This article accompanies the fable
Dreaming the Virgin Mary
The Cathars inspire rapturous histories nowadays and some of it is deserved. Why shouldn't reincarnation be more meaningful than eternal damnation and Original Sin? But the reality is: they have left no churches, no monuments, no writings. The most striking memento they have left us is their wonderful castles. Below is the newly restored Château de Quéribus south of Carcassonne, which may have been the last stronghold after the fall of Montségur. It was evacuated rather than conquered - in 1255. But, after a resurgence, the Cathars were forced underground permanently by 1329. Some would say those sparks of divine light were completely extinguished... (more here).
The Cathars' beliefs are now mostly available to us via their critics... We read that they thought sex was acceptable as long as it didn't involve procreation, which trapped more souls in material bodies. Even contraception, abortion and homosexual love ("gaiol") were acceptable to many. If you lived life to the full, there was always the Consolamentum (like baptism and redemption combined) before death to absolve all your sins and free your soul into the purifying fire. However, if you did not undergo the Consolamentum, you'd be back in this world, stuck in another physical body.
It was the having-your-cake-and-eating-it that enraged their critics, like Eckbert of Schönau, who summarized their heresies in 1163. He did have a point.
The Consolamentum... There is not a lot of joy to be found in this religious philosophy. It has been stripped of life's physicality and earthly pleasures.
Yet it was not so different from the philosophy of the Dominicans and Franciscans who destroyed them. Think of how the Catholic Church built such symbols of power as Sainte-Cécile Cathedral in Albi (below). This fortress, begun in 1282, is said to be the largest brick building in the world - a symbol of conquest and the destruction of the Cathars.