Catharism a refuge for women – talk by Gwendoline Hancke at ‘The golden thread of the free mind’


To bring up ‘a free space’ for women in medieval society of Southern France, might at first sight seem to be a paradox or even an anachronism. In the Languedoc of the 13th century however, women of all social classes moved in social and religious structures that were dominated by men.

Yet, through their prestige in the Cathar teachings and their priestly role in religious life, women could in a modest way open the gates of that male domination. Precisely because the Cathar religion was so deeply rooted in ordinary life, in the existing social structures of the castra (strongholds) in the Languedoc, women could anchor their religious life in the established social framework, in female community spirit and in their traditional role as keeper of the faith within the family, as educators, as household caretakers and as carers of the sick. Precisely this joining of a religion that is more open to female participation with respect to the priestly events as well as the deeply rooted contribution of women in the village life, offers a favourable framework for women to develop their ‘free space’.

For the Cathars, all human beings, men and women, have the same heavenly origin. But the souls of the angels, that were broken off from their spirit and their heavenly body because of the fall into the visible and evil world, were locked in their bodies of flesh. However, all of them can be saved through the consolamentum, in which every distinction between the genders just belongs to this fallen material and perishable world.

Aspects of Catharism that might be considered female-unfriendly mainly concern the rejection of sexuality and propagation, which of course was induced by the male perspective. What emerges as the central point of Cathar teaching with regard to women is the idea that men and women are equal in their primordial, heavenly nature. The differences between the sexes are ultimately no more than a peculiarity of the material delusional world and become meaningless once the husband and wife have received the consolamentum and have liberated themselves from this world. It follows from this equality of soul that the consolamentum was granted to both women and men.

The consolamentum, a spiritual baptism, granted through the touch of hands, is the only sacrament of the Cathars. It has the value of a confession of guilt and saves the soul by forgiving the sins. The consolamentum can also be compared with acquiring the priestly garment and with the priestly initiation; it turns the novice, man or woman, into a ‘Good Christian’, and takes him or her up into the Cathar Church. Together with the consolamentum come the monastic vows and following the life rules. It grants the authority to execute priestly tasks and gives access to the hierarchy (to the functions of deacon, bishop, fils mineur en fils majeur, (younger helper and older helper).

Consequently, the bonnes femmes, also called parfaites, were part of the Cathar clergy and acquired – at least in theory – the right to perform any spiritual task associated with this status. While in practice the Cathar women may not have performed some of these duties, their situation was fundamentally different from
that of women in the Catholic Church, which excluded them completely from the sacramental work.

In the Languedoc of the 13th century, women moved mainly in the private sphere. The house was their main living environment. The married woman raised the children at home and took overall care of the household and family. Yet this woman’s life, which was confined to the domestic sphere, took on a completely different meaning in the context of Cathar religious life. The private space was transformed into a public space, successively breaking through the compartmentalized spatial structures of medieval life.

The Cathar Church did not have any church buildings and the rituals and meetings with the itinerant clergy mainly took place in the domus, the communal houses, outside on the squares, and also in the houses of the faithful where the traveling clergy were regularly accommodated. Not only did women, through their traditional role in education, play an important part in the anchoring and maintenance of the Cathar religion in the family, but this religiousness at the heart of village life, in the heart of their homes, also enabled the ordinary Cathar believers to participate in religious life and at the same time be open to the world, because this pseudo-public religious life takes place in the home and private sphere.

This interweaving of the traditional sphere of life and the role of women with daily religious life in the Cathar Church, which is willing to give women a modest freedom of space, is of the utmost importance to the bonnes femmes, the good Christian women. They transform the family home, with all the female members, into a true Cathar domus.

The fact that this free space of women has been able to thrive in Cathar religious life is mainly due to the social movement of women, which affected all aspects of female life. The social environment of the women consisted of the family, but mainly of the women of the family and other women from the same village with whom friendships were maintained. The records of the Inquisition clearly portray a strong social bond between women, which is manifested during religious gatherings of the Cathar Church.

Thus we can establish that women, when indicating who is present during a rite, often indicate the women in a different social context than is done by men. Men mention women in their familial male context (after their husband, father or brothers), while women tend to first mention all present women, as a group, and only thereafter the men. So it seems that for the women those other women, who together with them participate in the Cathar ceremonies, are more important as a social group than the men, although very often the men also belong to the family. In certain situations, the group of women seems to play the main role, especially in religious life; a role that is even more important than the family connection.

It can indeed be established that the female croyants or believers regularly visit the bonshommes, the male Cathar clergy in a more or less stable group with other believing women who belong to the same family or social class. When they go to the bonshommes, they do so with the group they mention in their statements. They then participate in sermons and rites together with the believing men. However, when the women visit the bonnes femmes, the female Cathar clergy, they often go alone with that group of women. Sermons and rites, moments of human and religious exchange, take place in an exclusively female setting. In addition, female believers seem to accept and appreciate the pastoral role of female Cathar clergy more easily. In other words: not only do the believing women accept and appreciate the priestly role of women, but women themselves, Cathars and believers, are united in religious life by a clear togetherness.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the religious female Cathars led an almost monastic life in the Cathar domus, small communities of two to six women, led and mainly in the hands of noblewomen. These communities are open to the castrum (the fortress community) and to the world. They are the epicentre of Cathar religious life, services are held, they are a meeting place, but they are also a workshop, student residence, school, inn and hospital.

After their initiation, the Cathar women live together with at least one other female initiate, following the Cathar life rules. The bonnes femmes also work in their domus, in particular textile works. They take care of the sick and are active in schooling and religious education.

As a consequence thereof, their status is comparable to that of a regular clergy. After having received the consolamentum, the spiritual baptism and initiation, – for women exactly the same as for men – the bonnes femmes could in theory also execute the priestly tasks that matched their status. Nevertheless, their participation in priesthood remained limited. They had the right to preach, but relatively speaking they preached less than the men. Only in case of emergency the women granted the consolamentum and we do not know of any case when the aparelhament (sacrament by laying on hands) was offered by a woman.

Yet this inequality is not the consequence of an explicit exclusion of women, it sooner originates from the fact that these tasks were normally reserved for members of the hierarchy of which the female clergy never was part, although it was never strictly forbidden to them. Despite the theoretical equality of the sexes with regard to the sacred, Catharism also did not completely separate itself from the social views and structures of its time and in practice accorded only partial equality to women. However, it seems important to us to examine female preaching in more detail, which shows all the characteristics of female religious life in the Cathar Church and, above all, testifies of a certain free space for women.

There is demonstrable evidence of female preaching among the Cathars, though clearly outnumbered by that of males. Inquisition sources actually count thirty-nine cases of female preaching. While Cathar preaching probably includes several kinds of sermons, women’s preaching, although more often in a more intimate circle, cannot be distinguished from men’s preaching. The dated records of female preaching are not evenly spaced in time: only two records predate the Crusade while the greatest number of preaches is recorded in the 1230s and 1240s.

It is important to note that before the persecution the Cathar preaching was generally the responsibility of bishops, their elder and younger helpers, and deacons. In this regard, it seems logical that records of pre-persecution female pastors are rare. On the other hand, it is surprising that some women are already preaching at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Thus, the inequality between men and women in Catharism lies solely in the fact that women had no access to the Cathar hierarchy; as far as the preaching is concerned there is no difference or any exclusion whatsoever.

It is difficult to establish the social status of female preachers, and a probable development therein under the yoke of persecution in the sources of the Inquisition. However, the picture does emerge from this that, from the beginning of female preaching, the noblewomen certainly did not have the privilege to speak in the theological debate. On the other hand, even under the persecution, the noblewomen remain engaged in the religious field and do not give up their preaching place to women of the common people.

The vast majority of female preaching testimonials are of women already living a nomadic life, which does not necessarily mean that the bonnes femmes did not preach in their communities, but it does mean that their preaching was less visible and may have been for a more restricted audience.

To end our summary, there is a final aspect of female preaching that stands out and proves particularly important to our discussion. It is mainly female believers who mention female preaching in their statements and a large part of the preaches mentioned seem to have taken place in a female social setting. It is therefore plausible that the rites celebrated exclusively among women were indeed events valued and desired by women, and that they were part of that free space in the patriarchal society referred to above.

Everything points to the fact that within Catharism there was indeed a communion and a unity between women, a communion which, as we see in the sources of the Inquisition, expresses itself especially in worship and thus also in preaching.

Several aspects of daily life, of social roles and frameworks concerning the theology and conception of the Cathar priesthood, are in fact consistent with society embracing Catharism and Cathar religiosity, giving women a greater spiritual fulfilment
than within the Catholic Church. This religious life, which took place indoors, shook the norms, the demarcated and separate spaces of medieval society to their foundations. It opened a gap, as it were, between the private space in which women were trapped and the public space in which they could engage, albeit to a modest degree.

Religious life within Catharism was part of everyday life and the traditional role of women. But their religious commitment within those defined frameworks did not limit the spiritual development of women. On the contrary, their influence on the family as a teacher and keeper of the faith, their role as hostess and also as a nurse, caring for the body as well as the soul of the sick, enabled them to increase their influence in the religious life of their environment – instead of isolating themselves from this environment and all social and family ties behind the walls and confines of a monastery.

Cathar theology made the female priesthood possible. That priesthood then developed on the fertile soil of female togetherness, maintained and pursued by the women, after which it grew modestly beyond this specific female framework. Thus, by actively engaging in their religious choices and their religious life, the women managed to develop in a kind of parallel world that we can describe as a free space in which they can conduct their own life and in particular determine themselves their religious life.

Gwendoline Hancke is historian and author of the books Le Miroir d’Aimengart (The mirror of Aimengart), 2010 and Femmes en languedoc (Women in the Languedoc), 2019



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