Genocide. A term coined by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the Holocaust. The United Nations legally defines genocide as any act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Referring to the crusades against the Albigenses that were ordered by Pope Innocent III, Lemkin wrote that they were, as a whole, “one of the most conclusive cases of Genocide in religious history”. The first crusade was a military campaign directed against the Albigenses of the French Alps by Pope Innocent III under the auspices of the French Crown. What crime had they committed? They had refused to bow the knee to Papal power and so they were crushed under the weight of its terrible fury.
The Albigenses were a peace-loving and industrious people that had the Bible in their own language and refused to align their beliefs with those of Rome. Some historians state that had this movement been allowed to continue unchecked, it would have sparked the Reformation in the 13th century in France instead of in the 16th century in Germany.
This was not to be, however, for upon his ascension as Pope, Innocent III surveyed the spiritual landscape of Europe with a shrewd eye, concluding that these groups, however small, needed to be crushed out in order to preserve the dominance of Rome.
In order to do this he launched a crusade; a thing of great convenience to the ordinary French mercenary or even the extraordinary French Knight and the odd professional soldier who didn’t want to travel all the way to Palestine to earn a livelihood.
To sweeten the deal Innocent added a spiritual spin to the reward, promising all who should fight for this cause immediate entrance into heaven should they die in the heat of the battle and complete ablution of all outstanding sins. All of this was promised in exchange for 40 days service and one can only imagine the caliber of the men that flocked to enlist, most of whom were from Northern France. From 1209 -1229 Innocent III waged war against the Albigenses of Southern France, leaving a legacy of bloodshed and torture in his wake.
In their first season, the Crusaders marched across southern France, intent on cleansing the countryside of the Albigensian heresy, and their most horrific conquest was the massacre of Beziers. Having taken the township of Toulouse the Crusaders marched towards Beziers. The township had a mixed population of both Catholics and Albigenses and the local Catholic bishop began negotiations with the Papal Legate, Arnaud Amalric. The negotiations centered around handing over the Albigensian population to the Crusaders thus eliminating the need for war.
However, the negotiations broke down as many of the Albigenses had too much support within the town. The situation reached a stalemate and on the 22nd of July 1209. As the Crusaders began surrounding the city, some of the Albigenses launched an attack against the Crusaders before the latter had time to fortify their camp.
The Crusaders regrouped and pushed back the attack entering the city without direct orders from Amalric who was their commander. They then found themselves in a difficult position, unable to differentiate between the Catholics and Albigenses.
The problem was relayed to Amalric and his response was swift and decisive; “Kill them all, for the Lord knoweth them that are His”.
The Crusaders attacked and, by Amalric’s own admission in a letter he wrote to the Pope, 20,000 people were slaughtered without discrimination against rank, gender or age. Historians note that blood flowed through the streets of Beziers and news of the massacre spread like wildfire throughout the countryside of Southern France.
One of the most salient points of the entire episode was the way Innocent III recruited his army of Crusaders. He called for a Holy War and promised spiritual benefits in exchange for mass murder. The entire campaign was launched upon the premise that the Pope had the power to enforce the views of his church on the whole population of France.
Today we live in a world where religious liberty is upheld in most places around the world and while we are free to believe what we want, we must never impose our beliefs on others nor must we allow others to impose their beliefs on us. We each have the freedom to make our own, well informed and well thought out decisions without fear of attack. Liberty of conscience may seem like a fairly common commodity in the day and age we live in but it is one we must guard and uphold fervently because history has a strange way of repeating itself.