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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about a religious movement called "Catharism". See also Cathar. For information on the Star Wars race of the same name, see the list of Star Wars races.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
This portrays the story of a disputation between St. Dominic and the Cathars (Albigensians), in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St. Dominic's books were miraculously preserved from the flames. Painting by Pedro Berruguete
This portrays the story of a disputation between St. Dominic and the Cathars (Albigensians), in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St. Dominic's books were miraculously preserved from the flames. Painting by Pedro Berruguete

Catharism was the religious movement of the Cathars that appeared in the Languedoc in the 11th Century and flourished in the 12th century. Catharism had dualist Christian and Gnostic elements and was condemned by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church either as a heretical Christian sect or sometimes as a non-Christian religion. The fundamental doctrine of the Cathars that Roman Catholics regarded as heretical was interpreting the 'resurrection' as a doctrine of 'Rebirth', as against a physical raising of a dead body from the grave. Catharism existed throughout much of Western Europe, but its focus was in Languedoc and surrounding areas - Occitania - what is now southern France.

The name Cathar most likely originated from Greek καθαροί, "pure ones". One of its first recorded uses is Eckbert von Schönau, who wrote (in Latin) on heretics from Cologne in 1181: Hos nostra germania catharos appellat ("In Germany we call these people Cathars").

The Cathars were also sometimes referred to as the Albigensians. This name originates from the end of the 12th century, and was used by the chronicler Geoffroy du Breuil of Vigeois in 1181. The name refers to the town of Albi (the ancient Albiga) northeast of Toulouse. The designation is misleading as Albi was one of many focal points of Catharism: the movement had no centre and is known to have flourished in areas that are now parts of Italy, Germany, Northern France and Spain as well as the Languedoc.


The beliefs came originally from Eastern Europe by way of trade routes. The name of Bulgarians (Bougres) was also applied to the Albigenses, and they maintained an association with the Bogomils of Thrace. Their doctrines have numerous resemblances to those of the Bogomils and earlier Paulicians. Much of the existing knowledge of the Cathars is derived from their opponents, the writings of the Cathars having been destroyed because of the doctrinal threat they posed to Christian theology. There are a few texts from the Cathars themselves which were preserved by their opponents (the Rituel Cathare de Lyon, the Nouveau Testament en Provencal) which give us a glimpse of the Cathars, leaving many questions unanswered. One large text which has survived, The Book of Two Principles, elaborates the principles of dualistic theology from the point of view of some of the Albanenses Cathars.

Cathars in general formed an anti-sacerdotal party in opposition to the Catholic Church, and raised a continued protest against the corruption and indolence of the Roman Catholic clergy. This, of course, is the position taken by the Catholic Church specifically for the purpose of diminishing the doctrinal threats posed by the Cathars. Cathar Elders, called Cathari or perfecti by the Catholic Church and known to themselves, their followers and their co-citizens as "bons hommes" and "bonnes femmes" or "bons chrétiens", literally "good men/women" or "good Christians", were few in number; the mass of believers (credentes) were not initiated into the deeper doctrines and were not expected to adopt the ascetic lifestyles practiced by the Elders. Before their deaths they would receive a baptism of the Spirit, the ceremony that converted a believer into a Perfect or Elder. This ceremony convenenza, is known as the consolamentum and was called heretication by the Catholic Church.

The first known Occitan Cathars appeared in Limousin between 1012 and 1020. Several were discovered and put to death at Toulouse in 1022. The synods of Charroux (Vienne) (1028) and Toulouse (1056) condemned the growing sect. Preachers were summoned to the districts of the Agenais and the Toulousain to combat the Cathar doctrine in the 1100s. The Cathars, however, gained ground in the south thanks to the protection given by William, Duke of Aquitaine, the Counts of Toulouse and a significant proportion of the southern nobility. A number of Catholic priests are also known to have adopted Cathar beliefs. People were impressed by the bons hommes and bonnes femmes, and the anti-sacerdotal preaching of Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne in Périgord. A landmark in the "institutional history" of the Cathars was the Council held in 1167 at Saint-Félix-Lauragais, attended by many local figures and also by the Bogomil papa Nicetas, the Cathar bishop of (northern) France and a leader of the Cathars of Lombardy.

One of the unsolved debates among historians is whether Cathars represent a continuation of historic threads of Marcionism, Gnosticism and Manicheanism; although there are, in fact, clear connections between the beliefs of the Cathars and, for example, the Treatise on Resurrection of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Nevertheless the possibility of independent re-invention cannot be entirely ruled out, or that the authors of the Nag Hammmadi Codices and the Cathars were independently inspired by similar sources.


The human condition

The Cathars proclaimed there existed within mankind a spark of divine light. This light, or spirit, had fallen into captivity within a realm of corruption — identified with the material world. This was a distinct feature of classical Gnosticism, of Manichaeism and of the theology of the Bogomils. This concept of the human condition within Catharism was most probably due to direct and indirect historical influences from these older (and sometimes also violently suppressed) Gnostic movements. According to the Cathars, the world had been created by a lesser deity, much like the figure known in classical Gnostic myth as the Demiurge. This creative force was not the "True God", though he made pretense of being the "one and only God". The Cathars identified this lesser deity, the Demiurge, with Satan. (Most forms of classical Gnosticism had not made this explicit link between the Demiurge and Satan). Essentially, the Cathars believed that the God worshipped by Roman Catholics was an imposter, and his church was a corrupt abomination infused by the failings of the material realm. Spirit — the vital essence of humanity — was thus trapped in a flawed physical realm created by a usurper and ruled by his corrupt minions.


The goal of Cathar eschatology was liberation from the realm of limitation and corruption identified with material existence. The path to liberation first required an awakening to the intrinsic corruption of the medieval "consensus reality", including its ecclesiastical, dogmatic, and social structures. Once cognizant of the grim existential reality of human existence (the "prison" of matter), the path to spiritual liberation became obvious: matter's enslaving bonds must be broken. This was also suggested by the philosopher Plato, who suggest "forms." This was a step by step process, accomplished in different measures by each individual. The Cathars apparently recognized the potential of reincarnation. Those who were unable to achieve liberation during their current mortal journey would return later to continue the struggle. Thus it should be understood that reincarnation was neither a necessary nor a desirable event, but a result of the fact that not all humans could break the enthralling chains of matter within a single lifetime.


Cathar society was divided into two general categories, the Perfecti (Perfects, Parfaits) and the Credentes (Believers). The Perfecti were the core of the movement, though the actual number of Perfecti in Cathar society was always relatively small, numbering perhaps a few thousand at any one time. Regardless of their number, they represented the perpetuating heart of the Cathar tradition, the "true Christian Church". (When discussing the tenets of Cathar faith it must be understood that absolute demands of extreme asceticism fell only upon the Perfecti.)

An individual entered into the community of Perfecti through a ritual known as the consolamentum, a rite that was both sacramental and sacerdotal in nature: sacramental in that it granted redemption and liberation from this world; sacerdotal in that those who had received this rite functioned in some ways as the Cathar clergy - though the idea of priesthood was explicitly rejected. The consolamentum was both the baptism of the Holy Spirit, baptismal regeneration, absolution, and ordination all in one. Upon reception of the consolamentum, the new Perfectus surrendered his or her worldly goods to the community, vested himself in a simple black robe with cord belt, and undertook a life dedicated to following the example of Christ and His Apostles — an often peripatetic life of purity, prayer, preaching and charitable work. Above all, the Perfecti were dedicated to helping others find the road that led from a dark land ruled by a dark lord, to the realm of light that they believed to be humankind's first source and ultimate end.

While the Perfecti lived ascetic lives of simplicity, frugality and purity, Cathar credentes (believers) were not expected to adopt the same stringent lifestyle. They were however expected to refrain from eating meat and dairy products, from killing and from swearing oaths. Catharism was above all a popular religion and the numbers of those who considered themselves "believers" in the late twelfth century included a sizable portion of the population of Languedoc, counting among them many noble families and courts. These individuals often married, ate meat, and led relatively normal lives within medieval society — in contrast to the Perfecti, whom they honored as their exemplars. Though unable to embrace immediately a life of complete purity, the credentes looked toward an eventual time when this would be their calling and path.

Many credentes would also eventually receive the consolamentum as death drew near — embracing the ritual of liberation at a moment when the heavy obligations of purity required of Perfecti would be temporally short. Some of those who received the sacrament of the consolamentum upon their death-beds may thereafter have shunned further food or drink in order to speed death. This has been termed the endura. It was claimed by Cathar opponents that by such action of self-imposed starvation, the Cathari committed suicide to escape this world. Other than at the moment of extremis, however, little evidence exists to support such a Cathar practice more generally.


The Catharist concept of Jesus might be called docetistic - theologically speaking it resembled Modalistic Monarchism in the West and Adoptionism in the East. Simply put, most Cathars believed that Jesus had been a manifestation of spirit unbounded by the limitations of matter — a sort of divine phantom rather than a real man. They embraced the Gospel of John as their most sacred text, and rejected the Old Testament — indeed, most of them proclaimed that the god of the Old Testament was by all textual evidence really the devil. They proclaimed that there was a higher God — the True God — and Jesus was his messenger while many in the West who adhered to a modalistic theology proclaimed he was the True God himself. These are views similar to those of Marcion. The deity found in the Old Testament had nothing to do with the God of Love known to Cathar faith. He had created the world as a prison, and demanded from these "prisoners" fearful obedience and worship. This false god was in reality — so proclaimed the Cathari — a blind usurper who under the most unjust pretexts tormented and murdered those whom he called all too possessively "his children". (This exegesis upon the Old Testament is not unique to the Cathars: it echoes views found in earlier Gnostic movements and foreshadows later critical voices.) The dogma of the Trinity and the sacrament of the Eucharist were also rejected as novelties. Belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, resulted in logical rejection of purgatory which in any case was still a new idea in the early thirteenth century. For the Cathars this world was the only hell - there was nothing worse to fear after death, only another visit to this world.

While this is the interpretation of Cathar theology provided by the Roman Catholic Church, crucial to the understanding of the Cathars is their fundamental disagreement over the meaning of 'resurrection'. In the book Massacre at Montsegur the Cathars are referred to as "Western Buddhists" because of their adherence to a Doctrine of 'Re-incarnation' and non-violence.[1] It was this fundamental disagreement that led to the extermination of the Cathars.

Social relationships

From the theological underpinnings of the Cathar faith there came practical injunctions that were potentially destabilizing to the order of medieval society. For instance, Cathars rejected the giving of oaths as wrongful; an oath served to place one under the domination of this world. To reject oaths in this manner was seen as dangerous in a society where illiteracy was wide-spread and almost all business transactions and pledges of allegiance were based on the giving of oaths.

Sexual intercourse and reproduction propagated the slavery of spirit to flesh, and sexual abstinence was considered desirable even in matrimony. Informal relationships (what might be termed concubinage) may have been considered preferable to the social contract of marriage among Cathar credentes. Perfecti were expected to observe complete celibacy. Separation from a wife or husband might be necessary for those who would become Perfecti.

The slaying of life was abhorrent to the Cathars, just as was the senseless copulation that produced enslavement in matter. Consequently, abstention from all animal food except fish was enjoined of the Perfecti. (The Perfecti apparently avoided eating anything considered to be a by-product of sexual reproduction, including cheese, eggs, milk and butter.) War and capital punishment were also absolutely condemned, an abnormality in the medieval age.

Such teachings, both theological and practical, brought upon the Cathars firm condemnation from the religious authorities whose social order they threatened. The religious authorities based their understanding of social relationships on a number of Teaching of Jesus, Saint Paul, and the Old Testament. For example, Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12 to 7:39, speaks of chastity for single people and enjoying the bonds of marriage for those Christians that choose to be married. As well, in Luke 24:7 Jesus states that HE must be crucified and on the third day be raised again, ie. resurrected, in order to conquer death and to serve as the lamb, the final sacrifice; paving the way for God's grace to be applied to mankind. By rejecting these teachings, the Cathars were in direct contempt of the religious authorities.


In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the affected district in order to arrest the progress of the Cathars. The few isolated successes of Bernard of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, which clearly showed the power of the sect in the Languedoc at that period. The missions of Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180–1181, obtained merely momentary successes. Henry of Albano's armed expedition, which took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.

Decisions of Catholic Church councils against the Cathars at this period — in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179) — had scarcely more effect. By the time Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, he had resolved to suppress the Cathars.

Saint Dominic encountered the Cathars in 1203 while travelling, and argued with them, concluding that only preachers who displayed real sanctity, humility and asceticism could win over convinced Cathar believers. His conviction led eventually to the establishment of the Dominican Order in 1216. The order was to live up to the terms of his famous rebuke, "Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth." In the final analysis, however, the theologians of the Catholic Church were unable to effectively counter the belief of the Cathars that the Doctrine of 'resurrection' is a Doctrine of 'Rebirth'. And it was for this reason that it became necessary not only to exterminate the Cathars, but to destroy their writings.

At first Pope Innocent III tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the affected regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who venerated them, but also with the bishops of the district, who rejected the extraordinary authority which the Pope had conferred upon his legates. In 1204, Innocent III suspended the authority of certain bishops in the south of France; in 1205 he appointed a new and vigorous bishop of Toulouse, the former troubadour Foulques. In 1206 Diego of Osma and his canon, the future Saint Dominic, began a programme of conversion in Languedoc; as part of this, Catholic-Cathar public debates were held at Verfeil, Servian, Pamiers, Montréal and elsewhere.

In January 1208 the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau was sent to meet the ruler of the area, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Known for excommunicating noblemen who protected the Cathars, Pierre de Castelnau excommunicated Raymond as an abettor of heresy. Pierre was murdered near Saint Gilles Abbey in 1208 on his way back to Rome, allegedly by a knight in the service of Count Raymond. As soon as he heard of the murder, the Pope ordered his legates to preach a Crusade against the Cathars. Having failed in his efforts to demonstrate the errors of Cathar theology, the Pope then called a formal crusade, appointing a series of leaders to head the assault. There followed over forty years of war against the Cathars and their allies in the Languedoc. See Albigensian Crusade.

This war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, possibly instigated by a papal decree stating that all land owned by Cathars could be confiscated at will. As the area was full of Cathar sympathisers, this made the entire area a target for French nobles looking to gain new lands. The French barons of the north flocked south to do battle for the Church.

The crusader army came under the command, both spiritual and military, of the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux. In the first significant engagement of the war, the town of Béziers was taken on 22 July 1209. Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander is said to have been asked how to tell Cathar from Roman Catholic. His reply, recorded by a fellow Cistercian, was "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius." — “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own”[2]. The doors of the church of St Mary Magdalene were broken down and the occupants slaughtered. 7,000 people died there including women and children. Elsewhere in the town many more thousands were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. The town was razed. Arnaud, the abbot-commander, wrote to his master, Pope Innocent III: "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand citizens were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex."[3]. The population of Béziers was then probably no more than 15,000 but with local refugees seeking shelter within the city walls, the number claimed, 20,000, is possible.

It was after the success of the siege of Carcassonne which followed the massacre at Beziers, that Simon de Montfort was appointed to lead the Crusader army. Prominent opponents of the Crusaders were Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, and his feudal overlord Peter II, the king of Aragon, who owned fiefdoms and had other vassals in the area. Peter died fighting against the crusade on September 12, 1213 at the Battle of Muret.

The war ended in the Treaty of Paris (1229), by which the king of France dispossessed the house of Toulouse of the greater part of its fiefs, and that of the Trencavels (Viscounts of Béziers and Carcassonne) of the whole of their fiefs. The independence of the princes of the Languedoc was at an end. But in spite of the wholesale massacre of Cathars during the war, Catharism was not extinguished.

In 1215, the bishops of the Catholic Church met at the Fourth Council of the Lateran under Pope Innocent. One of the key goals of the council was to combat the heresy of the Cathars without explaining precisely what that heresy originated with: a different understanding of the Doctrine of 'resurrection'.

The Inquisition was established in 1229 to root out the Cathars. Operating in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century, and a great part of the 14th, it succeeded in extirpating the movement. From May 1243 to March 1244, the Cathar fortress of Montségur was besieged by the troops of the seneschal of Carcassonne and the archbishop of Narbonne. On March 16, 1244 a large and symbolically important massacre took place, where over 200 Cathar perfects were thrown into an enormous fire at the prat des cramats near the foot of the castle. Moreover, the church decreed severe chastisement against all laymen suspected of sympathy with Cathars (Council of Narbonne, 1235; see the Bulla of Innocent IV Ad exstirpanda, 1252).

Cathar Cross - The Inquisition required Cathar sympathisers - repentant first offenders - to sew a cross like this onto their clothes
Cathar Cross - The Inquisition required Cathar sympathisers - repentant first offenders - to sew a cross like this onto their clothes

Hunted down by the Inquisition and abandoned by the nobles of the district, the Albigenses became more and more scattered, hiding in the forests and mountains, and only meeting surreptitiously. Later insurrections broke out under the leadership of Bernard of Foix, Aimery of Narbonne and Bernard Délicieux (a Franciscan friar) at the beginning of the 14th century. But at this point vast inquests were set up by the Inquisition, which increased its efforts in the district. Precise indications of these are found in the registers of the Inquisitors, Bernard of Caux, Jean de St Pierre, Geoffroy d'Ablis, and others. Members of the Elect, Parfaits, rarely if ever recanted their faith and were burned alive in their hundreds. Repentant "lay" believers were punished but generally their lives were spared as long as they did not relapse. Having recanted, they were obliged to sew yellow crosses onto their outdoor clothing.

After decades of not only severe persecution; but, perhaps, even more importantly, the complete destruction of their writings, the sect was exhausted and could find no more adepts, and after 1330 the records of the Inquisition contain few proceedings against Cathars. The last known Cathar Perfect in the Languedoc, Guillaume Bélibaste, was executed in 1321.

Other movements, such as the Waldensians and the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit, which suffered persecution in the same area survived in remote areas and in small numbers into the 14th and 15th century. Waldensian ideas were absorbed into early Protestant sects, such as the Hussites and Lollards. It is possible that Cathar ideas were too.

The Holy Grail

It has been suggested in some modern fiction and non-fiction books that the Cathars could have been the protectors of the Holy Grail of Christian mythology, especially in the books Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Labyrinth, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and Vagabond.

The Cathars in Popular Culture

Babylonne, the protagonist of Catherine Jinks' novel, 'Pagan's Daughter' is a Cathar, as are many other main characters.

The avant-progressive rock band Thinking Plague's 2003 album, A History of Madness is a concept album dealing with the Cathars.

The song Montsegur from the album Dance of Death by Iron Maiden is based on the story of the Cathars.


  1. ^ Massacre at Montsegur: A History of the Albigensian Crusade, Zoe Oldenbourg
  2. ^ “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eis.” Caesarius of Heisterbach, Caesarius Heiserbacencis monachi ordinis Cisterciensis, Dialogus miraculorum, ed. J. Strange, Cologne, 1851, J. M. Heberle, Vol 2 , 296-8. Caesarius (c1180-1250) was a Cistercian Prior.
  3. ^ Patrologia Latinae cursus completus, series Latina, 221 vols., ed. J-P Migne (1844-64), Paris, Vol. 216:col 139
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars, 1290-1329 (Penguin Books) by Rene J.A. Weis
  • Heresies of the High Middle Ages, Walter Wakefield and Austin P. Evans. Columbia University Press (October 15, 1991) Original source documents in translation.
  • "Albigenses" by N.A. Weber. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
  • "Cathari" by N.A. Weber. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.
  • Histories of the Cathars: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, trans. Barbara Bray, Vintage Books, 1979
  • Montsegur and the Mystery of the Cathars, Jean Markale, ISBN 0-89281-090-4, Inner Traditions,
  • The Cathars, Malcolm Lambert, ISBN 0-631-14343-2, Blackwell, 1998
  • The Treasure of Montsegur: A Novel of the Cathars, Sophy Burnham, ISBN 0-06-000079-1, Harper, 2002
  • All Things Are Lights, Robert Shea, ISBN 0-345-32903-1, Ballantine, 1986
  • The Perfect Heresy, Stephen Shea, ISBN 1-86197-350-0, Profile Books 2000
  • Heresy and the Inquisition II Persecution of Heretics by Dr M D Magee, 12 December 2002.
  • The Cathars of the Langudoc James McDonald, 2005.
  • Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, chapter 5: The Albigensian Attack
  • lastours The four cathar castles above Lastours.
  • Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco, ISBN 0-345-36875-4, Ballantine, 1988
  • The Inquisition Record of Jacques Fournier Bishop of Pamiers 1318-1325 (English translation by Nancy P. Stork)
  • The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages, Sean Martin, Pocket Essentials 2005
  • The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 Mark Gregory Pegg (Princeton University Press, 2001) ISBN 0-691-12371-3. A new and refreshing take on Catharism in Languedoc -- argues against any kind of doctrinal unity of mid-13th-century Cathars.
  • Jean Duvernoy's transcriptions of inquisitorial manuscripts, many hitherto unpublished [1]
  • Power and Purity: Cathar Heresy in Medieval Italy Carol Lansing (Oxford University Press, 1998). Cathars outside of Languedoc
  • Tuez-les tous Dieu reconnaîtra les siens. Le massacre de Bé­ziers et la croisade des Albigeois vus par Césaire de Heisterbach Jacques Berlioz (Loubatières, 1994). An up-to-date discussion of the infamous, but legendary, statement "Kill them all, God will know his own."
  • In France, an ordeal by fire and a monster weapon called 'Bad Neighbor' , Smithsonian Magazine, pp. 40-51, May 1991, by David Roberts. [Cathars & Catholic Conflict]
  • Flicker, Theodore Roszak, Fictional conspiracy thriller revolving around the Cathars
  • David George's recently published "The Crusade of Innocents" ( ISBN 1-4196-4634-6) has as its plot the encounter between a Cathar girl and the leader of the concurrent Chlldren's Crusade Stephen of Cloyes.
  • CATHARS - Memories of an initiate, by the philosopher Yves Maris, AdA inc, 2006.
  • Le porteur de lumière - The black secrets of the Vatican, by Gerard Bavoux, Pygmalion, 1996.

External links

  • Seals of Southeastern France
  • Site of German Cathars (Katharer)
  • Dualism and the relationship between Manichaeism, Bogomilism and Catharism
  • Reviews of Books on the Cathars, Catharism and the Cathar Crusade
  • Blessed Yohanne and here (in Russian)
  • Cathars and Catharism in the Langudoc
  • Apostolic Gnostic Church of American Cathars
  • Heretics Without Borders, A Society for the Study of Heresy in the Middle Ages
  • Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies
  • Antonin Gadal: L'Oeuvre d'un homme inspiré par l'Esprit
  • The paths of Cathars by the philosopher Yves Maris.
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