Catharism and the Albigensian Crusade

You might be wondering what Wagner's Parsifal has to do with a medieval crusade in what is now the south of France. After all, we know that Wagner's Grail knights are not Crusaders; according to the libretto, the tunics of the knights bear not the Cross but another symbol, the dove. They are no more Templars than are Wolfram's Templeisen, so called because they had their Grail Temple, rather than a church. But that in itself is odd: if this is a Christian community, why do they worship in a Temple? Wagner sets the outer acts of his drama in the mountains of northern Spain at a time when it was land between Christian Europe and Moorish Spain. Maybe he did so simply to emphasise that the Grail domain is on the edge of the Christian world or perhaps in some way located between areas of religious certainty; in religious "no-mans-land". It could also refer to one the "heretical" communities who were the target of the Albigensian Crusade in this region, at about the same time as Wolfram was writing his poem Parzival.


It is thought that Wolfram began writing Parzival in about 1200. At this time there were several different religious sects in what is now southern France, the Oc region or Languedoc, and in particular around the town of Albi. The Albigensians or Cathars were a sect with dualistic beliefs similar to those of the Manicheans. It has been suggested (in the writings of Otto Rahn, E. Anitchkof and J. Evola) that some of the ideas provided to Wolfram by the mysterious Kyot originated with this sect, with whom Kyot may have come into contact in Provence or the Languedoc. Although the surviving evidence indicates that they only studied the canonical Gospels, their beliefs seem more closely related to some of the Gnostic Gospels. The word Cathar comes from the Greek καθαροι, meaning Pure Ones. Little is known about them, because in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched a Crusade against these heretics that, in a succession of campaigns over a period of forty years, destroyed their communities with great cruelty. Later, the Catholic Church created the Inquisition, initially with the purpose of eliminating all traces of Cathar heresy from France, Spain and northern Italy.

What is known about the Cathars includes the following. The Pure Ones were strict vegetarians, abstaining from all animal products. They were celibate, although many of the ordinary believers were married. They worshipped a deity who was above Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. The latter appears to have been identified with the devil or Lucifer, and thus the Catholic Church (and presumably also the Jewish believers, although they seem to have been treated with unusual tolerance in this region) were regarded as devil-worshippers. The world had been created by Lucifer and belonged to the devil. They believed that Lucifer had waged war against Heaven, as a result of which souls had been trapped in fleshly bodies. We may note, in passing, that one of the stories about the origin of the Grail says that it was a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown. According to Wolfram and to the Wartburgskrieg, the Grail was a stone that was brought to the earth by the neutral angels, i.e. those who did not take sides in the warfare between God and Lucifer.

The Cathars awaited a Messiah who would be the son of a widow; like Parzival. One of their symbols was the dove, which according to Wolfram was the bird that brought a wafer to the Grail on each Good Friday. It is also said that they believed in reincarnation, and that through good works one could obtain redemption from sins committed in a previous life.

  • Zoé Oldenbourg, translated from the French by Peter Green. Massacre at Montségur. A History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1961, new edition 1997, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.
  • Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, translated from the Latin by W.A. and M.D. Sibly. The History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1998, The Boydell Press.

A good introduction to the story of the Cathars is provided by the lavishly documented CD set from Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI, The Forgotten Kingdom. They use music and words from the Middle Ages to tell the story. The three CD's are accompanied by an illustrated book, with the complete texts, in seven languages.

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