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The legacy of the Languedoc

An outsider's musings about the philosophy, religion and collective psychology of a city after just one weekend's visit! Take it for what it's worth.


In the year 1208 on, what I imagine was a hot July day in the Languedoc region of southwest France, 20,000 Cathars and Catholics were massacred in Béziers on the order of Pope Innocent III. Not long after, 10,000 more Cathars from the surrounding region who had sought refuge within the fortified walls of Carcassonne were also exterminated even while the Catholic viscount of Carcassonne, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, attempted to protect them. It was one of the many dark chapters in the Church's (and France's) history. Pope Innocent III, when he wasn't encouraging the French nobles to take up the cross and make war on the holy land, was determined to root out the heretical Cathars. Owing to their belief in dualism in which they believed everything material and of the world was evil and everything spiritual was good, the Cathars opposed the crucifiction of Jesus because such an event would imply that Jesus was human, thus material, thus evil. Needless to say, their disagreement on this detail didn't placate Pope Innocent. In fact it only added to his desire to give strategic Languedoc lands to northern french nobels (Catholics who, unlike Trencaval, wouldn't sympthize with the Cathars). What followed has been dubbed the Albigensian crusades. Ironically, because the Cathars were a minority of people from the middle ages who didn't believe in war or capital punishment, many of their Catholic neighbors in Béziers and Carcassonne decided to take up arms and help fight against the Albigensian crusaders, led by a noble, Simon de Montfort's. In fact, it's very likely that many of the Cathars from Béziers would have fled to the more well protected fortified city of Carcassonne, leaving a majority of their Catholic neighbors behind in Béziers. It was for this reason that upon arriving, Simon de Montfort is said to have asked Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander, how to distinguish between Catholic and Cathar. Arnaud is reported to have replied, "Kill them all, God will know his own." In this way, it is very probable that the majority of people killed during the crusade in Bézier in 1208 were in fact Catholic.
I've begun my journal about my visit to the Languedoc region in France with this history lesson for a very simple reason: this is the way that it was begun for me. No matter which tourism website I looked at while planning my weekend trip to the eastern towns of Béziers and Carcassonne, this story was always the feature of the "History" section. (Subsequently, the mass cemetaries and museums about the Cathars, along with the medieval fortified city and UNESCO world heritage site, were then listed under "Attractions"). It was also the history lesson recounted to me by a friendly history buff and Béziers native who I met on the train my very first day. Later that evening it was the bedtime story that our hotel owners related to us (this time in English so I was able to catch some of those disturbing details that otherwise would have remained mercifully lost in translation). Then there was the guided tour of the castel and ramparts of the gorgeous medieval city in Carcassonne where we heard the same story.
"It is a moment in our history that can never be forgotten."
We laughed ironically at this comment, made rather off-handedly by our tour guide in her strong Occitane french accent. After 24 hours in the Languedoc, it was evident that no one had forgotten, that much was obvious.
In a country where I have too often succombed to my traveller's curiosity and peaked into the poubelles of recycled collective baggage, only to find myself staring fixedly, perversly at the waste of centuries of a fraught church and social history, I am surprised that modern Languedocians have recovered at all, much less forgotten. Not only did they play host to the Albigensien Crusade in the 13th Century, but as I was remined recently in my L'histoire de la France class, the Languedoc also held some of the principal Huegenot strongholds during the religious wars. That would explain the plaques. The ones I noticed on this very same trip honoring the 30, 50, 100, 1000 massacred Huegenots and Catholics from the 16th and 17th century. At first I passed them by, thinking they were more WWI and II memorials, for anyone who's travelled in Europe knows that these exist in abundance. Of course, there were plenty of those too in the Languedoc.
Yet I was confronted this weekend with another contradiction in French culture that I have come to expect after having lived here for several months. Not only were the people some of the warmest and friendliest that I have met in France (and I don't think I've met a single person who sits on the opposite end of that pole!), but they were also by far the most religious! As in, Catholic religious! Now I know there's a lot of history in between 1209 and even 1616 and 2008 that could have led to the fact that while in the rest of the country churches are generally museums or empty shells in the cityscape, aujourd'hui in Carcassonne every church is full to capacity (or near enough) come Sunday morning. What's more, not only were there more church-going folks in Carcasonne than anywhere else i've been in France, but the're were actually a fair few under the age of 70! My first day in Carcassonne as I was training from there to Béziers to meet Luke, I boarded with a young priest and about 60 young school boys between the ages of 8 and 18 who were headed to Lyon where, I concluded from their conversations, they were to attend a church conference and/or do some serivce work in the "big city."
Whether you're religious or not, as a traveller or an "étrangere" living in France, it's impossible to come here and not remark on the very unique relationship the French people, in general, have with the church. It's something that I can only imagine is deeply rooted in their history, a history that includes crusades, the use of religion as a political tool, the divine rights of kings, religious wars, Inquisition, a revolution and the guillotining of nobels who justified their abuses of power as rights bestowed upon them by God. Then add the grief resulting from two world wars and the subsequent questions concerning whether God could possibly exist admist such carnage, throw in the revolts of 1968, a heavy influx of immigrants of all other races and creeds, let simmer over a lively collective French culture that is deeply rooted in the Catholic faith which, at this point, most folks aren't too sure about anyways; let it stew for a few decades and you've got a Soupe à la France that has lost some of it's flavor from the addition of too many bitter ingredients. Having said that, they've also gained plenty of flavor from such a complicated history. The Languedocians perhaps moreso than the rest.
I admit, there's a lot about France that I don't understand. I'm a westerner and I can't figure out the mystery ingrediant in that occidental broth that has fed into my own cultural soup. How much more intricate will I find Indian or Chillean culture, for example, if I ever have the opportunity to visit these countries?
But perhaps i'm asking the wrong question. Perhaps it's wrong of me to ask how Carcassonnians could be so religious all while being so admittedly aware of their ancestor's bloody history, a bloody history often caused by the church. But afterall, isn't that the great mystery of faith? It comes with forgiveness and love. Folks from Carcassonne know as much as anyone, or perhaps more than most in France how easy it would be to abandon the church. They have two millenia worth of reasons. But then how could anyone ever recover from such a history if they didn't forgive it?
Unfortunately, I haven't yet had this conversation with a Carcassonnian. But now that I think about it, I wonder if that wouldn't be their response.
Of course, I could be completely wrong. Maybe they wake up every morning, look out their mornings and fall in love again with the valley in between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées, the amber skeletons of the vineyards in december, the ingenuity of the canal of midi and the persistance of the river Aube in spite of it. Maybe they, like I, look out at their breath-taking landscape each day and say, "Voila! That, all of that is why I have to believe that there is something or someone greater than myself who created this."
And then they look up the hill and see what their noble and troubled ancestor's created: that completely intact medieval fortified city that was never once overtaken between the year 1208 and now... unless you include the camera-totting tour groups and the film crew for Kevin Kosner's Robin Hood. Even today there are still people living there in the city surrounded by ramparts, around 200 of em, all tucked away in the stone shells of the original medieval buildings. They no longer have to worry about men with swords and bow and arrows. Nowadays they dodge tourists like me shooting at their city from behind digital screens.
Carcassonnians have weathered a lot in 800 years and still managed to hold onto that which is most dear. The real question is how they'll hold up to this latest threat! My guess is that they'll forgive us too.
The entrance and bridge to the fortified city. I'm pretty sure there's a scene from Robin Hood where he has to sneak past on this bridge. No? Have I made that up?
From the ramparts looking out toward the Black mountains.
A pair of dudes sword fighting. They were actually pretty good!
From the river Aude on our long sunday morning walk through the beautiful vineyard-lined country roads and river-side paths of Carcassonne.

Posted by ernielow 03:25 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites

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