I wonder how many of you even heard of Carcassonne? I know I hadn’t until a short while back, when I reading about the roots of the infamous Inquisition. Believe it or not, this is the epicenter, where it all started and that deeply troubling history intrigued me so I was eager to pay it a visit.
Carcassonne, located in the southern part of France is famous for the Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress restored by the famous theorist and architect Eugène Villoet-le-Duc in 1853, added to the UNESCO world heritage sites list in 1997. Even now, the imposing walls hold in the Medieval atmosphere and walking through the gates into those narrow streets of Cité de Carcassonne is like walking through a portal in time.
Carcassonne became famous due to its Cathar community and their persecution during a period known as the Albigensian Crusades.
In the 13th century the pope Innocent III decreed that the teachings of the Cathars were heretical; establishing a Crusade to wipe them out and suppress their beliefs. This crusading army was led by Simon de Montfort, assaulting the fortifications of the medieval Carcassonne and eventually capturing it in the year 1209.
They were quite special people, and when I say special I mean different. They believed in reincarnation, equality between men and women, and had some rather out there ideas on gender identity… Well, they believed that every man or woman could be reincarnated as the opposite sex so gender was meaningless in this life. Most importantly (in the eyes of the pope) they resented the absolute authority of the Catholic church and were not afraid to openly challenge it.
Many Cathar beliefs stood in stark contrast to traditional Catholic teachings and their preachings began to spread throughout the countryside. In the early 12th century the Cathars coexisted peacefully with their Catholic neighbors, even leading to a series of public debates and discussions. As the spread and growth of the Cathar sect continued penalties like sanctions were enacted. As these penalties showed little progress Pope Innocent III ordered the crusade and as they say, the rest is history.
An interesting stop when I’ve visited the city was the Museum of Inquisition and Trial.
Let’s first shed some light on the origin and goals of the Inquisition.
In theory the Inquisition was a group of institutions in the judicial system of the Catholic Church who’s aim was to combat heresy. The 12th century persecution of the Cathars in France extended to other European countries, and in particular in Spain and Portugal. In the Iberian peninsula the inquisitors focused their efforts against converted Jews and Muslims, who were suspected of practicing their old religion in secret.
So here we find ourselves, in Carcassonne, visiting the Museum of Inquisition. Obviously there were plenty of things to make my skin crawl, scenes straight from a horror movie that are nearly impossible to believe. But, unfortunately, the exhibits in the museum were all too true, and it lasted more than five centuries!
This was the study room of the priests and inquisitors where they would write books or reports on the status of trials.
Throughout these rooms you can see represented the entire process of trial and sometimes torture.
I love this picture in particular because it depicts a trial of a witch, probably accused of witchcraft for healing with herbs of traditional methods. Hunting the witches accused of “making deals with the Devil” became a main preoccupation after the extermination of the Cathars.
After being imprisoned accused witches would suffer barbaric tortures, forced to confess her witch powers and obviously condemned for it! Many of the accused witches faced execution by burning at the stake… some were lucky enough to be killed before burning.
This led me to the second part of my museum; their fascinating collection of unbelievably cruel torture objects. If nothing else they were inventive and very, very strange at times. I even discovered they had a torture instrument for bad musicians!
This is a special chair called the “Nail Chair” which could be adjusted to suit the purpose of the torturers… believe me, I tested it, the spikes were sharp!
With all that dark, brutal and ugly history in the past Carcassonne is a beautiful city that manages to preserve it’s medieval heritage, scars and all. It’s worth visiting and wandering the streets to learn a thing or two. From time to time it is worth reflecting on some of the darker periods in history so we never make the same mistakes again.