"The Fox of Foix"

by R. d'Honore

Statue of Esclarmonde to be erected in Foix

The 11th century was a time of great unrest among the nations of Europe: their world was changing and had been doing so for more than 200 years. Religious turmoil had become rife throughout the continent beginning in 1068 with the First Crusade, as prelates, princes, lords, the younger sons of the minor nobility, and riff-raff of the emerging towns banded together upon the orders and authority of the pope and his “Holy Mother Church” to recover the Holy Land from the hands of “unbelievers.” All were persuaded to “take the cross” in this “worthy” cause, the real meaning of which was that each man was free with papal blessing to seek his fortune without regard to morality or rule of law—with salvation and remission of sins thrown in on the side! After a bloody and quite unremarkable campaign, the crusaders had eventually managed to capture Jerusalem. Not, however, without the clerically inspired slaughter of every man, woman and child within its walls. The pope was ecstatic, the Christian world rejoiced, and everyone was content that God’s justice had been done. Everyone, that is, except the unfortunate Saracens—the Muslims in the Holy Land—who had been on the receiving end of this first example of papal expansionism. Revolt and rebellion became the norm, as the crusaders found their new kingdom under constant threat by the avenging Saracens.

Although the crusades may have served a practical purpose by providing an outlet for the aggression and avarice of the participants, the finances of the kings of France and England were bled dry through these expeditions, as were those of the pope. Christendom was threatened from within and without, as the Saracens made advances in the East and a rival papacy set itself up at Avignon in the West.  What was needed was a unifying cause, close to home, where gains both material and spiritual could be maximized, coffers replenished, and stability and authority restored to the Roman Church. By coincidence, a new threat was also gaining ground in the south of France in the land called Occitania—a heresy that the church was to call Catharism. With its population adhering to a “heretical” belief that differed from that of the Roman Church, its nobles fragmented and constantly warring among themselves, the Church had found the very cause it was seeking: a crusade on the soil of Europe itself, promising rich spoils for all concerned. Christian would war against “heretical” Christian. And this crusade would have to cross neither sea nor mountain nor great plains to reach its objective.  It offered a perfect solution.

Occitania, in what is now the Languedoc region of southern France, was a cultured, open society in a continent riddled with superstition and fear. Regarded in hindsight as one of the great European cultures, it embraced people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. The rules that bound and constricted the rest of European society did not apply to Occitans. Women held positions in society equal to those of men, and the division between social classes did not impede an individual from proving his or her worth through admirable deeds; the everyday administration of towns and villages was overseen by elected councils under the watchful eye of the local lord, and primogeniture was not the rule.  As a result of this progressive social environment, the land prospered and the country became a rich one.

In this atmosphere of social tolerance, the Occitan people drew their spiritual inspiration not from an ill-educated and dissolute clergy, but rather from men and women called bons chrétiens. Known individually as parfait and parfaite respectively, these men and women embodied the principles they taught; and their teachings were not the dogma of religion, but were seen as the simple spiritual principles that Jesus had given to his disciples more than a millennium beforehand. In contrast to the corrupt and venal Catholic clergy, Cathars demanded no tithes, and threatened no-one with eternal damnation. They taught by example, living by the labor of their own hands. Because of their honest simplicity the Roman Church saw them as a major threat to its powerbase. Fear of this higher civilization, together with greed, prompted Pope Innocent III in 1209 to demand and bless a new crusade, later to be called the Albigensian Crusade, against a people who wished only for peace.

One of the primary reasons that the local populace held Catharism in such high regard was that the parfaits and parfaites worked side by side among the believers, as weavers and spinners or as field laborers.  Rather than pursuing an opulent lifestyle of eating rich food and being escorted around in ornate carriages like their Catholic counterparts, the parfaits and parfaites lived austerely: they were vegetarians and they traveled on foot, in pairs. Their tradition was mostly an oral one, and rather than using Latin (which many of the Catholic clergy understood no better than did the common people), the bons chrétiens taught in Occitan, the language of Occitania.

One of the greatest parfaites of the period was Esclarmonde de Foix, a beautiful and well-educated noblewoman who gave up a life of privilege to further the Cathar cause.  Her name in Occitan means “Light of the World”. She was born in 1154 to the powerful Count Roger-Bernard of Foix and his second wife, Cecile de Trencavel. Growing to maturity, she divided her time between the great family fortress of Foix and the other castles and estates of her immediate relatives. She was especially close to the de Pereille family, owners of the soon-to-be tragically notorious fortress of Montségur.  Not only was she well educated in the traditional female subjects of language, poetry and music by such troubadours as Guilhelm de Cabestaing, Beranger de Parazol and Raimon de Miravalh; she had a thorough grounding in history, philosophy and politics, unusual subjects for a young woman of her time. She also received in-depth spiritual training from the visiting parfaits(1).

She was recognized as a great beauty; it was recorded that at her elder sister’s wedding in 1162, everyone remarked on her beaute rayonnante—“glowing beauty” (2).  She must have been intensely spiritual, for at the age of 13, she consecrated her life to the Divine Spirit at the synod of Saint-Félix de Lauragais under the Cathar bishop Nicetas (3). In defiance of regular custom, she did not marry early, but waited until she was over 21 to be formally betrothed, through a traditional arranged marriage, in 1175, to Jourdain de l’Isle Jourdain, the viscount of Gimoez, a region in the Midi-Pyrenees (4).

The marriage took place against a backdrop of increasing religious turmoil.  Pope Alexander III had decreed the beliefs of the Cathars heretical and dangerous to the Roman Church because the Cathars were numerous, they were organized, and many people were following them rather than the Roman clergy.

As far back as 1143 in what is now Germany, the Roman Church had investigated several Cathars, who refused to recant and were burned (5). In 1163, Church leaders meeting with Pope Alexander III in the Council of Tours, in France, passed legislation outlawing “Albigensians”—Cathars living in and near Albi, in the Languedoc—and ordering that they be imprisoned and deprived of their property (6). In that same year, Cathars whom the Church discovered in Cologne were burned; those discovered near Albi were arraigned, but the local secular authorities set them free. Four years later, a village near Toulouse hosted the largest-ever international meeting of Cathars—the synod of Saint-Félix de Lauragais, where the young Esclarmonde was consecrated.  The pope would not soon forget the region’s defiance (7).

In 1177, soon after the marriage of Esclarmonde and Jourdain, Roman Catholic clergymen were sent to Toulouse to investigate heresy there; they concluded that Catharism was too strongly rooted to be eliminated by teaching.  Two years later, at the Third Lateran Council, it was decided that the Church, in its efforts to root out heresy, could legitimately use force. The pope  lost little time in sending an armed expedition under his legate Henri de Marcy to attack two Cathar towns, Castres and Lavaur, in 1181 (8).

Esclarmonde was a woman of great strength and courage, fighting against injustice wherever she found it. When the papal legate took Lavaur, Esclarmonde rushed to the castle and helped all the parfaits escape, leading them over the mountains to safety in her county of Foix. There she came under attack from the Augustinians of the Abbey of St. Antonin in Pamiers who hated the Foix family and were furious at her interference; they complained to her husband that she was the root and cause of the Cathar problem (9).   These monks had long been adversaries of the counts of Foix, and from the terms of Jourdain’s will (see below), we know that he took no notice of them whatsoever. (In fact, later charges to the Inquisition in 21 April 1244 by Bernard d’Avelanet stated that it was definitely Esclarmonde who had welcomed heretics into her home… apud Fanjovis … Esclarmunda, soror Raimundi Rogerii comitis Fuxensis, avi istsi comitis Fuxensis uxor Jordani de Insula (10) “at her house in Fanjeaux ... Esclarmonde, sister of Raymond-Roger Count of Foix, that same Count of Foix, wife of Jourdain de l’Isle”.)

Though the marriage was rooted in political expediency rather than romance, the couple apparently found great joy together, as evidenced by Jourdain’s will of 1200. Firstly, he wrote of six children that were born from the marriage. Secondly and more remarkably, he bequeathed all of his titles and property to, in his own words, “uxori meae Esclarmondae”. This proves that Jourdain considered Esclarmonde intelligent, compassionate, just, and wise and that he trusted her to oversee his estates and be fair to their children (11).

Although her marriage can be viewed as a successful one, Esclarmonde clearly had other priorities to which she wished to turn her attention, for upon the death of Jourdain, she took an action that for a noblewoman of her station was as unexpected as it was radical. Forsaking a life of ease and comfort with her family at their estate, she made over her entire fortune to her children and went to live and work in Pamiers to better serve her beliefs and the needs and lives of the local inhabitants. She started hospitals, workshops and schools, the most famous of which was a school for parfaites in nearby Dun in the Ariege, founded with her sister-in-law Philippa, wife of Raymond-Roger (12). Esclarmonde was constantly traveling and visiting members of the nobility, trying to persuade them to stop their feuding and instead to prepare for the coming holocaust that was to be unleashed by the pope. Specifically in 1204 at the Cathar Council of  Mirepoix, she strategized about building up the fortifications for all the nobles’ castles. Such a suggestion coming from a woman would not have sat well with many of the warrior nobility, but Raymond de Pereille did listen and immediately set to work to strengthen the fortifications of Montségur, a task he completed five years later.  To accomplish this work so quickly was an incredible feat in that century, and it showed how well Esclarmonde must have convinced at least some of the nobles of the crushing urgency of the work (13).

In 1206 Esclarmonde took a decision that she must have been contemplating for a long time; she became a parfaite herself.  At a public ceremony at the Chateau de Fanjeaux, in the presence of her brother Raymond-Roger and with three other noblewomen, she received the consolamentum (a form of Cathar blessing administered by either a parfait or parfaite, and in this case used for ordination) and dedicated the remainder of her life to the cause (14). In view of the tide of anti-Cathar tirades coming out of the Vatican and the enmity of the local Catholic bishops, such a commitment took on heroic importance. Not only was she signing up for a life of austerity and hard work; in light of the ongoing aggression of the Roman Church, she was putting herself in grave personal danger. 

The antagonism of the Roman Church towards the Cathars was highlighted in the last of the great public debates in April 1206 at the Colloquy of Montreal in Pamiers, possibly organized by Raymond-Roger. On the Catholic side was an impressive line-up of prelates including the bishop of Toulouse, Foulques de Marseille; the bishop of Navarre; the abbot Vital of Saint-Antonin in Pamiers (leader of the same order, the Augustinians, who had long hated and harassed Esclarmonde); bishop Diego of Osama; Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominicans and the pope’s appointee to direct the Inquisition; and his deputy Etienne de la Misericorde.  On the opposing side were the parfaits and parfaites of the Cathar community. Esclarmonde was accompanied by Philippa and by her two daughters-in-law (15), and when she rose to speak on the position of women, the monk Etienne jumped up angrily, saying, “Madame, allez filer votre quenouille, il ne vous sied pas de parler en de telles reunions” (“Go to your spinning, madam, it is not proper for you to speak at such debates”) (16).  That a cleric dared to speak so rudely in public to one of the greatest ladies of Occitania displayed not only his ignorance and lack of courtly manners, but also the vast cultural difference between the societies of the North and the South. It also gave the Cathars present a clear indication of what a future under Roman domination might hold for them.

Even though the Cathars won the debate—or perhaps because they did—the pope decided that it was imperative to destroy the Occitan society.  The ideal occasion arose in 1209, when one of his legates was murdered en route to Rome after a quarrel with Count Raymond of Toulouse. The pope blamed Count Raymond and assembled an army 20,000 to 30,000 strong in Lyons for his Albigensian Crusade under the command of papal legate Arnauld Aimery and Simon de Montfort. This army, made up of the dregs of European society, took the opportunity to kill, plunder and rape its way throughout Occitania for the next 20 years. Entire towns such as Béziers (20,000 dead, by the Inquisition’s own record) and Toulouse were slaughtered; large-scale atrocities tantamount to genocide were committed against men, women and children upon papal order; and wholesale burnings marked the papal policy of extermination; 400 men, women, and children died on one pyre following the fall of the town of Lavaur.

It was during this dark and terrifying period that Esclarmonde did her greatest and noblest work and became truly the Light of the Occitan world.  She was already 55 when the war started, a very advanced age when the average life expectancy was approximately 30 years.  Because she refused to submit to the Roman Church, the pope put a price on her head; even so, she managed to evade not only the crusaders and the papal legates but also a series of bounty hunters. There was evidence that she was in the area around Dun until 1212, but after that the crusaders installed themselves in Pamiers, with the help of the Augustinians at Saint Antonin, and the Chateau de Foix, Esclarmonde’s brother’s estate, from 1214 to 1218 was in the hands of the papal legate, who turned it over to the feared and hated Simon de Montfort (17).

When Raymond-Roger went to Rome to try to retrieve his lands in 1215 at the Lateran Council, the pope reproached him about his sister’s activities (18). By then she had become the symbol of the resistance against the crusaders’ occupation and the papal inquisitors, and a major thorn in the side of the occupying forces as she went tirelessly from town to town and from village to village encouraging the resistance fighters, providing them useful information, and refortifying castles, as well as teaching and healing. She became so elusive, so wraithlike, that in time the crusaders were to call her La Renarde de Foix (the Fox of Foix); the Occitans called her La Grande Esclarmonde (Esclarmonde the Great), and her frequent appearances all over the land gave the people hope and inspiration. It was possibly her brother himself who spread the rumor that she was dead, as his warrior priestess sister was causing the family significant embarrassment.  In 1218, Raymond-Roger did eventually win back his castle, not through any justice or intervention from the pope but rather by force of arms (19).

For more than 30 years, Esclarmonde lived as a fugitive on the run, sleeping sometimes in caves and keeping a hair’s breadth ahead of the inquisitors and bounty hunters. There is one mention of her in 1232 (she was 78 years old), when she attended the marriage of her nephew Roger-Bernard, the new count of Foix, to Ermengarde de Narbonne (20). But it was only a brief appearance, and then she vanished once more. 

No-one knows the exact time or place of Esclarmonde’s death— she was rumored to have died in one of the caves where she took shelter—but her memory lives on.  In 1889, after his successful oratorio Marie-Madeleine, Jules Massenet wrote his opera Esclarmonde about her life (21). In 1911 in Foix, a committee tried to erect a statue to her memory. However, the hatred of the Roman Church reared its ugly head once more, as the bishop of Pamiers, Jean-Marie Vidal, did all he could to have the project stopped, even writing two brochures misrepresenting Esclarmonde’s life in an attempt to destroy her legend.  In 2006, Yves Maris, the founder of Chemins Cathares, was still trying to have this statue installed as the symbol of the Divine Feminine.  Above is a rendering of what it will look like (22).  If anyone deserves a statue in Foix, or anywhere in Occitania, it is Esclarmonde, for she remains “one of the strongest symbols of the Occitan woman’s attachment to religious freedom” (23) and an inspiring role model for courage and strength against tyranny and despotism everywhere.


(1) Guinlet, Guy-Mathieu. Les Cathares. (Pyrenees-Atlantique, Angle: Editions Auberon, 2003) pp. 206-208
(2) Ibid., p. 208
(3) ibid., p. 210
(4) Ibid., p. 210
(5) Martin, Sean. The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages. (Chartwell Books, Inc., 2006) p. 47
(7) Martin, p. 50
(8) Ibid., pp. 61, 72
(9) Guinlet, p. 211
(11) Ibid.
(12) Maris, Yves. Chemins Cathares,
(13) Guinlet, p. 219
(14) Ibid., p. 214
(15) Ibid., p. 216
(16) Maris. Chemins Cathares
(17) Guinlet, p. 220
(19) Guinlet, p. 220
(20) Ibid., p. 223

Esclarmonde de Foix: "The Fox of Foix"
©2007 Laconneau/d'Honore


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