SAUVETERRE DE ROUERGUE, France — Located in the Aveyron department of southern France, between the towns of Albi and Rodez in the Midi-Pyrenees, this small 13th-century village with a population of little more than 800 is an unlikely tourist spot, but in the past few years the village has sought to halt its decline by focusing on arts and crafts with 15 artists and craftsmen installed year-round.
Sauveterre de Rouerge was founded as a bastide, designating 300 to 500 hundred towns built mainly in southwest France between 1222 and 1373. Historian Felix de Verneilh writes that bastides are, “New cities built suddenly, all at once, under the empire of one will.” It was built around a central square, which is still intact today, with the side streets housing galleries and artist’s studios.
In 1362, during the 100 Years War, the town was ceded to the English who operated a garrison there until 1369, following which the town was a hub of artisan including weavers, blacksmiths, hatters, drapers, tanners and parchment-makers, as well as workers in linen, iron, leather and pastels. The village was hit hard by the plague of 1628, which ravaged the population. As well as the artists who work there, the village is home to the Sauveterre knife, made in a small workshop and sold around the world.
The region was a central hub for the Cathars, a heretical sect of Christians who lived in Southern France during the 11th and 12th centuries. One branch of the Cathars was known as the Albigenses because they took their name from the Albi which is 30 km from Sauveterre.
The Cathars in France were based largely in the Languedoc region. Their popularity rose in part as a reaction to the over-excesses of the Roman Catholic church. The religion was supported by many in the region, both peasants and nobles alike, and an estimated 10 percent of the population were supporters.
The Toulouse Counts owned large parts of the south of France and rejected the feudal structures of northern France, allowing cities to elect their own representatives — that helped the religion to spread.
The Cathar religion had its roots in eastern religions of 2,500 years ago, with the ideas of Zoroastre that the world consisted of two opposing forces, representing good and evil. Cathars and believe that these are of equal importance, whereas Christians believe that the forces of good are superior. The Cathars were an extreme ascetic group, cutting themselves off to retain as much purity as possible. They believed that sins of the flesh were conducive to evil, so they eschewed marriage and sex, even practicing veganism so as not to ingest the product of sex.
But their belief is equality, and a belief that the Bible should be accessible and translated into the local language made it appealing to peasants. They were also pacifists.
“In modern times, Catharism might be seen as a quirky or even progressive religious group, but in medieval Europe the Cathars were considered radical and profoundly dangerous to the stability of a fragile society. Those who denied the authority of the government to wage war and who refused to procreate were seen as anarchists threatening the culture” (gotquestion.org).
Elaine Graham-Leigh, writes in the Socialist Worker, “Heresy develops as a form of protest. If you were a peasant and you wanted to find a way of complaining, one way of doing it was through heresy. The heretical movements of the Middle Ages were basically movements of social protest.
“People didn’t start off fighting for organized religious sects, but they ended up fighting for them. Peasants might have started fighting because of their poverty, but then come to affiliate with the Cathars. It was not really about theology at all, it was more a case of, ‘You have too much money and we don’t have enough.’”
As Catharism grew, the authorities, controlled by the church, decided to clamp down. The Albigensian crusade arrived at Beziers early in 1209. The city refused to hand over the heretics and more than 20,000 people were killed in the battle that followed. When asked how the soldiers would be able to differentiate betweem Cathars and Catholics, papel legate Arnaud Amalric, uttered the infamous phrase, “Kill them all — God will recognize his own.”
Today, Sauveterre de Rouerge is a quiet, beautiful village nestled 1,500-feet high in Ségala plateau, but its region’s fascinating and turbulent past adds to its interest.
All photos by Andy Coughlan 2017