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The time of the Albigeois: a great urban century (1190-1320)

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

The most important century in Albi’s history is certainly the 13th century, beginning around 1190 and finishing after 1300. A religious dissidence grew up in the 12th century in the regions of Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and Foix.

The mediaeval chroniclers gave the dissenters the name of “Albigeois” in which traditionally simply meant the people of the Albi region. Since 1960 the term Cathar has been substituted, obliterating the important role of the Albigeois in the history of the years from 1130-1330.

The dissent of the Albigeois came into existence because of the discord between the church and society after 1100. Literacy increased amongst certain members of the lay community, not only of the aristocracy but also in the towns whilst a certain individualism rose up amongst the elite. This resulted in new spiritual demands; the request for a less ritualistic religion which could be lived more fully, simple, convivial, practised through sharing rather than through authority with a desire for a more direct contact with the Word of God.

The lay communities’ demands menaced the unity of the faith and the power of the clergy. Around 1140 this resulted in a more marked rupture between the dissenters and the ecclesiastic institution.

In the name of evangelical literalism, the dissenters entirely rejected the ecclesiastical institution and the obligatory mediation of the priests between the faithful and God. The sacraments were proclaimed useless as were the cult of the Dead and the cult of Saints. The Cathars called themselves the “good men” or “good Christians” meaning to signify that they had no other reference besides the Gospel.

The dissidence initially had its roots in an anti-clericalism generated by the ecclesiastical reform of the 11th century. The protest began against the clericalisation promoted by the reform which flew in the face of aristocratic religious traditions (indissoluble marriage was introduced along with the removal of aristocratic patronage of churches) and thwarting the aspirations of the new secularists through the imposition of clerical mediation for all aspects of spiritual life.

From 1160 their rupture from the church led to a certain ontological dualism amongst the dissenters. Experiencing a difficult existential situation, the persecutions and their experience of the contradiction between evangelism and the world, their experience of a life in constant opposition between good and evil caused this slide towards dualism.

This slide only accentuated the radical tendencies felt amongst Christians in the Romanesque era, who cultivated their mistrust of others as a foundation for their own spiritual elevation. This led to a view that the universe was a battlefield on which the forces of the devil met the heroes of God.

The dualism of the “good men” also came from the spread of logic and reasoning in the schools. The clergy, brought up on the teachings of these same schools, established a doctrine of “universal scission”. This doctrine was taught by the monk Henri against whom Saint Bernard preached in the Toulouse and Albi regions in 1145. In this period dissent appeared to be supported in Albi where the official representative to Rome,) the Abbot of Clairvaux was very badly received. It was not until 1165 however that the “good men” manifested themselves openly in an assembly held in the castrum of Lombers, 15km south of the town.

Albi and its surroundings became one of the epicentres of the religious contestation. The religion of the “good men,” in which individuals could follow the gospel through personal discipline in their own home, offered a direct approach to the Word of God rendered in their own language, Occitan. It also offered, through brotherly meetings and feasts a certain religious sociability.

The religion, well adapted to the demands for a new spirituality, rejected the passivity to which the liturgical ritual condemned the faithful and offered a more direct and personal approach to God.

The dissenters were recruited directly from the ranks of the urban elite who had knowledge and riches to contribute to the cause. In Albi, the believers in the “good men” were mainly merchants, public notaries and jurors along with the minor gentry living in Albi and often linked by marriage with new aristocratic families.

Those of noble birth often sympathised with the dissenters particularly in the wake of the crisis in fortunes and income which had overcome them since 1130. They also found themselves in a difficult existential situation. The disputes with the clergy for tithes which had traditionally been their due since the foundation of the parish churches left the nobles naturally inclined towards a clergy which declared itself detached from worldly goods and favoured a truly spiritual church corresponding more to their religious needs which resembled those of the patrician bourgeoisie.

The elitist aspect of the Cathar faith is one of the fundamental characteristics of this abstract religion. Feast days, religious buildings, imagery and chants were all rejected along with the cults of Saints and death, leaving a stripped-down religion in stark contrast with the traditional Church. The attachment to places of worship, figurative representations, and the sanctity of the clergy, along with any pomp, ceremony and mysterious rituals were nowhere to be found in this pared down faith.

The religious dissent remained therefore a minority view with fewer than 5% of townsfolk subscribing in Albi as in other towns of the region. Naturally the elevated social status of the Cathar supporters made theirs a force to be reckoned with by the established powers.

The dissent seemed an offensive by the elite in order to establish their religious autonomy in the same way as they battled to win or preserve their political independence. Thus the urban bourgeoisie strove to govern their town whilst the minor aristocracy wished to defend their heritage against the princes, the Counts of Toulouse or of Foix and the Viscounts of Albi, Carcassonne and Béziers.

Although the dissent began with evangelical principles the consequences of this movement were of shocking violence and this fundamentalism would finally ruin the Church and the feudal society.

It was forbidden to judge yet the power of justice constituted the basis of seignorial authority; killing was forbidden whilst the military protection offered by knights justified exactly that; the making of oaths was proscribed but these verbal accords were at the heart of all social relations in feudal times.

By challenging the Church the dissenters were questioning the regulating authority in society. In a time when power was dispersed amongst a multitude of more or less independent and competing factions, the Church by its religious function constituted the only institution recognised by all as an authority. Since religion was seen as extending throughout society, the encompassing structure of the Church regulated both individual behaviour and the interactions between people. Any desire to destroy or simply to reduce this total control was seen as a questioning the established power and thus explicitly taking the side of the Devil.

Dissent was necessarily subversive both religiously and socially which clearly meant that it should be met with a rigorous repression. It was with this repression in mind that a crusade was declared, initially directed against the estate of Trencavel, Viscount of Albi, Carcassonne and Béziers. These operations, from 1209 onwards were thus known as the “Albigensian Crusade”.

Despite its name, this military expedition in which a number of Barons were assembled under Papal authority was not detrimental to the town. The disappearance of Trencavel, direct lord of the town, and the suppression after 1229 of the authority of count of Toulouse in the north of the Tarn permitted the bishopric to constitute an independent Episcopal Lordship. Although many of the town’s bourgeoisie were long-time supporters of the dissenters, the Episcopal usurpation was generally supported among the citizens of Albi. It was evident that a number of advantages were presented by the situation not least of which being the possibility of an independent government of the town via an elected counsel.

The triumph of the crusade only came when it ceased to be under baronial control was undertaken by the royalty in 1226. The clear withdrawal of Papal authority was offset by the installation of the Inquisition in 1233. This religious tribunal was directly responsible to the ruling Pontiff. The dreaded rule of the Inquisition derogated all rights and franchises, removing the privileges of the town – so much so that in 1234 an Inquisitor came close to being thrown into the River Tarn.

The defeat of the insurrection indicated that the majority of Albi’s citizens remained faithful to the Church. The Inquisition proved far more effective in repressing the dissenters than the army of crusaders. The solidarity of the heretics’ supporters was destroyed with almost “surgical” attacks; only a few families and individuals were accused by the inquisition but the climate of fear and distrust led others to quickly dissociate themselves from the accused. Many anthropologists have concluded that this exclusion of the perpetrators in fact reinforced the cohesion of groups attached to the orthodoxy and favourable to those in power.

However, inquisitorial repression was not the only factor in the decline of dissidence. Firstly, the Languedoc area came under the rule of the Capetian dynasty under which religious diversity was not tolerated since faith was seen as an essential social bond and the Church as unique framework for its subjects.

The monarchy was therefore in support of the Inquisitors. At the same time the modification of political structures in the Midi region eroded the social basis of dissent. In the 13th the influence of the knights was destroyed by the economic evolution and inflation which limited their incomes. These individuals had either to return to the status of commoners or grasp the lifeline of access to the royal offices and the ecclesiastical benefices. Thus after 1290 many more knights than required would throng to fight in the war of Gascony. The citizens of the upper strata rallied around the monarchy where the social prospects were greater due to the need for scribes and specialists in finance.

There followed a gradual desertion of members of the elite from the ranks of the Cathars, accelerated by a wide-ranging modernisation of the Church. A rural revolution began to develop in the 13th century due in part to new monastic orders whose mendicant clergy brought an appropriate response to the spiritual demands which had been one of reasons behind the dissidence. Parochial life changed and a multiplication of brotherhoods offered a frame for the piety of the faithful. This was a silent but fundamental revolution. However, in Albi the inquisitorial repression fed the dissent which persisted until around 1300. After 1250 the elite citizens of Albi wished to enlarge the authority of the consulate but their interests were in direct opposition to those of their Lord and Bishop.

It was at in this context that Bernard de Combret launched the construction of a powerful fort designed to protect him from revolts by his subjects. The tensions between the citizens of Albi and their Bishops grew more intense when Bernard de Castanet acceded to the Episcopal seat in 1277. This rigorous prelate went to great pains to defend the majesty of the Church and its temporal powers. The religious and political opposition joined forces, sparking a new surge of Catharism in this town. This seemed to have been slumbering to this point but it was definitively stamped out after this final uprising.

Bernard de Castanet capitalised on this situation as his political adversaries could be turned over to the Inquisition under suspicion of heresy. In this way around 30 of them were sent to the gaols of Carcassonne. His response to his enemies was of monumental proportions; the Episcopal city would play host to twin constructions of the Berbie palace and a new Cathedral which he inaugurated whilst work continued on his own château.

These monuments, formidable in their size, austerity and power, became then and for all time the major landmarks in the urban landscape. Another church was installed near them in 1320, the Fargues monastery which was founded by the Bishop Béraud, nephew to Pope Clément V. After the early stages of the crusade Simon de Montfort granted to his brother, the lord of Castres, the ancient centre of Albi, Castelviel. This quarter of the town thus became a distinct community apart from the rest of the city and the structure and name would remain.

In the second half of the 13th century the continued population growth gave rise to new suburbs at Ronel, Vigan and Verdusse. The mendicant orders installed convents outside the city walls where the price of available land was lower. The French Revolution erased all trace of these other urban developments which had been so important in the 13th century.

From 1320 to 1340 the Cathedral’s construction progressed steadily and the town was heavily settled. The narrow streets and the density of buildings left little green space although here and there a garden or orchard allowed respite from the relentless constructions. The centre of town life was “la Place” which seemed to spring from a spontaneous meeting place in an open space bordering the three urban centres; the ancient heart of the city, the burg and the more recent districts.

La Place is also at the religious heart of Albi between the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile and the Saint-Salvi collegiate. Finally, its proximity to the Berbie palace, where the Bishop’s seat could be found along with the King’s court, meant that la Place was also a political focal point in the town. The importance of this hub in town life was fundamentally due to its function as a place of exchange. Covered arcades bordered this space and extended along the streets of the surrounding zones although these have sadly disappeared in the intervening centuries. In the centre of la Place stood “la Pile”, a structure housing the stone troughs which served as grain and liquid measures. The restricted size of this Place limited the number of people who could gather there and so larger manifestations would take place on the fairgrounds situated outside the city gates at Vigan or Castelviel. In the same way all ‘heavy’ crafts were pushed out of the walls. The tileries and brick-makers occupied large areas in a quarter which would take their name (la Teularia) in the Bout-du-Pont (the end of the bridge) district. Similarly timber working companies were concentrated in la Fustaria. The tendas, designed to stretch woollen cloth after beating, were found at Prat Graussals on the northern bank of the Tarn and at the porte de la Trébalhe. The activities using the most water such as the dye-works and tanneries were situated upstream from the bridge or in the Verdusse ravine. Numerous mills; roller mills for grains, textile-mills and stamp mills for metal working could be found along the riverbanks. On the river itself there were ‘molis navencs’: floating water-mills mounted on barges.

((Legend for illustration 150: Summa auctoritatum contra manicheos – [Albi ? : late 12th early 13th century] Original documents relating to the “Albigeois” dissent are remarkable in their rarity.))

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