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Aug. 28, 2020

Cistercian Monks, the Albigensian Crusade, and the French Conquest of Occitania by Leland Renato Grigoli

Cistercian Monks, the Albigensian Crusade, and the French Conquest of Occitania by Leland Renato Grigoli

Dr. Leland Grigoli tells the tragic story of the Albigensian Crusade & the political implications of the holy war.


[Gary]   And we’re back! Thanks for your patience as I did some moving and researching this past month. Episode 40 will be out next Saturday, and I will be back on my regular schedule of main series episodes every other week, with guest episodes when possible.

Today’s special episode is by Ph.D candidate Leland Renato Grigoli. Leland, is a medieval scholar currently finishing his Ph.D at Brown University, with a dissertation on Cistercian colonialism in Champagne, Occitania, and Catalunya in the 12th to 14th centuries. With multiple scholarly articles and numerous conference presentations at Brown, Princeton and Harvard among others, Leland is a major figure in medieval Western Christian studies.

Today, he will discuss the Albigensian Crusade, a pivotal, if often overlooked, episode in the history of France. This holy war in Western Europe pitted Catholics against supposed heretics, northern lords against their southern counterparts, and was crucial in the formation of France.

As some of you probably know, France is not a homogenous country, and many different cultures exist within the Hexagon. In fact, the French language wasn’t spoken as the main language by the majority of French people until the Second Empire when Napoleon III forced it across schools in order to bring unity to his country. The largest rival to French was in fact, Occitan, the language of the south. The south of France has maintained a distinct culture and identity as a Mediterranean-focused region, as opposed to the northern Atlantic-facing France, something which goes back all the way to pre-Roman times and which we discussed in Episode 8. As Leland explains, the Albigensian Crusade was not just a conflict over two different sects of Christianity; it was a violent power struggle between France and Occitania that forever changed the two.



Cistercian Monks, the Albigensian Crusade, and the French Conquest of Occitania

Leland Renato Grigoli


The 22nd of July, 1209. An army of crusading knights has surrounded and sacked the city of Béziers, a medium-sized town on France’s Mediterranean coast, just north of Narbonne. As they rampaged through the city, the crusaders asked their leader, Arnaud Amalric, papal legate and head of the powerful and pious monks of the Cistercian Order, what they should do with its people? The crusaders had, after all, attacked Béziers because it was infamous for sheltering Christian heretics from a sect the northerners called Cathari—Cathars. How could they tell these Cathars from good Christians? A later chronicler provides abbot Arnaud’s fateful response: Cadite eos; novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. Which translates to: Kill them all; God will sort it out.

According to contemporary accounts, the massacre at Béziers claimed some twenty thousand lives. But Béziers was only the first battle in a long, bloody conflict that raged across what is now southern France for the better part of two decades, a conflict historians now call “The Albigensian Crusade”. This war against Cathar heretics in Occitania is mostly forgotten to modern popular history, at least in the English-speaking world. Most people hearing the word “crusade” think of the Middle East, not Mediterranean France. They think “Christian versus Muslim”, not “Christian versus Christian”.

How did the Pope come to call a crusade against Christians, and in the heartland of Christian Europe? Why did northern French knights answer the Pope’s call? Why would a monk, a man who was supposed to remove himself from the world to pray, order the massacre of an entire city? The answer to these questions requires a deep exploration of the mutually-beneficial links between Church and State during the later middle ages. It is also a story with roots reaching back a century and more.

Its beginning lies in a genealogical mess.  In 1094, Count William IV of Toulouse (and thus feudal lord over Occitania) died.  His only surviving legitimate offspring was a daughter, Philippa, to whom he willed the county of Toulouse. But Count William also had a brother, Raymond. Despite Philippa’s legal right to the county, it was Raymond who had the power, having long governed Toulouse while his brother William was off on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Raymond thus took over the county with little fuss or trouble following his brother’s death, ruling as Count Raymond IV of Toulouse.


Those familiar with the First Crusade will recognize Raymond as one of its leaders, but that is a story for another time, because Philippa was not out yet. After Raymond seized her rightful inheritance, she married Duke William IX of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful nobles in western Europe. Over the next three decades, control over Toulouse changed hands several times, but the important outcome of this game of thrones for our story is that the dukes of Aquitaine had a strong claim to the county of Toulouse.

Phillipa’s son was Duke William X of Aquitaine. William X’s firstborn daughter and heir was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was married first to King Louis VII of France, and then, following an annulment in 1152, to Henry Plantagenet. Henry also had a strong claim to the county of Toulouse. It was a claim Henry tried to enforce almost immediately upon his accession to the English crown in 1154 as King Henry II, raising what was possibly the largest army of his entire reign to do so.  He did not succeed, but he also did not give up. Conflict between the kings of England and the counts of Toulouse would continue, on and off, for the better part of four decades. At its end in the 1190s, the dispute over the succession of Toulouse had dragged on for more than a century.


Back in 1113, while Duke William IX was fighting with Raymond IV’s successors over Toulouse, a twenty-three year old Burgundian noble named Bernard, the third of six sons, arrived with thirty followers at the gates of a small, failing monastery called Cîteaux. This sudden infusion of manpower revitalized Cîteaux, and within two years, Bernard was sent out to create his own monastery, Clairvaux. Bernard of Clairvaux—that is, SAINT Bernard of Clairvaux—quickly became the single most powerful individual within twelfth-century western Christendom. A passionate orator and fanatical Catholic, driven by a seemingly limitless internal energy, Bernard was an adviser to popes and kings, and the organizer and primary preacher of the Second Crusade. Bernard’s legacy is long: his treatise given to Pope Eugene the Third, entitled De consideratione—On contemplation—is still read closely by those aspiring to the Papacy. As abbot of Clairvaux, Bernard oversaw the expansion of the Order of Cîteaux—the Cistercians, for short—from this handful of houses to over three hundred monasteries by the time of his death in 1153. In this process of expansion, Cistercians often took up “troubled” or “abandoned” lands from a noble patron and made them peaceful and productive. The Cistercians were, in other words, adept at negotiating deals with nobles over lands those nobles did not fully control, but would like to. This is a skill that would be of vital importance in Occitania.

Bernard of Clairvaux was also a fierce opponent of heretics. From the early twelfth century, heretics had been popping up with an ever-increasing frequency across western Europe. The recent rediscovery of Aristotle gave Catholic theologians tools to identify and classify these heretics according to their belief. Or perhaps these so-called “heretics” had always existed, and it was only with the structured theology of the twelfth century that they began to be identified. Or perhaps there never were any heretics; perhaps they were created by anxious or ill-intentioned churchmen in much the same way opponents of western (and particularly American) imperialism tend to be labeled “terrorists.” Scholars do not agree which of these three possibilities—or any combination or permutation thereof—is correct. In fact, they disagree with each other very, very loudly; I myself hesitate to speak my opinion for fear of being shouted at, but I think there is simply too much smoke for there not to be a fire underneath, if you take my meaning. In any case, people like Bernard of Clairvaux certainly believed that heretics existed, and that is enough for our purposes here.

One of these heretical groups was known to twelfth-century churchmen as “Cathars”, or sometimes “Albigensians”, since there were supposedly a great number of them in the area around the Occitanian city of Albi.  The Cathars, if they existed, never called themselves Cathars, but rather “Good Men”. If we believe our sources, these Good Men were dualists—not because they liked to play with swords, but because they believed that there was an evil God who was the equal and opposite of a good God.

In 1145, Bernard of Clairvaux traveled to Occitania to preach against the Cathars.  This trip was not particularly successful. At one stop, in a town called Verfeil, Bernard began to preach an anti-heretical sermon to the assembled townspeople, nobles and commoners alike. The nobles quickly became disgusted and stomped out; the townspeople followed. Bernard followed too, continuing his sermon loudly, until he was in the town square, shouting at the barred doors and closed windows of the nobles’ stone houses. When he was finished speaking, Bernard did as the Apostles when they had encountered recalcitrant non-believers: he shook the dust off his sandals and left town.

Although he failed to find many converts, Bernard’s preaching mission was, in one way, a success: several Occitanian monasteries decided to join the Cistercian Order. The Occitanian monasteries that decided to join the Cistercians were often foundations which had been established within the past fifty years. They were monasteries which struggled to find local support and patronage. Most of the noble families in the region had long-standing relationships with older monasteries, and saw no reason to help these young upstarts. Thus, these foundations were mainly composed of men drawn from a rising class of wealthy merchants and tradesmen, rather than old noble families. Further, most of the bishops in the region were weak, poor, uninterested in new monasteries, or all three. The Cistercians therefore provided a life-line to these troubled foundations by giving them the prestige of membership in a trans-European Order, and the network of benefits that came with it.

The Cistercians were, as I have said, adept at negotiating deals with nobles over lands those nobles did not fully control, but would like to. In Occitania, those nobles were not the semi-local potentates with whom the Cistercians usually dealt. Instead, they were more often than not external powers: the Papacy and the kings of England and France. In these negotiations, the interests of the Occitanian Cistercians were often in opposition to the Occitanian nobility. The Cistercians were usually from Occitania’s urban nouveau riche, and, as Bernard of Clairvaux failure at Verfeil illustrated, the so-called Cathar heretics were from the old rural nobility.

The results of this class conflict are as we might expect. In short order, we see Occitanian Cistercians calling on outside forces to come to the region and fight against Cathar heretics. The first of these calls came in the late 1170s from a Cistercian named Henry of Marcy, papal legate and the abbot of Bernard’s old abbey of Clairvaux, who appealed to King Henry II of England to come to Occitania and fight heretics. King Henry, as we will recall, was usually more than happy to come to Occitania and fight almost anything in his quest to claim the County of Toulouse.

Henry of Marcy’s campaign against heretics plunged Occitania into chaos. In addition to forces from England, mercenaries flocked to the region, working for both sides and looting the countryside when there was no one to pay them. This disorder was, of course, blamed on heretics sowing discord, further fuel for calls from both the Cistercians and the Papacy for outside intervention. All that was needed to kindle the blaze was a spark.

When Lotario dei Conti di Segni ascended to the Chair of St. Peter as Pope Innocent III in 1198, papal power was at its height. Innocent knew it; he showed no hesitation in using the considerable temporal and spiritual power his predecessors had amassed. Innocent took a special interest in those he deemed to be enemies of Christendom.  Occitania was a particular subject of his attentions.Innocent appointed several legates simultaneously—almost always Cistercians—to help combat heresy in the region, and, in 1203, granted a crusading indulgence, remitting the sins of those who traveled to Occitania to fight.

But the merda really hit the flabellum in 1208, when Peter of Castelnau, a monk from the Cistercian monastery of Fontfroid and papal legate, was murdered on the road. Blame was immediately placed on Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, and calls to crusade were promulgated throughout northern France. The call to arms received a significant response, though the kings of England and France stayed out of the fray. Innocent then charged the legate Arnaud Amalric, as well as the knight Simon de Montfort, with waging the crusade.

Arnaud was a man with the perfect pedigree for the job. As abbot of Cîteaux, he was leader of the Cistercian Order. Arnaud had gotten to where he was through those talents which were so valuable to the Cistercians: he was an expert administrator and negotiator. Arnaud had begun his career as abbot of the Catalunyan foundation of Poblet,  At Poblet, Arnaud had cut his teeth on the task of bringing the surrounding countryside, recently taken from Muslims, under the control of his monastery, and, by proxy, under the control of the Crown of Aragón. His success at Poblet had seen Arnaud elected to the abbacy of Grandselve, located between Toulouse and Montauban, the center of Cistercian anti-heretical efforts in Occitania, and then to Cîteaux. Arnaud, then, was, like many Cistercians, a man who knew how to wield power in the task of pacification. It is unlikely that his fateful command to massacre the town of Béziers was the product of bloodthirsty rage; rather, it was a cold and deliberate calculation.

As leader of the Albigensian Crusade, Arnaud used his position as a middleman between the Papacy and the people of Occitania to his own advantage. He sought, almost obsessively, to depose the archbishop of Narbonne and take his job, although he only succeeded when the archbishop died of old age. As archbishop, he also tried to join the position of viscount of Narbonne to the archbishopric. Some scholars have suggested that Arnaud’s interest in Narbonne stems from his own relationship to a cadet branch of the viscounts, a hypothesis strongly supported by Arnaud’s second name, Amalric, which is popular among the viscomital family.

Arnaud was probably too perfect for the job. He had a hard time knowing where the limits were. Innocent kept a careful eye on him, and sent frequent, angry letters when Arnaud overreached himself, such as when he tried to use crusading forces against the count-kings of Barcelona. This Cistercians, too, seem to have thought that Arnaud overreached. After his death, there was little interest in the sort of aggressive involvement in military campaigns and worldly preaching that Arnaud had advocated. These tasks would be handed over to the newly formed Dominican Order, who would, as domini canes, hounds of God, pursue the task with a fervent zeal.

But withdrawing from the extremes of Arnaud Amalric’s policies did not mean that the Cistercians in Occitania simply retreated to lives of quiet contemplation in their monasteries. They continued to serve as negotiators and intermediaries with external regional powers, and, in the 1220s, their efforts finally had success. In 1225, the council of Bourges excommunicated the new Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII, for heresy, and declared a new crusade against the south. This time, they would have royal company.

King Louis VIII of France, seeing Occitania ripe for the taking after well over a hundred years of conflict, decided to join the crusade, and invaded in force in the spring of 1226. Despite Louis VIII dying of dysentery in the same year, this was a fatal blow. Raymond VII was forced to sue for peace, and, in the 1229 Treaty of Paris, agreed to marry his daughter Joan to Alphonse, the younger brother of King Louis IX of France. Upon Raymond’s death, in other words, Alphonse would inherit the County and Toulouse would become part of France. The Treaty of Paris was negotiated using the Cistercians as intermediaries. For their pains, Cistercian houses in Occitania profited greatly; the treaty stipulated they receive great tracts of land confiscated from supposed Cathar heretics, as well as a massive payment in silver from the Count of Toulouse.


These lands given to the Cistercians were instrumental to the integration of Occitania into the kingdom of France. After all, the previous century of conflict had shown that a legal claim was hardly sufficient to hold a piece of land, and that it was difficult to translate military power into the authority of a ruler, to “win the hearts and minds”. Indeed, several revolts and a final massive anti-heretical purge in the early 1240s demonstrated that the old Occitanian nobility and the rural peasantry would not submit quietly.

The Cistercian solution was simple: they would found new towns. The Cistercians had long been recognized for their agrarian prowess, being able to turn rough country into productive farmland. But the lands they received under the terms of the Treaty of Paris were far to vast for the monks or their servants to farm them directly. Instead, the Cistercians, in collaboration with royal agents, chose the best farmland and sited new, planned towns there. These towns, known as bastides, were often fortified, and they were populated with peasants drawn from the surrounding “heretical” countryside. Today, archaeologists can still see a ring of depopulation around surviving bastide towns. Although I hasten to emphasize that contemporary sources indicate that this transfer of population was willing, the result of profitable lands being offered under good terms, we should still remain suspicious as to if this was always the case. The bastide, the resettlement of a population one wishes to control to a location where they can be controlled, is the idea at the start of a genealogy of ideas that leads to the encomienda and reconcentración policies used against aboriginals in the Spanish Americas, and, eventually, to the concentration camp.

The bastide was remarkably successful in controlling Occitania. There was little to no resistance against French rule after the 1240s, although supposed Cathar heretics were still caught and executed into the early fourteenth century. By then, Toulouse and its surroundings were an integrated, profitable part of the medieval French state, and the monks of the Cistercian Order were its administrators.







Sources and Further Reading:

Catherine Jean Barrett, “Origins of the French Bastides,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 3 (2018): 421–56.

Richard Benjamin, “A Forty Years War: Toulouse and the Plantagenets, 1156-96,” in Medieval Warfare 1000-1300, ed. John France, The International Library of Essays on Military History (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 323–38.

Fredric L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

  1. S. Hamilton, “The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade,” Journal of Church and State 41, no. 3 (1999): 610–11.

Charles Higounet, “Cisterciens et Bastides,” Le Moyen Age 56 (1950): 69–84.

Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Preaching in the Lord’s Vineyard: Cistercians, Heresy, and Crusade in Occitania, 1145-1229 (York: York Medieval Press, 2001).

  1. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (New York: Blackwell, 1987).

—————, The War on Heresy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Mark Pegg, “Heresy, Good Men, and Nomenclature,” in Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Work of R.I. Moore, ed. Michael Frassetto, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 129 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 227–40.

Adrian Randolph, “The Bastides of Southwest France,” The Art Bulletin 77, no. 2 (1995): 290–307.

Monique Zerner, ed., Inventer l’hérésie? discours polémiques et pouvoirs avant l’Inquisition, Collection du Centre d’études médiévales de Nice 2 (Nice: Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, 1998).