Today’s story from Christian history

22 July 1209 • Béziers Massacre

A howling mob rampaged through Béziers, killing men, women and children indiscriminately. Pope Innocent III had launched a crusade against the French city. 

Attack on Beziers
Attack on Beziers

Béziers, a city of Southern France near the Mediterranean, was boiling with movements opposed to Catholicism.  Especially strong were the Cathars (also known as Albigenses because Albi was their principle city). According to their opponents, the Cathars held a corrupt form of Christianity; they are said to have equated the God of the Old Testament with Satan (a Gnostic idea) and to have repudiated marriage. Since virtually all Cathar literature was destroyed, we have only their antagonists’ word for it. Scholars debate over what they really believed. 

Whatever their doctrine may have been, Cathar elders were known for their spotless lives (cathari means “pure” in Greek).  This proved attractive to common people in an age in which the Church of Rome, by its own admission, was greedy, oppressive, and corrupt. 

But Cathar life and doctrine was a challenge to Roman authority. Pope Innocent III offered pardon of sins for anyone who would undertake a crusade against these heretics. As with many crusades, the prospect of loot also enticed some crusaders. 

When the crusade swept down upon Béziers, the Catholics there were given a chance to hand over the Cathars or else to leave the city.  They chose to stand by the Cathars to defend Béziers. Unfortunately for them, the city fell with hardly a fight. 

On this day, 22 July 1209, a group of defenders rode out with white pennants, shooting arrows at the crusaders. When they killed one, a rag-tag bunch of camp followers without proper weapons rushed the walls.  Béziers had not expected an attack so soon.  The walls were virtually unmanned, and its few defenders fled. Within three hours, the crusaders had taken the city. They conducted an appalling massacre that the knights and bishops of the attacking army did nothing to stop.  The mob entered the cathedral and churches and butchered everyone who had taken refuge there. 

Arnald-Amaury, the pope’s representative, wrote complacently to Innocent, “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost twenty-thousand people.” A popular account asserted that he was asked at the height of the slaughter how the killers should distinguish Catholic from Cathar. He is supposed to have replied, “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.” While this may be apocryphal, it reveals what contemporaries thought. 

The destruction did not end with the massacre.  When the knights stepped forward to seize all the plunder for themselves, the looters protested and set buildings on fire. With the whole city ablaze, the heat became so intense everyone had to pull back. Untold wealth perished in the flames. 

The fall of Béziers doomed the Cathar movement. Terrified Catholics in nearby cities made terms with the crusaders, handing over their Cathar neighbors. In despair, other Cathars abandoned their cities and burned their castles so the enemy could not enjoy their use. Only the Cathar stronghold of Carcassone held out long enough to negotiate more moderate terms of surrender.

Dan Graves

References:

  1. Milman, Henry Hart. History of Latin Christianity. London: John Murray, 1857.
  2. Pirie-Gordon, C.H.C. Innocent the Great. An Essay on His Life and Times. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907.
  3. Strayer, Joseph R. The Albigensian Crusades. New York: Dial, 1971.
  4. Sumption, Jonathan. The Albigensian Crusade. London: Faber and Faber, 1978.