Cathars and Templars

Roger Sandell
Magonia 28, January 1988.
Southwest France in the 12th century was an area marked by a unique culture. It had first been civilised by Greek settlers, it had escaped the worst of the barbarian invasions. As a result it had preserved continuities with Roman civilization and it was a neighbour of Islamic Spain. It was also an area where the religion of the Cathars, regarded by the Church as a diabolic heresy had been embraced by much of the population.

As is often the case, Cathar theology may have been less important to many of its adherents than the assertion of a distinctive national identity by the adoption of a religion different from that of their neighbours, particularly the kings of France.

Catharism was one of a series of heresies that had surfaced since the early years of the Church that preached that the world was the creation of an evil demiurge not the true God. Salvation consisted of transcending the flesh and being reunited with God, rather than a future resurrection of the bo that the Church looked forward to.

This combination of heresy and national consciousness excited the hostility of French kings and the Papacy, and by the beg inning of the 13th century the Cathars were depicted as idolaters and participants in orgies. In 1209 a crusade was launched against them, that proved to be the beginning of forty years of sporadic warfare that brought about the end of the Cathars and the distinctive culture in which they flourished.

As is so often the case, a lost cause exercised a fascination for subsequent generations. After the Reformation, some Protestant writers saw the Cathars as martyrs and precursors of the Reformation for their opposition to Rome, although their beliefs had no more in common with the Protestant churches than the Catholic church. After the French Revolution and amid the political divisions of 19th century France the Cathars were rediscovered by writers who saw them as pioneers of anti-clericalism and antimonarchism.

Those most keen to rediscover the Cathars were involved in the explosion of interest in occultism that began in France in the 19th century. In the hands of these writers the Cathars were transmuted from Chistian heretics to occult masters, and their traces were found in unlikely locations. The tarot pack, which existed from the Middle Ages simply as a device for game-playing become a repository of the Cather secret wisdom. The architecture of Southern French castles was studied for proof that they were really Cathar temples.

The first part of The Treasure of Montsegur [1] is devoted to an examination of the growth of the Cathar myth and the collection of occultists and eccentric scholars who fostered it from the 19th century to the 1930′s. The story told has many parallels with the growth of the Druid myth in Britain which also seized a limited number of historical facts about a defeated culture and interpreted them in nationalist, romantic or occultist ways.

At the heart of the Cathar myth lay the tale of a mysterious treasure, said to have been spirited away from their stronghold at Montsegur before it fell. Occultists searched for it in caves, and variously believed it to be the Holy Grail or a lost Gospel. This aspect of the story has may parallels with other hunts for mysterious treasures by occultists and fringe theorists (it is curious how those who claim to be antimaterialist seem to be so keen on validating their beliefs by discovering material objects). The search for a variety of mysterious objects by Andy Collins and his associates is a contemporary example, and such quests are favourite themes of pop occultism, from Dungeons and Dragons type games to Raiders of the Lost Ark (indeed one 1930′s searcher for the treasure of Montsegur, Otto Rahn, occultist, mountaineer and SS officer, seems straight out of that film).

R. A. Gilbert describes all of this in interesting detail and in the end he touches on more recent incarnations of the Cathar myth, Arthur Guirdham the Bath psychiatrist who has made the surprising discovery that the problems of most of his patients seem to stem from being reincarnated Cathars, and the appearance of the Cathars in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. I would have been interested to see more on this part of the story since in a talk he recently gave, Gilbert convincingly demolished part of the underpinning of that book, showing that the alleged mysterious decorations of the church at Rennes-la-Chateau are in fact in keeping with church furnishings of the period, and the cost of its building was raised by local churchgoers, not some mysterious occult brotherhood.

The second half of the book is devoted to an examination of the roots of Catharism, seeing it as art of an alternative Christian tradition going back to New Testament times. Without detailed knowledge of early Christian history it is difficult to comment on this section in detail. However, his conclusion, that the treasure of Montsegur was in fact the escape of sufficient Cathars from the stronghold to maintain the transmission of the doctrine to future generations is, whether or not historically correct, in line with the archtupe of the treasure which lays undetected because it is of a quite different nature to what the treasure seekers assume.

Also with strong mythic and archetypal overtones is the epilogue by the book’s co-author Walter Birs, who described how he became involved in the 1930′s Cathar revival, and after becoming disillusioned with others involved, served in the Middle East in World War II. Here he discovered the Syrian Muslim sect of the Nusayri who preserve traditions very similar to the Cathars, and who unlike other claimants to Cathar wisdom do have a genuine continuity of doctrine to the Middle Ages. Here again, whether or not there is anything in the suggestion that these ideas may have been imported to France by returning crusaders, this acount resembles the recurring myth of the pilgrim searching in vain for wisdom or enlightenment only to stuble over it by accident.

Half a century after the crushing of the Cathars, French kings and Popes saw their authority being challenged from another source, the Knights Templar. The story of the Knights is told in Edward Burman’s study. [2] They had originally been formed as a crusading order to protect pilgrims to the Holy Places, but with the loss of the Holy Land returned to Europe. Here they became a military elite with no clear function and nor usefullness to anyone but its own members, and as such a potential source of trouble. Their military power was complimented by financial power since they acted as bankers and received bequests from the wealthy.

It was hardly surprising that they made enemies. When the French king and the Pope moved to supress them in 1314 the reasons given were the same as those cited for the persecution of the Cathars: accusations of being idol worshipper and engaging in satanic orgies. The evidence for these charges were confessions that were contradictory, extracted under torture and in many cases repudiated later by those who had made them. As a result the Templars were executed en masse but as with the Cathars, their execution proved to be the beginning of a legend that has persisted to the present day.

Peter Partner’s [3] book is largely concerned with that legend, the development of which is rather different from that of the Cathars. While the austerity and saintliness of many of the Cathar clergy enabled them to be claimed as forerunners by later religious reformers, the wealthy, aristocratic and warlike Tempiars were hardly promising in this respect.

However, it was just those aspects of the Templars that appealed to another audience. In 18th century Europe the traditional aristocracy was being replaced by new elites drawn from the merchant class. Monarchs created new orders of chivalry to legitimise these new elites and cement their loyalty, while Freemasonry cast an air of mystery and tradition over the new elites’ increased distance from Christianity, and their fondness for clubs and similar institutions. In these circumstances the Templars were rediscovered and their origins in the Holy Land were seen as proof that they had preserved their secret traditions from biblical times. After their destruction these traditions had been maintained by guilds and other secret societies, which had transmitted them to the Masons.

With the reaction against the idea of the enliqhtenment following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars a new stage was added to the Templar legend. Some clerical writers took seriously the claims of Templar origins made by Masonic and quasi-masonic groups, and proclaimed secularism and radicalism as the latest fruits of the diabolic Templars, who in turn were seen as part of an unbroken line of satanic opponents of Chritianity embracing the Cathars and earlier heretics. Some Radicals took up this argument but reversed it so the Templars became precursors of anti-clerical and democratic ideas. The French occult revival saw yet more interest in the Templars, and Aleister Crowley’s many secret societies included a Templar Order.

The myth can be traced onward into the 20th century. Nesta H. Webster, whose 1920′s works World Revolution; the Plot Against Civilization, and Secret Societies and Subversive Movements are key texts in the development of the modern ultra-right, revived the idea of the continuity between Cathars, Templars and modern revolutionaries, although this idea seems to have had little influence on the right-wing groups that still distribute her writings in Britain and America. (Although the Templars do put in an appearance in the demented and constantly shifting conspiracy theories of the ultra-right wing American millionaire Lyndon LaRouche.) By contrast the curious French cult of Synarchy which flourished between the wars and had some influence on the Vichy regime saw the Templars as an idealised theocratic elite in whose steps they hoped to follow.

The myth’s influence has not been confined to politics: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was partly inspired by From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie Weston, a book offering a highly dubious interpretation of the Grail legend and Templar traditions. British earth-mysteries researchers probe the alleged sumbolism of Templar churches, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail has taken the Templars into the best-seller lists and most recently a study of the Shroud of Turin has claimed it to be the mysterious idol the Templars were accused of worshipping. The legends are still very much alive.


  1. Gilbert, R. A. and Walter Birks The Treasure of Montsegur: Study of the Cathar Heresy and the Nature of the Cathar Secret, Crucible, 1987.
  2. Burman, Edward. The Templars: Knights of God, 1986.
  3. Partner, Peter. Murdered Magicians, The: Templars and Their Myth. Crucible, 1987.