The Cathars flourished openly in southeastern France for a short period. A rather chaste group of Christians, they retained a lot of the so-called Gnostic ideas of primitive (pre-papal) Christianity. Eventually, a Church crusade wiped out most of them.

Thereafter, as an underground influence, their successors continued to fuel the chaste love or courtly love tradition. Cathar influence also helped to shape many heretical alternatives to mainstream Catholicism. These included the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the 15th century and even the Quakers.

The late Swiss scholar Denis de Rougemont drew an interesting connection between Cathar precepts, Gnostic principles, tantric practices and courtly love rituals. He believed that all these threads mingled in southern France in the 12th century. Together, they bloomed into worship of the Divine Feminine (or Virgin Mary). This fertile mingling also encouraged adoration between lovers without the goal of procreation. Some traditions recommended intercourse without “consummation”.

Availability

“Cathars” essay by scholar Joshua J. Mark (2019) [brief history]

De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World (available for purchase)

Excerpts from Mark’s historical essay

The Cathars (also known as Cathari from the Greek Katharoi for “pure ones”) were a dualist medieval religious sect of Southern France which flourished in the 12th century CE and challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. They were also known as Albigensians for the town of Albi, which was a strong Cathar center of belief. Cathar priests lived simply, had no possessions, imposed no taxes or penalties, and regarded men and women as equals; aspects of the faith which appealed to many at the time disillusioned with the Church. Cathar beliefs ultimately derived from the Persian religion of Manichaeism but directly from another earlier religious sect from Bulgaria known as the Bogomils who blended Manichaeism with Christianity. [In Bulgaria, Christians with similar beliefs were known as the Bogomils. “Bogomil’ means “beloved of God.’] …

Cathar beliefs included:

Recognition of the feminine principle in the divine – God was both male and female. The female aspect of God was Sophia, “wisdom”). This belief encouraged equality of the sexes in Cathar communities.

Metempsychosis (Reincarnation) – a soul would be continually reborn until it renounced the world completely and escaped incarnation. …

Once the soul renounced the body and all its temptations, it would be freed to return to God and resume its former state. The whole purpose of human existence was this struggle against the devil (known as Rex Mundi, “the king of this world’) and the prison of the flesh. …

[Non-celibate] Cathars … practiced birth control and abortion, believing that sex was a natural aspect of the human condition and could be engaged in for pleasure, not only for procreation; in fact, procreation was discouraged. Women were valued as men’s equals and female figures from the Bible were highlighted, especially Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. Some scholars have suggested, in fact, that the growth of the Cult of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe – which became an increasingly popular and influential movement – was encouraged by the Cathars’ elevation of womanhood. …

[Spread and purge]

The faith gained a strong foothold in Italy and Southern France through its appeal to the peasantry. … The faith did not remain restricted to the peasantry for long but spread up the medieval hierarchy to artisans like weavers and potters, writers and poets, merchants and business owners, members of the Catholic clergy, and finally nobility. Eleanor of Aquitaine (l. c. 1122-1204 CE) and her daughter Marie de Champagne (l. 1145-1198 CE) were both associated with the Cathars as sympathizers. …

According to scholars Bryson and Movsesian, the Albigensian Crusade destroyed the open, tolerant culture of Southern France, replacing it with the rigid, dark, and narrow-minded ethos of the medieval Church but did nothing to stamp out Catharism itself. The Cathars who survived the purge of the early 13th century CE continued to live as they had before, only with greater care and secrecy.

The survival of these communities is known through Church records of inquisitions which continued on through the 14th century CE. As an organized religious sect, Catharism was extinguished in Southern France at Montsegur, but as a living faith, it continued. Later heresies to challenge the Church’s authority all borrowed in some way from the Cathars who, in standing up to the corruption of the medieval Church, prefigured the visionaries of the later Protestant Reformation.

Prophesy

In 1321, the Church burned its last Cathar at the stake. The victim, Guillaume Belibaste, allegedly prophesied that “at the end of seven hundred years the laurel would again turn green.” That’s when the principles of “the true Christianity” would return to the world’s attention. (Jean-Luc Aubarbier and Michel Binet, Le Pays Cathare (Luçon: Editions Ouest-France, 2001: 31.)