Church of the Madeleine

So this post is about one small, but very important part of a war walk. Not my usual flavour- This one is medieval. Yes. Even I get bored of WWI and WWII and branch out into other tragedies and massacres.

That makes me sound so bad!

So today I am going to talk about war which sounds like a sneeze. The Albigensian Crusade. You might remember that I discussed this when I war walked through Carcassonne! Long story short, Northern French nobility, including the king, decide that they want the riches of southern France and use the excuse of Catharism to go on the plunder.  It’s a gross oversimplification, but it will do for my purposes.

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Which brings us to Béziers. Rampaging crusaders arrived in the Cathar fortress town of Béziers on July 21, 1209. The town was a peaceful mix of ‘good’ catholics and ‘bad’ cathars. Why were Cathars bad? Because the Pope said so. Catharism challenged the believe in the formal catholic church- they only had one sacrament, they didn’t believe in war or killing to the point they were vegetarian, they rejected marriage which sounds good until you realise that they also rejected sex (unless legally married, which they understood was sometimes a requirement so they could have more little cathars… it’s tricky!) but their rejection of sex supposedly gave rise to sodomy, they gave women power and independence, and were generally pro-feminist.


The catholic church decided that these peaceful, fem friendly, occasional sodomite vegetarians (so really, like 50% of the population of modern Berlin!) were a dire threat to the rest of society and galloped down to the south to wipe them off the map.

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Bezier was the first Cathar town that the crusaders hit, and they wanted to make it an example. As all generals know, protracted fighting is bad for morale as well as the quantity and quality of one’s troops, so when they reached the town they decided to opt for some medieval ‘shock and awe.’ The Papal Legate (hombre in charge) Arnaud-Amaury told the catholics to turn out the Cathars and be spared. The Catholics inside the walls shrugged and said no.

La massacre de Béziers, 1960, by Jacques Fauché,

La massacre de Béziers, 1960, by Jacques Fauché,

While they are to be commended for standing with their townsman, they were to pay for their loyalty with their lives. The crusaders sacked the town with glee. When Arnaud-Amaury was asked how the crusaders could sort the catholics out from the cathars, he said ‘Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. “Kill them. For the Lord knew His own.”


The slaughter in Béziers was so terrible and complete that other cathar strongholds would surrender to avoid such terrors.

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Which brings me back to the Church of the Madeline. 7000 people fled to both the Madeleine and the cathedral of Saint Nazaire, hoping to be spared. The churches were both mini fortresses inside the town.

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They huddled inside, hoping that the location would be their salvation. Praying the thick walls and romanesque vaults would protect them.

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They were wrong. The crusaders didn’t storm the churches. They lit them on fire. 5000 people burned alive in the Madeleine. Good catholics. Evil cathars. It didn’t matter. They died together.

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All in the presence of God.

The Church of the Madeleine is COLD inside. Not just cold, as in, “it’s a nice, cool building.” It is COLD inside there. 800 years of being cold, I would suspect. Cold because something so terrible happened inside there that it is still in the stones.

Now for the somewhat ironic part. 700 years later, the good parishioners of the Madeline wanted to prove to the church that they weren’t tainted by the events of the middle ages or by the more recent anti-catholics actions of the French revolution. They were good, loyal and true catholics.

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So they paid for this statue of St. Peter at the back of the church in 1875. A copy of the statue of St. Peter in Rome. I think there were some angry ghosts on that day.

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This window shows the Cathar cross. A memorial, perhaps, of the people who perished so terribly.

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The Madeleine is a beautiful example of a romanesque church. Sadly, it is usually forgotten for the more spectacular cathedral. Many guidebooks ignore it altogether. I almost did until the fine people at the Béziers office of tourism told me that it was the Madeleine which was the church of Cathar tragedy even more than the cathedral. One would like to think that they would know.

As a shout out, I would like to say that the Béziers office of tourism was staffed with the nicest, funniest and most helpful staff I have ever encountered in France. Seriously. Two thumbs way up!

If you are interested in more war walks adventures, please check out my main page! Also read up about my upcoming trek and my crowd funding campaign!

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2 Responses to Church of the Madeleine

  1. ellisnelson says:

    Thanks for the wonderful photos! Am writing a novel where this church plays out as the final destination in my book. The pics allow me to orientate and write the final scenes.

  2. Cliare Loftus says:

    I too visited the Church of the Madeleine when in Baziers in 2010 and yes its cold inside the church and doesn’t have the usual church feeling, it felt just cold and dead! Incredible the Catholic religion has done over the centuries to human beings. My prayers go out to the Cathars & Catholics who perished that fateful day. Regards, Claire (Kiwi living in Australia).

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