[Routes des châteaux cathares, pinpin, Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Cathars divided themselves into two groups of people: the credentes and the bonhommes/bonnefemmes. The credentes were ordinary Cathars. The bonnes, meanwhile, were essentially the equivalent of clergy.**** These were older men and women who gave up their material goods to travel around the countryside in same-sex pairs. They refrained from sex and from eating more material foods like meat, eggs, and cheese. These were people considered good enough and experienced enough that they would go to heaven rather than be reincarnated again.
The limitations of our sources will never allow us to sort truth from propaganda, but the picture we do see is of a group of people whose desire to take religion into their own hands and to hold it accountable led them to a radical opposition to the Catholic Church.
*The idea that Satan was an angel who rebelled against God and fell from Heaven, thereby bringing evil into the world, is a form of mitigated, rather than absolute, dualism. In other words, the one responsible for materialism and evil is not a separate deity, co-eternal with the original, but rather was originally subordinate.
** Similarly, they condemned the wearing of the cross as veneration of a material object as well as of a symbol of torture.
***This is not to say that women were considered lesser because they were the ones capable of producing children. A few groups of Cathars did believe this, but most didn’t. Generally both partners were considered equally culpable. Having children also wouldn’t prevent one from going to Heaven.
****You may have also heard them called perfecti. This was a term used exclusively by their enemies. Similarly, the term “Cathar,” which comes from the Greek word for "pure ones," was primarily used by Catholics.
Barber, Malcolm. The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320. London: Routledge, 1993.
Stephenson, Carl and Bryce Lyon. Mediaeval History: Europe from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Cathar Beliefs: Implications - Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in Languedoc
Cathar Castles - Cathar Castles
Cathari - Catholic Encyclopedia
Catharism - Wikipedia