Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cathars and Carcassonne

In French class, I studied and then taught Carcassonne as a medieval castle cultural lesson. Its defensive features, the thick walls, the dungeons, the openings for dropping stones fired my imagination with images of knights attacking and soldiers defending the city. In doing this research I discovered the reality behind its features.

Castles on mountain tops overlook river gorges and vineyards in the storybook landscape of southern France. From Toulouse to the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean Sea the fortified cities of Minerve, Carcassonne, Montsegur, Peyrepertuse, and Queribus dot the Languedoc region. The peaceful beauty of rolling hills, forests, and meadows belie the slaughter and terror that took place through 13th century.

Languedoc was home to the Cathars, numbers vary from 20,-40,000 believers with 1000 priests. The Cathars believed in in two gods, an evil God of Darkness (creator of the visible world) and a good God of Light (creator of the spiritual). The human body was evil and should receive as little as possible to sustain it. They called each other Christians and lived normal lives. The priests, both men and women, lived in houses run an elder or prioress and divided their time between preaching and doing regular work. The Cathar Church wealth came from the labor of the priests and the donations of the believers. The church had no civil authority over the population and did not believe in feudal heirarchy. The Cathars promoted feminism and equality for the serfs and the poor. They were vegetarians. They lived at peace with the aristocracy of the area an integral part of the countryside.

History tells the story of disturbance in this fairyland of good will. The Church in Rome saw the Cathar lifestyle as a threat. Equality for women and serfs? Disbelief in hierarchy? The Mass fakery? The Church the instrument of Satan? The clergy corrupt? An inquiry held at the town of Albi labeled the Cathars heretics and is known today as the Albigensian heresy. As a result in 1209 Pope Innocent III called for a new crusade to suppress the Cathars.

Simon de Montfort led the attacks. At Carcassonne, Viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel VI refused to surrender, but he was captured and the city taken. At Beziers, as many as 20,000 may have been massacred. Town after town the stories of terror and death repeated. People were stoned, hanged, starved in dungeons, and burned to death.
As early as 1206, Dominic de Guzman, who later became St. Dominic, began traveling and preaching in Languedoc region. The Lateran Council of 1215 formally recognized Dominic’s followers as a religious order. The Dominicans were known for their skills in teaching and theological debate. They used these trying to counter Cathar views. Despite all efforts and in the face of hardship, the Cathars continued to be a formidable force in the area.

In 1233, the Inquisition was devised for finding and punishing heretics. The Dominicans directed the Inquisition. Anyone could be arrested just on suspicion. Prisoners had no right to legal assistance, and no knowledge of their accuser or of the evidence against them. They were questioned in private and sentenced in public with no right to appeal. The persecution of the Inquisition forced Cathars to convert, to take up arms, or to flee to refuge in other countries or very remote places. One such refuge was a remote hilltop castle at the edge of the Pyrenees, Montsegur. It was besieged in 1241 and again in 1244 when it fell. Another remote stronghold at Queribus was the last to surrender in 1255. The Inquisition continued until the end of the century and the end of the Cathars.

A museum at Montsegur, the restoration of the walled city Carcassonne, and other remnants of castle walls, towers, dungeons, caves, and artifacts remain to memorialize the spiritual fervor of the Cathars. That they fought long and hard for their beliefs is admirable. I long for their hardiness and perseverance in pursuing my goals.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Friends are angels

"Friends are angels who lift us to our feet when our wings have trouble remembering how to fly." Anonymous

I wake giving thanks for another day. I hug my family members, and I review the day's activities at the breakfast table. Wrapped in love and compassion I leave the house with energy and purpose and high spirits. I open the school library door, flip on the lights, start the computers, and greet the first students. With such a positive start, what could go wrong?

On most days, nothing. On others the world turns contrary. The volunteer scheduled for the morning calls to report a sick child will keep her at home. A teacher has not returned a TV to the AV room, and the next user takes out his frustration on the handiest person, me. Two children want to check out the same book and my negotiations end with both in tears. "I'm leaving on the afternoon plane because the business meeting has been moved up a day," says my husband on the phone. My daughter slumps in, dropping her book bag by the door. Her contorted face tells the story. "It's not fair," she says. "They picked all the popular girls. It didn't matter how good the rest of us were." Cheerleading tryouts did not give her the hoped for result.

We struggle silently through supper rearranging the food on our plates. I'm unable to find words to ease her hurt. She retreats to her room while I clear away the meal. The phone rings, and Sheila says, "You sound down. What's wrong?" She listens while I list my woes. The telling lifts the weight. Her voice is soft, empathetic; she reminds me that words won't help my daughter, but a hug will.

She's my friend; she hugs me over the phone. "You're an angel," I say. What is that fluttering I hear as I climb the stairs to my daughter's room?