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!)
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