In the early 13th century, amid an upsurge of religious dissent, Pope Innocent III launched a campaign to eliminate a heretical sect in southern France known as the Cathars or Albigensians (after the town of Albi). To put an end to the challenge to his authority, the pontiff enlisted the military aid of an expansionist dynasty of French monarchs, the Capetians, who were eager to bring the restive border region of Languedoc under their control. As many as a million people died in the resulting bloodbath. In the siege of the Cathar stronghold of Beziers in 1209, papal legate Arnaud Amalric famously instructed the mob of soldiers and irregulars under his command: “Kill them all, God will know his own.” And so they did. Amalric’s subsequent account of the sack of Beziers reads: “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex, or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people.” 

“Catharism became a memory; as a living idea it had ceased to exist.”

Over the course of half a century, Catharism collapsed, first gradually, then suddenly. A few decades later, almost nothing of this once-vibrant culture remained. Catharism became a memory; as a living idea, it had ceased to exist. 

A common refrain regarding Israel’s war in Gaza—echoed most recently by the IDF’s spokesman, Adm. Daniel Hagari—is that the Jewish state’s objectives are unrealistic, because “you can’t kill an idea.” Hamas’s brand of Islamism, critics of the war insist, can only be effectively combated from within, through cultural change within Palestinian society. It can’t be defeated by foreign or non-Muslim forces. But history shows the opposite: Ideas have often been extinguished. Some died natural deaths; many were suppressed by rivals. Others, like Catharism, were violently eradicated. Outsiders have often eliminated ideas, sometimes along with the civilizations that nourished them, as with the destruction of many indigenous societies in the Americas in the wake of European conquest. 

Get the best of Compact right in your inbox.

Sign up for our free newsletter today.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link.
Sorry, something went wrong. Please try again.