Montségur, The Last Stronghold Of The Cathars
It was said that it could never be taken, and in truth it almost never was. It was a stronghold, the shining star of the Cathars, a refuge, a village, and the site of multiple legends that create intrigue and drama to this site, even today.
Some things we know for certain. That over 600 people once lived in this place, and that a tremendous siege was held here in1243-44, a tragedy that ultimately led to the demise of Cathars, their final sacrifice the burning alive of over 200 believers at the base of the hill. A bloody and brutal event.
But some things we don’t know. Rumors that the Holy Grail, the cup that received the blood of Christ from his crucifixion on Mount Golgotha was in the stronghold, and perhaps smuggled out? Or perhaps some other great treasure which was hidden nearby (it’s said 4 perfecti survived by escaping through a secret route to reclaim it)? Whispers that this was a refuge of the Templars? And questions why, every solstice, the light shines with such mathematical precision through the axes of the castle?
Oh, what stories these stone walls could tell…..
All of this races through our minds as we stand in the ruins of the castle that was built on the fortress grounds, perched almost incomprehensively at ~3000 ft (1,207 metres) on the top of a steep, rocky peak. The valley falls sharply to all sides around us, fog lingering in-between and fall colors blanketing the hills in brilliant waves of oranges and reds. The thick stone walls are cold to the touch, and the air is crisp and perfectly silent, our presence the only life here apart from the lizards that slither in and out of the walls to bake in the sun.
Even nature lies in reverence of what happened here.
We are on the Cathar trail, a history that runs deep in this region of France and this is the most important site from that time. It’s quite a monumental place.
The Cathars & Southern France
Cathar history is superbly interesting. The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect that flourished in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The religion came from the East and is based on ancient Gnostic Dualist beliefs that there are two principles in life, the good (the spiritual world) and the evil (the material world). A simple set of ideas really, which meant that Cathar priests (Perfecti) lived frugally and as celibates. They had no possessions, and their whole purpose in life was to renounce the pleasures and enticements of the world so that (through repeated incarnations) they could make their way back to heaven.
They had some fascinatingly progressive ideas too.
They believed that God was both male and female, so there was equality between the sexes, a very unique belief for the times. And they were vegetarians that held the dignity of manual labor in high regard. Basically they worked, lived and shared possessions with each other and those around them, eating what the land provided. They often lived in groups with sympathizers, people who were not Cathar, but aided & supported them. Their inclusive approach gained strong support with the peasantry in both Italy and Southern France.
All of this would seem rather benign from our modern point of view, except the Cathars were not friends of the Catholic Church. They strongly criticized the Church as it stood at the time, especially the greed and lechery of its clergy, as well as their drive to acquire land and wealth. And they rejected most of the books of the bible. In those times, those were serious concerns.
So in 1209 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against Southern France, to purge the heretics. Thus started the 20-year Albigensian Crusade, followed not long after by the Inquisition, massacres of epic proportions that crushed the Cathars and are thought to have killed up to a million people. A significant portion of the southern French population perished during that time.
For the Cathars, the siege of Montségur was one of the last, great strongholds and battles of the era.
The Cathar Trail in Languedoc
Between our house and Mediterranean coast lies the Languedoc area of France.
It’s a wonderful wine region, that spreads from the foot of Pyrénées to the sea, and it’s also the heart of old Cathar country. This is where the religion once flourished, but it’s also where much of it was lost. Many of the original strongholds or walled cities of the time are gone, the sites replaced by “modern” castles built by the lords to which the lands were given after the Cathars were disposed.
In some spots such as Carcasonne and Foix, parts of the fortress still date from Cathar times, but for most of the others everything is gone. Even Montségur itself, or rather the ruins that you see today, are from the castle built in the three centuries after the fall of the Cathars.
Still, the allure of the Cathars is powerful, so much so that throughout the region you’ll see references and signs to Cathar castles. And for those motivated to walk it all by foot, a 250km trail (GR 367 – Le sentier cathare) runs from Port-La-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean coast to the historic town of Foix, crossing rugged terrain and no less than 15 significant sites. It’s quite the monumental trek.
Or, if you’re lazy like us you can just drive it….
We’ve traveled parts of the trail in LMB, and it’s a spectacular route with few tourists and gorgeous views. Very worth doing.
The Trail To Montségur
Montségur specifically, is only about an hour from our house. It’s a wonderful little drive to the base of the Pyrénées and then into a valley which winds beautifully up the foothills to the site. As with most French places, it’s 100% dog-friendly, and you can park your motorhome at the base for free, if you so wish. The site is open most days and costs a mere EUR 5.50 to visit (details HERE). Plus the nearby village has dining, lodging and a museum too.
We chose Monday morning for the trek, and decided all three of us would attempt the climb. It’s a good 40 min walk, steep and rocky so a smidgen too much for Polly (she stayed at home this one time), and a push for dad (I was darn impressed he did it), but with gorgeous views and WELL worth the exertion to see. Plus we landed a sunny, crisp day with a dusting of snow on the mountains. Pretty much hiking perfection.
We took our time going up, pausing at the turns and admiring the fall colors. And once we got there we found ourselves wonderfully alone, the entire castle just for us.
It’s a strange feeling being on the rocky clifftop, thinking about the massive siege of 10,000 troops that surrounded the few hundred people here in the 13th century. The long months that they survived, isolated and bombarded by trebuchets (catapults), and the 202-225 or so that were burned alive at the base of the pog (peak) after surrender, for not renouncing their faith. The walls are different now (the ruins that stand today are from the the Castle that was built afterwards), but terraced dwellings from the Cathars are still visible (on the north-eastern flank, outside the walls) and the weight of that time still lingers in the ground.
It was our outing for the week and a fine one at that, delving us deep into some fundamental history of the area. We have many more Cathar sites to explore, and much more to learn, but as a start this was a tremendous one. What a history we have right next door, and how lucky we are to be able to see it. Profound experiences that we can carry with us as we go through these crazy 2020 times.
A historical blog this week my friends, just for a change, and I hope you enjoyed it. Did you know about the Cathars? Or perhaps you’ve traveled some of this route yourselves. DO share in the comments below!
All alone inside the ruins of Montsegur…what an experience!SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Terri Ann Reed says
Yes indeed, you guys are so LUCKY to be near this historical gem! I’ve been reading several books about the European battles, mostly religious/cultural ones, and the Pope, the rulers, the Templars, and numerous castles that were re-built over and over again to compliment the “new” religious powers-to-be, etc. and it’s all pretty amazing because we cannot fathom the manual labor to rebuild these magnificent structures, the cruelty of the times, the bloodshed, and violence. Seas turned red! Just walking on that trail would be mind-boggling to me. So thank you for giving me/us a little awe in our COVID-lives 🙂
It really is mind-boggling to think about those times. At points in history, it was too dangerous for locals to walk from one town to the next, or even outside the walls of their village enclosure. It’s hard in our modern times to look back and imagine what life was like then. In comparison, we all have it easy.
“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” is a phrase reportedly spoken by the commander of the Albigensian Crusade, prior to the massacre at Béziers on 22 July 1209. A direct translation of the Latin phrase is “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” The Catholic leaders of the seige of Beziers could not figure out how to tell the Catholics from the Cathars who were still inside the bastide.
Thanks for another wonderful post.
The above is just another reason why not to.
WOW…I hadn’t read that quote, so thanks for that. What a bloody time in history that was, all for the sake of religion. The Albigensian Crusade was just terrible, and the history of it lingers to this day. We haven’t been to visit Béziers so far, but it’s on the list. I want to go learn, and see all this for myself.
Leean Craven says
I always love reading all your posts, but this one was especially interesting, someday I hope to go to France and explore, thank you for giving me a beautiful glimpse of what lies ahead. Leean
Hope you get here some day. France is a country with such rich history and beauty.
I didn’t know the history of the Cathars. The story combined with the pictures was quite an armchair travel experience! Thanks. Those experiences are why we travel, no?
Exactly, this is why we travel. To learn about the world around us, learn its history, absorb its beauty.
Dan Scott says
I hadn’t even heard of the Cathars. Thanks for a fascinating look at history.
Kim Laughon says
Thank you for the fascinating historical post and the wonderful photos. I had heard vaguely of the Cathars but definitely not this detail.
My dad actually introduced me to this history, as he became quite fascinated with it a few years back and drove around the region to visit many of the major sites. It’s been an interest of mine ever since.
Koos de Heer says
I knew about the Cathars, but still learned a few new things today. Thanks for this great story! I have seen a few of the sites with my Dad many years ago but would love to go again.
I would love to see all the sites in our area. I think we need to plan a little week or two trip to do it.
Charlene Malone says
A lovely sauntering with you through this fascinating history and location. The perfect escape from our shutdown & temps in the teens here in Hailey, Idaho as CV19 surges again! Thanks for your delightfully detailed post!!
I had not heard of the Cathars – so thank you for your report. The wars fought over religion are amazing to me. Believe in my deity or else! You are so fortunate (as a result of superior planning) to be where you are with such beautiful places to visit during this horrible year.
The old religious wars are indeed terrible to think about. And today, wars over deities are still occurring in some parts of the world. We must hope that humanity can move on from this, in the generations that come.
Enjoy all of your posts, but found this little Cathars history lesson so very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to share it with us.
Pat Hall says
Thank you for a most interesting post! I’ve followed your travels for a few years now and while l always enjoy the stories- your history lessons are the best❤️
Pamela Wright says
Thanks os much for the historical tour. European history isn’t John’s thing so, therefore, I have no knowledge of it either. What a great day to be out enjoying the fall colors and the history you have next door.
Lee and Shelia Brandt says
Oh what beautiful writing. Thanks you so much. I sent a link to my son who is in the Air Force I hope you don’t mind. He will have his 20yrs in 2023 and is currently stationed in Florida He LOVES to read and history and region is his passion. This type of writing will be perfect for him.
Bless You and Paul and of course your Dad last but not least Polly…..
Yes, PLEASE do share. It’s lovely to know that my little stories are being read 🙂
Denise Johnson Isaacs says
Your wonderful writings take us away from the anxieties of everyday life at this point . . .your pictures are beautiful and your writings inspirational. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with all of us . . you have a gift.
So glad I can take you away for a little trip, even if just virtually. We all need these distractions, especially this year.
Both the photos and the prose were lovely, and a fascinating history lesson to boot. What’s not to love?
Neil Laubenthal says
Actually the Holy Grail was the cup used at the Last Supper.
Well it’s actually thought to be both. The cup used at the Last Supper is often referred to as the Holy Chalice. But also, the Holy Grail is mentioned in the late 12th century by Robert de Boron who wrote in Joseph d’Arimathie that the Grail was Jesus’s vessel from the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimathea then used to catch Christ’s blood at the crucifixion.
Neil Laubenthal says
I saw that when I googled but from what I had heard before it seems like the actual collecting of blood thing might be part of the whole “sacred relic” idea from back in the olden days. Having been raise catholic I’ve never head of that claim before, just that it was from the Last Supper. One really wishes there was some credible evidence either way on a lot of these sort of religious/mythical/legend ideas. From what we read in the Bible and based on what seems reasonable…Joseph did request the body after death and was responsible for burial but nothing is mentioned about collecting blood or what happened to said blood after it was collected…and it seems unlikely that Joseph would have gone back to the Last Supper location to get a cup…and even if he did there were a lot of cups there, probably all similar in design/size…so getting the same one as was used the night before seems somewhat improbable. Seeing as it was late in the day and the Sabbath would begin at sundown…again Joseph needed to get the body entombed before the Sabbath starts as doing any of that after sundown would constitute “work” and hence be forbidden…not to mention the same day burial tradition at the time for Jewish people.
As I said…I never heard of this before but after I posted I did do a little googling and there’s enough anecdotal stuff so that perhaps the cup was used for both…although one would think that the mention of Joseph in biblical texts would have included some discussion on this since the Body and Blood are the central pillar of Catholicism and the later Christian sects that descended from it.
The history, or what little we know of it is fascinating. I agree that I wish we had more credible evidence. By the way if you’re interested in more of the story (or legend) of the treasures in this area, including the Holy Grail, lookup Rennes-le-chateau. We plan to visit there at some point.
And thanks for the discussion and your comments about this. I’m no religious scholar, so I’m always learning. All this is superbly interesting.
Dolores Tanner says
Never heard of them, but the Templars i am fascinated with!!! This was very interesting and all those old castles and your pictures are so wonderful!!
The Templars are another fascinating part of history. For Montségur specifically the whispers regarding the Templars seem to be more rumour than fact. But the Templars were sympathisers, and may have aided the Cathars in some of their battles. In specific, the Templar Grand Master Bertrand de Blanchfort (1156-1169) whose family seat was near Carcassonne, was a known Cathar sympathizer. Some interesting mixed history there….