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A Cathartic Story
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A Cathartic Story

One of my great passions, besides animals and nature, is reading historical novels, and some of my current favourites are mediaeval whodunnits. Whilst reading these, I several times came across descriptions of a European religious sect in the Middle Ages called Cathars, who were by all accounts prototype vegans (or nearly vegans). These people were actually heretics, Christians who had broken away from the main church, and were persecuted ruthlessly and eventually wiped out. I found this of great interest, as veganism often feels like a kind of religion to me, probably to a lot of you too.

The name Cathars comes from the Greek word katharos, meaning pure. This was not however the name they gave themselves, but a derogatory name given to them by their enemies. The Cathars called themselves “bonhommes” (good men, or good Christians). They were a sect that arose in the 11th century in Southern France (Languedoc region) and other regions, and flourished until the 13th century, when they were all exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade, initiated by the Pope for the purpose of crushing Catharism. The Cathars were dualists who believed that there were two Gods – the good God of the spiritual world and the Bad God of the material world. So it followed that the material world was of no interest to them.. They believed that you had to reach a certain level of spiritual enlightenment, gained through different incarnations, in order to finally reach the heavenly realm. The Roman Catholic Church with its sacraments, relics, rules and prohibitions was seen as, at best, an irrelevancy to the Cathars.

Their dualist faith thrived in the remote mountain villages, where heretical Cathars apparently rubbed along quite well with orthodox Christians and even Jews. They were free thinkers; they had translated the Bible into their native language, the langue d’oc, and had set up paper mills locally to distribute this bible. They were pacifists and refused to kill and practised poverty, as well as preaching it. They did not have clergy in the usual sense to tell them what to do or interpret the word of God for them, and allowed women into their inner circles, unlike the rest of the Church.

In many respects they resembled us modern-day vegans (not just in being free-thinking and heretical and pro-life) as they ate no meat, milk, cheese or eggs, in other words, any food that resulted from coition, except that some of them did eat fish. Their reason for eating no flesh food nor eggs was that they believed in the transmigration of souls after death, i.e. a soul being reincarnated in another earthly body, and they believed that any flesh food they ate might contain some part of a soul that might become even more earthbound if ingested and metabolised. Apparently their justification for eating fish was that fish did not reproduce sexually as other animals did (a common misconception of the Middle Ages!) and so could not imprison a part of a soul.

Another way in which Cathars resembled us modern vegans is that their enemies objected to their view of themselves as “morally superior,” because they did not follow the othodox line. The Cathar priests were called perfects, as a derogatory term by their detractors, with sarcastic irony because this was apparently how they saw themselves. So no doubt they were seen as “self-righteous”, just as we modern vegans are!

For many centuries the Church had regarded vegetarianism as a capital crime on the grounds that God had given man “dominion” over the earth and provided animals for him to eat (a view which, as we all know, is still held by most of the world today, whether religious or secularists). Those mediaeval Christians should have gone back to their bibles and read the Book of Genesis, where God created the Garden of Eden as a vegan paradise! (I talk about this in my article Why Are More Christians Not Vegans?) Inquisition records include cases of people being required to kill and eat animals, to prove they were not Cathars. Failure to do so meant death. Similarly vegetarianism itself was a capital crime. Vegetarianism is still regarded as vaguely anti-Christian by many denominations even today. So, as you can see, the Church viewed the Cathars' virtual veganism as one of the most serious aspects of their heresy.

Tragically a lot of the Cathars ended their lives by being burnt at the stake, as was usual with heretics of the time. They sound to me like a very interesting and progressive sort of people, ahead of their time in many of their views (I am not sure about the religious dualism though). Although we modern vegans may feel we have things tough, that most of the world is against us, at least we are unlikely to meet the same grisly end as our historical counterparts!

We  still need to support one another as much as possible however, so please do vote if you enjoyed this article! I found it very, um, cathartic to write (pun intended!)

 

Photo courtesy of www.encyclopedia.com

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  1. kristo
    kristo
    wow! you have done a lot of research! Why do films always depict the medieval era as a meat obsessed? what about these Cathars!? are vegetables boring in cinema?
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  2. Curiouser49
    This is very interesting, especially because I am Catholic. But, I am also wondering if you can let me know the name of these books because this is a genre I love. Thanks for the thorough information!
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  3. Veganara
    Veganara
    Thank you for the comments guys. If you haven't voted though, please do, as I notice that I am still on 2 votes, the same as when I last looked! I first found mention of the Cathars in the novels of Ariana Franklin and Alys Clare, who are both very talented authors of the historical fiction genre. They both write mediaevel detective stories, which are awesome to read, both for the period detail and the clever plots, as they are thrillers and real page-turners. That is how I got interested in the Cathars (especially from Alys Clare, who talks about them quite a lot). Try these books, if you like that genre, Curiouser49, I am sure you won't be disappointed! I am sure that the Middle Ages weren't as meat-obsessed as they are shown in the cinema, Kristo, as probably only rich people could afford to eat meat all the time! Someone should make a film about the Cathars, and the Crusade that wiped them out, that would be fascinating, huh?
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  4. Margie Pacher
    Margie Pacher
    Interesting article! We compare to many ancients beliefs, thank you for sharing your knowledge about the Cathars. I always enjoy reading about vegetarian history :)
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  5. SnakeWitch
    This is an interesting read indeed, Maggie. You are talking about them as being 'ahead of their times', but I also see that quite a lot of their beliefs are pagan, therefore they may have been seekers of the root religion instead - the first ever that existed on this planet, the one followed by some aboriginals still to this day. Pagans are Earth lovers, believe in reincarnation and even go as far as to say that an orgasm is the highest spiritual mental state possible (because we think of nothing else, ever, when we climax). Several aboriginal groups rarely ate meat - or never at all -until Europeans colonised their territories. You piqued my curiosity. I am going to see if I can find these books here! Voted!
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    1. Veganara
      Veganara
      Thanks Annie. I don't know much about paganism; is the Cathar doctrine quite close to the pagan one then? That is very interesting, especially your description of them as "seekers of the root religion" (a lovely turn of phrase!) They may well have been, but historical pagans used sacrifices, both humans and animals? (Although I presume modern pagans don't, I hope not!!) Whereas the Cathars were completely pacificistic and pro-life, from what I have found out about them, and would not kill either humans or animals. Hence why I feel they are the forerunners of modern-day vegans. I consider them to be ahead of their time not just in this non-violent respect, but also because they treated everyone equally and didn't discriminate., i.e got along well with people of other religjons, like Jews, allowed women to hold ministry positions, unlike the orthodox Church, etc. They seemed to be very tolerant, free-thinking and against any form of oppression and discrimination. That was not a very mediaeval viewpoint at all, the complete opposite in fact!
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      1. SnakeWitch
        Oh, some pagans used sacrifices, some didn't. It depends on the population. And of course, nowadays, we offer real food to the Gods instead of 'the blood of a virgin' (or some other weird gift). As for discrimination, I didn't read much about that in historical pagan documents, so I would have to say that they tended to accept people as they were. In most, not only were women equals, they were also worshipped and often the head of the household and the community. So Cathars may just have been a group who had a mix of old, present and new mixed in - a religion on it's own, really.
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  6. Curiouser49
    Hello Veganara, I did vote and I apologize for not doing it sooner. I got so interested in this article that I forgot about it. I will try these books. Thanks again for this interesting blog. There is a series by Peter Tramayne (pseudonym) set in Ireland - 7th cent. The Sister Fidelma Mysteries. Sister Fidelma is a religieuse, and a qualified dalaigh, or advocate of the ancient laws of Ireland. I think you may like them.
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    1. Veganara
      Veganara
      Thanks Curiouser, yes, I have heard of Sister Fidelma - in fact, I read a short story she was in, which was good, as I remember, in a compendium of historical whodunnits! I am also interested in Irish history as I am half-Irish, so I will look out for those books. I wondered if you also know about the Brother Cadfael mysteries, by Ellis Peters? They are mediaeval detective stories as well, about a crime-solving monk, also very good, and they have been dramatised on British TV (the ITV channel, I think). It has become a very popular genre, the historical whodunnit/thriller one - I think it was Umberto Eco who started it with The Name of The Rose! (Or maybe not started it, but gave it mass appeal anyway).
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      1. Curiouser49
        I am 1/2 Irish American too and the other is Italian American. My TV viewing leans toward English/Irish as seen on PBS. I always watch Mystery, Masterpiece Theatre, William and Mary and a lot more. I am familiar with Brother Cadfael as seen on television and through Peters' books. I love anything Medieval - both Irish and English. I find the history very interesting.I've only been to Ireland once, but have been to England 4 times. I already bought the first book in the Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death Series last night using my Nook. I am so glad to find out about these books because I was without a good read. I do a certain amount of scholarly reading (I teach Sociology) but am very fussy when it comes to private reading. Thanks again for this blog. It's good readin all the way around.
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        1. Veganara
          Veganara
          Really glad you enjoyed it, and I think you will like the Ariana Franklin books (I think the Cathars make an appearance in the fourth book of that series, The Assassin's Prayer, where the plot is set in the South of France). How did you get the first one so quickly, is it an e-book you downloaded? I don't use that sort of technology! I have Italian in my family as well actually; not in my ancestry personally, but my brother's wife is Italian, so their children are an Italian/British/Irish mix! You may get quite hooked on the Ariana Franklin books, like I did, let me know what you think! Then you can start on the Alys Clare ones ! There are about 14 in that series, and more detail about the Cathars.
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      2. Curiouser49
        I am 1/2 Irish American too and the other is Italian American. My TV viewing leans toward English/Irish as seen on PBS. I always watch Mystery, Masterpiece Theatre, William and Mary and a lot more. I am familiar with Brother Cadfael as seen on television and through Peters' books. I love anything Medieval - both Irish and English. I find the history very interesting.I've only been to Ireland once, but have been to England 4 times. I already bought the first book in the Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death Series last night using my Nook. I am so glad to find out about these books because I was without a good read. I do a certain amount of scholarly reading (I teach Sociology) but am very fussy when it comes to private reading. Thanks again for this blog. It's good readin all the way around.
        Log in to reply.
      3. Curiouser49
        I am 1/2 Irish American too and the other is Italian American. My TV viewing leans toward English/Irish as seen on PBS. I always watch Mystery, Masterpiece Theatre, William and Mary and a lot more. I am familiar with Brother Cadfael as seen on television and through Peters' books. I love anything Medieval - both Irish and English. I find the history very interesting.I've only been to Ireland once, but have been to England 4 times. I already bought the first book in the Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death Series last night using my Nook. I am so glad to find out about these books because I was without a good read. I do a certain amount of scholarly reading (I teach Sociology) but am very fussy when it comes to private reading. Thanks again for this blog. It's good readin all the way around.
        Log in to reply.
  7. Shabs Online
    Shabs Online
    Cooolll....wot a super generation, Cathars had been! U researched really well........Thanks for lettin us know, I never knew about them! Here goes my Vote! :)
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  8. Whitney Metz
    Whitney Metz
    This was fascinating Maggie! I had never heard about the Cathars before. I wish they were still around. Voted.
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  9. Shabs Online
    Shabs Online
    Plz go through my latest 'From Chicken to Chunks, Soy Chunks!' ....jus go thru it n vote if u like, sharin it further...hope you'll find it interesting! Thanks! :)
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  10. Akanksha
    Akanksha
    It is an interesting post! Hey mine was vote#8..comment could not get registered through mobile. I am traveling for a week so might not be able to comment but will be reading and voting as much as possible!
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  11. The Vegan Tarot Reader
    The Vegan Tarot Reader
    Thanks for this. I'm pretty sure I've been a Cathar in one of my past lives and feel I need to find out more after reading this. And yes, why are not more Christians vegans? Power and money is probably why... I.e. the same reasons the gentle way taught by Christ was bastardised by the ruling elite to oppress the people.
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    1. Veganara
      Veganara
      Thank you Vegan Tarot Reader! I am very interested in tarot cards too actually, and I think I was also a Cathar in a previous life.
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