The occitan region endured sieges, massacres and the Inquisition during the bloody Albigensian crusade in the 12th and 13th centuries and Ariège was spared little of it. The spiritual movement called catharism developed in reaction to the corruption and disarray of the Church at that time. In stark contrast to the worldly, dissolute clergy of the era, the Cathars followed a rigorous interpretation of the gospels, with the most pious of the believers, called "Perfects", taking vows of poverty and celibacy and refusing to eat meat. It was their belief in dualism, however, that outraged the Church: according to the cathars, Satan had created the material world, with its pestilence, violence and hate, not God. Paradise could be gained after death only by rejecting worldly attachments during one's life.
The forces of the Pope and French monarchy eventually crushed the Cathars, culminating in 1244 with the siege of the fortress castle at Montségur, where 205 Perfects chose to be burned to death rather than renounce their faith.
MAJOR CATHAR SITES
Montségur and the Cathars
The chateau of Montségur sits on top of a rocky outcropping, also called the “pog” at 1207m elevation and overlooking the little village of Montségur and the surrounding countryside of meadows and forests.
Montségur is known as a high seat of catharism but it seems to have been frequented as far back as the neolithic era and there are also a few traces from the Roman era. Its history remains obscure until the 13th century, when Raymond de Péreille, a vassal of the Count of Foix, rebuilt on that spot an earlier ‘castrum’ (a fortified place with habitations built just outside the ramparts.)
Archeologists refer to this second castrum as Montégur II and its history is linked to Catharism.
After the siege of Montségur and the surrender and murder of the Cathars there in 1244, the chateau was destroyed by the victors and then rebuilt. The walls visitors see today were not standing during that battle. The hike up to the chateau takes about 30 minutes. Wear sturdy shoes, not sandals, because the path has not been smoothed for tourists.
The Foix castle
The medieval construction of this castle, which dominates the town, has been perfectly preserved. The most famous of the counts of Foix was Gaston Fébus, who defied the authority of the king of France by refusing to pay hommage to him. A poet, Fébus left us with a song in occitan, "Se canto", that is still sung at festive meals, as well as a recipe for his favorite apéritif, "hypocras", which you'll have the opportunity to sample while in Ariège.
The château of Usson
Situated near the border between Ariège and Aude, the chateau's ruins are perched at 923 metres elevation. The chateau is mentioned for the first time in 844 in a bequest from Argila of Razès to his son Bera II. The lords of Alion, vassals of the counts of Foix, reconstructed the chateau in the 13th century.
Sold as national property at the time of the Revolution, it was then used as a stone quarry. Now consolidated, Usson is one of the rare Cathar sites that is today open to the public.
The château of Roquefixade
This chateau belonged to the Villemus family, vassals of the the counts of Foix. Il was taken by Raymond VII, count of Toulouse in 1243, following a conflict between the two families.
Despite its strategic position near the château of Montségur, as well has having served as a Cathar refuge, the château at Roquefixade didn't see any significant combat. It became a royal fortress at the end of the Albigensian crusade.
The château of Miglos
Dependent on the counts of Foix, the chateau at Miglos is mentioned in 1213, at the time of the inventory of the strongholds given back to the king of France. Miglos was a place of passage and of residence for numerous Cathar Perfects and believers.
This village, located near the border with the department of Aude, has a rich Cathar history. It is best known for being the subject of Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie's pioneering work of microhistory, Montaillou, village occitan. It analyzes the town in great detail over a thirty-year period from 1294 to 1324. The daily routines of its 250 inhabitants are in the records of Jacques Fournier, later Pope Benedict XII. Montaillou was one of the last bastions of the Cathars and as bishop Fournier launched an extensive inquisition that consisted of lengthy interviews with the locals, all of which were faithfully recorded. When Fournier became Pope he brought the records with him and they remain to this day in the Vatican Library.