The Persecution of Cathars and Cops
Aug. 5, 2016 (Fault Lines) – On July 21, 1209, a crusading army besieged the town of Béziers in southern France. Its commander, Arnaud Amalric, was the chief abbot of the Cistercian monastic order and a local lord, well-known and hated for his extravagance. According to a 1213 poem, when Amalric preached, the people of Languedoc would say, “that bee is buzzing around again.”
Amalric took up arms against his countrymen at the behest of Pope Innocent III, who called a crusade to rid southern France of Catholic dissidents known as Cathars. These Cathars were devout Christians who split from Catholicism to pursue what they saw as the teachings of the early church. They had many unorthodox beliefs, but the most difficult one by far was their commitment to dualism.
Since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholics have believed in the doctrine of hylomorphism. Taken from the philosophy of Aristotle, the basic idea is that a human being is a healthy union of body and soul. But the Cathars, like the early Christians, followed Plato in seeing a person as an immortal soul “trapped” in a mortal body. Christian dualists identify the soul and heaven with what is good and the body, along with the material world it inhabits, with what is bad. Accordingly, the Cathars disdained earthly things and tried to lead a simple life.
To a people who took their faith so seriously, they saw procreative sex as a sin, the hypocrisy and corruption of the Catholic clergy – from venal priests to bishops who lived as lords to Pope Innocent himself, the richest man in Europe – was a huge provocation. For their part, Catholic power-holders saw Catharism as an affront to their authority. So when the Pope declared war, Amalric, the debauched local monk-lord, was in many ways the perfect candidate for the attack.
Amalric waved away the offer of Béziers’ lord, Viscount Trencavel, to surrender the town, and the crusaders settled in for the siege. But there was a problem. The Cathars had been heretics for thirty years, since 1176, so they could be killed at no risk to a Catholic soldier’s soul. But there were many Catholics in the town, and there was no way to distinguish them from Cathars in the heat of battle. The bishop of Béziers, Renaud de Montpeyroux, tried to persuade his flock to flee with him. Nearly everyone refused, and that night, de Montpeyroux ran away alone.
Just one day later, an unsuccessful sortie by the defenders left the town wide open. As the crusaders stormed Béziers, Catholics and Cathars alike sought shelter in the two churches and the cathedral. Amalric was faced with the question of what to do about them.
Legend has it that he spoke one sentence: “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”** The resulting massacre, the Sack of Béziers, cost 20,000 lives and led to an uprising in the countryside, a guerrilla war that only ended when the French king stepped in fifteen years later.
When you look at today’s battle over police reform, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve learned nothing in the past 800 years.
With each new report of a cop shooting a black person, or a black person shooting a cop, we head off to do battle for our side, confident in the rightness of our cause and determined not to yield any ground in the fight to confirm our bias.*** It’s emotional, it’s easy, and much has been said about the risks to civil discourse and the ability to effect change that come with elevating feelz over facts. Today, as with Amalric’s rejection of Trencavel’s offer, comity and practical solutions too often take a backseat to what is essentially virtue signaling.
And the more stories on police misconduct you read, the more you start to see police departments as the modern analogue to the churches at Béziers. Like the crusaders, police reformers face the problem of what to do about places that harbor both good people and bad, heretics and the orthodox. Like the crusaders, police reformers lack the insight to tell who is who. And like de Montpeyroux’s flock, police officers stonewall efforts to get them to abandon ship. It’s a rare cop indeed who will speak out, and their peers impose severe consequences when they do so.
There’s a practical lesson here. For those passionate about police reform, it’s easy to paint cops with a broad brush. From shouting “Black Lives Matter” during a memorial service for five slain Dallas police officers to leaving “all cops are evil” comments on the internet, there are any number of banal and disrespectful ways to act on the urge that debases the movement and lowers the tenor of the conversation.
Every time this happens, we give in to our inner Amalric. Resist him. 700 years before Mencken, Béziers showed us the danger of resorting to answers that are clear, simple and wrong.
*Even worse, the Cathars weren’t all talk: they were so successful in their attempts to live purely that contemporary monks writing polemical tracts about the movement couldn’t help but praise them for it.
**In Latin: Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.
***For a demonstration of this principle, see the comments on any post by prosecutor and Fault Lines contributor Andrew King.