Southern France’s Bloody Past: Six Lessons from a Forgotten Crusade


For many, the south of France immediately conjures up images of crisp blue skies, gently swaying lavender fields, and picturesque village markets. Immortalized by figures such as Marcel Pagnol, Jean Giono, and Lawrence Durrell — and more recently by the writings of Peter Mayle and Julia Child — the region continues to be viewed as something of a post-modern Arcadia by the hordes of sunburnt tourists that descend every summer upon its beaches, olive groves, and mountains. Having had the good fortune to grow up in that part of the world, I am not one to disagree.

Yet the paradise that is southern France today belies the extreme brutality of its past. For three and a half decades in the early 13th century, the sun-kissed landscapes of Cezanne were set aflame by one of the bloodiest religious wars of the Medieval Era: the Cathar or Albigensian Crusade. The conflict spanned two generations of combatants and resulted in what some have estimated to be tens of thousands of deaths, shocking even contemporary observers by its sheer brutality. It was fought in a land then known as Occitania, a vast swathe of territory which spreads from the borders of today’s Aquitaine to the Pyrenees and the southern Rhone Valley. By its end, the kingdom of France had more than tripled its territory and an ancient religion had been extinguished. The Cathar Crusades also led to the emergence of the Catholic Inquisition as a force to be reckoned with and to important military innovations, such as the invention of the precision stone trebuchet.

The history of this war is filled with larger-than-life characters, such as the colorful Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, Occitania’s most powerful lord. This wily leader and consummate politician had five wives, a string of mistresses, and a natural talent for deceit and dissimulation. Forced to change sides multiple times in the course of the long war, he always kept the interests of the Occitanians in mind. As such, he remained universally loved by his subjects despite his eventual defeat. On the side of the northern crusaders, protagonists such as Simon de Montfort have inspired almost equal measures of admiration and loathing. Combining the zeal of the crusader with the tactical efficiency of Rommel and the brutality of Rachid Dostum, de Montfort was perhaps one of the most effective — and reviled — military commanders of his time.

The Cathar Crusade was not only one of the most consequential wars in the history of Europe, but also one of the most vigorously debated by its contemporaries. Yet despite all of this, it has largely been forgotten. In many ways, the Cathar Crusade has become to the Middle Ages what the Korean War is to the modern era: a massively important conflict that has been surprisingly underexplored.

I hope to help correct this state of affairs by pointing to the lessons that can be drawn from a conflict that in many ways is less esoteric and more relevant in this new era of religious extremism than many may believe.

Conflicts Are Rarely the Result of Only One Factor

In March 1208, Pope Innocent III called for a Crusade against another Christian country, the lands held by Raymond VI. The Vatican argued that the crusade was amply justified: France’s southern territories allegedly crawled with Cathars and other heretics “worse even than the Saracensthat European knights had already been fighting for over a century in the Holy Land. Furthermore, only two months prior, a papal delegate and Cistercian monk, Peter of Castelnau, had been murdered by one of Raymond’s retainers. This act of violence, much like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo centuries later, would provide the catalyst and justification for one of the largest military enterprises of the Middle Ages and a grinding war of attrition that led to a disproportionate number of civilian casualties.

The Cathars practiced an ancient form of Christianity that in many ways predated Catholicism. They were also called the Albigensians because many of them had allegedly first settled near the southern town of Albi. Drawing inspiration from Eastern Manichaeism and the Gnostic tradition, Cathars held radically different views from the Christian mainstream. Abiding by the so-called “doctrine of the two principles,” they believed that the material world was a world of darkness, fashioned by the Devil. Their souls had been temporarily trapped in their frail mortal shells and bound to a universe of cruelty and imperfection. In order to escape an endless cycle of reincarnations, they needed to lead a virtuous life, at the end of which they could hope to break free and reach God’s spiritual realm. In many ways, notes one historian, this resembled the Hindu doctrine of metempsychosis and karma. A more secular, philosophical comparison would be that of Plato’s cave. Within the Cathar community, an elite group of practitioners (dubbed the Perfect or Perfecti) served as religious leaders and ascribed to a particularly ascetic set of beliefs. Procreation was considered the ultimate act of selfishness, as it led to the imprisonment of a soul in the material realm. As a result, the Perfecti purported to practice a policy of strict sexual abstinence as well as veganism, animal products being considered the impure results of procreation. Many were also fervent pacifists, although they soon adapted their beliefs when confronted with the risk of their own extinction.

It is true that Cathars were widespread throughout southern France, as well as in Northern Italy, the Balkans, and Bulgaria. Despite its rigorous tenets, Catharism held great appeal for everyone from wealthy nobles to downtrodden peasants. Preached in the vernacular rather than in Latin, Catharism seemed less elitist and more accessible. While it was critical of the rapaciousness of the Church, it could also prove pragmatic, as evidenced by its tolerance of usury. It was also more egalitarian, allowing women to play a prominent role within the community. Aristocratic southern women were particularly eager to join the ranks of the Perfecti, where they could wield greater influence than they could ever hope to exert elsewhere. Historians have no way of correctly ascertaining exactly what percentage of the population of Occitania was Cathar, but it would seem that the proportion was quite substantial. To a certain extent, notes the medievalist Joseph R. Strayer, the Crusade was less a conflict between an established religion and a minor heretical cult than a struggle between two competing bodies of belief. It was therefore somewhat understandable that the Papacy had begun to view Catharism as a major ideological challenge.

As in all conflicts, however, there were many other drivers. Material, cultural, and religious considerations were all tightly comingled. Historians have noted the extent to which the war was not only one of religion, but also a conflict of culture and conquest. Although southern France was politically fragmented and contained multiple competing centers of power, there is little doubt that it formed a country. Not a country in the sense of a modern state of the Westphalian order, but rather in the form of a natio, with “defined areas sharing common laws, culture, customs, and, crucially, language.” Indeed, the language spoken in the south was Occitan, known more colloquially as the langue d’oc (oc meaning “yes” in Occitan), and differed sharply with the language spoken by the northerners, early French or the langue d’oi. This linguistic break was one of the greatest in the Romance languages and served as a constant reminder to the forces in conflict of the “otherness” of their opponents.

The socioeconomic fabric of southern society was also markedly different from that of the north. The cosmopolitanism of ancient Mediterranean trading cities such as Marseilles had created an environment in which religious and ethnic minorities were more widely encountered, understood, and tolerated. Although southern France was by no means a peaceful Shangri-La, Jewish communities lived in relative peace and harmony with their neighbors, able to practice professions of their choosing and own substantial amounts of land. It is telling that when the northern crusaders besieged southern towns, local lords are sometimes chronicled as striving to protect both their Cathar and Jewish citizens from persecution.

Meridional France was also more Latinized in many ways than the Frankish north, with many continuing to practice Roman law and towns frequently making autonomous decisions by voting through public assembly. Finally, Occitan had emerged as the language of literature and poetry, rivaling Latin as the lingua franca of the European nobility.

The cultural and linguistic distinctness of southern France accentuated its otherness in the eyes of the northern crusaders, who depicted it as a land rife with corruption and a hotbed of heresy ruled by the Provençals — an unruly and vainglorious people. By contrast, the southerners viewed the northerners — invariably referred to as the French even when they came from elsewhere — as an invading force composed of boorish foreigners who cloaked their desires for territorial conquest in the garb of religious piety.

There is no doubt that material considerations weighed heavily on the minds of many northern knights. In addition to the well-known system of indulgences, Crusaders were declared free from debt and trial during the period of the campaign, and many were promised rule over the lands taken from the southerners. For the growing number of nobles that had encountered both military and financial reversals in the distant Middle East, Occitania seemed to provide exciting new opportunities for conquest and riches—as well as a get out of debtors’ prison card.

With no standing army of its own, Rome was forced to outsource its military operations, and its rulers had long understood that the lure of material gain was an essential prerequisite to a successful crusade.

“Kill them all! God will know His own.” Man’s Ability to Justify Atrocity

There is a passage in Primo Levi’s autobiographical account of the Holocaust that stands out perhaps more vividly than any other. About halfway through If This is a Man, Levi recounts the surreal, almost disembodied manner in which a Nazi concentration camp doctor glances at the emaciated detainee. It seemed, writes Levi, that the doctor had looked at him as “through the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds.” This constitutes perhaps one of the more eloquent descriptions of the process of dehumanization via which an aggressor can feel encouraged to commit the worst atrocities without fear of shame or remorse. Mass atrocities, however, are not always the result of the same kind of cold, clinical detachment as that of Levi’s Dr. Pannwitz. In many cases, notes one long-time observer of such events,

genocides and massacres … share in anthropological terms a transgressive violence: the enjoyment of violence, including killing and the anticipation of killing, and the threat of violence itself. The perpetrators enjoy the acts of violence to a degree that can be called orgiastic, and together, in the acts of killing … form a temporary community.

The Cathar Crusades were tainted from the very beginning by such acts of “orgiastic “collective violence, many of which provoked a high degree of condemnation and revulsion at the time, even among northerners. One such instance was the massacre of the entire southern town of Beziers in the early stages of the war, during which it was estimated that up to 20,000 civilians were put to the sword in only a few hours. Another was the bloody capture of the town of Marmande by the armies of Prince Louis of France and the subsequent massacre of its 5,000 to 7,000 burghers. This particular atrocity was described in chilling and gruesome detail in a contemporary chronicle of the crusade:

They hurried into the town, waving sharp swords, and it was now that the massacre and fearful butchery began. Men and women, barons, ladies, babes in arms, were all stripped and despoiled and put to the sword. The ground was littered with blood, brains, fragments of flesh, limbless trunks, hacked-off arms and legs, bodies ripped up or stove in …. [I]t was as if they had rained down from the sky. The whole place ran with blood — streets, fields, river-bank. Neither man nor woman, young or old, survived; not a single person escaped unless they remained in hiding.

When attempting to justify such massacres to an increasingly queasy European audience, Northern proponents of the crusade systematically resorted to both demonization and dehumanization. They claimed that all southerners were heretics in league with dark powers. Peter of Vaux de Cernay, a Cistercian monk and northerner, thus wrote of the doomed inhabitants of Beziers that, “they were all robbers, lawbreakers, adulterers and thieves of the worst kind, brimful of every kind of sin.” When rereading some of the northern accounts of these events, one cannot help but be reminded of some of the equally nauseous rationalizations of atrocity by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in publications such as Dabiq.

This was a time in which theologians debated the nature of a just war (ius ad bellum) in the abstract sense, but only rarely the parameters of just conduct within war itself (ius in bello). In short, once a war had been declared just, few if any rules applied.

The alleged response of a papal legate to an anonymous foot soldier in Beziers has echoed throughout the centuries to become one of the most infamous examples of this era. When queried on how to identify the good town-dwellers from the bad, the Church representative reportedly responded, “Kill them All! God will know his own!” While most medievalists now believe this quote to be apocryphal, it provides a chilling reminder that even by the grim standards of the time, the Cathar Crusades stood out by their sheer savagery.

Protraction Breeds Brutality

Historians have struggled to explain this. Part of it was undoubtedly the result of the extreme psychological conditioning that went hand in hand with incandescent religious fervor. After all, as one of the best-known French experts of the Crusades writes in a typically thoughtful passage, it is all too natural for modern, secular-minded Westerners to underestimate the potency of religiously inspired hatred and to look for alternative explanations for the inexplicable:

The atmosphere in which the war began was one of fierce hatred — so fierce, indeed, that the enemy was not even treated as a human being, but as some noxious animal to be got rid of, useless apart from the spoils he yielded when dead. … Such hatred is not something our imagination can grasp. We are tempted to supply various other explanations for the Crusaders’ behavior-callousness in the common soldiers, the general cruelty of contemporary mores, military ambition among commanders, the fighting man’s natural contempt for the town-dweller (burgher), the well-known antipathy between the Northern French and those of the Midi. All of these factors were certainly involved; but above all there was a mood of white-hot religious enthusiasm, and the wish to wring a General Pardon from God by any possible means.

Beyond the emotive power of religious hatred, other factors can also be drawn upon to better comprehend these explosions of barbarism. Many of the climactic battles of the Crusade took the form of sieges, with the northern hosts assailing the walled cities and strongholds of the southerners. These fortifications were often redoubtable, and many were erected on craggy mountaintops. Some, such as the immense fortress of Carcassonne, remain more or less intact to this day, the most formidable examples of medieval defensive architecture still standing. The very mechanics of siege warfare, suggests one specialist of warfare in the Middle Ages, bred brutality. Sieges would often last several months, as the besieging army attempted to starve out the defenders. As the conflict wore on, both armies would become increasingly afflicted by hunger, desertion, and illness. Scouting parties, if captured, were almost invariably tortured, mutilated, or summarily executed. With the passage of time, the battle would become one of competing wills, with each force resorting to acts of terror and psychological warfare to compel its opponent to withdraw or surrender.

Confronted with the systematic destruction and desecration of their ancestral lands, southern lords became consumed by an all-encompassing hatred and mistrust for anything perceived as northern or French, and they soon proved themselves as ruthless as their aggressors. There are tales of southern knights catapulting the severed hands and feet of their French foes over castle walls and of Catholic monks being hacked to death by angry mobs.

Notwithstanding the occasional siege, conventional battles were relatively rare. Instead, conflict would take the form of hit and run tactics, or “chevauchees of northern knights through southern territory. In the course of these raids, vines would be uprooted, settlements would be razed, and civilians, both burghers and peasants, would be slaughtered or harassed. After Simon de Montfort decided to formally adopt a scorched earth policy, these raids became ever more ubiquitous. These tactics led to widespread economic deprivation and much misery, inevitably fueling a vicious insurgency against northern occupying forces.

Foreign Armies Have Always Struggled with Counterinsurgency

Despite some astonishing initial successes, de Montfort and his coterie of French knights soon found themselves struggling to preserve control over lands that seethed with resentment despite their formal conquering.

The occasionally harsh winters in some areas of Provence proved particularly difficult during this war. Northern nobles soon began to desert until de Montfort was left with the forces of only his closest retainers and friends. In a missive to the Pope, he laid out the difficulties familiar to all armed coalitions that have tried ruling a foreign land:

The lords who took part in the crusade have left me alone surrounded by the enemies of Jesus Christ who occupy the mountains and hills. I cannot govern this land any longer without your help and that of the faithful. The country has been impoverished by the ravages of war. The heretics have destroyed or abandoned some of their castles, but they have kept others which are stronger and which they intend to defend. I must pay the troops that remain with me at a much higher rate than I would in other wars. I have been able to keep a few soldiers only by doubling their wages.

De Montfort could rarely count on the assistance of the conquered southern nobles, who were particularly adept at feigning cooperation while engaging in obstructionism behind the scenes. Many were closeted Cathars, had family members in the Cathar faith, or simply took pleasure in frustrating northern designs. While many joined the ranks of the rebels, others practiced more passive forms of resistance such as hiding the Cathars under their jurisdiction. One southern knight, when questioned by the bishop of Toulouse over his refusal to hand over heretics, responded in these refreshingly humane terms,

We cannot. We were brought up with them, there are many of our friends and relatives amongst them, and we can see for ourselves that their way of life is a virtuous one.

Eventually these tensions boiled over, and the canny Raymond de Toulouse decided to seize his moment and declare what the locals soon termed the war of liberation. In the course of this second phase of the conflict, de Montfort was killed after nine disastrous months of siege against Toulouse. Legend has it that the trebuchet shot that took off his head was fired by “women and young girls” whose fathers and husbands had already died in combat.

Following the death of the Papacy’s prime military representative, the French Crown took it upon itself to intervene with overwhelming force. This second campaign, which lasted almost thirty years and reached almost unparalleled levels of violence, finally broke the spine of southern resistance and resulted in the absorption of Occitania into the Kingdom of France. It was also during this period that the Dominican Order and the Inquisition succeeded in systematically destroying the remnants of the Cathar faith through a policy of terror and anonymous denunciations. While reading about these times, during which neighbors often hastened to accuse each other for fear of being themselves sent to the stake, one cannot help but be reminded of other dark chapters in human history and of the many moral compromises that some find themselves making while living under totalitarian rule.

Hybrid and Conventional Warfare Have Long Co-Existed

It has become fashionable to depict hybrid warfare as something of a novelty. In the collective imagination, medieval warfare is often associated with large set-piece battles or sieges involving elite corps of armored knights engaging in stylized hand-to-hand combat. As mentioned earlier, however, the strategies embraced were more often strategies of harassment or progressive attrition. Moreover, hybrid or unconventional forces in the form of mercenaries and militias often provided the majority of the combatants. This was especially true during the Cathar Crusade, when northern commanders frequently relied on mercenaries in order to offset their occasional numerical inferiority. Mercenaries were thought to be more ruthless and thus less inclined to hesitate when ordered to commit massacres. Some mercenaries provided specialized troops, such as the Basque mountaineers that proved invaluable when storming southern positions in unfamiliar, topographically challenging terrain. Finally, both the Catholic Church and the southern resistance covertly armed and abetted violent militias. One such movement, the so-called White Brotherhood, was composed of Catholic extremists who wore a white cross sewn on their chest and committed acts of violence against Cathars, Jews, and more or less any vulnerable minority. Its actions and organization present certain eerie similarities with those of more modern organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. As a response to these predations, beleaguered communities formed a militia of their own, the Black Brotherhood, which regularly battled the White Brotherhood in the cobbled streets of Toulouse and Narbonne.

History Rewards the Victors, Not the Righteous

Perhaps the most sobering lesson to be derived from the Cathar Crusade is that sometimes the bad guys do win, and that their victories can have a terrible definitiveness to them. The spectacular ruins that dot the hills and mountains of southern France provide a permanent visual reminder of this.

Much has been written about the unfortunate tendency, whether under this particular U.S. administration or others, to justify inactivity by invoking some misplaced sense of historical determinism. If the wars of 13th-century Occitania prove anything, it is that the arc of history does not always “bend towards justice.” As the Middle East continues to be wracked by violence and turmoil and ancient religious minorities are subjected to large-scale ethnic cleansing, this is something to keep in mind.


Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman

For those curious to know more: The ruins of Cathar castles, often located in dramatically beautiful parts of France, provide some excellent opportunities for historical sightseeing. And this being War on the Rocks, here is a good guide to the region’s local wines.

NOTE: This piece has been updated to change references to Provence to the more general “southern France” to reflect differences in how regional names have historically been applied in the country and avoid confusion.