From the early days of Christianity, the Church had to deal with all sorts of differences in belief and doctrine. Schisms in the Christian Church were quite common during the early days, and became solidified as the Catholic Church broke off from the Eastern Orthodox churches. Over time, as the Catholic Church and Western Europe grew during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church became the most important branch of Christianity under the leadership of a powerful centralized Papacy. Nevertheless, heretic preachers still arose during the Middle Ages, especially at times where the Pope and the heads of the Catholic Church were believed to be corrupt and abusing the power of the position. One of the most influential and novel of these heresies prior to the Protestant Reformation was the practice of Catharism.
Catharism was one of the most successful heresies of the Middle Ages, finding many followers throughout southern France and the northern Italian city-states during the 12th and 13th centuries. The faith is first documented as appearing in approximately 1143, from a cleric in Cologne. The most significant early event regarding the Cathar sect is the Council of Saint-Felix-Laugarais in southwestern France, where officials from southern France and northern Italy gathered. This is the first recorded council of the Cathar institutional hierarchy, and all the attending bishops received the sacrament of consolamentum. While Catholicism has seven sacraments throughout a follower’s life, the consolamentum was the single sacrament practices by the Cathars. The consolamentum, or consolation, was a brief ceremony to absolve the person of sin and elevate them to the level of Perfecti in preparation for the afterlife. Once a person became a Perfecti, they were expected to practice asceticism, including not eating food from any animal. Cathars believed that Jesus’ resurrection was in fact similar to reincarnation. The idea of the Perfecti is that unless one is willing to forgo the material self, they will be reincarnated on the Earth with its inherent corruption until they are willing to devote themselves spiritually and regain an angelic status in Heaven. In this way, it is somewhat similar to Buddhism.
Many other Cathar beliefs and practices were similarly based on the tenet that Earth was inherently corrupt and a focus on a spiritual commitment. The Cathars rejected the notion that the Eucharist was the body of Christ on the argument that if it was truly transubstantiated, then the entirety of Christ’s body would have already been consumed a long time ago. They also abhorred war and rejected capital punishment and marriage on the basis that killing and sex were both part of the evils and moral corruption present throughout the physical world and were to be avoided. The rejection of marriage made Catharism one of the institutions that offered the most opportunities to women in the medieval era. According to Cathar beliefs, the soul was immaterial and sexless, and so someone could be reincarnated as either a man or a woman, putting them on an equal level spiritually. As such, it is recorded that women were given the consolamentum and made Perfecti almost as often as men were. This also meant that women were allowed to act as spiritual leaders, and were allowed to own their own property.
The Cathar religion gained most of its followers in southern France during the late 1100s and early 1200s. At least five known Cathar bishoprics were established during this time, at Albi, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Agen, and Razes. As the heresy spread and gained followers, the Papal States responded to the threat against the Catholic Church with a strong force. In 1209 after Pope Innocent III’s legate was murdered while returning to Rome from southern France, the Pope declared a crusade against the Cathars or Alibgenses, known as the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars were persecuted by the king of France, but the Cathars held out, as many lords including the counts of Toulouse were sympathetic to Catharism held a number of castles in the religion. The Albigensian Crusade ultimately lasted until 1229, with successive counts of Toulouse being excommunicated. Ultimately in 1229, Louis IX of France finally defeated count Raymond VII of Toulouse and seized much of the southern French coast in the Treaty of Meaux. With no more political backing, the Cathar leaders dispersed and the heresy largely died out by the end of the next century. Aside from ending the Cathar heresy, the Albigensian Crusade played a role in the centralization of the French kingdom and the diminishing of Occitan regional and cultural differences with northern France.