The Siege of Montsegur

Chateau Montsegur

Chateau  Montsegur – its ruins perch precariously on a ‘pog’ (rock formation) 1200 metres above the eponymous village in southwest France. It looks out across the surrounding countryside for miles around. Even in summer lusty, gusty winds buffet the tumbled walls and sweep through open archways.  In winter, snow and ice make it inhospitable and almost impregnable.

The castle was destroyed by the royalist forces in the thirteenth century in the last major action against the Cathar sect – a group which rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church and many of its rites and rituals.

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It had been the centre of operations for the Cathars – the seat and head of the Cathar church and the last refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution from elsewhere in southern France. Even after other Cathar strongholds were destroyed and their adherents fled, it was the last bastion of resistance in the crusade against the sect.

From the base of the hill the castle looms, grey-black, unapproachable, secure and as you walk up through the thickly wooded mountainside the idea of besieging it seems unthinkable and yet to put an end to Cathar resistance once and for all, the royalist forces, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, did just that.

In May 1243 ten thousand soldiers gathered at the foot of the steep rocky hillside leading up to the castle. How must they have felt when they squinted up at the dark mass looming above them? Apparently confidant that they could starve out the inhabitants. But they did not count on local knowledge and goodwill. The castle was well provisioned and under cover of darkness local people crept up through little known pathways to add to its supplies.

Several full-on assaults up the steep hillside inevitably failed. The hundred fighting men in the castle easily repulsed these attacks. You can imagine the frustration and fatigue of the soldiers as time after time they were beaten back to base camp only to hear the order to repeat the assault.

It took treachery (some call it) of several Basque mercenaries to find the solution by scaling one of the rocky walls to gain a foothold from where a giant catapult could hurl rocks at the castle. The Barbican breached , a day and night bombardment commenced; a relentless crump and thrump of massive stones; the crack of the castle walls as they shuddered and fell.

Many of the Cathar refugees who lived just outside the shelter of the walls fled into the castle itself; living conditions deteriorated quickly; sickness spread. The Cathar leaders decided to surrender. Conditions for the surrender were negotiated. All could leave who would renounce their faith and a two week truce was declared.  Many of Cathars took the ‘consolatum’ at this time – a ritual intended to purify them and prepare them for the end they knew must come.

Imagine those last days within the broken walls. After the thunderous noise of the stone barrage – silence.  Families and friends came together, comforted each other, fasted and prayed together. They made their choices – to die in the fire for their faith and beliefs or to live, renouncing all they believed and fought for.

In March 1244 around three hundred ragged souls came out from the ruins, of whom about two hundred chose death. The bonfire awaited them. It is said that there was no need for stakes to which to tie them; they walked, hand in hand, men, woman and children, nobles, soldiers, artisans, servants, into the searing flames. Their cries of agony flew up to the heavens as their ashes scattered on the four winds. What faith. What courage.

At the foot of the mountain in the ‘Prat dels Cremats’  (Field of the Burned) is a modern monument to commemorate their deaths. It bears the inscription “Als catars, als martirs del pur amor crestian. 16 de març 1244″ (The Cathars, martyrs of pure christian love. 16 March 1244).

monument on the Field of the Burned

 

The Rocky Road

The country side around where I live is dotted with ruined castles built on and within natural high outcrops of rock and escarpment. This is Cathar country and these strongholds played an important role in protecting and sheltering the members of the persecuted sect.

In the 13th century the north of what we know today as France went to war with the south in a crusade against this sect – a crusade that lasted for nearly half a century. The ostensible reason for the crusade was the extermination of the Cathar sect which had a strong following in the south at every level of society. When Pope Innocent III’s personal legate, Peter of Castelnau was murdered (allegedly on the orders of Count Raymond of Toulouse whom he had just excommunicated) he launched the crusade offering all who participated indulgences (pardons for sins committed) as well as the property and lands of the heretics. This set the scene for the invasion of this southern part of France (the Languedoc) with Simon de Montfort, a northern noble leading the charge for wealth, land and titles.

The crusade was typified by small-scale skirmishes, bloody guerrilla warfare and, more significantly, sieges against both the large fortifications of e.g.Carcassonne and Narbonne but also of the remote and relatively inaccessible hilltop fortifications that were dotted all over the surrounding countryside. One such is the Chateau at Roquefixade just a few kilometres from where I live. Built high up on a cliff overlooking the village and using the natural rock and fissures of the site, the chateau dates from the early 11th century. The current ruins are later than this.

Roquefixade Chateau

Roquefixade Chateau

The ascent to the castle is steep and winds around through tussocky grass, scrub and rocky outcrops. Nearing the summit and the castle itself there is just a narrow path roughly hewn from the rock. A hair-raising vertical drop on one side to the valley below waits for the unwary. Once negotiated, this path leads to the remains of the original stone gate tower and on into the lower court (yard) of the castle.

Roquefixade - gateway to the court

Roquefixade – gateway to the court

The view from the ruins is breath-taking. The valley of Lesponne with its small villages nestled in green fields stretches out below; beyond the valley, the D’Olmes mountains and the chain of the High Pyrannees poke their snow-dusted peaks into a clear blue sky.

The valley below Roquefixade

The valley below Roquefixade

This chateau and its village played but a small role during the crusade. It is known that one of those involved in the murder of the papel legate sheltered here with his family and the village is reputed to have had many who followed the Cathar teachings. Other than this and, in comparison with its neighbour – Montsegur castle perched on an even more inaccessible peak- Roquefixade had a relatively quiet time.

Following the fall of Monsegur and the end of the crusade, Roquefixade became the property of the French king and one of a chain of castles across the region to keep an eye on the activities of the count of Foix, the ruler of an independent county in the south (France was still not completely unified at this time). The castle survived until Louis XIII, in 1632 spent a night there on his way to watch an execution in Toulouse, after which he ordered the castle’s destruction. It does seem rather ungrateful of him.

roquefixade from the village

If music be the food of love…

…then I’m in the right place in the right country because it was here in the Languedoc that European literature is said to have been born. Right on my doorstep is Puivert Chateau, whose Lords were some of strongest supporters of the Troubadors, those poet/musicians of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Puivert Chateau

Puivert Chateau


These men and women, mostly well-educated and often of high status, created their sophisticated and often raunchy poetry, written in Occitan (the language of Languedoc) and set to music. They held to high ideals and a philosophy of equality based on virtues rather than family connections or wealth.

Throughout the countryside they were welcomed at the Chateaux of their patrons whilst becoming an an anathema to the Catholic church. This hatred arose probably from two issues. Firstly many of their patrons followed or supported the Cathar sect – a bunch of heretics in the eyes of the Church. Secondly, their work lauded both romantic and sexual love – women were an ennobling force as opposed to the Church’s view that women and sex were sinful.

The songs of the Troubadors embraced a number of themes including love, eroticism, war, nature and political satire. But it is the Amour Courtois (courtly love) that blended both erotic desire and spiritual aspirations for which they are most remembered. Courtly love was seen to have six attributes:
– Literary – made popular first in song and verse and then carried out in real life.
– Aristocratic – practised by Lords and Ladies in palaces and chateaux.
– Secret – no-one else must know about it and so it included secret meetings, hidden codes of conduct, gestures and tokens.
– Ritual – included the exchange of gifts and tokens. The woman was the dominant partner and received songs, poems, flowers and favours from her besotted Knight. He would try to make himself worthy of her through deeds of derring-do. She was only required to give a nod of approval for unrequited love was part of the game.
– Adulterous – eventually it included extra-marital rumpy-pumpy as a way of escaping from the marriages of convenience, made for economic or political reasons. Troubadors were cavalier about the concept of marriage seeing it as a ploy of the Church. Their ideal was a relationship based simply on a meeting of minds, bodies and souls.

They accompanied their poetry and songs with a range of musical instruments notably the lute, the cornemuse (a bit like a bagpipe), rebec, tambourine, cithern and psaltery.

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Inevitably as the Church escalated its war against the Cathars the culture of the Troubadors declined leaving other poets such as Chaucer, Dante and Malory to carry forward their work.