Château De Montségur (“Satan’s Synagogue”)

Château De Montségur (“Satan’s Synagogue”)

Before turning their thoughts to the intriguing legends associated with these ruins, any person who strays off the marked footpaths and loses his or her footing on the edge of the precipices that drop away on every side of this aptly nicknamed “citadel in the sky.” And let us not forget that early in 1244 it was a feat of rock climbing that sealed the fate of the Cathars when they were besieged here by the army of King Louis IX. After seven months, during which traditional military strategies had brought nothing but failure, Hugues des Arcis, the commander of the forces encamped at the foot of this eagle’s nest, finally decided to send a small group of particularly agile soldiers up the cliff face. Under cover of darkness, this detachment reached the summit, captured a watchtower, and installed a trebuchet, with which it proceeded to bombard the interior of the castle without respite, making life impossible for the besieged, who were forced to surrender after a few weeks.

The fate of this community, the last bastion of the Cathar faith in France, is well known. One Sunday in March 1244, the day of the equinox, the believers—more than two hundred men and women—were led down to a pyre that had been set up at the foot of the hill, steadfastly refusing to renounce their faith. What else could they do, these pacifists who had taken a vow to show courage in the face of suffering and death? The name Cathar—from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”—was given them by their contemporaries on account of their asceticism and refusal to compromise in any way. For the same reason, those who had undergone the rite of ordination called the consolamentum were known as perfecti, although among one another they preferred the terms “good man” and “good woman.” The band of sympathizers protecting the pacifist Cathars were allowed to go free provided they pledged to stop supporting heresy and swore allegiance to the king of France.

The Château de Montségur that stands today is not the same fortress that existed at the time of these dreadful events. Historians, archeologists, and local storytellers cannot agree on all the details. For example, was the Cathars’ place of martyrdom the prats dels cremats (“field of the burned”), as indicated today by a stele, or was it a neighboring hill? At this magnificent site, so many questions remain unanswered. There’s the legendary Cathar treasure, said to have been held in safekeeping at Montségur before being smuggled out to an unknown destination. And then there are the four men deputed by the community to slip away under the utmost secrecy prior to the ultimate surrender, carrying with them who knows what. Items of treasure? Precious documents? Mysterious keys enabling the Cathar tradition to be revived elsewhere? At Montségur nothing seems impossible. In the last century a team of German researchers came, with the blessing of the Nazi regime, to investigate, convinced that the castle housed the Holy Grail, the famous cup believed to have been used to catch Christ’s blood.

What should we make of the site’s architecture, of the spectacular alignment of the sun’s rays at solstice time, as if its architects had wanted the castle to function as a kind of astronomical calendar? And doesn’t its floor plan reflect the constellation of Boötes, with the donjon representing the star Arcturus? Is it also mere chance that “Cant del Boièr” (Song of the Herdsman) remains one of the most popular folk songs in the Occitanian canon, with some people reading into its words a coded message addressed to future generations?

“After seven hundred years the bay tree will flower again”—and with it, no doubt, the Cathar faith. Thus were the words of the troubadour in the Occitania of old. Or was it the last of the perfecti to be burned at the stake? Or even a poet born generations later? Basically, nobody knows. It is even possible that the bay tree could be an olive tree, and that the date is regularly adjusted so that it never loses its relevance. No matter. The legend remains perplexing enough for visitors to be drawn in by its verses while contemplating the ruins of what the inquisitors called “Satan’s synagogue” – but never quite managed to utterly destroy.

Sources: Atlas of Cursed Places

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