Narbonne and Carcassonne

Trip Start Apr 10, 2008
Trip End May 12, 2008

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Monday, April 21, 2008

I was up early this morning and on the road at a little after 07:00, to start the drive to Narbonne about 250 miles to the east. This is a drive that takes one all the way across the south-west of France, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. It's a lovely drive though beautiful countryside. There were patches of heavy rain and a few passages of sunshine and cloudy blue skies.
Driving this road and arriving in Narbonne always brings back memories. I was pastor of a congregation in Narbonne for almost three years, so we spent a great deal of time in the area and made visits to people in many places. Narbonne had a very ancient history, it was an important port city during the time of the Roman Empire, and gave its name to an entire region of Gaul as it was called then. There is a medieval church and fortifications in the center of town, and as they were digging to do construction work about ten years ago, a section of the old Via Domitia Roman road was found. It dates all the way back to the second century BC!  
I drove to the house of Jeanne Reverte a very faithful member of many years, and whom I first met in 1982 when she was working as the secretary and accountant for the Church's Geneva office. Her house is side by side with that of her sister in the way old farm or in this case vineyard houses were in the past. Generations of families stayed together to work the land, building on to existing structures as needed.
Jeanne and I had lunch as we waited for others to arrive for services. The Ybars family arrived, the parents, then their son and his family. We had our service at 2:30, and were 9 people. I gave the same sermon as the day before in Bordeaux. After services we talked and I had private meetings with several people and one anointing for sickness. I was the pastor of this area for several years, so these are all old friends; it was a joy to spend this day with them.
We shared a meal and continued our conversation until after 8:00 pm, when I needed to leave to drive to my next destination for the night. 
We said our goodbyes until we could meet again this Fall, and I drove out into more rain. I headed back the way I had come toward Toulouse where I will have dinner with another old friend tomorrow night. I drove about halfway to Toulouse, to another of my favorite historic places in France, the city of Carcassonne. Carcassonne is the largest preserved medieval city still surrounded by two concentric walls in Europe. It is quite an impressive site from a distance, and walking around inside the wall; with a little imagination one can envision one's self back in Middle Ages.  The castle in the center of town was used as the set for Kevin Costner's politically-correct (read "hokey") version of the Robin Hood story some years back.
Carcassonne is also interesting historically because it was a key center in the story of the Albigensians, or they're usually called in France, the Cathars. This was a Christian group in the 11-13 centuries, with varied beliefs even among themselves, but that didn't accept Catholic heterodoxy. Spiritual descendents of the Paulicians and the Bogomils farther east, they brought down the wrath of the Catholic Church by refusing to accept the Pope's primacy. After sending representatives to try to convince the Albigensians to reenter the Catholic fold by debates and scholarly explanation (efforts which failed), Pope Innocent III (interesting name...) declared a formal crusade against the Cathars and those who defended them. We often think of crusades as being against Muslims in the holy land, but here was a crusade against other Christians to enforce the authority of the Pope.
In the name of Christ, Albigensians who wouldn't recant were sent to be galley slaves, hanged, or burned at the stake.  The Pope also declared that if any noble in the South of France didn't cooperate, his lands would be forfeit to whoever took them.  So many younger sons from noble families in the north (by French custom the oldest son inherited everything (to keep the family powerful by not splitting up its lands), the younger sons got nothing. So there were lots of younger sons looking for ways to get lands of their own. Many knights headed south for the crusade.
At the siege of Béziers in 1209, the Catholic Abbot and Army commander told his men to kill everyone in the town. When he was told that there were Catholics as well as Cathars inside, he famously said "kill them all, the Lord will recognize his own."  They killed or enslaved everyone inside and burned the city. He later reported to the Pope that he had killed 20,000 heretics "regardless of rank, age or sex."
Carcassonne was the stronghold of Raymond-Roger of Trencavel, a noble who defended the Cathars. Shortly after Bézier fell, Carcassonne was besieged. In extremis, in exchange for a promise of safety for himself and the townsfolk, Raymond opened the gates of the city to the Catholic forces. The promise was betrayed and he starved to death in a prison cell.
One last footnote, one of the last Albigensian fortresses to hold out against the Catholics was the castle of Montségur in the Pyrenees not far from here. It was besieged for nearly a year in 1243 and 1244 before it finally fell. 200 Cathars were burned alive at the stake. The story is that several leaders of the sect managed to escape over the wall the night before the castle fell. They took with them, the story goes, the "treasure of the Cathars." There are different versions of what that treasure was: Gnostic texts, accumulated wealth, and even the Holy Grail. The treasure was supposedly hidden somewhere in the area. Seven hundred years later in the 1930s Adolph Hitler came to power. He was fascinated by Arthurian lore, especially viewed through the lens of Wagnerian opera. He actually had an archeologist (or pseudo-archeologist) go to the region of Monségur to see if he couldn't locate the Grail. So there may be a tiny grain of truth in the stories of Indiana Jones after all!
 After checking into my hotel, I had a late-night walk around the cobblestone streets of Carcassonne. The light rain added a touch of mystery and melancholy to the atmosphere. There were only a few people walking around, so I could be alone with my thoughts about all the history that occurred here, and all the violence and suffering involved in the history of mankind.
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