Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

But, while the troubadours were writing their ‘aubes’ and ‘sirventes’ in the castles of the nobles, the reaction from patrism was taking a markedly different form among the populace. In Provence and Languedoc, the very area which saw the birth of Courtly Love, there developed the religious movement known as Catharism. Though soon declared by the Church to be a heresy, it became so popular that it was openly preached, was supported by the nobles and seems to have displaced, very largely, the orthodox Church, until the savage persecutions of Simon de Montfort wiped it out, and wiped out the troubadours too.(201) There were, as a matter of fact, a variety of heresies, distinguished by doctrinal differences, but agreeing in certain fundamentals; it was chiefly the emphasis placed by the Church on doctrine which caused them to be treated separately.

For the purposes of this discussion, the important features of Catharism were these. First, they stressed sexual abstinence: fully initiated members were required not to sleep with their wives. They believed that spirit had become enmeshed with matter, and that the purpose of development is to escape from this material existence to pure spirituality; this is basically the doctrine of the Rig Veda, and the inferences drawn were also similar. Thus, it was desirable to eschew all freshly pleasures, including sexual intercourse, not because it was “wicked” but because it slowed up the attainment of enlightenment. The orthodox Church held identical views-hence the life of the cloister-but objected strongly to them when expounded by a rival group, ostensibly on certain doctrinal grounds which need not concern us. The Cathars, it is true, went farther than this, and held that it was permissible, in certain circumstances, to die: one must not do it, as a suicide does, in despair, but one may do so if one is quite detached from desire. Life should be ended “not out of weariness, nor out of fear, or pain, but in a state of utter detachment from nature”. Similarly the troubadour, Aimeric de Belenoi, whose reference to death was noted above, says that if he does not wish to die yet, it is because he feels that he has not yet become detached from desire, and feels that he would be leaving his body from despair, which would be a mortal sin.(60)

It is said that Cathars would, on occasion, take leave of this life deliberately, usually by starving themselves to death: this feat was known as the Endura. (It is a curious fact, however, that the principal indictment of the Cathars, the ‘Summa contra Haereticos‘, makes no mention of this suicidal trend, and conceivably the whole thing may be an allegation invented by the orthodox Church: certainly the Church accounted it a serious charge against the Cathars and repeated the allegation in tones of horror.)

But while the Cathar Church was preoccupied with death, and despite the fact that it placed a taboo on sexual intercourse, it seems clear that it was strongly influenced by matrist ideals. Women were accorded a high status, and played a considerable part in its affairs. It supported medicine and the care of the sick. It seems to have worshipped a female figure, the Lady of Thought. In Dante, this figure appears more clearly as Divine Wisdom, and parallels the Sophia worshipped by the Gnostics, but in the twelfth century, the figure was assimilated to that of the Virgin Mary. In general, it favoured non-violence, and stressed love of fellow-men as well as of God, though when threatened with extinction by de Montfort the heretics fought boldly enough. It was, indeed, known as The Church of Love (and in Provencal, in contrast with modern French, Amor was given feminine gender). With the mediaeval penchant for finding a real significance in what to us seem to be merely accidental symbols, it was thought that the Church of Roma had reversed the principles of the Church of Amor; it might talk about love, but its actions belied its words. Thus Catharism appeared not so much as a reaction to the orthodox Church, and an attempt to restore the original principles of poverty, love and asceticism, as a mirror image, a counterpart, a complete reversal of everything the orthodox Church stood for; or rather, from the Catharist viewpoint, it was the orthodox Church which had betrayed the principles for which it was founded. Bernard of Clairvaux said of the Cathars: “No sermons are more Christian than theirs and their morals are pure.”