeping Beauty, to knowledge of itself as the hidden but luminous ground of life. The effigy of the Black Madonna was found in churches and cathedrals all over Europe, but particularly in France. In the Cathedral of La Daurade in Toulouse stood the same image of the Dark Lady beloved by so many who called themselves the fidèles d’amour or devotees of love, and served her under the many different images that concealed the secret science of the Church of the Holy Spirit: the star, the rose, the lily and the dove; and the Grail images: the cup, the silver vessel and the stone. As Bernard de Ventadour, one of the greatest troubadours wrote: “Lady, I am yours and will be yours; I have been yours for as long as time. You were my first joy and will remain my joy until the end—so long as my life endures.” This ‘Lady’, it now appears, may have been Mary Magdalene, the consort of Jesus and the apostle who travelled from Palestine to France with their children in 44 AD, rather than the Virgin.
When a troubadour wrote: “Beloved, rise up, for in the East I see the star that heralds the day. Soon dawn will break. Sleep no longer, for I hear the bird singing in the woods and fear you may be taken by surprise”, we can understand that he is speaking to his soul to awake from its sleep. Four centuries later, Shakespeare, the last of the troubadours, was to echo the same theme in Romeo and Juliet. The star that heralded the Day, the same star that guided the wise men to the Holy Child, was the symbol of Sophia herself and also of the secret teaching of the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit that, it was hoped, would usher in a new age where man would serve the principle of love and wisdom that lived unrecognised in his soul. The bird was sometimes a nightingale, sometimes a dove, immemorial symbol of the feminine principle. The dove was one of the primary symbols of the Church of the Holy Spirit and with it I think we can return to Esclarmonde who, after her death, came to be identified with the image of the dove.
The Cathar Church was already well established when Esclarmonde was born in 1155. When she was twelve an event took place that changed the orientation of her life path. This was the visit in 1167, possibly arranged by the Knights Templar, of Nicetas, the Bulgarian bishop of Constantinople who was also Patriarch of the Cathar Church. He appointed three Cathar bishops to organise the growing numbers of converts to the Church of the Paraclete or Holy Spirit: one for the Languedoc, whose capital was Toulouse; one for the rest of France; and one for Lombardy, with its centre on Lake Garda. He consecrated many children of the Cathar nobility to the Holy Spirit at the great synod that was organised to receive him. Esclarmonde and her brother Raymond-Roger – later count of Foix – were two of these children. She decided then, at the age of twelve, that she wished to become a member of this church.
But first, at twenty (1175), there was marriage to a man called Jordan de Jourdain-des-Isles. It lasted twenty-five years until his death. Little is known about Esclarmonde during these years, except that she had six children, three girls and three boys, all of whom survived to be adults and to marry in their turn. She lived in a city called Pamiers, not far from Foix. Her husband was Catholic and it was believed that the marriage was difficult because of their different religious allegiances but her husband respected her beliefs and even defended her against the charge of heresy that was repeatedly made against her. In 1163, a Catholic Council called at Tours, had condemned the Cathar heresy and in 1180 persecution began in earnest in the region around Pamiers. People were killed, their crops burned, their houses sacked. For the first time we hear of Esclarmonde playing an active role when she was about twenty-six years old. She gathered together the homeless people in the territory ruled by her husband — who was away at the time — and led them to the wild region of the Corbières to safety and then returned to her children at Pamiers.
In 1204 her husband died. Esclarmonde was now fifty. Her children were grown up and married. She decided to return to her childhood home at Foix. With her work as wife and mother accomplished, she was able to dedicate herself to the Cathar Church. She was ordained an Ancient (Ancienne) or Parfait (Parfaite) as the Cathar priests and priestesses were called and also as an Archdeaconess—equal in rank to a Bishop. It is interesting that, alone among the Christian sects, the Cathars were the first group since the Gnostics in the third century, to ordain women as bishops, archdeaconesses and priestesses. This may be one reason why the movement was so popular with women and why so many married women, once they had reached middle age, asked their husbands to release them from their marriages, so they could become active members of the Church. The Cathars evidently succeeded in giving women a respected and active social role as teacher, priestess and healer. There were even women surgeons, for the Cathar Ancients were trained in the arts of healing.
We know that Esclarmonde was an expert herbalist as well as an Archdeaconess and that, as a Parfaite she was allowed to administer the supreme Cathar rite of the Consolamentum, given usually at the point of death but also in the ritual where an initiate became an Ancient or Parfait. We know that together with other women, she lived at various periods a semi-hermetic life in the mountains and wooded valleys around Foix, caring for the sick, teaching in special schools established by the Cathars for both children and adults, and administering the Cathar rites.
The training to become an Ancient or Parfait was long and arduous and made more difficult by persecution. First there was a two year period during which they were taught to gather herbs and learn their application to different illnesses, how to store them and to make decoctions of their essential oils. They were taught to observe the stars and the ways of animals and insects: in short, to observe Nature with a trained eye. They learned practical skills: how to weave, how to sow and reap crops, how to build simple houses. They did not eat meat, milk products or eggs but could eat fish. They were celibate once they had embarked on the training for priesthood but before this they married and had children. After the two year apprenticeship, they had to survive a forty day fast on bread and water before being accepted into the second state of preparation during which they were taught the secret lore of plants, metals and stones as well as the sciences of mathematics, astronomy and music – all this in addition to a thorough knowledge of the sacred texts of their church. These are known to have included a text called The Secret Book of John as well as the Gospel of John and another text called “The Book of Love” which was said to have been written by Jesus or Mary Magdalene and given to John and whose existence was revealed to the Inquisitors when they tortured the unfortunate people who fell into their hands. There was also said to have been another equally treasured book called The Secret Supper or La Cêne Secrete. During this initial period of training they wore black or dark blue robes. As the final part of their training, they were prepared as priests and taught how to administer the supreme rite of the Cathar Church that was called the Consolamentum. They administered the rite of Baptism to adults, not to infants, following the ritual they claimed to have been established by Christ’s Apostles. For these ceremonies, they wore white robes.
They travelled round the countryside in pairs, helping people in whatever way they seemed to need it: assisting the peasant with his harvest, the weaver with his cloth, the children with their education, the sick and dying with healing and comfort. They healed by the method of laying on hands. Known as “bons hommes” and “bonnes femmes” they were welcomed by peasant and lord alike because they were gentle and trustworthy and because their presence brought relief from suffering, whether physical or mental. Their aim was to put each man in touch with his own soul, to help him to trust the inner guidance of the Spirit rather than the outer authority of the Catholic Church, but they also taught people to develop new practical skills such as weaving and printing, to read the scriptures and to improve the physical conditions of their lives. This was unheard of in the rest of Europe at that time. They believed in reincarnation and in the soul’s progressive enlightenment after death. They discouraged but did not forbid the procreation of children, believing the world as it was, was a prison for the soul. They rejected the feudal system where authority rested with the Church and the feudal overlord. They rejected war and killing. They rejected the patriarchal system which debased and devalued women and could even raise the question of whether they had a soul. Not surprisingly, they were a powerful threat to the institution of the Papacy. Yet Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian Order, when he was sent by the Pope to preach against the heresy, could find no fault with their way of life.
It seems necessary at this point to say something about the Cathar Church that aroused the bitter enmity of Rome. To understand what it taught, as well as its ceremonies, we have to go back to the Gnostic Church of the early centuries of the Christian era. The Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts that were discovered in Egypt in 1945 but only released to the general public in 1977, have thrown great light on both Gnostic and Cathar beliefs. There is extensive research still to be done to connect the Cathar texts with those of the Nag Hammadi discoveries. I only know of one scholar of Gnosticism, the late professor Gilles Quispel from the University of Utrecht (one of the translators of the Gospel of Thomas) who has done this. In a lecture he gave in London some decades ago that I attended, he said traces of certain Gnostic texts were clearly discernible in Cathar teachings, and he believed the Cathars actually possessed copies of the secret Gospels used by certain of the Gnostics sects. These would have included the books mentioned above. There were several Gnostic communities established in France, notably at Lyons, in the third century AD. There is no reason to suppose that this teaching was completely eradicated with the persecution of the Gnostic sects under the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. The Visigoths in their Pyrenean kingdom offered, from the fifth century, a haven from persecution, being heretics themselves because they had embraced the Arian doctrine rather than the Nicene Creed adopted by the Church of Rome and because their kingdom was, at that time, beyond the reach of both the Emperor and the Papacy. They may well have known about the banned Gnostic texts.
The Gnostics conceived of God in feminine as well as masculine imagery. They did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, nor in His bodily resurrection. They taught that Jesus was a great teacher. They envisaged Christ as the indwelling divine spirit in man, the light shining in darkness: “the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9) “There is a light within a man of light and it lights up the whole world. If it does not shine, he is in darkness.” They had a book called the Liber de Duobus Principiis (Book of Two Principles) which explained that there was a Principle of Darkness, called the Demiurge, which controlled the world, infiltrating and contaminating the concept of God and all established institutions, including the Christian Church. They believed the world and human consciousness were ruled or controlled by this Principle but that their Church taught the way for men and women to free themselves from it and to awaken to the divine light present within their souls. They claimed their teaching was descended from the Apostles and the early Church, before it became a powerful institution in the fourth century during the reign of the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius. All members, male and female, of the Gnostic church were equal and drew lots to take on the temporary role of bishop, priest or prophet. They taught the need for progressive gnosis or insight into the inner kingdom of the soul, saying that “Whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time achieved knowledge about the depths of all things.”
The image of Sophia as the Holy Spirit is a Gnostic idea but it goes back to certain texts in the Old Testament (The Books of Proverbs and Ben Sirah). The worship of a divine feminine being may also be traced to the worship of the Goddess Isis whose cult had spread all over the Mediterranean before the advent of Christianity. The Gnostics prayed to the Divine Mother as the “mystical, eternal Silence”, as “Grace, She who is before all things” and as “The Invisible within the All” and as incorruptible Wisdom, or Gnosis. (3) Sophia (Divine Wisdom) and her messenger, the dove, became the symbolic images of the hidden Gnostic Church, the Church of the Paraclete or Holy Spirit that had to go underground in the third century in order to escape persecution by the orthodox Christians. The leaders of the orthodox Christians deplored the individualistic approach of these teachings, the emphasis on the Divine Feminine and the freedom of Gnostic women to preach and heal on the basis of absolute equality with men. By the year 200, As Elaine Pagels writes in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, “virtually all the feminine imagery of God had disappeared from orthodox Christian tradition and every one of the secret texts which Gnostic groups revered was omitted from the canonical collection, and branded as heretical by those who called themselves orthodox Christians.” Tertullian, a Christian writer of the third century commented on the Gnostic women: “These heretical women, how audacious they are! They are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures and, it may be, even to baptise!” So women, like the Gnostic texts, were silenced.
I have gone into the Gnostics at some length in order to give some idea of the roots of the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit which became established in the area north of the Pyrenees known as the Languedoc. Like the Gnostics, the Cathars took the dove as the symbol of their teaching – image of the ancient Gnostic church of the Holy Spirit thought to have been derived from the actual teaching of John, the disciple they (the Gnostics) believed to be closest to Jesus. John, they believed, had been given a secret teaching which Jesus had not been able to transmit to the other disciples. It is interesting that etymologically, the word ‘John’ means ‘carrier of the dove’. This teaching was carried in their Secret Book of John and possibly in another book which may have been in circulation at this time and which was believed to have been written by Mary Magdalene and called The Gospel of the Beloved Companion. (4)
The Cathars, like the Gnostics, believed that Christ personified the divine spirit in man and that men and women could redeem themselves from the sleep of ignorance where the principle of darkness ruled their soul. As long as they were unaware of the inner dimension of their soul, they would be unable to discover the secret treasure of the spirit or light principle that was hidden within it. If sought with the devotion of the lover for his beloved, this inner light would deliver the seeker from a state of imprisonment to the experience of eternal life while still living in a physical body. This, the Cathars taught, was the real meaning of the resurrection, an experience of awakening to the light of wisdom within. Their essential message was: Follow the star of the Holy Spirit, the star that guided the wise men. Transform your understanding. Recognise that you are a son or daughter of God. Free yourself from the principle of darkness by recognising where you are enslaved by the debased values that govern the darkened consciousness of man rather than those that belong to the invisible world of the spirit. For the Cathars, like the Gnostics and the Bulgars of Bulgaria – whose teaching was believed to have derived from the teaching of one of the Apostles – and Pelagius (in the fourth century), the world was imperfect because of human ignorance, not because of original sin. God needed man’s help to redeem it by redeeming himself. The reward of the quest for enlightenment was the experience of gnosis, or insight into the mystery of his own nature and of Nature as a whole, and of the Hermetic axiom: “As Above, so Below”. They believed in reincarnation, were celibate once they had become members of the priesthood and spoke of their Church as “The Cup that gives out manna” and as “The Precious Stone”. It is impossible not to connect these images with the Grail and indeed, the Grail Legends were a cover for the secret teaching that was carried all over Europe by the Troubadours and the Grail itself was a "cover" for the Church of the Holy Spirit
For a long time, all that could be discovered about the Cathars was drawn from the documents left by the Inquisition which was officially established in the Languedoc in 1233 by the Dominican Order. These confessions, like those of the Knights Templar who were destroyed as an Order in France in the early fourteenth century, were wrung from people by horrific torture and the terror of being burned at the stake. They give an image of Cathar beliefs which is very much at variance with the image of them I have drawn above. They showed no fear of death, believing as they did in the soul’s immortality and ultimate redemption, but would they have served life as they did if they had believed it to be irredeemably evil? Perhaps they simply saw, as we do today, the terrible suffering that is created by man's inhumanity to man and ascribed it to the world being under the control of an evil principle reflected in the institutions of church and state which caused such suffering. I think their vision and their dedication is best expressed in these words: “We lead a life hard and wandering. We fly from town to town like sheep among wolves. We suffer persecution like the Apostles and Martyrs, yet our life is holy and austere. These things are not difficult, for we are no longer of this world.”
The Papacy in the early years of the thirteenth century felt itself increasingly threatened by the Cathar heresy. In 1204, Pope Innocent 111 sent a brutal Cistercian legate called Pierre de Castelnau to combat the heresy. At the same time, Esclarmonde, foreseeing a time when a refuge might be needed by her people, started to rebuild the ancient and remote fortress at Montségur, which belonged to her and had previously been a Roman, then a Visigoth citadel. With a sense of great urgency and with the help of a brilliant architect who was familiar with the secret astronomical teaching of the Cathars, it was rebuilt in the short space of five years, with a defence system of three concentric walls and a huge bastion. It was thought to be impregnable and was built not only as a fortress but also as the stronghold of the Cathar Church and also, perhaps as a solar temple. Emissaries travelled to it from all over the Mediterranean and were received by Esclarmonde.
Meanwhile, a conference was held at Pamiers between Catholics and Cathars to discuss the heresy in as amicable a spirit as possible. A Spanish priest, Dominic de Guzmán, soon to be appointed by the Pope to set up the organisation of the Inquisition in this area, was present. He was later created St. Dominic (1234) and became head of the Dominican Order. Esclarmonde spoke often, sometimes on matters of theology, sometimes on the subject of women having the right to be heard, at least in a local conference. This was fiercely resisted by the Cistercian Order whose spokesman said to her in words that have come down to us from nearly eight hundred years ago: “Woman, return to your distaff and don’t meddle with affairs that don’t concern you.” What a boor she must have thought him, unused as women had been for a generation at least, to be spoken to in that way.
As persecution increased, the Cathars began to go underground, into the vast subterranean caves of the region that had been inhabited by Magdalenian man, some 20,000 years earlier. Their known underground temples or churches were at Lombrives, Ornolac and Ussat. In one of them, red crosses, a lance, a platter and a Grail cup emblazoned in a sun and surrounded by a black crown have been found, which recalls the heraldic shield of the Sabarthez. At Ussat, the cross of the Grand Master of the Templars is inscribed on the walls. In these secret caves, the Cathar novices were trained and rituals celebrated among small groups of people. The relationship between the Cathars and the Templars has not been sufficiently researched but it is known that many Cathars were given sanctuary by the Templars and also that some Cathars were disguised as troubadours. Both Templars and Cathars came from the same families in that region.
In 1207, Pope Innocent 111 ordered the King of France to invade the territories of the heretics and initiated the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars which was to offically last until 1229 although persecution continued until 1255. Esclarmonde withdrew to Montségur with the principal Cathar clergy, among them the Cathar Bishop appointed by Nicetas on his visit from Constantinople in 1167. She was followed there by a mass of people, fleeing in terror from the northern barbarians. In 1208, the Papal envoy, the hated and feared Pierre de Castelnau, was assassinated and the Count of Toulouse held responsible by the Pope, and tried and condemned. The Crusade instigated by the Pope was now under way and in 1209 it broke like a tsunami upon the poorly defended territory of the Languedoc. 20,000 knights, leading a rabble of 200,000 so-called pilgrims in search of plunder invaded south-western France. The war began which was to last forty-five years and to leave the Languedoc in ruins, both economically and culturally, with over a million people murdered by fire and sword. Those who took part in it were offered remission for their sins and assured a place in heaven, as well as any booty they could lay their hands on. The first town they attacked in 2009 was Béziers and the pattern was set for the remaining years. The townspeople resisted and 15,000 were slaughtered, many in the cathedral where they had taken refuge. When the Crusaders asked the papal legate how they were to distinguish heretics from Catholics, he replied with the famous words: “Kill them all. God will recognise his own.”
Simon de Montfort was the commander-in-chief of the Crusade and, sincerely believing, like so many others, that God would welcome the death of the heretics, spared no-one in the execution of the Papal brief. In 1211, he led the destruction of the town of Lavaur where he personally saw to the death by burning of 400 Cathars. In 1214 the castle of Foix and the cities and lands of Toulouse and Carcassonne, were given to him by the Pope. The most beautiful castles and towns of the Languedoc now lay in ruins; their populations murdered or dispersed; the countryside around them ravaged by marauding soldiers. A surviving fragment of a manuscript says it all: “In these calamitous times of cruel anguish, he who resisted was considered an enemy of God; he who defended his lands and goods, an enemy of the true religion; he who fled before the enemy was regarded as a rebel and guilty. They massacred all those who wished to protect innocents from the hands of Inquisitors and executioners.” (Does this remind you of the barbarities of Islamic State, whose title, ISIS, is so unfortunately related to the name of the great Goddess of Egypt?)
In 1240 Esclarmonde died at the great age of eighty-five. It says a lot for the Cathar way of life that so many of them lived to a great age — those, that is, who escaped the sword and the stake. No trace of her body has ever been found but it was believed that she was buried in a cave beneath Montségur or possibly in one of the caves of the Sabarthez where there was another castle – Monréal – also associated with the Grail. She was without doubt the inspiration of the Cathar Church and the heart of its resistance. She has been immortalised in the memory of the people of the Ariège – where the ruins of the castle of Monségur still exist – as the same dove that was the symbol of the Church of the Holy Spirit.
The siege of Monségur began in 1243, three years after her death. The fortress was surrounded by an army of 10,000 men. In the castle were 500 Cathars, many of them Parfaits, together with their Bishop. In March 1244, the castle surrendered but asked for two weeks before complying with the terms of the besiegers. There is much conjecture as to why these two weeks were needed. Was it in order to comply with an astronomically significant date? Was it in order to give the defenders more time to arrange for the transfer to safe hands of the remaining and obviously important treasure – perhaps the sacred texts of their Church or the mythical cup of the Last Supper of which they were said to be the guardians? Who can say? On March 16th, two days after the spring equinox in that year, 225 individuals of the 450 remaining in the fortress chose to die rather than to give up their faith and be pardoned. Among these were the sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter of Esclarmonde, who had the same name as her grandmother. Watched in anguish by the remainder in the garrison, they were chained together, dragged singing down the steep slope, penned into a huge stockade and burned alive. It was recorded that, to the amazement of the soldiers and priests who presided over this horrific event, not a single scream or cry was heard from anyone who died in that stockade, not even from one of the children. That same night, four men who had been hidden in a cave while this was taking place, were lowered on ropes on the far side of the fortress, taking with them the precious treasure. They made their escape to a neighbouring mountain and there lit a fire to signal that their mission had been safely accomplished.
After the siege of Montségur, the Inquisiton redoubled its efforts to hunt down the remaining Cathars who had taken refuge in the remote caves and castles of the Languedoc. One of the last and most remote castles to be attacked in 1255 was Quéribus whose entire garrison and sheltering population, were massacred. Early in the fourteenth century, not long after the members of the Knights Templar were arrested in a minutely planned military operation all over France, Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templars, was burnt to death in Paris. At the same time the remaining known Cathars were walled up in the cave of Lombrives and left to die.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this terrible story is that the Cathar Church did not vanish completely. It lived on, of all places, in the printing trade where, from 1282 and for the next three centuries, there appeared in the books printed in the Languedoc and also in the Auvergne region, an extraordinary coded system of watermarks: a secret language whereby members of the Church of the Holy Spirit could stay in touch with each other and keep their faith alive for the day when it could emerge without fear of persecution. (5) The Cathars themselves spoke of the day, far in the future, when “the laurel would be green again.”
On that day, the guardians of the Grail could rejoice. A new age would dawn, heralded by the symbol of the dove: emblem of Esclarmonde, Cathar, Troubadour and Templar Knight, who served the Church of the Holy Spirit and Sophia, image of the Divine Wisdom hidden within Nature and the human soul.
1. St. Francis (1181-1226) who was known as “God’s Troubadour”, had a French mother who was born in Provence and an Italian father who frequently travelled there as a trader in cloth. It is certain that St. Francis knew about the Cathars and the Troubadours through either of them or through the troubadours he encountered as a young man in Assisi or while he was a prisoner for a year in Perugia. His ascetic way of life, his deep respect for nature and his devotion to the poor reflect absolutely the Cathar way of life. The present Pope Francis has taken St. Francis as his mentor and has re-animated the enlightened essentials of his teaching in his Encyclical of May 2015.
2. Eleanor of Aquitaine was married first, to Louis V11, the king of France and secondly, after a divorce from him was granted by the Pope, to Henry 11 of England, who imprisoned her for 18 years in the castle of Waverley, in Surrey. One of her daughters by Henry 11, Joanne, was married to Count Raymond of Toulouse. Eleanor lived to be well into her eighties and was still formidable at that great age, still travelling from England to her lands in Aquitaine.
3. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
4. The Gospel of the Beloved Companion: The Complete Gospel of Mary Magdalene, has been translated with a commentary by Jehanne de Quillan and published by Editions Athara, Foix. It is believed to have been brought from Alexandria to the Languedoc in the early to middle part of the first century and to have been translated into Occitan, the language of the Languedoc, in the early part of the twelfth century. Since then it has been closely guarded and passed from hand to hand, generation to generation until the present time. It gives the passages that are missing from the Gospel of Mary that is familiar to us.
5. Harold Bayley, The Lost Language of Symbolism and New Light on the Renaissance
As I reworked this article in September 2015, I realised that the alchemists were entirely familiar with the teaching of the Church of the Holy Spirit and must somehow, possibly through the Rosicrucians, have absorbed its basic tenets and developed them in later centuries.
There is a wonderful Cathar Hymn, Song or Chant, posted on YouTube, together with other videos on the Cathars.
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OecY9I_oPv8 The Hymn is deeply moving and trance-like, evoking the spirit of the Cathars and perhaps even the hymn sung by the Cathars of Montségur as they left their physical bodies and took the pathway to the stars. I have put English words to the tune of the song as I was so moved by the power of the music that I wanted to give it a modern expression in tune with the needs of our time.
New Hymn of the Cathars
Music by Hans-André Stamm; Words by Anne Baring
Come sing with me a song of love.
A song of love; a song of joy.
Come sing with me the sound of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me this song of love.
Open your heart to love, to joy.
Open your heart to love, to joy.
Come sing with me the sound of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me your song of love.
The stars are calling. Hear their voice.
The stars are calling. Hear their voice.
Come sing with me their song of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me their song of love.
The Earth is calling. Hear her voice.
The Earth is calling. Hear her voice.
Come sing with me her song of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me her song of love.
Earth is crying. Hear her voice.
Oh do not kill. Do not destroy.
Come sing with me the song of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me your song of love.
People are dying. Hear their cry.
End this hatred. End this grief.
Come sing with me the song of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me your song of love.
We are One Life. We are One Love.
The stars are calling. Hear their voice.
Come sing with me their song of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me their song of love.
Then tread the path to Paradise
Then tread the path to Paradise.
And sing with me the song of A-E-I-O-U
Sing with me the song of love.