Medieval History: Mysticism, Gnosticism, and the Siege of a Castle Atop a Mountain in Southern France

“Montségur” (Dance of Death, 2003) is not only based on a historical event, namely the siege of a castle in France of the same name followed by a massacre, but also the myths surrounding it. As I will show, it is as well deeply rooted in the belief system of the Cathars, the owners of said castle. Today I invite you to time travel to the so-called “dark ages,” a time coined by diverging versions of Christianity (gnosticism), mysticism, and dark castles or abbeys on mountain tops (see e. g. Mont Saint Michel) – and texts start new pages with huge capital letters.

[Behind the Scenes: This article took several attempts to write. I had set out to study the historical background, but could not quite make a match to the lyrics. So I would lay it aside and start another project first. In an earlier version it was even a comparison between “Montségur” and “Sign of the Cross” (X Factor, 1995), which rather quickly proved as a project too complicated, and what’s more, a concept that does not do the song justice. Which means marking large parts of your text body and hit “erase.” The breakthrough to finally make some sense of what might be going on in the song was the realisation that you need the actual belief system of the Cathars as well as a couple of conspiracy theories of popular culture. This is the moment when you realise that you have to dig deep into gnosticism, alchemy, or similar occult stuff again (as I often do for all things Maiden & Dickinson) and wonder when the first weird entity will turn up in your wardrobe…

Another difficulty lay in finding good sources. Sources may even contradict each other. If you want to have some fun with such stuff, I heavily recommend reading Wikipedia articles in different languages. They are by no means translations of each other, but individual creations, and thus their content can vary heavily and in ways you would not think possible. My apologies in this place as I usually try to find “better” or more reliable sources than Wikipedia, but I must admit that in this case my other online sources looked even less trustworthy or did not provide the information I needed.]

Gnosticism of the Cathars: Dualism

The Cathars had been identified as “heretics,” a term used for (religious) groups whose beliefs deviate from the established doctrine. (cf. Heresy – Wikipedia)  But first of all, many scholars believe that the term “Cathars” had been ascribed to the religious group, but that they have never used it to describe themselves. They referred to themselves, among others, as “bon hommes” or “bonnes femmes, ” or simply “bons Chrétiens”: good men, good women, and good Christians. (cf. Catharism – Wikipedia)

This group believed in dualism, in the meaning that they believed in a good god and in an evil good. This may not look exotic at a first glance, as Christian tradition includes Satan, but here, the evil god is the god of the Old Testament. The god of the Old Testament is the evil god of the material world, whereas the good god is the  god of the New Testament who belongs to the spiritual world. (cf. Catharism – Wikipedia) In case you like William Blake, like myself, or have ever had a look at the stuff behind The Chemical Wedding (Bruce Dickinson, 1998) – this smells a lot like Urizen, the Mosaic demiurge (= based in the Old Testament !), and representative of reason, and Los, the prophet, and the representative of the Human Imagination (cf. Damon, Samuel Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (1965).

The Cathars also refused trinity and believed that the New Testament must have happened in a spiritual world whereas an evil Jesus visited the material world and was a lusty man following the heels of Mary Magdalene. Moreover, some groups believed that the good god was supposed to have two wives and lived in enmity with the evil god because he had seduced one of them. Or probably even the other way around. (cf. Catharism – Wikipedia) The more you read the more you understand why the Catholic Church disagreed with their interpretations of the Bible.

What is important for us, is the belief that human beings are angels trapped in the material world, held prisoners in earthly bodies, who are reborn until they receive a kind of baptism at the brink of death to enter the spiritual realm. (cf. Catharism – Wikipedia) That is the backdrop for what happened in Montségur and, I argue, is part of the lyrics of the song.

The Siege of Montségur

The Cathars soon attracted the interest of the Catholic Church. It must be said, however, that they had not been hunted down until they killed the papal messenger Piere de Castelnau in 1208. This prompted Pope Innocent III to start the Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade (1209-1221), the attempt to erase the Cathars from Langedouc in Southern France. Montségur is hereby not a singular event, massacre and mass killings of Cathars also happened in Bézier, Carcasonne, the Castle of Cabaret, and Toulouse. The movement of the Cathars was brought to an end by no-one else than the famous inquisitor Bernardo Gui. (cf. Albigensian Crusade – Wikipedia)

What makes Montségur special goes down to three facts. Montségur had become a kind of capital to Cathars, one of the big French castles they had taken refuge in. Montségur is a steep mountain with the castle on top, which makes it an ideal fortified, military point of retreat. But this isolation at great height would also become their Achilles heel, as, secondly, there was a month-long siege which took place from May 1243 – March 1244. Oppositional forces besieged the fortress atop the mountain, a situation of long-term stagnation. Attempts to negotiate proved unsuccessful. Thus, in the end, the Cathars were given an ultimatum which leads to point three. They had to forswear their belief or be burned alive. (cf. Siege of Montségur – Wikipedia)

Sources vary on the number of people who were burned on this day, but most give a number between 200 and 300. Those people chose death over giving up their belief, which makes them martyrs. However, given their belief-system, this death at the stake was, in their eyes, very likely the ticket to the spiritual realm. It is the loathing of the material world and the longing for the spiritual world which puts this event in another light. It might be more difficult to grasp when seen through the lense of a more common, regular Christian faith system. Martyrdom, in a dualist system that promises departure to a much better world, escape from the evil god and reception in the realm of the good god, makes much more sense.

Mysticism

The song also refers to two elements you will most likely not find in the history book of your choice: the grail and Templars. I assume that these references, at least in combination, may refer to at least one conspiracy theory which makes Montségur the hideout of the grail and the Templar knights and Cathars its protector. (cf. Catharism – Wikipedia)

This may also hint at a theory published as a historical treatise, which found fame through its novelisation via Dan Brown known as The Da Vinci Code (2003). The original authors Michael Baignet, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln presented the conspiracy theory as you most likely know it in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), but earned harsh criticism on the side of historians. In other words, their treatise was never accepted as historical and factual. I will refrain from giving details here as the authors have already sued Brown for copyright infringement, albeit unsuccessfully. (cf. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – Wikipedia

The Song: Dying for a Greater Cause – Protection of a Secret or Pure Belief?

I assume that the mentioned secret is placed here, although, of course, the song makes it explicit that we will never know its exact nature. As legend has it, some survivors of the massacre managed to smuggle out treasure, and, as legends go, it was assumed that this treasure may have been the Holy Grail. (cf. Château de Montségur – Wikipedia). What we do not know, however, is we are referring here to a chalice or a family.

As far as I see the song the Templars and the Cathars die together (although I have not found any historical records of Templars being present in Montségur), which furthers hints at the conspiracy theories as both parties are seen as protectors of the grail in Montségur. Interestingly, the grail has become a malediction. This implies that Montségur was not attacked as part of the Albigensian Crusade, but as a secret operation to get hold of the grail. The grail has attracted evil to invade Montségur in the first place. Whatever it was, it is something that threatens the power of the Vatican. But then, the whole point of the Albigensian Crusade was of course erasing the Cathars and it was led by the Pope. The references to the Pope only partly support a reading that here was anything other going on than the Carthar Crusade. One might argue that the Cathars and Templars rather died before revealing their secret. But I actually think that the Carthars, at least, are indeed depicted as martyrs as I will show in the following.

I think the destruction of the Old Testament refers to the belief-system of the Cathars, or rather the disagreement on it between them and the Catholic Church. The material world is reigned by Lucifer and the lust he induces and accordingly, the way out to freedom is to burn at the stake. Life is more like something that causes agony by design whilst being trapped in a material body. I also encourage you to have a look at the exact wording, I think that it is no metaphor here that it was heavenly beings who were killed. This is all a very neat fit for the belief system of the Cathars. I thus think that their choice of death makes them true martyrs in accordance with their belief system.

Be that as it may, “Montségur” has a message for us. It does not present the described events as something left behind in the past, a horror of the dark ages; it claims instead that killing in the name of religion is still going on. We can only speculate as to what this refers to as we clearly do not have the inquisition anymore, but I think that intolerance and adherence to doctrines may be a good guess. Probably this is a question of “us” or “them.” Montségur asks us a question concerning braveity that still applies nowadays: Do you want to be among the accusers who burn those who deviate from the normative belief system or do you want to take your stand with them?

Sources

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