To understand Esclarmonde de Foix (Occitan Esclarmonda) we must start by understanding the Cathars, who they were, and what role they played in the creation of modern Gnosticism.
As Christianity took hold across the Near East and Europe in the first three centuries CE it assimilated many contemporary beliefs. Two principal beliefs at the time were Neoplatonism, the last great intellectual stand of Paganism, and Zoroastrianism, itself a consolidation of various Persian traditions.
This gave rise to strands of “Christian” belief that differed notably from Paulist Christianity, which had itself absorbed Hellenic folk tradition to the extent of creating the myth of Jesus virgin birth. Identified as “Gnosticism” these faiths tended, by virtue of their scale if not original intent to focus more on personal experience of the divine and ascent, where Paulist Christianity was increasingly intercessory.
One focus of these religions was to rationalize the existence of evil in the world, an issue summed up by Archibald MacLeish in J.B.
“If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd….”
Scholars argue over the exact extent of influence by one Gnostic group on the next, and the extent of Gnostic heresy on non-Gnostic heresy. We believe informed by literary history that the impact of these ideas as “memes” in the original sense of the word preceded and may have been greater than actual intentional transmission.
From Paulicians to Bogomils to Catharism
Paulist Christianity tended to follow a model laid down in the Hebrew Book of Job whereby mortal existence was a “test.” Gnosticism was more willing to look at a universe in which there was more than one deific power, with the “evil” party having hidden the true immortal form of man in the material universe. This is the root of nearly all western esotericism, and all models, including Thelema, which posit some sort of “ascent.” The departing point of Thelema is the supposition that there is a central deity at all, or that the soul is “imprisoned” in flesh, however these concepts were subject to numerous Gnostic glimmerings and flickers.
The first and most significant Gnostic belief was Manichaeism, named for Mani, killed by the Persion establishment in 276 AD. His system of belief was a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhis, and Babylonian Mandaeism, his birth faith.
By the 6th Century, Manichaeism had been repressed, but two major “heresies” throve in the liminal spaces at the edge of the Christian sphere in Asia Minor, Paulicianism, and Messalianism.
It is generally likely that Gnosticism passed west in three overlapping waves. The first a vague ideological transmission, giving rise to Gnostic dissenters, and giving a potential identification to previously non-Gnostic dissent. Piphiles in Reims rejected marriage and lived in impure and incestuous unions, accusations that would mirror those against Cathars. By 1163 concern over Albigensian heretics at the Council of Tours focused on beliefs that seemed Bogomil influenced.
The second was a formal Bogomil Mission under the Bishop Nicetas. By the time he arrived in the Languedoc in 1167 there was already a large, fertile, community of Christian dissenters.
A potential third wave may have overlapped and even created fertile soil for the other waves. Many accounts of the Templar Trials have focused on the concept that the Templars picked up heretical ideas in the Levant during the Crusades. At least one fairly early legend suggests that these beliefs may not have been principally Islamic, but rather Paulician. The Paulicians as a political force were destroyed by 1085, however remnants were explicitly in contact with the Crusaders, serving both the Muslim and Christian sides. At formerly Paulician Phillippopolis, Frederick Barbarossa was welcomed as a liberator. Given such close contact, the likelihood that Paulician ideas drifted back in some form to the Languedoc is very high.
Whatever the case by the mid 12th century Occitania, particularly the Languedoc region bordering Catalonia, had an active community of Christian dissenters with their own Churches, profession houses, and Clergy.
Into this world was born Esclarmonde of Foix, daughter of Roger Bernard I, Count of Foix a powerful domain in they Pyrenees, and Cecile Trencavel daughter of a powerful Occidan House. Her grandfather Raymond I Trencavel had been involved in the Second Crusade with Alfonso Jourdain, Count of Toulouse, Count of Toulouse.
She is said to have been pious, and interested in Catharism from an early age, being consecrated at the age of 13 by the Cathar Bishop Nicetas. Nevertheless, she married Jourdain III lord of L’Isle-Jourdain in 1175 and was the mother of six children. Cathar faith generally rejected marriage, and in some cases procreation altogether. At this remove it is impossible to tell how much of a strain of libertinism existed, and how much of the Cathar tendency to form “houses” and live communally was an economic move along Beguine and Beghard lines. What cannot be denied is that Catharism allowed unprecedented authority and freedom to women.
Sometime after she was widowed in 1200 she left most of her inheritance to her children and moved to Palmiers to work within the Cathar tradition. There she quickly distinguished herself. In 1204 she became a Cathar Parfaite (“Perfect”), elevated by Guilhabert de Castres, the Cathar Bishop. This was the equivalent of Priestly rank. Raymond-Roger of Foix, seen as one of the principal landed defenders of the Cathars, was present at the ceremony.
Esclarmonde is said to have been associated with the building of Hospitals and other charity projects in the region and is a cultural heroine among the Occitan.
At the time the strategy of the Church in Rome was to send groups of educated clergy to elegantly debate the Cathars, hoping to sway the sentiment in the region with a battle of words. In practical terms it was not so much the case that the majority of the population was Cathar as that the majority of the population was resistant to control by Rome, preferred local Clergy, and had no wish to quarrel with the Cathar population.
Esclarmonde, whose name meas “Clarity of the World,” moved to Pamiers, where she was a major organizer of the Conference of Pamiers, the last great formal debate of this sort. She is supposed to have spoken elegantly and eloquently against the Papal emissaries.
At the same time Esclarmonde was associated with the effort to fortify the mountain castle of Montsegur as a refuge for Cathars in the event of sectarian violence. This effort would prove foresightful when Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars in 1208. This second rate crusade involved the assembly of a thug army under Simon de Montfort, a land-hungry adventurer.
We have reason to believe that Esclarmonde was still alive by 1215, because when her brother went to the Pope to petition for the restoration of his land, one of the the major reproaches was his sister’s activities. Raymond-Roger retook the castle in 1218. She is supposed to have spent the next years on the run with the Cathars, on the run both from Papal forces and bounty hunters, because the Pope had set a price on her head. Narratives from other Cathars, including those involved in the Autier revival around 1300, suggest that many of the Cathars lived on the run, hiding in caves and remote farmsteads. There is some evidence that she was still alive in 1232, before the seat of the Cathar Church was moved to Montsegur in 1233. She was likely dead before Raymond VII beseiged Montsegur in 1241, followed by its fall and the burning of unrepentant Cathars in 1244.
The Legacy of Esclarmonde and the Cathars
Esclarmonde became a symbol of the Cathar faith and the strong involvement of women in its perpetuation. Many writers drew on Cathar tradition, even in the absence of facts. A.E. Waite suggested the Tarot Trumps encoded the secrets of the Cathar Church and while he linked the High Priestess to the mother church, many writers were influenced to suggest that the card represented Esclarmonde.
Esclarmonde received several mentions in medieval poetry, however the first major modern work focused on her was Romantic era composer Jules Massenet’s Opera “Esclarmonde,” performed by the by the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet in Paris in 1889, and considered to be the composer’s most ambitious work. Despite being primarily based on a medieval adaptation of Cupid and Psyche, the opera was intended to harness the cachet of “Esclarmonde the Great,” during a time of significant interest in the Gnostic revival among French theatre-going and literary intelligentsia. Similarities in style between Esclarmonde and Parzival are not coincidental. Massenet had seen Parzival at Bayreuth and certainly used it as a model.
Rahm’s contributions, such as they were, to the Cathar Legacy are unfortunate because of his politics, prejudices, and scholastic carelessness, however they must be included in any historically accurate account. Rahm was a sensationalist, who seemed to fall into the trap of believing his own hype. His early work has some merit and his core ideas are interesting if not thoroughly original. Rahm had not yet become a parasite in the Nazi propaganda machine when he did his original Cathar work, but the tendency to fabrication, loose respect for the facts or history, and ability to lie with conviction then believe his own lies mar even his early work and were qualities that served him well in his eventual descent into the role of a marginal Nazi propagandist hoping to curry favor by twisting myths to fit the Nazi paradigm.
Rahm drew legitimate and interesting parallels between the Cathar aristocracy and the figures in the Parzival myth, but became obsessed with the idea of Esclarmonde as the keeper of the Holy Grail in Parzival, even searching Montsegur. His story supplies some of the underlying mythology for Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” While it is somewhat regrettable to admit considering his later writing, it is a simple fact that Rahm’s early work sold well and that he contributed to the popularity, if not clarity, of the Cathars and Esclarmonde. Because Rahm was a sensationalist, part of our difficulty in understanding the Cathar Legacy is disentangling his flamboyant fabrications, often picked up piecemeal from other more respectable pre-war sources that drew on Rahm. The symbolic connections between the Cathar story and the Grail legend had been noted before and would be noted afterwards by authors less sensational and more thoughtful than Rahm.
Rahm himself was an opportunist and fortune seeker, more interested in attracting attention and book sales than legitimacy. As the Nazis became popular he turned to Nazism, and incorporated the Cathars into an entirely fictitious narrative to serve Nazi ideology. The best thing that can be said about Rahm’s second and more debased effort at harnessing the Cathar myth is that, thankfully, it was mostly ignored by history.
Fortunately for history the best known writer on the Cathars who touched on Esclarmonde would be Simone Weil, a profound progressive. Largely pacifist she was a profound antifascist, and supported the Anarchist Durruti Column in the Spanish Civil War, and worked as a laborer in auto factories to better understand the working class. An impressive intellectual who was proficient in Ancient Greek by the age of twelve, Weil adopted men’s clothing and manners and presented a strong model for later queer women.
Weil attempted to fight on the Aragon Front of the Spanish Civil war, the struggle against fascism which defined the late 1930s, but was relegated to noncombat duties because of her short-sightedness. During her stay on the front she wrote dispatches for Le Libertaire, and eventually had a short stint with a commando unit, but was discharged similarly for poor vision. Her writing on the Cathars was serious and thoughtful, and Weil too believed in a profound mystical basis for Catharism, as well as related Grail Lore. While more careful historians have noted this is not borne out by the surviving confessions, Weil countered “official history is believing the murderers at their word.”
Esclarmonde is one of several Gnostic Saints from the Cathar movement, but with her close association with Grail Lore she is for us perhaps the most symbolic. She shares the fighting spirit of her latter day champion, Simone Weil, as well as Weil’s refusal to accept the traditional role of women within her world. Her ability to speak elegantly clearly provided a major kernel of leadership during the closing days of the Cathar era.
The Gnostic Church
In practical terms all the Western Gnostic Churches, including those spawned by Reuss and Crowley, descend intellectually and spiritually from the Cathars. The original impulse for the Gnostic Revival was Jules Doinel, who proclaimed “the era of Gnosis restored,” in 1890. Doinel’s era of Gnosis can, at the least, be seen as the most direct intellectual model for Crowley’s doctrine of the Aeon of Horus. Doinel had little interest in Bogomils, and while he drew from Simonian and Valentinian theory his principal interest was Catharism. His Église Gnostique used his interpretation of Cathar names, and he reconstructed Cathar rituals. If one looks to Doinel, Papus, and Bricaud for heritage one is by definition a latter day Cathar.
This doesn’t mean that we have to believe what the Cathars believed, or ignore the profound influence of Protestantism and English Nonconformism on the existence of Thelema. And it is possible that the Cathar spirit informs us more in principle than in fact. The Cathars as defiant against Rome, as free spirited and empowering women, may be stronger takeaways than the details of Paulician/Bogomil doctrine. But with all churches it is ultimately the legend, not the specifics which define the practice of faith. Catharism is a core of the Western Esoteric tradition.