The 'White Lady' of Montsegur


Pauc m'o pres si-l vens m'erissa...
(I care little if the wind blows my hair)

(I)

Once upon a time, more than seven centuries ago, there existed between France and Spain a land known as Occitania. It was not a nation state as we currently understand a modern democracy to be, but a patchwork of feudal demesnes and warrior dukedoms with every river valley under the sway of its own warlord and the whole bound together by complex ties of blood, marriage and a common language - an all but vanished tongue known to modern linguistic scholars as 'Romans' or 'old Occitan'. It seems to have been an oddly enlightened culture for its time, perhaps too enlightened, and the high concentration of Jews and Muslims among the population bears silent testimony to an unusual degree of religious tolerance. Doubtless it was this overlapping of ideas and cross-fertilization of Christian and Moorish culture that gave rise to the South's artistic and scientific achievements. By the dawn of the 13th century the world was lit only by fire, yet there was a school of Jewish medicine in Toulouse and a school of magic in Salamanca. Several of the cornerstone works of the kabbalah were written during that period in northern Spain and the area saw the first flowering of gothic art and architecture. While not actively matriarchal, as some have claimed, Occitania at least embraced equal rights to the extent of offering a level playing field to both genders and democracy of a sorts in the form of 'capitouls,' or elected magistrates who acted as a check on the power of the aristocracy. Above all the citizens of Occitania embraced the code of chivalry...

Any burgher or serf could become a knight if he was valiant and loyal or knew how to compose music or poetry. Elsewhere in Europe knighthood was inconceivable without nobility, but the attributes of Occitan knighthood - accessible to anyone regardless of race, country or class - were nothing less than the sword, the word and the harp. A troubadour would swear fidelity to his lady as if she were a feudal lord and from then on she would receive him according to the statutes of chivalry determined by the 'Court of Love' at Puivert. While honor and loyalty were cherished, 'truth' remained the essential quality of knighthood for (as you may have heard) a knight that is true in heart can never fail in single combat.

It was the tolerance of the south that proved to be its undoing, for its mountainous fastness acted as a nurturing ground for a variant form of Christianity that admitted no intermediaries between man and God and admitted eastern concepts such as reincarnation and vegetarianism on account of perceiving animals as having souls similar if not identical to our own. Some believe it was an older surviving form of Christianity, similar to the original faith said to have been practised by John the Baptist and the Essenes, while others maintain it was essentially a form of Manichean Christianity introduced to the south in the 12th century by the Bogomil missionary Nicetas. This is neither the time nor place to address the finer theological detail, save to say that by the end of the 12th century the rise of the so-called 'Cathar' faith in Occitania represented a genuine challenge to the hegemony of the Roman Church which was still trying to consolidate its hold over mainland Europe after the psychological shock of the loss of the Holy Lands and the military fiasco of the Third Crusade.

The very word 'Cathar' is a calumny, a fighting word or insult, that simply betokens one who does not believe in the one God and which turns up in Apartheid era South Africa and present-day Afghanistan with variant spellings but always the same meaning - 'kafirs', 'heretics' or 'devil worshippers'. In 1209 Pope Innocent III authorized a punitive military crusade against the so-called heretics that would become a war of extermination, ultimately claiming some eight million lives. The brilliant military strategist Simon de Montfort was placed in overall martial command of the crusade. De Montfort was very much the Dick Cheney of his day, having honed his talents during his time in the Holy Lands where he showed an extraordinary aptitude for re-organizing and methodically asset-stripping conquered cities and nations. Religious authority was vested in the Spaniard Dominic de Guzman who was later to be canonized as 'Saint Dominic' - founder of the Dominican order, the black garbed monks who oversaw the bureaucracy of the Inquisition:  the system of terror, interrogation and persecution that would provide the template for the modern police state. The short supply lines and Occitania's lack of a unified political identity promised an easy victory for the dogs of war that followed de Montfort despite lacking the mechanization of the Nazis; it took the northern barons more than a generation to achieve their aims. By the time the dust settled, the kingdom of Occitania had been expunged from the map and its language and culture trampled into the ashes. Not only were libraries and records burned and the written word outlawed, but the race itself literally bred into extinction by new laws making it illegal to marry or procreate with anyone who did not eat meat or speak French. It is one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in western history and rightly referred to by modern scholars as the 'death of chivalry

The last stand of the Cathars took place at Montsegur, literally the safe or 'secure' mountain. It was the highest, oldest and least accessible of the castles that we now recognize as one of the first examples of gothic stonework to be found in Europe. The supreme act of resistance lasted more than a year and there were battles fought every day. Many of the great heroes of chivalry made their final stand there -"men such as Lantar, Belissen and Caraman" who rallied to the aid of Montsegur's liege, Raymond de Pereilha, and the commander of the castle garrison, Pierre Roger de Mirepoix.

De Mirepoix was nicknamed the 'peacock' because of his foppish good looks which he claimed were the result of his family being descended from Belisenna – an obscure Iberian moon Goddess. In those days 'divine monarchy' was no joke with a great many monarchs and nobles believing they were literally the offspring of supernatural beings or minor divinities. De Mirepoix is a particularly intriguing case in point.  He was as brave as he was learned with an abiding interest in alchemy that apparently led him to perfect a form of phosphorescent paint that was used to decorate the skin and armor of the garrison so that they would resemble ghosts or glowing skeletons in order to strike fear into the hearts of the superstitious Christian crusaders. It is thanks to de Mirepoix's efforts and the ancient traditions of Goddess worship surrounding the mountain of Montsegur that the castle's defenders came to be known and feared as the 'sons and daughters of Belisenna’.

At best the castle could never have sheltered much more than four hundred souls while the ranks of their besiegers numbered upwards of seven to ten thousand battle-hardened sons of bitches who, having scented blood, had no intention of backing down. The outcome was sadly inevitable. Perhaps a knight that is true cannot fail in single combat but truth alone cannot prevail forever against those sort of odds.

The weather took a turn for the worse in the spring of 1244 and the castle fell to treachery shortly before the vernal equinox when shepherds from a neighbouring village showed Teutonic knights, accustomed to the icy Alpine conditions, the secret path up the sheer side of the mountain by whence the defenders smuggled in their supplies. On March 16th 1244, the last of the 'Cathars', some 225 surviving men, women and children were dragged down the mountain in chains to perish on a massive bonfire built at the base of the mountain in a place that has come to be known as the 'Camp de Cremat' or the 'field of the stake'.

(2)

The events of the crusade against the south were suppressed by successive chroniclers who all too readily took their lead from the inquisitors. The castle's history as a symbol of resistance made it impossible for the conquering orthodoxy to Christianize or take into the Holy Roman faith as they did at Montserrat and countless other pagan sites. Around the few facts that have come down to us about the castle's siege (largely drawn from inquisition sources) a complex web of poorly substantiated and often contradictory legends began to accrue. It is widely thought that the 'Cathars' sheltered the treasures of their faith within the walls of the castle, although to this day no-one can agree what exactly that treasure might have been. Some say it was a hoard of scrolls or manuscripts, perhaps the lost gospel of Saint John the Divine, the 'Book of Love', the Book of Nicetas the Bogomil or even the 'Book of Seven Seals' - an ancient magical grand grimoire whose opening would bring about the end of the world. Others whispered that the citadel had housed the Holy Grail itself - the 'Cup of Abraham' or 'Cup of the Last Supper' said to contain the blood of Christ. Some folkloric accounts insist the cup was carved from the stone that fell from Lucifer's diadem when he was cast out of heaven and that the minions of the Prince of Darkness himself laid siege to the castle so that their master might retrieve his property and hence reclaim his rightful place in the kingdom of heaven.

According to popular tradition the sacred treasure was guarded by the last high priestess of the 'Cathars' - the 'White Lady' of Montsegur -the fair Esclarmonde whose very name betokens 'light of the world' in old Occitan. When all seemed to be lost, a dove is said to have descended from on high and split the mountain with its beak. Esclarmonde cast the treasure into the rock, which closed around it, before turning into a dove herself and flying away to the east. When the war hounds burst into the castle they could find no trace of the Grail and in their rage they fell upon the 'pure ones’ and burned them alive at the base of the castle crag.

The tale survived in song and story, providing the inspiration for Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th century epic 'PARSIFAL' which in turn provided the backbone for Wagner's celebrated opera. Equally listenable, albeit somewhat lesser known, is Massanet's opera 'ESCLARMONDE', composed in the late 19th century and immortalized in recordings by Joan Sutherland. Conventional historians made somewhat shorter shrift of the legend. In historically documented 'real' life the last high priestess of the Cathars was one Esclarmonde de Foix, the sister of the noble Raimond Roger, the warlord of the Ariege, who stood in outspoken opposition to the Roman church and the French kings who coveted his land. Esclarmonde is historically recorded to have taken the 'consolamentum' in a public ceremony in Fanjeaux in 1204. The 'consolamentum' seems to have been a mysterious form of direct initiation – possibly in the form of a laying on of hands – a sort of supernatural game of tag thought to go back all the way to the time of Christ and the apostles. In any case it was bestowed upon Esclarmonde de Foix after she had lived a full life as a wife and a mother, whose face was said to have had 'as many lines and wrinkles as the south has martyrs'. She is recorded as having spoken out against the Papal legates at the Lateran Council where she was famously advised to 'go back to her spinning' and is believed to have advised Raymond de Pereilha on the initial fortification of Montsegur, although considering her age at the ceremony in Fanjeaux she would in all likelihood have been in her grave by the time of the castle's siege and burning in 1244. The fact that she has no grave is hardly surprising considering the lengths to which the unfortunate heretics were forced to go to hide the bodies of their loved ones from the crusaders who, believing in physical resurrection at the end of time, were prone to dismembering or otherwise violating the remains of those who escaped them in life.

Surviving records show there was at least one Esclarmonde who perished on the Camp de Cremat, but she was the sickly daughter of the Castle's Lord - Esclarmonde de Pereilha who was barely in her teens and already at death's door when she was carried down the mountain and heaved into the flames. The hapless child was probably named after the celebrated high priestess and historians argue that popular memory has confused the two, merging them into the single mythic figure of Esclarmonde de Montsegur.

Case closed - or so I thought until august 2007 when a chain of events described elsewhere on this site drew my attention to the fact that every conventional English language historian seems to have drawn their data from the same French language sources. As far as I know not one has taken the time to master Occitans and go back to the surviving songs and troubadour 'romances' of the period, such as the ballads of Guilhelm Montanhigol who was writing in the mid to late thirteenth century, a first hand witness to the events he describes. If they had they would have realized there was a third Esclarmonde in the story – one who far more ably fitted the larger than life myth that has grown around her.

(3)

It seems the venerable Esclarmonde de Foix had an illegitimate niece who was named after her aunt but was neither a virgin nor a high priestess. Esclarmonde d'Alion - or 'Esclarmonde the bastard' - whose very name, according to the monks of Mercus abbey, is 'redolent of sin and damnation'. She had the blue eyes of her forefathers, wore her hair in three long shoulder length braids and at the time of the siege was barely twenty...

Her father Raimond Roger, the Comte de Foix, was one of the great heroes of the South, a colorful figure who in youth had romanced and won the hand of Etienette de Penautier, the 'loveliest woman in the Languedoc' and was remembered by his subjects as 'Raimond Drut' or 'Raymond the Beloved'. In the autumn of 1223 the Comte became lost while hunting a wolf in the forests of the Ariege and coming across a building with high white walls banged on its gate to demand admittance. It turned out he had come to the door of a convent and during the night Raimond the 'Beloved' duly deflowered its virginal abbess, Na Ermingarda, before hitting the trail at daybreak, leaving only the severed wolf's head hanging on a nail beside the convent gate to mark his passage.

The hapless abbess fell pregnant and when Na Ermingarda's position at the convent became untenable she returned to her family lands in Telho where in the fullness of time she begat twins - the girl was named Esclarmonde after her pious aunt and the boy was christened 'Loup' perhaps after their father's exploit on the night of their conception.

The twins never knew their mother's embrace. Weakened by her public shaming and the long journey north, Na Ermingarda succumbed during childbirth and the infants were given over to a wet nurse. Raised at a distance from their illustrious relatives, the children must have found themselves ostracized both by the serfs and the father's family. Loup was packed off to a monastery to receive an education befitting his station while the young Esclarmonde was sequestered in the strange octagonal tower on her father's Belpech estate where she was cared for by the Comte's loyal retainer, the aging Roiax, who initiated the child into the ways of their faith. According to the superstitious gossip of the day the young sorceress was rumoured to have been seen wandering naked in the woods consorting with wild creatures and 'certain dethroned pagan divinities' whose language she spoke and whom she was supposed to have 'called down from their homes in the mountains to do her bidding'. She is said to have had no fear of men, for 'the demon inside her pushed her to give herself to them'.

A certain 'Brother Robert', who had been returning one night to Saint-Antonin abbey where he had been sent to collect a precious ciborium, recounts how he was startled by strange noises. A huge toad went hopping past him, first one and then another, as if the creatures were gathering in the center of the forest for some unclean rite. At the end of a long avenue of oaks the terrified monk saw a naked woman with a mitre on her head and three golden plaits flowing past her shoulders playing the lyre. Beside her stood a bearded old man wearing a turban and a Persian or Egyptian costume, he didn’t know for sure. Behind her, a long line of white wolves ceremoniously walked in step, their brazen eyes flickering as if they were aflame. He glimpsed serpents slithering in the half-light and birds that he insisted bore oddly human expressions on their faces, in spite of their beaks and feathers. Father Robert added that all that had saved him was a host that had remained stuck to the bottom of the ciborium.

Raimond Drut, the Comte de Foix, died in 1223, apparently from of a stomach ulcer while directing the siege of Mirepoix. Some believe he was poisoned, although his death was most probably the result of natural causes exacerbated by the constant tension of the preceding years.  After her father's demise, the young sorceress was left with little option other than to enter into a strategic marriage with an ambitious warlord some twenty years her senior, Bernard d'Alion, the lord of Usson, thus safeguarding the vital supply lines to Montsegur that had been granted to Esclarmonde as part of her dowry.

It is dangerous to read too much into the few sparse facts available although it is clear that Esclarmonde failed to give her husband the heir he craved. Inquisition documents allege that heretics fleeing the siege of Montsegur were granted sanctuary at her husband's castle and for a while Usson served as a crucial staging post for the citadel's defenders, but then something seems to have gone a little wrong. Doffing her regal clothes the young witch allegedly lit out on her loveless marriage to live as an outlaw in the trackless woodland of the Capsir Mountains where she was reunited with her brother Loup who had run away from the monastery to become one of the ringleaders of the partisans. Clad in mans’ armor she fought in countless skirmishes, lit the night beacons that were the only means of communication between the scattered refugees and organized the shepherds to push over the rocks that crushed the crusaders as they marched through the gorges below. Many a knight dreamed of this ardent girl and according to the poet Maurice Magre 'she gave herself to more than one of them, beside her horse and her sword, in the shade of the Pyrenean pines...'

To the crusaders she was the Antichrist incarnate, the avatar or 'living tabernacle' of the Elder Gods set in diametric opposition to the patriarchal hegemony of the Holy Roman Church or, as Magre succinctly puts it, the 'saint of saints' of an unknown religion'. Quite how her estranged husband, Bernard, felt about all this is a moot point. It is historically recorded that shortly before the end of the siege of Montsegur he transferred a significant amount of money (150 'livres melgorien’) into the coffers of the Spanish mercenary Corbario, a notorious dog of war whose crack Aragonese militia duly took up position in Usson, although the purpose of this transaction and what Bernard hoped to achieve by it is lost to us. Some historians speculate that he might have been intending to break through the crusader lines and relieve the siege and that this was one of the reasons the defenders negotiated a ceasefire in the spring of 1244 in the hope of buying time. If so, they waited in vain, for the attack never came. Others suspect that Bernard may have been hoping to even the score with his errant wife, but if this is so, then Corbario's failure was equally complete. Shortly after the expiry of the ceasefire Bernard d'Alion was arrested, tried and publically burned in the town square at Perpignan - which I suppose is what you get for marrying the 'tabernacle of the spirit', the 'living embodiment of youth and freedom'. 

With the help of her brother Esclarmonde continued to resupply the stronghold of Montsegur until the very last, yet her name does not appear among the dead or those who gave themselves up to perish on the Camp de Cremat when the castle fell on March 16, 1244.

“...The flames rose so red to heaven, the smoke so high and straight that the men of Toulouse and Albi who were looking in the direction of the Ariege with anxious hearts knew by this flaming sign that their brothers had died and the last hope of the south had been extinguished. The chateau of Montsegur was destroyed. There was nothing left save calcinated stone, save for the name of Esclarmonde which survived and in the popular mind and in legend Esclarmonde the chaste and Esclarmonde l'amoureuse were blended into a single person - Esclarmonde de Montsegur...”

Some believe that before the crusaders took the castle Esclarmonde d’Alion fled with her brother and a band of other survivors, possibly bearing the treasures of their faith. Napoleon Peyrat the local pastor whose 'Grande Histoire des Albigeoise' served as a source for Magre and others recounts how the refugees were remorselessly hunted through the mountain passes by packs of trained hounds before being cornered in the grotto of Ornolac by troops under the command of the Seneschal of Toulouse

“...As the crusaders were advancing, Esclarmonde d'Alion - either from pure heroism or in order to share the fate of the man she loved - galloped along the bank of the Ariege and, when she reached the step path which lead to the cave, left her horse, climbed the winding track on foot and joined those of her faith. The cave had two entrances, both of which were surrounded but the Albigensians climbed ladders which they then withdrew to a yet deeper and more inaccessible cave. It seemed to the Seneschal impossible to attack them there. He thought it wiser and perhaps also more humane to substitute for torture and the stake a silent death in the darkness. He had both entrances solidly walled up. For some time he camped on the banks of the Ariege. He waited. He listened for some sound to reach him from the granite interior. Then he left the mountain which had become a tomb.

The Albigensians must have lived for some time in the darkness for they had turned the cave into a granary. Several bishops and many adepts were among them. In the silent darkness the bishops no doubt uttered the words which promised divine pardon as a result of the imminence of death. No doubt they stretched forth their hands over bowed heads in the invisible gesture of the consolamentum. And possibly as individuals and groups bade one another farewell in the darkness and Esclarmonde pressed close to her earthly lover they attained all together, as is taught in their religion, the abode where matter has no weight, water no fluidity, fire no heat and where is enjoyed the blessedness of loving endlessly. The mountains above the Ariege kept the secret of the mass without candles, of the death without grave or winding sheet. The book of Nicetas which was kept amongst the treasure, the lover's kiss, the adept's gesture of blessing must have petrified from lack of air. The last of the Albigensians, motionless, clothed in stone, still celebrate their final ritual amid dead vegetation and lusterless crystals in a basilica of darkness...”

But not everyone believes she died that way.

Personally I tend to concur with historian Elie Kercob who, writing in the Cahiers d'etudes Cathari (Notebooks on Cathar Studies) number 27, suggests that the survivors of Montsegur could never have reached the grotto as the passes over the Pic de Saint Barthelemy would surely have been blocked by snow at the time. It is far more likely that they would have made for Usson where Corbario's mercenary army awaited them or sought sanctuary in the Aude valley whose liege Raymond d'Aniort was married to Marquesia, the sister of Pierre Roger de Mirepoix. The d'Aniort clan’s fate was tied to that of Montsegur and Raymond is known to have acted as a go-between in the ceasefire negotiations that followed the castle's fall. It is conceivable he may have offered safe passage to its defenders...

Mayhap she befriended the little people and escaped into the hollow hill or across the border into Elfland or, through some miracle of paleotechnology and alchemical science of which we have no present understanding, fled through a fold in space time into some parallel world analogous to the 'earthly paradise' of song and story where against all odds, against all probability she lives still.

After seven centuries her presence can still be felt in the castle's north facing tower. Her hand can still be seen above the clouds, making the sign which means she is there and will always be there and will be displaced by no ecclesiastical tyranny, by no fury of dogma. For truth is irreducable and what was once true remains so. Esclarmonde de Montsegur came into this world to show us that mankind must strive towards perfection and that in doing so one might joyously sacrifice one’s life.

It is to her I swear my sword and dedicate my heart.