Now that Dancing with Spies is out in the world competing for sales and my website has been updated, I thought I would talk about the area of France described by roadside signs as Cathar Country.
This is an area in the south of the country in the shadow of the high Pyrenees – an area of deep wooded valleys and rushing rivers carrying the melt-waters from the mountains. Rocky peaks peep out of the thick forests, often crowned with the remains of ancient castles. It is a truly beautiful and sometimes forbidding region, part of the old Languedoc, and this was the chosen last refuge of the Cathar heretics.
The area first became known to modern international travellers through the films of Henry Lincoln and the book which he co-wrote with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Their work drew many other writers to the area (most famously Kate Mosse in Labyrinth and Dan Brown in The da Vinci Code). My own novel The Secret of the Cathars is almost wholly set in this fascinating area.
This region, south of the reconstructed ancient walled city of Carcassonne, has long been one of the historic centres of civilisations in Europe. The Romans developed the area after they had occupied Gaul. Then, in the fifth century, Rhedae (close to the modern small town of Rennes-le-Chateau) became one of the capital cities of the Visigoths and, it is rumoured, the location of their fabulously wealthy treasury. By the twelfth century AD the area was the centre of the Languedoc (meaning language of the South – one of the origins of Catalan and a lot of modern French) and was one of the most civilised societies in medieval Europe – the home of the troubadours, the centre of knightly conduct, the home of individual liberty.
At the same time the Roman Catholic Church had become a byword for impious behaviour. Many of the clergy were idle or absent, drawing excessive funds for doing very little. The lower classes ignored them. The nobility held them in contempt. Out of this disaffection grew the Cathar heresy. It’s roots and development are described in Massacre at Montsegur by Zoe Oldenbourg.
I will tell you about the Albigensian Crusade and what happened to the Cathars next week.