THEOSOPHY, Vol. 53, No. 6, April, 1965
(Pages 179-185; Size: 20K)


[In any age, when a doctrine is taken to be a truth, and when fanaticism compels lip service to exclusive group beliefs, the ideas of Theosophy seem buried and forgotten. We discover, however, that this is never entirely the case. The insistences of dogma and prejudice are like the snows which hide the promise of spring. But seeds survive beneath the snow and, even during the darkest centuries of Western history, there was heat and warmth enough under the surface to allow some of these seeds to germinate. In a sense, then, the history of the relationship between "heretics" and the "renaissance" is the history of every age.

Of the ten articles comprising the series, "Heretics and the Renaissance," the first seven are derived entirely from recognized historical sources; the remaining three consist solely of quotations from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, making, in effect, a review in the light of Theosophy of the main ideas dealt with earlier. The theosophical student who has assembled this material has done what H.P.B. spoke of doing in her Introduction to The Secret Doctrine --put together "a nosegay of culled flowers," adding only "the string that ties them." Editors, THEOSOPHY]


[Part 3 of a 10-part series]

THE anti-sacerdotal heresies of the Middle Ages were directed against the abuses in doctrine and practice which priestcraft had invented to enslave the souls of men. In briefly reviewing the vicissitudes of the heretics it must be borne in mind that with scarce an exception the authorities are exclusively their antagonists and persecutors. Saving a few Waldensian tracts and a single Catharan ritual, their literature has wholly perished. (Lea I, 61-2.)

The population and civilization of the midi [in France] were wholly different from those of the north. A strange admixture of races rendered the citizens of Narbonne or Marseilles quite different from the inhabitants of Paris -- quite as different as the Langue d'Oc from the Langue d'Oyl. The feudal tie which bound the Count of Toulouse, or the Marquis of Provence, or the Duke of Aquitaine to the King of Paris or the Emperor was but feeble, and when the last named fief was carried by Eleanor to Henry II, the rival pretensions of England and France preserved the virtual independence of the great feudatories of the South, leading to antagonisms which came to full fruition in the Albigensian crusades. (Lea I, 66-7.)

The contrast of civilization was as marked as that of race. Nowhere in Europe had culture and luxury made such progress as in the south of France. Chivalry and poetry were assiduously cultivated by the nobles. At the brilliant courts of Toulouse, of Provence, of Montpelier, lords and ladies listened with rapture to the songs and tales of the troubadours, who were gladly received in all the castles, where the nobles of both sexes engaged in poetry. All this no doubt goes to prove the high degree of culture attained in those regions by the feudal society of that day. Even in the cities, proud of their wealth, enriched through their trade with the orient or by their industry, citizens boasted a degree of education and enlightenment unknown elsewhere. Nowhere in Europe, moreover, were the clergy more negligent in their duties or more despised by the people. There was little earnestness of religious conviction among either prelates or nobles to stimulate persecution, so that there was considerable freedom of belief. In no other land did the despised Jew enjoy such privileges. His right to hold land in franc-alleu was similar to that of the Christians; he was admitted to public office, and his administrative ability rendered him a favorite in such capacity with both prelate and noble; his synagogues were undisturbed, and the Hebrew school of Narbonne was renowned in Israel as the home of the Kimchis. (Lea I, 67.) Provence was even filled with Jewish poets and philosophers. (Schmidt I, 66.)

Under such influences, those who really possessed religious convictions were but little deterred by prejudice or the fear of persecution from criticising the shortcomings of the Church, or from seeking what might more nearly respond to their aspirations. (Lea I, 67.) The Church in demanding a submission which to the lords seemed incompatible with the honor and the joyous liberty of the life of chivalry, saw the most powerful men of the country drift away; they resented its authority and were indifferent to the dangers facing catholicism. The clergy itself was affected by the same spirit; some of its members were to be found among the troubadours and most of them, far from setting an example of Christian austerity, were eager to gain the friendship of the lords in order to share their pleasures and enjoy their protection. Those who benefited most by this freedom of thought were the heretics. (Schmidt I, 66.)

[Of the more durable and formidable heresies which took stubborn root in the south of France during the twelfth century none is better known than that of the Cathari, being variously called Pataris, Poblicans, Bulgars, Albigenses. Their history, as already mentioned, is difficult to trace due to the fact that the only source of information available is the testimony of their enemies. The origin of the sect is very obscure and a number of often contradictory theories have been advanced. C. Schmidt, considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject, disagrees with the view held by other scholars that Catharism is a renewal of Manichaeism. He thinks the Cathari have an origin independent of earlier dualistic heresies, to be looked for in Slavish countries, and that it is from there that they spread over the rest of Europe. H. C. Lea, another authority, disagrees with Schmidt and points out]: "A further irrefrangible evidence of the derivation of Catharism from Manichaeism is furnished by the sacred thread and garment which were worn by all the Perfect among the Cathari. This custom is too peculiar to have an independent origin, and is manifestly the Mazdean kosti and saddarah, the sacred thread and shirt, the wearing of which was essential to all believers, and the use of which by both Zends and Brahmans shows that its origin is to be traced to the prehistoric period anterior to the separation of those branches of the Aryan family. Among the Cathari the wearer of the thread and vestment was what was known among the inquisitors as the 'haereticus indutus' or 'vestitus,' initiated into all the mysteries of the heresy." (Lea I, 92.)

The Cathari inherited certain doctrines of eastern origin, such as the Manichaean dualism, docetism in relation to the person of Christ [that his body was merely a phantom or appearance], and a theory of metempsychosis. They seem, like the Manichees, to have disowned the authority of the Old Testament; and the division of their adherents into perfecti and credentes is similar to the Manichaen distinction between electi and auditores. The statement that they rejected marriage, often made by Roman Catholics, has probably no other foundation in fact than that they denied that marriage was a sacrament; and many other statements as to their doctrine and practice must be received at least with suspicion as coming from prejudiced and implacable opponents. (Britannica, 9th ed.: "Albigenses.")

The Catharist system [according to Schmidt] claims to be a philosophy and a religion, metaphysics and a cult, a doctrine for the mind and a guide for life. In Catharism the difference between spirit and matter is irreconcilable; one is the principle of good, the other of evil; these two Catharism considers as essentially and absolutely opposed to each other. In the system of absolute dualism, good and evil are equally eternal; there is no final victory of the good God over evil; never will the two opposites be reconciled, the evil God will always reign side by side with the good God and will never cease to be his antagonist. (Schmidt II, 167-8.)

Among the early Christians [Lea states] there was a strong tendency to adopt the theory of transmigration as an explanation of the apparent injustice of the judgments of God. (Lea I, 99 fn.) Human souls are all fallen spirits passing through probation, and this was generally the belief of all the sects of the Cathari, leading to a theory of transmigration very similar to that of Buddhism, though modified by the belief that Christ's earthly mission was the redemption of these fallen spirits. Until the perfected soul could return to its Creator, as in the moksha, or absorption in Brahma of the Hindu, it was forced to undergo repeated existences. (Lea I, 98-9.)

The doctrine of the Paulicians was identical with that of the Albigenses in all essentials. The simple dualism of Mazdeism, which regards the universe as the mingled creations of Ormazd and Ahriman, each seeking to neutralize the labors of the other, and carrying on interminable warfare in every detail of life and nature, explains the existence of evil in a manner to enlist man to contribute his assistance to Ormazd in the eternal conflict, by good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. (Lea I, 91.)

Maurice Magre in his Magicians, Seers, and Mystics (E. P. Dutton, N.Y., 1932, p. 96) calls the Albigenses "western Buddhists, who introduced a blend of Gnostic Christianity into the Oriental doctrine," and he expresses the opinion that the Albigenses of Languedoc possessed the truth in all its purity (page 11).

[Blodwen Davies in an article entitled "The Peaceful Heretics" (Manas, June 3, 1953) points out that] "the Albigenses and some other sects may have grafted onto the apostolic Christian teachings, traditions of the Gnostics, or it may be that remnants of ancient Gnostic groups which once flourished in southern France, grafted the Christian teachings onto their more ancient ones."

[An unusually interesting account of the origin and history of the Albigenses is given by Görres in his Die Christliche Mystik (Regensburg, 1840, Verlag von G. Joseph Manz), Vol. III, pages 26-32, where he says]: "In its original form Manichaeism, derived mainly from the Zendavesta, was too far removed from the Christian teachings for Manichaeism to assert itself against Christianity in the long run. It therefore adopted various more compromising forms and thereby succeeded in surviving until a late date. Toward the end of the fourth century it spread as Priscillianism to the farthest West, to Spain and Galicia, where it struck such deep roots that at the close of the sixth century it had not yet been eradicated. About the middle of the following century it reappeared through Constantine in Syrian Armenia as Paulicianism, then spread through Asia Minor during the eighth century, and gained still more adherents when, rejuvenated by Sergius, it even partly enjoyed towards the end of this period the favor of the Byzantine emperors. Soon after, however, in the middle of the ninth century, the pride of the sect precipitated a warfare that lasted for almost a century and ended with its defeat. But when its remains were finally transplanted to Thracia into the valleys of the Haemus Mountains, they combined with others previously brought there and began to spread anew under the name of Bogomiles. Psellus became acquainted with them, or with a related sect, around the middle of the eleventh century, under the name of Messalians, Euchites or Enthusiasts. In the meantime, however, they had spread more and more to the West through Bosnia and Dalmatia, by means of trade connections and missions, and even before the year 1000 had reached Italy, gaining many followers specially in Milan. As they had immigrated from foreign countries they were called Passagini, and also Bulgarians because coming primarily from Bulgaria. They, however, considering themselves the pre-eminently pure, called themselves Cathari, i.e., Puritans. They were also known by such names as Patarini and Piphlers, and again Beghards and Lollards. While their doctrine in the South reached as far as the Pontifical State, it quickly spread from Italy to France, where it had been germinating in secret for a long time. In 1017 it suddenly appeared openly among the clergy of Orleans. From there it soon spread into several provinces of the country, and particularly in the Aquitanian South gaining such strength that as early as 1030 a synod had to be held against it in Toulouse, followed by others in the course of the 12th century, until finally its growth in those regions was checked by the bloody Albigensian war, which, however, did not bring about its extinction. For the heretics had not confined themselves to France, but taking this country again as a point of departure they had invaded all the lower Western countries; having appeared as early as 1052 in the Goslar region, they had migrated to the lower Rhine, and from Vasconia in the middle of the twelfth century to England; their associations had also covered Spain. With the emigrants of the old world they went to the new world where they established themselves."

[Concerning the character of these medieval sectarians most writers agree that it was one of the most remarkable in the record of civilization: "a combination of unflagging industry, cold common sense and ardent mysticism," according to Bayley.] The Albigenses were greatly beloved by their neighbors. Their industry, morality, and general sweetness of character, led to their being known proverbially as "the good people." Their Italian name "Cathari" is from the Greek root signifying "the pure ones." (Bayley, pp. 12, 21.)

Edmond Holmes, in his excellent brief treatise entitled The Holy Heretics (pp. 75-6) has this to say: "Such evidence as is available, including the testimony of the enemies of the Catharists, goes to show that the general level of Catharist morality was far higher than that of Catholic. This it might well be, for in that period morality in all Christian countries was at a low ebb. The Church itself set the world a bad example. The worldliness and immorality of the priesthood were among the causes which favored the spread of Catharism and other heresies. The Catharist ministers and perfecti set their followers an example of ascetic purity, self-abnegation, devotion to duty, and service to others. From all the accounts the morals of the Cathari were not only high for the age in which they lived, but would have been considered high in any age. It is high time that the aspersions on their character and conduct which have been passed on, with the connivance of the Church, from generation to generation, by a succession of irresponsible historians, not one of whom had studied the available documentary evidence, should be withdrawn."

Not only were the Albigenses exponents of pure Christianity, but they were devoted apostles of Education. They would have endorsed Meredith's dictum that Culture is half-way to Heaven. Among their earliest documents (circa 1100) is an anthology of philosophic sentences entitled Li Parlar de li Philosophes et Doctoro, and a catechism of instruction for children. They maintained night schools where in secrecy was taught the art of reading. Berard comments on what he terms a fact unique in the history of the Middle Ages, namely that every Vaudois possessed a rudimentary education. (Bayley, p. 82.)

The extensive popular literature of the Cathari has utterly perished, saving a Catharan version of the New Testament in Romance and a book of ritual. Their strict morality was never corrupted. (Lea I, 101.) Their aim was to restore the primitive purity of the Church, to understand the Church in its spiritual meaning, and to represent it in its ideal sanctity and perfection. They accused the catholics not only of having mixed many extraneous things with the teachings of the New Testament, but also of regarding Christianity from an inferior and material point of view, and of having been unable to free themselves from Jewish influences, by not rejecting the books of the old alliance. The Catharists protested against the Roman traditions and institutions, against external worship ("le culte trop exterieur"), against the vices of many members of the clergy; they protested against the very existence of the Catholic Church. (Schmidt II, 171.) In the midst of a catholic world Catharism, the religion of the Albigenses, established a church which for several centuries was able to resist all measures taken for its destruction. (Schmidt I, Preface.)

The influence of Catharism on the Catholic Church was enormous. To counteract it celibacy was finally imposed on the clergy, and the great mendicant orders evolved; while the constant polemic of the Cathar teachers against the cruelty, rapacity and irascibility of the Jewish tribal god led the church to prohibit the circulation of the Old Testament among the laymen. The sacrament of "extreme unction" was also evolved by way of competing with the death-bed consolamentum of the Catharists. (Britannica, 11th ed.: "Cathars.")

* * *

Sources used in this installment: Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Vol. I; C. Schmidt, Histoire et Doctrine de la Secte des Cathares Ou Albigeois (Paris, 1848); Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth edition, under "Albigenses"; Maurice Magre, Magicians, Seers, and Mystics (E. P. Dutton, N.Y., 1932); Blodwen Davies, "The Peaceful Heretics," (Manas, June 3, 1953); J. v. Görres, Die Christliche Mystik; Harold Bayley, A New Light on the Renaissance; Edmond Holmes, The Holy Heretics (Watts & Co., London, 1948); Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, under "Cathars".

(To be continued)

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