As I neared the line of mountains in front of me, the outlines of the castle of Peyrepertuse materialized almost magically on top of what had previously appeared to be only a heavy crest of rock. Or, more accurately, I now could distinguish that a castle existed on the rocks, growing upward almost organically.
A crest of rock – or is there a castle up there too?
Closer still, the view from the ticket booth showed a massive prow of castle butting up against a leaden sky. I bought my ticket and started up the path just to the right of the booth. The narrow trail began with a modest uphill stretch through the shelter of a forest, which muffled out the sounds of all but my feet tramping over dirt scattered with leaves and veined with roots.
After a few minutes, I emerged from the trees and followed the path as it curved left onto the rocky crest looking down on the opposite side of the hills from where I’d parked. Below, the village of Duilhac could be seen nestled into a fold of the valley, its downy blanket of fields drawn up to its neck. The track now became more rugged, crisscrossing humps of weathered limestone as it ascended the ridge toward the castle, but it was also lined with a surprising abundance of wildflowers in an array of colors. A spray of tiny pink stars lit up a shady patch of grass; a glory of gold and white blooms bobbed on green waves of undergrowth; and a low plant sported an unlikely profusion of pink trumpets.
Pink trumpet-shaped flowers overlook the little town of Duilhac
I’d eaten my picnic lunch just a few minutes earlier in the comfort of my car in the parking lot at Queribus. With the odd sprinkle of rain spotting my windshield, I had driven toward Peyrepertuse with a certain urgency: I didn’t want to be rained out. The narrow but well-kept road followed the rolling contours of the land through vineyards and fields. To my right, the little town of Cucugnan offered no lure from its perch on the rounded shoulder of a hill. But this village has a place in French folk literature as the setting for the centuries-old tale of the Curate (clergyman) of Cucugnan, who gave a sermon that so vividly evoked the horrors of hell that his parishioners became renowned for their piety. The story is a reminder of the centrality of religion in European life in the Middle Ages. From kings down to the lowest peasant, the state of one’s soul was the overriding concern in life.
The long and winding road
In the Middle Ages, kings controlled the military power, but the Catholic Church was the real political and economic superpower. The Church exercised its power through its monopoly on salvation, as it was considered the sole ticket-taker for entrance to heaven. Even kings bowed before the Pope. For example, the Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled over lands that are now part of Germany, though chosen in his own country, was sanctioned and crowned by the Pope. The common folk paid tithes, which were used to build often lavish churches, while the wealthy ensured their futures in paradise by leaving vast sums of money to the church to have masses said for their souls. Many bishops lived like princes, richly robed and jeweled, pampered with all the comforts of table and palace, and the priestly vow of chastity was observed rather, um, erratically. It’s ironic that while the people of the age were deeply concerned with matters of the spirit, many members of the clergy were at least as concerned with temporal as religious matters.
A sea of colorful wildflowers
People usually think of the Crusades in the context of wars against the Muslims in the Middle East and the Inquisition as designed to eradicate Judaism and Islam in Spain, but such events also occurred in southern France against the Cathars, a sect of puritanical Christians based in Languedoc from around 1000 to 1250. The Cathars were also called Albigensians because many of them came from around the Languedoc city of Albi, hence the name "Albigensian crusade." Catharism rose from a very different interpretation of just a few verses of the New Testament, but what is known about their beliefs comes only from the reports of their opponents, as all their own documents were destroyed during the crusade.
A spray of pink stars
The Cathars believed that God was all good, so nothing evil could have been created by him. They believed the spirit was good, while the physical world was evil. Consequently, their concern with the life of the here and now was very limited. They considered poverty virtuous and celibacy the preferred state for all people. Forbidden to kill either animals or people, they were vegetarian, nonviolent, and pacifist, and they treated women and men as equals. Their clergy were known as "perfects" or "good men" because they lived out the strictest tenets of the religion. Perfects practiced a trade or begged a subsistence from those they preached to rather than presiding at a church. Cathars did not have rituals such as mass, communion, or marriage, and they had no religious obligations beyond pledging to receive the consolamentum, a sort of baptism, before death, which would purify their spirits so they could enter heaven.
Wildflowers and limestone outcropping
The excesses of some of the Catholic clergy in Languedoc disgusted the devout local citizens. In 1200, for example, the Archbishop of Narbonne was admonished by the Pope to "show less interest in money and more in souls," but it would be 12 more years before he was removed from his position for avarice and depravity. As would happen again during the Reformation, many people were drawn to an alternate Christian religion, in this instance Catharism, whose elders practiced what they preached. For a time, Languedoc, distant from Rome, went its own way. The wealthy and tolerant nobles of the region welcomed Cathars in their communities and appointed local Catholic bishops who would turn a blind eye toward the growing Cathar movement because of their allegiance to these lords. But eventually, the Catholic Church noticed that France’s wealthiest province was increasingly sending comparatively little income to Rome, and the Pope decided something must be done about the Cathars.
First view of the castle
Storm clouds were gathering ominously above the Cathars in 1207 as Pope Innocent III began to reach some important decisions regarding these French heretics, and their future was increasingly in jeopardy. Rain clouds were gathering above me, too. I figured I’d better not linger too long. Fortunately, the path widened and flattened as it neared the castle, making the walking much easier. I was almost there, and none too soon.