Coming down the steep path from the stunningly beautiful ruined castle at Monsegur, one passes a stone memorial to the 220 cathars who, following the overthrow of this seemingly impenetrable fortress, chose not to submit to the power of Rome. They were burned at the stake in the field at the foot of the hill. It's hard to square such horror with the staggering beauty of the surroundings.
Monsegur was the last stronghold of the Cathars overthrown in 1244. It was the end of a fifty year crusade against the heretical movement that had cost thousands of lives and extended the writ of the French king southwards to the Languedoc and Carcasonne (the key city of the region).
The cathars were a heretical sect, a dualistic blend of gnosticism and Christianity, which was embraced by the leading families of the region probably because it set them apart from growing French state to the north. It is undoubtedly the case that the crusade launched against the movement in the late twelfth century was as much about that state extending its powers over the fertile areas around Toulouse and Carcasonne.
The early leader of the crusade was Simon De Montfort. Growing up in Leicester, I had known De Montfort as a pioneer of democracy, one of the barons that forced King John to Runnymede to sign Magna Carta. Streets and halls, even a university are named after him in my home city. It was only when I when I first went to southern France about 15 years ago that a different picture of De Montfort emerged, a man who cut a bloody swathe through the region, a crusader of stupendous brutality.
As I stood on the low rising hill before the steep climb to Monsegur, I reflected on the fact that people should be allowed to be wrong. No one should die just because they choose to worship in a different way from their neighbours. Perhaps a key aspect of being a follower of Jesus is that we accept that some will get what he's about and others won't. One of the great insights of the Baptist pioneer, Thomas Helwys, was that everyone had the right to be wrong, that everyone had the right to choose what religion or philosophy they would follow and the state had no right to enforce one option over another.
Monsegur is testimony to what happens when that insight gets forgotten as it has so frequently through our bloody history