The Roman Church had never countenanced religious toleration except when it
had itself been the beneficiary. Almost as soon as the Church gained political
power in the fourth century it started killing those who disagreed with its new
version of orthodoxy. The first known victim was a bishop, Priscillian,
on the other side of the the Pyrenees
(Bizarrely, his tomb became the pilgrimage site centuries later after he
had been forgotten about and someone had fabricated a story that St-James was
buried there. Today the site is familiar as St-James of Compostela.)
Visigoths, who controlled the area later ruled by the Counts of Toulouse, had
been Arian Christians, but the Franks adopted the Roman variety of Christianity.
The Counts seem to have been as conventionally Catholic as any other sovereign,
and in some ways were more enthusiastic than most. Raymond IV for example
had been a principal leader of the First Crusade. (His Son Alphonse was baptised
in the River Jordan, and was thus called Alphonse-Jordan).
It seems to have been tolerance, rather than personal attachment to religious
beliefs on the part of the Counts, that led to the rapid spread of Cathar belief
in their territories in the twelfth century. Like so many other things
- food, spices, medicines, fashions, games, leprosy - Cathar beliefs may have
been brought back by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land, travelling through
The Counts were more tolerant of the Cathars than other
Catholic rulers. There is no firm evidence that they
were Cathars themselves, though it may be significant that
Raymond VI always travelled with a Cathar Parfait
in his retinue, and that the Roman Clergy played such a small
part at his court. On the other hand other strands
of religious deviation were equally tolerated. The
Jews provide a one example. The Waldensians provide
Peter Waldo of Lyons was a Catholic layman who read the gospels and based his theology on them. He soon attracted followers who came to be known as Waldensians, Waldenses, or Vaudois. They advocated a priesthood of all believers and they gave away their wealth. They rejected sacraments not sanctioned by the bible, and condemned practices such as the sale of indulgences and the adoration of saints.
Soon after the movement started around 1170 Waldo was excommunicated, after which he rejected papal authority. Persecution followed. The Roman Church, never very adroit at theologies other than their own, had great difficulty in distinguishing between Waldensians and Cathars. True enough, some of their ideas agreed, and Cathars and Waldensians seem to have got on well enough with each other, but their theologies were wildly different. This did not stop the Church from referring to Cathars as Waldensians and to Waldensians as Cathars, nor from prosecuting them all indifferently on the same charges including that old favourite, the sexual abuse of cats.
While the Cathars seem to have been extirpated, the persecution of Waldensians continued until the late eighteenth century, by which time the depleted survivors had been scattered to the Alpine Valleys and other remote areas. Waldensian ideas along with those of the Lollards had long before developed into Protestant belief, so in a sense the persecution of the Waldensians was a failure. In the nineteenth century the few remaining Alpine Waldensians were assisted financially by Protestants in the UK and USA. Many
emigrated to Uruguay and Argentina, and there are still descendents of the Waldensians in America today.
The Languedoc is fiercely proud of its record as a place of refuge for persecuted minorities. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Hugenots (more Protestants) found refuge in the Lozere during the Wars of Religion and the Catholic persecutions that followed. After the Spanish civil war Spanish exiles fled here to find refuge. During the Second World War, members of the maquis found protection and support here as well, fighting a guerrilla war almost identical to that fought on the same land by Cathar faidits.
Click on the following link for more about the Waldensians