The Yellow Cross

The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars 1290-1329 - René Weis

The Cathars flourished in the south of France (and in Corsica and the north of Italy) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They were a Christian sect, but they were not Roman Catholics. They did not have a heirarchy of priests, bishops and cardinals: their equivalent of the Catholic priest was the Goodman or Perfect. Also (like the later Quakers) they had no sacraments as such, though they did practise the ‘consolamentum’, a ‘laying on of hands’ when a man or woman was ordained a Perfect or was approaching death.


They had little time for the Old Testament: their Scriptures were the four Gospels (they especially revered the Fourth Gospel) and the letters of St Paul. They were, to some extent at least, dualists, distinguishing between this world, the world of the children of darkness, and the Kingdom of God, the world of the children of light. They identified ‘the Prince of this World’ with the Pope of Rome. They seem to have believed in reincarnation, and were in theory against all forms of killing (including war and judicial execution): the Perfects at least were strictly vegetarian, and wandered the countryside in pairs, preaching their gospel. 


The ordinary people had only to compare this with the rich, corrupt Roman Church to decide which they preferred. 


During the twelfth century, the Cathar Church grew exponentially. Many of the noble families of the Midi (Languedoc) became converts. A clash was inevitable.


In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Languedoc was not at that time officially part of the Kingdom of France; so the Crusade had the enthusiastic support of the King of France, intent on enlarging his kingdom, and of the French nobles from the north, greedy for land. Slowly the Cathars were driven back to their final stronghold, the hilltop fortress of Montségur. Here, after a long seige, they surrendered. Hundreds were burnt.


It was over. But there were survivors in remote villages and (leading a double life) in towns.


This book is about the campaign against the children and grandchildren of those survivors which took place in the closing years of the thirteenth century and the early years of the fourteenth.


It is immensely detailed because their chief persecutors, the Inquisitors Geoffroy d’Ablis and Bernard Gui (yes, him, the one in The Name of the Rose) and Bishop Jacques Fournier (later Pope Benedict XII), kept records of every word given in testimony during the long trials, and these records have been preserved.


It is really quite fascinating. Many of the people lived in mountain villages and knew their way back and forth across the high passes of the Pyrenees – they took their sheep across to Spain for the winter and brought them back in spring (the transhumance) – and we see them eventually set up home in Catalonia when life in France becomes impossible. But even there – thanks to the presence of a traitor, an undercover agent of Fournier’s – the long arm of the Church reaches out and eventually finds most (but not all) of them, including “the last Perfect”, Guillaume Belibaste, who was burnt at the stake by the Archbishop of Narbonne in 1321.


History at its very best.


And the “yellow star” of the title? Cathars that the Inquisitors considered unimportant were released after questioning or after a term in prison; they were normally ordered to wear a yellow cross on the back and front of their clothes, just as Jews had to wear a yellow star.