Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cathar Castles Of France

France has an extraordinary and rich heritage which has left its mark on much of the country, nowhere more so than in its castles.

The oldest and most fascinating castles in France are perhaps the so-called cathar castles, found in the Languedoc region. The date when they were constructed is unclear, although it was generally around the 10th century. The castles were built on high rocky needles, in inaccessible and remote places.

These castles owe their notoriety to the peace loving cathars who become established in the region around the 11th century, in a movement that gained popularity very quickly.

The catholic church at the time felt threatened by the cathars, who preached values of chastity, vegetarianism, and equality of women, but had little time for the pomp of the church.

Eventually the church felt a need to put an end to the cathars, and they commanded a crusade, much like the earlier crusades to the Middle East, to restore order and Catholic values.

Led by a cruel man called Simon de Montfort, the crusade spent many years hunting down and killing the cathars. Whole villages and towns were laid to waste, and the inhabitants butchered. On one famous occasion when attacking a town he was asked how the soldiers would recognise the cathars, so they could kill them and leave the innocent.

"Kill them all, God will know his own" was de Montforts reply.

The hilltop castles became a place of refuge for the cathars, where they could hold out against the barbarity of the crusades. Even with a large army the castles were almost undefeatable. As a result the crusaders resorted to other tactics to persuade the castles to surrender.

On one occasion, at the Chateau de Lastours, the siege had gone on for a long time without success. In an attempt to force the cathars to leave the castle, de Montfort rounded up the local villagers, cut off their lips and ears and gouged out their eyes - all except one prisoner who was left with one eye - and tied them together. The one eyed man was then forced to lead the others to the castle doorway. On that occasion it only strengthened the resolve of the cathars to stay in the castle!

After this terrible period of history the castles found themselves on the frontier with Spain and were used as army barracks for several centuries - until a peace treaty in the 17th century moved the border further south. From that time on the castles were left abandoned, and fell into disrepair.

During the last few decades some of the castles have been partially renovated, and can now be visited by the public. Peyrepertuse and Queribus castles are among the most popular, and provide a fascinating and poignant insight into life as it was 1000 years ago.

By Marcus Smith
By Marcus Smith

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