Before we make a detailed examination of the heresy which provoked the Albigensian Crusade, or sketch in the background of the country where one of the cruellest dramas in French history was destined to be played out, we must, first, study the Crusaders themselves. What manner of men were these, who dared to invade a Christian country that had never molested them, and which was closely allied to them both by speech and by racial descent?
We have already seen that Crusades as such had long formed part of the mores peculiar to the Western European aristocracy. Quite apart from the four major Crusades, the whole of the twelfth century had witnessed an endless stream of small private wars, led and financed by various grands seigneurs at their own expense. It was not only their vassals who took part in these forays either, but numerous volunteers, of all sorts and conditions: many of the expeditionary forces were commanded by bishops. The bulk of the Crusaders were Frenchmen, from the Midi no less than from the North. The Christian empire now gradually foundering in the Near East was a French empire ; it stood in need of continual reinforcements, and the Christian kingdoms of the West had for a century now paid a heavy tribute in human lives to the Holy Land. These warrior-pilgrims were by no means all fired with a pure and disinterested passion ; a great number of them were ambitious adventurers. But the unreserved approval with which the Church regarded such a pious undertaking as a Crusade had an odd effect. Those who fought in it were convinced that, by practising a profession which in different circumstances would have contributed nothing to their salvation, they were both serving God and saving their own souls. Crusaders who campaigned in the Holy Land enjoyed indulgences granted by the Pope, while anyone who had taken part in such a Crusade not only won forgiveness for his sins, but also had the chance to acquire both fame and fortune.
There was, on the face of it, something most attractive about such doubly profitable enterprises; but a series of defeats, and the progressive decay of the French empire in Syria and Palestine, tended to discourage would-be adventurers. The new Latin Empire of Constantinople appeared to hold out greater opportunities, though it lacked the special appeal of the Holy Sepulchre. There were, nevertheless, a good many soldiers, especially in France, who needed a Crusade much in the same way as a Moslem needs his pilgrimage to Mecca. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Pope’s appeal met with so favourable a reception in the provinces of Northern France.
The indulgences promised in respect of this Crusade were comparable to those that had been bestowed on Crusaders in the Holy Land and the effort involved was considerably less. Furthermore, to go on a Crusade was a very handy way of holding up the payment of one’s debts, and keeping one’s property clear of any ultimate claims that might be made upon it, since a Crusader’s goods were declared sacrosanct for the whole period of his absence.
It is very probable, indeed, that the larger part of this Crusading army (a point which applies to the nobility just as much as to the burghers and common people) was composed either of sinners anxious to win God’s pardon, or else of debt-ridden wretches who hoped in this way to escape being harried by their creditors ; or else, again, of those who had already vowed their services to the Holy Land, and were anxious to wriggle out of this liability by taking part in a shorter, less wearying Crusade. The third category was probably the largest.
A large number of these Crusaders were, indeed, little better than professional mercenaries, always glad of an honourable excuse for fighting. At the same time we should not forget that the army now being made ready for its venture, whether in great castle or parish armoury, in beflagged tiltyard or private guardroom, princely palace or stately ecclesiastical pile, was an army of men who wore the Cross sewn upon their surcoats. The mere fact of bearing this Cross provided even the most lukewarm with a symbol eloquent enough to stir their enthusiasm.
Another point: how did the Papal anathema contrive to transform Raymond of Toulouse, overnight, into a pagan and an infidel?
Languedoc was not separated from France by the high seas and several thousand miles; but it was, nevertheless, a foreign if not an actively hostile country. The great Southern barons, jealous above all else of their personal independence, were continually shifting their allegiance: sometimes they leaned towards the King of France, sometimes to the King of England; again, they might ally themselves with the German Emperor or the King of Aragon. The thread which bound the Count of Toulouse in vassalship to the French King was somewhat tenuous. High liegeman of the Crown the Count might be; yet he could not even be regarded as the King’s safe ally, but rather as a somewhat doubtful neighbour, always liable to support the political aims either of the English King (who was his brother-in-law, and the uncle of his only son) or of the Emperor. The great barons of the North, the land of the langue d’oil, though they were by no means all loyal to the French King, still remained French by culture and tradition: they would not dream of allying themselves with those whom they somewhat contemptuously referred to as ‘Provencals’.
The most notable of the great barons who joined the Crusade were Eudes II, Duke of Burgundy, and Hervé IV, Count of Nevers. These seigneurs were in no doubt why they were going to the wars. Heresy had already penetrated their own domains, and they had good cause for wanting to check its further expansion. Knights such as Simon de Montfort or Guy de Lévis were animated by sincere enthusiasm for what they regarded as God’s cause: there were a great number of such ‘soldiers of God’ in the Crusaders’ army that assembled in answer to Pope Innocent’s appeal. The French nobility had long become accustomed to regarding its own interests and God’s interests as identical.
The faith held by these Crusaders, who never hesitated to exterminate their fellow-men for the greater glory of God, may strike us as extraordinary indeed, as somewhat contemptible. Possibly it was not always like this: ordinary human morality was never considered for a moment when God’s interests appeared to be at stake. These interests could take on a surprisingly mundane character, though this did not shock anyone: God, after all, was so closely bound up with human affairs. Faith, in France as in other Christian countries (perhaps especially in France), was deep, sincere, and violent a fact which ensured fierce attachment on the part of devotees to the Faith’s external manifestations. The religious feeling which permeated every aspect of men’s social and private life achieved a species of symbolism. This symbolism was treated in so literal a fashion that we might easily mistake the attitude involved with that of the fetichist. When we study the history of the Albigensian Crusade, we should not forget that there were other motives behind it apart from the purely political ones motives of sentiment or passion without which the war might never have taken place, or, at least, would have avoided that peculiarly brutal quality which was destined to mark it out. This war was not simply the business of a few fanatics or adventurers. It was not even a simple expression of the Catholic Church’s opposition to heresy. It symbolized, in a profound way, a special sort of Western civilization, a particular view of God and the Universe.
I have described the faith held by these men in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as being, in a sense, ‘mundane’, since it seems clear that during this period the urge to delimit the supernatural within increasingly concrete and coherent patterns developed with hitherto unsurpassed vigour. By either outlawing ancient mythology, Roman and Celtic, or else taking it over and turning it to profitable use, the Church had transformed the Saints into characters from folklore and, by a converse process, turned gods and demi-gods into saints. As a result the Christian lived in a world where the lives of the Saints and readings from sacred works largely filled the place occupied today by theatre, cinema, illustrated weeklies and fairytales. Secular and folk literature, alien by nature to religious influence, were still restricted to minor media or reserved for the pleasure of a small Mite. The creative energy of these Western nations so young, so avid of new experience, so touched with poetry even in their humblest occupations was almost wholly canalized into the religious life, which very soon took on the appearance of pure paganism, thinly veneered with Christianity.
It has been said that the cathedrals were the poor man’s Bible, and something more: the great book by means of which the devotee was brought into contact with history, with the sciences both moral natural, with the mysteries of past and future alike. The remains of those twelfth century cathedrals give us no more than a partial notion of their splendour. It must not be forgotten that they were painted and gilded outside as well as in; that the statues and tympana that adorned their great portals were tricked out in polychrome ; that the naves were not only smothered with frescoes but, over and above this, decked with richly-woven tapestries, Eastern fabrics, and silken banners all embroidered with gold ; and that the altars, shrines, and miraculous images, on account of their superb craftsmanship no less than the rare materials which had gone to their making, constituted a treasure of incalculable value