The Cathars, declared heretics by the Catholic Church, believed that everything on earth was inherently evil, and only the spirit world is good.
The name Cathar comes from the Greek “Cathari,” meaning pure. They practiced a life of purity, abstaining from sex, rejecting all worldly riches and eating a vegetarian diet. Women were essentially equal to men.
The Cathars primarily settled in the Languedoc region of France. They condemned the greed and extravagance they perceived in the Catholic Church. Members of the sect traveled the countryside, dressed in rags and openly criticizing the old guard, and began to win over many rural peasants who related to their words.
They spoke in the native language of the commoners, yet the Catholic literature was in Latin and understood by the clergy and the wealthy.
Pope Innocent III declared war on the Cathars in 1209 with the launch of the Albigensian Crusade, which ultimately wiped out the group. In one of the first battles, crusaders massacred thousands in Beziers. They seized and captured Carcassonne, then Toulouse, then Avignon.
Before crusaders found success, however, they encountered many challenges and only successfully killed off the last of the Cathars in the 1320s, more than a century later. The first siege at the mountaintop castle at Montsegur was in 1241, and failed. In 1244, after 10 months of attack, the crusaders finally conquered Montsegur.
Cathars were told to repent or walk into flames, and about 200 chose the fire.
Nearby, the stronghold at Queribus was the last to resist the crusaders before being captured in 1255. Still, pockets of Catharism remained until 1328, when 500 of the sect were walled into Lombrives cave.
It is quite easy to plan your own tour of Cathar Country, using Carcassonne as a base since it is almost dead center. If you rent a car, it is just an hour and a half of scenic driving to Montsegur, an hour to Beziers or an hour to Toulouse. All of those routes are dotted with Cathar attractions.