At the turn of the 13th century, Europe was no longer held together by the common political tie of the Pagan Roman Empire yet it was being slowly gathered together under the decidedly religiopolitical banner of the Papacy. Imperial Rome held the Empire together under the auspices of economic gain but the Papacy held the Empire together under the auspices of Hell Fire and the imminent threat of death. The not-so-subtle hold that the church wielded over a man’s eternal well-being seized his attention and also his purse strings and the political power the church had been granted from its inception guaranteed its continued conquest throughout Europe.
The Papacy of the 13th Century found itself acting as the voice of conscience for every man and his dog, presuming to prescribe what they should believe and proceeding to crush out any murmur of dissent. The horrific crusades of the 12th century against the Saracens, in an attempt to recover the Holy Land from the grip of Islam, are a testament to this fact. One of the keynotes of these crusades was the promise of eternal glory to whoever chose to engage in battle and immediate entrance into heaven should they die on the battlefield.
Many a crusader returned home broken in health and ruined in fortune with little to show for his battle scars except the pale assurance of escaping hellfire when his miserable life came to a close. But a greater threat than that of the distant Saracens were the small pockets of Bible-believing Christians that were popping up across the landscape of Europe. The Albigenses of Southern France were of particular interest to the Papacy but were not considered an imminent danger in light of their small numbers. This perception changed with the ascent of Innocent III to the head of the Papacy, who, surveying the religiopolitical climate of the Papacy decided that though this group of people were small in number they could potentially cause the church a large amount of trouble.
In the 13th Century, France was made up of four great divisions and the southernmost division was the region of Narbonne-Gaul or what is now known as Provence and Languedoc. This region was populated by people who were intelligent, industrious and hardworking and many of them maintained their own vineyards or cultivated corn.
The area was also known as a booming commercial center engaging in trade with neighboring Italian republics via the Mediterranean. It was the seat of a powerful and vibrant nobility and the cradle of art and poetry and the home of the troubadour, a lyrical poet who wrote in Provencal, the local dialect.
The region had also been evangelized by early Christian missionaries like Irenaeus and others from Gaul and this coupled with the coalescing of the Arts, education, and freedom of thought made it a hotspot for the preservation and spread of Biblical Christianity. The people had access to the Bible in their own language and many of the troubadours from Provence who traveled throughout Europe were really Colporteurs or missionaries in disguise, spreading the gospel wherever they went and the truth began to spread to places like Italy, Hungary, Spain, and Flanders.
This led to the formation of a small but powerful resistance movement against the Papacy, which began to look more and more like a threat to the shrewd eye of the Pope. In his mind, the only option was to crush them out and he issued an edict calling for the immediate destruction of all heretics, setting in motion the destruction of villages, cities, art, and culture in a way that would plunge Europe into the dark ages. But none of that was significant because the only thing that mattered was the preservation of the continued religiopolitical dominance of the Papacy.
Princes of France were commanded by the Papacy to route out and destroy all heretics in their kingdoms or face excommunication and the loss of property. In addition, Innocent III looked around for a ready-made army that could dispose of the heretics quickly. He decided to refuse the call to arms that had been so successfully sounded by his predecessors in the Crusades of the 12th Century and offered any man who should join the cause complete Papal immunity from Hell and immediate translation to heaven in exchange for just 40 days of service as a killing machine for the church. This was a far more lucrative deal, both spiritually and economically, for the professional Christian Knight, far better than braving the horrors of an unknown battlefield in Syria.
It was a dark chapter in the history of Europe and the Papacy. The first wave of cleansing was discharged by the able Citeaux monks who went through France in 1206 preaching the crusades. Next came the Dominican monks, who went out two by two to round up every single suspected heretic in order to dispute with them in public and then set a mark on every man who was to be burned, thus laying the foundation for the Inquisition. Then came the first wave of the crusades in 1209 continuing for a period of 20 years leading to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
The story of the Albigenses is one of the most gut-wrenching in all history. To think that a peaceful, thriving, socially, economically and culturally, vibrant group of people could be murdered simply for choosing to have different beliefs to that of the Pope defies all logic. Why were they treated like this? Why did every single political leader, appointed to protect them, quake and bow down before a religious leader bent on destroying them? Why did men from all walks of life throw decency to the wind in order to engage in such a horrific act? Why was the basic human right of freedom of worship denied these people? Why was it that the loss of these lives was viewed as a triumph when in actual fact it set back the progress of the entire continent of Europe? Could this kind of a horrific act repeat itself?
The concepts of Genocide, politically backed religious agenda and fratricide are not new. They are as old, well worn and impossibly familiar to all of us living in the 21st century as they were to those who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. It would serve us well to remember this and to also remember that the repetition or rewriting of history is in our hands individually.
John Donne wrote “no man is an island, entire of itself, each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind, therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”