Languedoc – Roussillon is home to many beautiful places full of history. One of the places well worth a visit is Minerve, an extraordinary hanging village in the south of France. This natural phenomenon is to be found on a very impressive location, surrounded by gorges who carve into the landscape where two rivers meet, the Cesse and Brian. These gorges formed the natural defences of Minerve in the Middle Ages. What had to be built with human hands in Carcassonne, was offered by nature in Minerve. However, even this defence wasn’t strong enough to protect the Cathars from the crusade…
In 1209 an immense army marched along the Rhone to the south of France, to liberate Occitania, as Southern France was then called. Pope Innocentius III had declared that it was Satan himself who kept Occitania occupied. It was the Pope who called for a crusade against this Empire of Evil. In name of this crusade the Christians attacked Minerve in 1210.
The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, closed Minerve from the rest of the world with a large army. From his side of the gorges, he sent a rain of stones by catapult on the small town, as there was no other possibility way to attack. Descending the gorges and then climbing up the other side simply was impossible.
Meanwhile in Minerve, house after house collapsed under the rain of rocks. However, that was not the worst enemy of the Minervois yet. The summer that year was exceptional hot and dry. The rivers in the gorges around Minerve were dried up. There still was a well at the bottom of the gorges, but those who dared to go down to get water, were immediately attacked with arrows of the besiegers. The Minervois were without water and they were therefore hopelessly lost in the heat of the summer.
There was no other option but to try to find a settlement. Guillaume de Minerve started negotiations with Simon de Montfort. It was agreed that the Minervois were allowed to leave the city, leaving behind their belongings, however only after renouncing the Cathar faith. A northern French knight was quite upset about this. He had come to kill heretics, not to conquer cities:
“This way you will give the heretics a chance to escape. Of course they will pretend to abandon their faith, to walk off freely.”
But the papal legate, Cardinal Arnaud-Amaury, who was in the company of Simon de Montfort, answered him:
“Do not worry, I do not think many will renounce their faith.”
Cardinal Arnaud-Amaury was right. The besiegers invaded Minerve while singing the Te Deum. They planted a cross in front of the small church, which still is active nowadays. Opposite the cross you can find the beautiful monument with the pigeon. The besiegers went to a house where they had gathered the parfaits. They were asked to renounce their faith. One of them replied:
“Neither living nor dying can separate us from the belief to which we are connected.”
After that they went to another house where the female parfaits were gathered. Simon de Montford tried to persuade them to convert. As he said:
“I want you all to be saved and gain knowledge of the truth.”
It did not help. Arnaud-Amaury was not mistaken. Only three women were persuaded at the last moment by the entreaties of a noble lady, Mathilde de Saint Roch, who was in company of the Crusaders.
At the bottom of one of the gorges, a big stake was built. The besiegers didn’t have to make any effort to put the Cathars on the stake, as they went there by themselves and threw themselves into the flames, one by one. They were one hundred and forty.
It was the first mass burning of Cathars after the beginning of the crusade. Soon there would be more to follow. In Cassès 60 Cathars were burned. At the stake of Lavaur as much as 400 Cathars were killed. Also in Lavaur, the 80 knights who defended the city were hung. The noble Lady Guiraude who protected the Cathars was thrown into a well which was then filled with stones. “And many pretty heretic women were thrown into the fire,” as the song of the crusade (Chanson de la Croisade) tells, referring to a perverse trait of the North French, who “experienced great joy watching this event”. Could this be a reaction to the equality of women and men with the Cathars?
These days, you will find the stone in which the profile of a dove is carved opposite the little church in the middle of the village. It has become a famous symbol of Catharism in recent years. You will find it on a postcard in almost every tourist shop, and if you know it only from these images, you will be surprised by how small the actual statue is. The dove of Minerve was created in 1962 by Jean-Luc Séverac, in order of the Municipality of Minerve. The artist himself is amazed about how famous his dove has become: “People absolutely want to believe that it is a medieval dove. Now, if that is what they like to believe, they are more than welcome to do so (Interview in the Cathar special of Pyrénées Magazine from 2000).
In Minerve you will also find a wonderful small museum, dedicated to the Cathars. It is located in the aptly named street: “Carrjera del martyrs”. The history of the Cathars is very well explained by small scenes, once set up with lots of love by a local wine grower in his spare time. Monsieur Casque is the current manager of the museum and extends a warm welcome. The museum is called “Hurepel” and an absolute must for those who want a short and clear summary of the history of the Cathars.
Written by Bram Moerland