The Cathar faith was a version of Christianity. It was wiped out by the Roman Catholic Church in the 13th century by a Crusade. They were usually considered Gnostics. The word 'Cathar' comes the Greek word "katharos" meaning 'unpolluted' (from Tobias Churton, "The Gnostics") or "the pure ones".
The Cathars believed that the world had been made by a bad god. The believed that this bad god had taken them from the good god put them the world but inside their bodies there was a spirit and that spirit needed to return to the good god. They were famous for a belief in a form of reincarnation and believed that when someone died the bad god would put that persons spirit in a new body. They believed this cycle of coming back to life could be escaped by a ritual cleansing. They were opposed to the doctrine of sin.
Women were prominent in the faith. They were pacifists. They were vegetarians.
They preached tolerance of other faiths. They rejected the usual Christian doctrine of marriage. An earlier 10th century Bulgarian heresy, Bogomilism, started some of these trends.
They used a bible in the language people spoke. Many other Christians used a Bible in Latin. Latin was spoken only by the priests.
In 1145 open challenge to Catholic dominance began. In about 1165 the first Cathars said that the Church was "full of ravening wolves and hypocrites" and "worshipping the wrong God", right in front of the most powerful Catholics. In 1166 the Council of Oxford in England wiped out the English Cathars. It was also suppressed in Northern France. In 1167 Cathar bishops met to discuss organizing a counter Church - in the South of France, the Langedoc nobles protected it, and many noble women became "Perfects". Parish clergy had low morale.
All this was unpopular with the Roman Catholic Church, whose Pope, the Bishop of Rome, had begun to say he was infallible from the 11th century onwards. The pope also started to hold total authority over what was called "Christendom". Pope Innocent III's control by 1198 was not yet firm.
In the South of France there was tremendous religious fervor, and an economy that was starting to grow, and a social class of merchants and peasants was starting to grow. Peasants owned their own land. Meanwhile, in other parts of Europe, peasants were forced to give up their land to nobles and become serfs or slaves - the system of feudalism. There was a strong central absolute monarchy that did not exist in the South of France. The burghers and bankers had more power in this looser system. R. I. Moore is a historian who believes that it was desire to crush this system and take over the land that drove the attack.
However there was real cultural and religious difference to cause problems: Troubadors, who combined some of the traditions of the Bards of the Celts, and Jews, were both part of the multicultural society in the South of France. Their influences were not appreciated by local or Roman Church figures. The 12th century Roman Catholic Monks were founding their monasteries outside the towns, drawing the best people there.
The Cathars thus had little competition. The Cathar "Perfects", the so-called Good Men or Good Women, lived austere lives and spread their faith in towns - where the Catholics in general did not have their best agents. Also, Cathars preached that only these Good leaders had to follow the regimens their whole lives - lay people could repent only on their deathbeds. Many 20th century Christian sects have similar beliefs. Today Cathars would not be considered heretics.
The Pope ordered a crusade against the Cathars in southern France. He said any crusader who answered the call would be given the same rewards as a crusader who went to the Holy Land. This was an absolution of all sin, a forgiveness of all debts, and all the pillaging and raping they could want.
At Launguedoc, in July 1209, a force of about 30,000 Crusaders arrived at the walls of Beziers, and demanded that about 200 Cathars be surrendered. The people of the town who were mostly Catholic, said that rather than turn over their friends and kin, "we would rather be flayed alive."
A mistake by the defenders of Beziers let thousands of attackers in. Arnaud Amaury, the Pope's official in charge of the crusade, supposedly said the famous phrase: 'Kill them all, God will know his own'. Everyone in the town was massacred, some while taking refuge in the church. It is guessed that 20,000 were killed, many of whom were Catholics and not Cathars at all. The crusade became known as the Albigensian crusade after the town of Albi. It was to wipe out the Cathars entirely over forty or so years. The Crusaders wanted to go home, but were ordered by the Pope to continue until the whole South of France was controlled and all Cathars were dead. In 1210 they attacked the fortress at Minerv and built "the first great bonfire of heretics" - beginning the practice of burning at the stake that would continue in the Inquisition of the Counter-Reformation.
The Albigensian crusade actually failed to destroy the Cathar beliefs from southern France. This would happen by a different sort of crusade, one that turned neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. The shadow of the Inquisition fell over the south of France. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX sent Dominican monks to the Languedoc. They set up an office of the Inquisition and sent out notices that anyone who came and confessed would be forgiven. People became terrified that their neighbors had said something about them, so they went and turned in their neighbors first. It eventually got to the point where people were turning in the dead and corpses were dug up, burned and the property they had left their heirs was taken away by the Roman Catholic Church. A lot of this crusade was not so much about faith, at least not for the church, but money. If someone were turned in as a heretic, his property was taken by the church.
In the end the Inquisition did wipe out most of the Cathars though it took well over a hundred years to get all of them. The last known Cathar follower was burned at the stake in the early 1300's.
Every last Cathar "Perfect" was burned at the stake. At least those the Roman Catholic Church could find.

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