More Trees Than Rivers

Last week, we finished our honeymoon reprise and went to two cities famous for religious belligerence.

(1) Avignon was, in the 1300’s, the home of seven official Popes and two more antipopes. (2) Carcassonne was, the century before, the site of an vicious purge of a minority sect of Christians known as Cathars.

We spent four days learning as much awful history as we could in these two beautiful old cities.

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Avignon is famous for that bridge in the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” and more importantly for the Palace of Popes, which is immense. Here’s the brief story of how the Popes got there….

In 1300, the Papacy was as powerful as it had ever been or would ever become. All over Europe, kings were flexing their muscles and questioning the accepted idea that each of them, although possessing the divine right to rule, had to submit to the divine authority on Earth, the Pope. The Pope even published a Bull (gotta love that term) in 1302, proclaiming that all human beings, no matter who, no matter where, depended on him for their salvation, which was bolder than the usual declaration that only Christians could be saved from eternal damnation. The king of France was probably the pushiest of the monarchs at the time, and he dared the Pope to interfere in his running of the kingdom.  He convened a council of nobles and clergy to back him up.  The Pope excommunicated the king.  The king sent troops to arrest the Pope, a shocking escalation of the usual tug of war between sacred and secular. The Pope died under house arrest in his home town (not in Rome) and the next Pope only lived a few months as well.


The Pope after that was Clément, was French, and had the backing of the French king.  His name means “merciful,” and he moved the whole papal court to Avignon, which was not part of France at the time, but was allied. In fact, the city was later sold at a good price to the next Clément by Queen Joanna of Naples in payment for her being forgiven for poisoning her late husband. Here she is, atoning for her sin in front of Pope Clément and some red-hatted cardinals.


The construction of the Palace of Popes was started immediately, and each successive pontiff added bigger chapels, banquet halls, throne rooms, and secret vaults for the treasure of the church. Thousands of administrators moved from Rome, and thousands more cooks, pages, valets, grooms, waiters, maids, and so on also staffed the palace. Not to mention all the diplomats, lobbyists, and accountants.  The gold was stored under six different stones in the floor of a vault to which only two or three people had access.


It seems so ironic…Jesus’ representatives were rendering to Caesar rather than to God, because God’s church HAD BECOME, in a sense, Caesar.

Protocol dictated that no one ever sat at a higher place of honor then the Pope. In fact, no one else could sit along the same wall as the Pope. Everyone else sat along the side walls, with lots of room left in the middle for all the servants. However, the Holy Roman Emperor, when he visited, got to sit along the same wall at the end of the banquet hall, but at a separate and lower table from the Big Guy.

The 70 years in Avignon were later called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy by those who opposed it.  The term compares the Papal Court to the elites of the chosen people of Israel captured by a Gentile foreign king and carried off to Babylon to live in exile from 587-538 BCE.

The fresco below shows the seven heroic hostage Popes who did their best to manage during their exile (sarcasm). The last two were “antipopes.” They were part of the so-called Western Schism, a branching of the Catholic tree that was soon pruned. The antipopes were elected by pro-Avignon forces while the regular line returned to Rome.  Note the half-missing Avignon bridge.


You don’t want to confuse the Western Schism with The Great Schism, which divided the Church of Rome from the Orthodox Churches of the East in 1054. And it’s also not the same thing as the Reformation, which was already brewing in the west, but which would not happen until after 1500 with Martin Luther, John Calvin, & Co.

Later in the week, we drove west to Carcassonne, the famous walled city that was one of the first to get UNESCO World Heritage status.   We’d camped there a few years ago without the boys, but had not focused enough on the Cathars, who were numerous in the city and who found refuge there for awhile from their “fellow Christians” on the Albigensian Crusade.


It’s not known precisely what brought so many of these people to southern France, but by the 1100’s they were about ten percent of the population and highly regarded. Their brand of Christianity had been labeled heresy: they believed in reincarnation, and did not view the eucharist as the literal Body of Christ. They were latter-day Gnostics, really, believing that an evil god created the material world and punished souls through reincarnation.  The good God, represented most fully by Jesus, created the spiritual world, and Cathars sought release from the cycle of rebirths with the help of a unique sacrament, called “consolamentum.”  They practiced as much celibacy and poverty, if not more, than monks and nuns, but did not live in cloistered monasteries. Their neighbors all over southern France called them “the good Christians.”

The Albigensian Crusade against them was supported by the King of France, whose borders were north of Cathar country and who hoped, with the help of what we’d call jihadists nowadays, to pick up some new southern territory. Young men from all over Europe took up the call to fight a holy war. In 1209, in the city of Beziers, 7,000 Cathar men, women and children, were dragged out of their homes or churches (where they had sought refuge) and slaughtered on the spot. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses and used for target practice.  In the next hundred of years, there were mass executions of Cathars, with hundreds roped together and burned at the stake. Rome issued the fatwas.  The kings supplied the troops. The last known Cathar execution was in 1321.

Around the same time as the elimination of Cathars, penitential fraternities began to spring up. The photo below shows the Chapel of the Gray Penitents, back in Avignon, where a fraternity of laymen made sure that the Sacrament was properly respected, while also doing acts of service and penance in their daily lives. These fraternities became very popular all over southern Europe, each with their characteristic colored hoods. White Penitents, Black Penitents, Blue Penitents, and so on, all had their own rules of self-denial and community service.


Our guide in Carcassonne was Nathalie, a 34 year-old history guide who told us how glad she was to have majored in psychology in college, because it helped her understand the motives and errors of the people who built the city. Here she is explaining how restoration of the city has sometimes been romantic (the conical roofs were added in the 1800’s), and sometimes practical (the Roman walls were not tall enough, so Gothic engineers dug under them and built much stouter foundations before making the walls taller).


The Cathars were an ancient branch on the Christian tree, kind of Gnostic revivalists as I said, who got their start in the east (Iran? Armenia? Anatolia?) and were similar to other heretics like the Bogomils and Paulicians.  Their faith had gradually spread west as the centuries progressed.

With the fanaticism of a crazed tree-surgeon, they were pruned from the western tree.

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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

2 thoughts on “More Trees Than Rivers”

  1. What a bloody and terrifying story, all of it. I know about the whole Avignon episode and what brought it all about. Well recounted here, John! I know nothing (zip) about the Cathars. Onward Christian soldiers indeed.

    Carcassone has long been described to me as the Disneyland of medieval France–or a highly fanciful C. B. DeMille reimagining/reconstruction of what was there in the Olde Days.

    Your tour guide sounds great. Reminds me: As you draw nearer to Israel, let me know, b/c our former (and beloved) rabbi at Beth El, Rob Kahn, is now a fully licensed tour guide, based in Jerusalem. Being a state tour guide in Israel is a certifiable Big Deal, and it takes some considerable study and testing to become one. I can connect you and L with him if you like.

    Thanks again for this highly informative (and, as usual, lively) post!


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