The Cathars (or "pure ones") were one of the most intriguing religious sects of the medieval era. Put very simply, they believed that our world was Hell, created and managed by Satan himself. Human beings are the souls of angels who had angered God, and as punishment, were sent to Earth, imprisoned in the physical body. Our only hope of redemption is to spend this life purifying ourselves and becoming joined with Christ.
The Catholic church condemned this gloomy doctrine as dangerous heresy, but the Cathars were left more-or-less alone until 1174, when St. Bernard went to the Cathar stronghold of Toulouse and vigorously preached against the sect. In 1205, a monk named Dominic Guzman took it upon himself to preach the Cathars out of existence. Around this time, Pope Innocent III excommunicated Count Raymond of Toulouse (a Cathar) and ordered the king of France to replace him with a reliable Catholic. In 1208, one of Raymond's henchmen fought back by assassinating the papal legate Pierre de Castlenau.
|Pedro Berruguete, "Saint Dominic and the Albigensians"|
After this murder, all holy hell broke loose. Dominic Guzman's followers (the "Dominicans,") were given the task of destroying the Cathars, a campaign that came to be called "the Inquisition." The enraged pope essentially declared war on Catharism, resulting in the horrors that gone down in history as the "Albigensian Crusade."
In this 20-year military onslaught, it is estimated that between 200,000 and a million Cathars or Cathar sympathizers were slaughtered. In 1242, two Inquisitors were murdered by Cathars, which just intensified the campaign against the sect. The following year, the Cathars made their "last stand" at Montsegur. The siege lasted for ten months, until they were finally forced to surrender. All the holdouts who refused to renounce their beliefs were burned alive. Catharism was, quite literally, now nothing but ashes.
|Chateau de Montsegur, via Wikipedia|
Ironically enough, the church's crusade did much to support the belief that this world was Hell.
|Pedro Berruguete, "Saint Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-fe"|
Were the Cathars truly dead and gone, however? Did they--in the most unorthodox fashion--live into the present day? Such was the belief of one 20th century Englishman.
Arthur Guirdham was a prominent and highly respected British psychiatrist. He was an intelligent and inquisitive man, not given to dishonesty or quackery. He was also an ardent believer in extra-sensory perception and reincarnation who believed the study of parapsychology should be a key element of his profession. He found validation for this belief through one particular patient who led him on a strange historical and spiritual odyssey.
In 1962, a woman whom Guirdham identified only as “Mrs. Smith” came to him for treatment. She had been suffering from nightmares involving a man entering her room. For reasons she couldn’t grasp, the mere sight of him filled her with a sickening fear. Guirdham was unnerved—and intrigued—by the fact that he had been having similar dreams. For much of his life, he had nightmares where, as he lay asleep, he was approached by a man. His dreams did not go any further, but they were enough to make him wake up screaming in terror.
Guirdham had long been fascinated—almost obsessed—with the area of France known as the Pyrenees, where the wholesale massacre of Cathars had taken place in 1244. After he met Mrs. Smith, he found himself regularly encountering references to that obscure religious sect. He wrote bemusedly, “To this day, only a few people in England know anything about the Cathars, but it seems that it is preordained that, sooner or later, I meet all of them.” In 1963, he casually mentioned Catharism to Mrs. Smith. She replied that just that day, she had accidentally come across a book on the subject, and immediately became deeply intrigued.
Before learning of Catharism, Mrs. Smith—who had definite, if untrained, psychic abilities—visited the Pyrenees, and immediately felt she had been there before. She regarded the area with a mixture of familiarity and inexplicable anguish.
Two years after becoming Guirdham’s patient, Smith began telling him of dreams she had had involving him. They contained glimpses of her past life in thirteenth-century Toulouse. She saw herself as a Catholic peasant girl named Puerilia, and Guirdham was “Roger-Isarn d’Arborens,” a traveling Cathar preacher. The two became lovers, which caused her to be abandoned by her family and excommunicated from her church.
Some of her dreams involved a cousin of Roger's named Pierre de Mazerolles, a cousin of Roger's. He had participated in the murder of two agents of the Inquisition. (Mazerolles was the man who had so horrified Smith in her dream.) These were the murders which caused the Catholic church to take the savage retaliation that virtually wiped out the local Cathar community. Roger/Arthur Guirdham was arrested, and died of disease in his dungeon. Puerilia/Smith faced an even worse fate—she was burned at the stake, a gruesome death Mrs. Smith recalled with appalling detail.
Fortunately for history, the persecution and annihilation of the Cathars was recorded by their Dominican tormentors with meticulous detail, leaving us with surprisingly extensive records of this ill-fated sect. Guirdham explored these records in an effort to find if any of Smith’s story could be verified. Even he was shocked to discover proof of virtually all of it. He was unable to find any mention of “Puerilia”—he believed this had been a nickname which would not have appeared in the records—but Roger and many of the other names Smith recollected, along with Pierre de Mazerolles’ murder plot, and the subsequent massacre, proved to be historical fact, rather than a troubled woman’s fancy. Her extensive descriptions of thirteenth-century life--which included details unknown to historians until years later--were, Guirdham learned, also astonishingly accurate. In 1970, Guirdham published his findings in "The Cathars and Reincarnation."
In a later book, "We Are One Another," Guirdham went even further, asserting that a large group of Cathars were reincarnated at around the same time in contemporary England, all of whom carried with them powerful, detailed, and historically accurate memories of their traumatic past lives. He described how all these people--who already had some degree of contact with each other--independently came to the conclusion that they had lived before as Montsegur Cathars. Assuming Guirdham was correct, this simultaneous mass reincarnation was likely done for some larger purpose--but what?
“The Cathars and Reincarnation” is fascinating reading, even if you do not accept it as proof that we have all lived before. (I admit to remaining an agnostic on the subject.) His painstaking historical research provides a vivid glimpse of a largely-forgotten but important period of history.