Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Beziers: "Kill Them All, God Will Know His Own"

Beziers: "Kill Them All, God Will Know His Own"

Today is the anniversary of the Massacre at Béziers, an event that took place in 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade. Whether, however, “Kill them all, God will know his own” was actually uttered is open to debate.

The Albigensian Crusade (1209 – 1229) was launched early in the 13th century in response to the rise of the Cathar (“pure” – katharoi; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years at 387) heresy in southern France; it became the “Albigensian Crusade” because the city of Albi was a Cather center.  The Cathars themselves were members of a dualistic/gnostic heresy that may be traced to the Bogomils of what is now Bulgaria, they being derived from the Paulicians of the Byzantine Empire.  The heresy had been condemned in several church councils and synods.  There was as well a political element; what we today conceive of as “southern France” (the Languedoc) was linguistically, culturally and politically if not independent then at least tenuously tied to the France centered in Paris and itself rather weak.   

The Crusader army, not as coherent as it should have been, entered the territories in which Catharism was strong, encountering Béziers as the first significant town. Efforts to negotiate a settlement were unsuccessful, and the army began preparations for mounting a siege. Almost inadvertently, a skirmish broke out between some of the irregular troops with the Crusader army and town residents. Ultimately, those irregular troops, followed by the regular army, were able to push into the town through open gates, whereupon a general sack began. Although many of the citizens of Béziers sought to take refuge in various churches in the town, they were all broken into, and nearly all the residents were put to the sword. When discord later broke out between the regular troops of the Crusader army and the irregular troops who had successfully broken into the town, it was put to the torch.  In response to the sack and the execution of the town’s residents, when asked what should be done to separate the orthodox from the heretics, Arnaud Amalric, the Abbot of Citeaux and the Papal Legate traveling with the army, is reputed to have said words to the effect of “Kill them all, God will know his own.” (“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” – “Slay them all.  God will recognize his own.”)

Amalric filed a letter with the Pope describing what had happened. It does not report the line quoted above. Rather, the line arises from a story told some 20 years later by Caesarius of Heisterbach. He was not, however, present at Béziers.  Hence, whether the now famous line, “Kill them all, God will know his own.” was there said is open to question.

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