Cathars, Latin, Cathari, or possibly cattus, cat, a common association for witches and heretics; Greek, katharoi, «pure ones»; were Christian dualists in Western Europe which during the 13th and 14th centuries seriously threatened the Catholic Church especially in Southern France and Northern Italy. Although the origins of the sect seem obscure, its doctrines were influenced by the Bogomils of Bulgaria. There is a possibility that its dualism was a separate development or came from inheritance. The Catholic Church also feared the Cathars possessed kowledge of the bloodlines of Jesus which was not in agreement with the orthodox teaching of the crucifixion. The Cathars believed Mary Magdalene was the Grail Mother.

Members of the Cathars’ inner circle were perfects who led a life of strict asceticism and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Admission to the circle was through the rite of consolamentum, an initiation service observed especially among the Albigenses, on their deathbeds. If their illness was not fatal, and they showed signs of recovery, then starvation or poison was administered to prevent the person from committing further frequent transgressions. Those so «consoled» saw themselves as the only true Christians and denied this title to other Catholics.

Apparently the Cathars were a peaceful people. They believed in equality of the sexes, which enraged the male-dominated church. Their society included charity, initiating a welfare system that cared for the poor elderly, and sick as well as establishing schools and hospitals. They practiced birth control which brought all sorts of accusations down upon them.

An anthropological study conducted by E. Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou (1975; Eng 1978) described in some detail the lives of Cathars in a small southern French village; and other recent surveys also raised questions as to just how far these religious factors were entrenched in local social and political conditions (e. g., the independence of local nobles); and did such factors influences the growth of the Catharism.

The decline of Catharism in the 14th century appears to have been contributed to the following factors: rivalry between the moderate and more radical dualism factions; repression by the Inquisition; and the attractive devotion practiced by Catholics of honoring St. Francis exhibited by the Franciscans. A.G.H.


Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 198-199
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