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In ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ Steven Pinker reels off example after example of ancient, medieval and early modern brutality in order to justify his thesis that the world is getting less violent. Pinker writes:
In the 13th century the Cathars of southern France embraced the Albigensian heresy, according to which there are two gods, one of good and one of evil. An infuriated papacy, in collusion with the king of France, sent waves of armies to the region, which killed around 200,000 of them. To give you a sense of the armies’ tactics, after capturing the city of Bram in 1210 they took a hundred of the defeated soldiers, cut off their noses and upper lips, gouged out the eyes of all but one, and had him lead the others to the city of Cabaret to terrorize its citizens into surrendering. The reason you have never met a Cathar is that the Albigensian Crusade exterminated them. Historians classify this episode as a clear instance of genocide*, **.
In this passage Pinker claims that the infamous Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) took the lives of 200,000 people, though in a footnote he approvingly cites White’s figure for the suppression of the Cathars – one million deaths.
The first step in determining whether these are credible estimates should be to estimate the population of the region and the scale of the conflict which erupted for 20 years. Estimates of the Langudoc’s population in the 13th century are few and far between. According to ‘Heresy Proceedings in Languedoc 1500-1560’, the population in the fourteenth century was about 1.5 million. So I think we can make an educated guess that the population at the time of the crusades (13th century) was a bit lower at 1 million (see also). This means in order for White’s figure of 1 million deaths to be credible, the Crusade needed to have been sufficiently large to slaughter pretty much every single person in the Languedoc (unless of course they bussed in a load of heretics from somewhere else).
In terms of the major cities in the region according to Costen, ‘The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade’. The city of Beziers possibly had a population no higher than 10,000. Toulouse had a population of 20,000, Montsegur at the time it was besieged had a population of 361, Carcassonne had a population of 6,000.
During the fighting itself, almost the entire population of Beziers was slaughtered on the 22nd of July 1209 according to the chroniclers. The legates recorded that ‘our men spared no-one, irrespective of rank, sex or age’ and put the toll for the massacre down as 20,000. In God’s War Christopher Tyerman states that ‘the true figure was almost certainly far less’ (p591). Costen points out that the cities population probably only numbered 10,000 (Tyerman thinks 8-9 thousand) so ‘this claim can be seen as in line with the normal inability of commentators at this period to deal with large numbers’ (p123). When Caracassonne fell, all the citizens were allowed to leave freely (though naked according to some accounts). When a new crusade was launched in 1211, Lavaur was attacked and 400 Cathar perfecti were burnt (New Cambridge Medieval History vol5 p167).
Following Beziers the social order of the region – always a ‘a patchwork of petty lords and nobles who spent most of their time and energy fighting each other’ - collapsed and it became a perpetual war zone. Massacres became a regular event – ‘from the inhabitants of the modest Castrum of Les Touelles to the 5,000 citizens dispatched at Marmande***’ (Tyerman 592). However as the war dragged on these horrors decreased, perhaps reflecting a lack of persecuting zeal or the chroniclers indifference.
Following the death of Simon De Montfort his son Amaury lost ground and retired to Paris. Another crusade led by Louis VIII was sent to the Langudoc upon which many southern cities voluntarily submitted to the king. Upon arrival the crusade was very small due to the departure of many of its original participants and the fact that many had die in an epidemic. In the event it was not attacked and the king died unexpectedly. When war next erupted in 1228 the count of Toulouse sued for peace due to financial considerations and agreed to enforce the heresy laws.
The inquisition’s activities were more restrained than their reputation suggests though they conducted an unprecedented level of investigation and interrogation. Bernard of Caux, inquisitor of Toulouse appears to have sentenced 207 offenders between 12th of May and 22nd of July 1246 (the height of the inquisition’s activity)– burning none, sentencing 23 to imprisonment and ordering the rest to wear crosses. Later in the century some 8 to 9 percent of those sentenced were burned to death.
The Albigensian Crusade must rank as one of the nastiest of medieval wars, resulting in massacres, atrocities, guerrilla warfare and the breakdown of social order. As Malcolm Barbour argues:
‘the Albigensian crusades went far beyond the normal conventions of early thirteenth-century warfare, in the scale of the slaughter, in the execution of high-status opponents, male and female, in the mutilation of prisoners, in the humiliation and shaming of the defeated, and in the quite overt use of terror as a method of achieving one's goals'.
Nethertheless, as Tyerman points out ‘the crusades did not destroy a region’ (p604), once the fighting ended, ‘prosperity returned’. With the exception of the massacre at Beziers the destruction waged in the region was comparatively modest in scale. Aside from de Montfort’s victory at Saint-Martin-Lalande and the Battle of Muret the Langudociens appear to have avoided field engagements and the massacres appear to number in the hundreds rather than thousands.
Coming up with any sort of figure for death tolls appear futile. 1,000,000 deaths is clearly ridiculous, 200,000 – a 20% death rate for the region seems too high. 100,000 might be closer to the truth but given the paucity of evidence any estimate is going to be pure speculative ‘finger waving’.
*Actually the Albigensian crusade hardly touched the Cathars. As Languedoc was restored to southern French rule after 1218 the Cathars resumed the public practice of their faith and were as strong as before. The crusade – always something of a cynical land grab - was a failure that petered out after its leader Simon De Montfort was killed at Toulouse in 1218. The reason the Cathars got their come-uppence was because the French monarchy acquired the Langedoc region of southern France through an advantageous marriage and the inquisitors were allowed to operate there.
**In his account of the capture of Bram Pierre Des Vaux claims that the mutilations were performed as a reaction to atrocities perpetrated by the defenders, reflecting tit for tat violence rather than tactical necessity. Hideous atrocities were perpetrated on both sides, including the reign of terror conducted in the Dordogne valley by Bernard of Cazenac and his wife Elise (the second jezebel) in which 150 men and women had their hands or feet amputated or their eyes put out in the Benedictine Abbey of Sarlat. Elise’s modus oper
andi was allegedly removing women’s thumbs and ordering the removal of the nipples of a poor peasant woman (Tyerman p592).
During the siege of Toulouse in 1217-18, captured crusaders could expect to have their eyes put out, their tongues removed, to be dragged behind horses, stoned, dropped from the ramparts, or drowned with mill-stones around their necks. According to Malcolm Barbour ‘In 1212, Roger Bernard, the count's son, captured some crusaders near Narbonne, took them back to Foix, where he and his men spent their time devising "new and original tortures" for them including suspension by their genitals’.
*Again the numbers seem high here given that the population in later centuries is estimated at numbering around 1,000 but there is little doubt a major massacre took place – the anonymous pro northern chronicler describes numerous assorted organs ‘torn out and tossed aside on the open ground as if they had rained down from the sky’.