Foxes In The Vineyard Of The Lord: The Language of the Cathars.

by Katharine Fellows.

‘The Albigensian Crusade slashes through the history of France and the Church like a gaping wound’ wrote Joseph Strayer. Concerned with the larger historical themes of state building and bureaucracy, the Cathars as Strayer argued, ‘forced the French king and his ministers to bring order and rationality into a post- frontier society at a time of social upheaval and tension across Europe’. The fracturing of society and the feeling of social dislocation has been proposed by R.I Moore as the reason for the attraction of heresy.

Today the Cathars have come to represent southern France’s political struggle against what they see as an oppressive centralized state. As Andrew Roach argues, ‘the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade are now celebrated and clearly identified within the South…they can in fact be safely remembered as family history and are to be celebrated as austere, spiritual and rooted in local communities’.

Whilst most historical studies on the Cathars investigate the origin, identity and beliefs of the Cathars, they negate the role played by language in both the formation of a Cathar ‘identity’ and in turn their persecution. An investigation of the language of dualism (the belief in two universal principles, a good God and bad God) in the constant, yet unequal dialogue between the Cathars and the Church could provide answers to the question of whether the Cathars were a substantial threat or a creation of their opponents. As Foucault argued power relationships ‘cannot be established, consolidated, or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation, and functioning of discourse’ which is most certainly true of the ecclesiastical authorities manipulation of the Cathars.

The linguistic depiction of the Cathars took the form of binary models; the Church was always cast as the defenders of the faith, the Cathars by contrast were the enemies of faith and truth. By degrading their rivals, the Church enhanced its self-image and confidence in the face of an increasingly powerful and culturally different enemy. As Norman Cantor argues, people and authorities began to define themselves, usually in antithesis to their opponents in order to feel superior, removing bad people and bad behaviour to ensure the ‘enshrinement of Europe as the city on the hill ready for the return of the Lord’.

The vita apostolica of the Cathar perfects (leaders) produced a linguistic canon by church and secular authorities in three notable forms; chronicles, sermons and Inquisitorial records. Here, we must remain conscious that we have little literature to analyse from the Cathars themselves and we are subject to the notion that the ‘truth’ in these forms of literature whether regarding Cathar beliefs or actions is a result of the power the society demanded in order to function.

The first source we have are the Languedoc monastic chronicles of Peter des Vaux –de- Cernay, William Tudela and William Puylaurens which provide us with a first-hand testimony of events and the language of authority. William of Tudela was conscientious to reference eye witnesses to substantiate his accounts of events, for example Pons of Mela ‘who told me this’ recounts the moment a crusade was decided on, similarly Isarn Prior of Vielmores reported the ‘ninety four of these fools and traitors (Cathars) were concealed in a tower at Cassés’. Similarly, Peter des Vaux Cernay had been an eyewitness to the sack of Zara in 1202 and the Albigensian Crusade, the former impacting his portrayal of events and his emphasis on the role divine intervention played.

Principally, the chronicles were concerned with recounting the military drama and the bravery of the Crusaders against the Cathar infidel, not providing an analysis of Cathar beliefs. As William of Puylauren’s prologue demonstrates, the purpose of the chroniclers, was to ‘record the struggle against heresy in the south’, that is the ecclesiastical province of Narbonne and the diocese of Albi, Rodez and Agen. The writers of the chronicles used common and conventional epithets to vilify the Cathars as an anathema to the true faith including the association between heresy, blood and disease and finally links between heresy and the devil all of which contributed towards what Michael Frasetto calls ‘false stereotypes’.

The monastic chronicles were supplemented by the four sermons of heresy from Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentaries on the Song of Songs, which demonstrates the debt medieval authors owe to Augustine’s heretical model. However, the persistence of ideas, including the little foxes in the vineyard, demonstrates how atrocities were facilitated by amalgamating the Cathars with connotations of deviance and sedition against the truth and faith of the Church. The use of animal imagery reinforced the danger of the Cathars, despite the perfects (leaders of the Cathar church) claiming they were simply good Christians extending the Gregorian reforms in areas lacking spirituality, which was certainly true of southern France. Pope Innocent III notably had to reprimand Archbishop Berenger of Auch for his poor levels or piety, noting that ‘his heart is where his purse is’. The pontiff also promulgated the bull Vergentis in Senium in 1199 attacking the slovenly members of the clergy or the ‘dumb dogs who do not bark’. Is it therefore surprising that the Cathars flourished in such an area?

Finally, the most revealing form of documentation on the Cathars is the Inquisitorial Fournier Register (1318-25). Such documents form the basis for the research Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie conducted on the Cathars of Montaillou. The Register of Jacques Fournier (Pope Benedict XII) and the Inquisition of Toulouse (1273-1282) permits us, as Elie Griffe argues, ‘to penetrate into the world of the Cathars’ due to the range of range of topics the reports covered from grievances regarding both the Pope and all Bishops ‘who they claim are homicides on account of wars’ down to qualms over the first fruits tax. Similarly, to the Clairvaux sermons, the inquisitorial documents used a binary model, this time notions surrounding infection. The Cathars were infected with this ancient filth’ which only the Church could purge.

However, as previously noted the Inquisitorial documents are somewhat limited in their linguistic depiction of Cathars. The Inquisitors followed a series of questions listed in the various Inquisitorial manuals, thus preventing the accused from speaking freely or from a sincere declaration of Cathar faith being presented.

Overall, the Church’s reliance on the linguistic forms briefly mentioned in this paper gave them a ‘legitimate’ and systematic means of persecuting and eradicating heretics. The persecution of the Cathars would become one of the most shocking events of the Middle Ages. Thousands of individuals, including between 15,000 and 20,000 from Béziers alone were executed for their beliefs. On a local scale, the populace of towns including Sarlat in 1214 suffered horrific punishments, the women in particular had ‘their thumbs cut off and their nipples ripped off’.

The Cathars became so entangled within the power struggles of Christendom that they were destined to become an infamous piece of the persecuting society.


A Medieval Representation of a Cathar baptism.

A Medieval Representation of a Cathar baptism.


Innocent III excommunicates a group of Cathars From the fourteenth century,

Chronique de France (Chronique de St Denis), British Library, Royal 16, g VI f374v.

Innocent III excommunicates a group of Cathars


Cathars being burnt at Montségur.

Cathars being burnt at Montségur.








Katharine Fellows is a third-year DPhil candidate at St Peter’s College Oxford researching the office of the Papal Vice Chancellor in the Renaissance by using Rodrigo Borgia as an example. Katharine can be contacted by email; or by Twitter @KatieFellows1

For more articles by Katharine Fellows click here.