Monday, January 2, 2012

Cults of Averoigne Part 1

Among the various wilderness encounter areas that I have for my version of Averoigne are several cultists. I included them on my Random Wilderness Encounter Tables because not only do I want an interesting and insidious group of human adversaries but because there is an historical precedence in 13th century France for such a group.

From 1209-1229 nobles of northern France were encouraged to wipe out the Catharism abundant in southern France in what is known as the Albigensian Crusade. It all started when a papal legate was murdered while trying to negotiate with Cathar nobles. Lands held by Cathars were offered up as rewards for those nobles willing to take up arms. There were a couple of interesting consequences from this crusade.

  1. Southern France had a distinct culture and language. In the wake of the crusade, both of these were greatly reduced under stronger influence of the French crown over the area.
  2. The crusade played a role in the establishment and institutionalization of the Inquisition.

Both of these suggest some very interesting background noise for an Averoigne campaign. First, the language and culture of Averoigne is distinct from the rest of the region. Secondly, Inquisitors tend to be outsiders who have a nationalistic agenda rather than a purely religious one.

Catharism is a dualistic gnostic Christian heresy. Dualism is a belief system that holds that there are two equally powerful deities — one good and one evil. Gnosticism takes on various forms, but there are several characteristics which can be identified as gnostic. In the case of Catharism, they identify the god of the Old Testament as a demiurge — what they term the Rex Mundi — that is in actuality the evil god in their dualistic pantheon. This results in another typical gnostic characteristic — the belief that creation and all matter are fundamentally evil, having been created by the Rex Mundi. As a result, Catharism understands the person of Jesus to be a manifestation of spirit unbound by matter who in no way shape or form became human or died on the Cross.

Of course, these beliefs run counter to Christian orthodoxy which holds that the Trinitarian God is the only God who even has dominion over the devil and his angels; creation was declared very good by God; and Christ definitively became a human being and died on the Cross.

Cathari religious texts included parts of the New Testament (especially the Gospel of John), The Gospel of the Secret Supper (sometimes called John’s Interrogation) and The Book of Two Principles. There is some question as to whether or not the name Cathar was used by the heretical group. More certainly, they referred to themselves as Bons Hommes or Good Men.

Despite this moniker, gnostic theology has some nasty consequences. Since all matter is considered evil, how one treats matter is of little consequence. Thus, extreme asceticism and hedonism are both frequent expressions of gnostic practice. Taking this understanding of material as evil to a logical conclusion, it is possible for gaming purposes to justify torture as a legitimate tool of religious conversion and discipline — to remove dependence upon evil matter.

Therefore, the analogous group for the Cathari (which I am thinking of calling the Oamenbun) would practice extreme asceticism (horse hair shirts being considered mild) who would think nothing of kidnapping and torture as a means of furthering their own agenda. The inner circle of leaders would have secret dens of inequity where all kinds of heinous and hedonistic practices can be found. Most intriguingly, this group would be fervently nationalistic — resisting the influence of non-Averoigne culture and language. This nationalism would earn them wide support among the locals.


  1. I would have emailed you privately, but there's no contact info in your profile...

    This is an extremely offensive portrayal of Catharism. I would've expected a little more research on 'heretics' that sought a path away from the tyranny of matter.

  2. It's a risk that's run when using real world inspirations for game elements. It's not much different than a Call of Cthulhu game sticking actual cannibalism into the communion and creating a twisted Christian sect for game purposes. As a Christian, I could get away with that, if I were Jewish, or an atheist, I'd bet the Christians in the group would give me some grief.

    Speaking of which, I was coming by to say I liked how FrDave is taking some real world beliefs, extending them out to their logical conclusions in their fantasy analog, and turning it into a nasty cult - I think a similar thing might have been done in a Cthulhu Dark Ages supplement, also for the Albigensian Crusades.

  3. @Beedo: I don't have an issue with the game material, but the post states:
    Despite this moniker, gnostic theology has some nasty consequences. Since all matter is considered evil, how one treats matter is of little consequence. Thus, extreme asceticism and hedonism are both frequent expressions of gnostic practice. In addition, torture can be seen as a legitimate tool of religious conversion and discipline — to remove dependence upon evil matter.

    This reads as pretty vile anti-gnostic propaganda. If I'm misinterpreting it, then I apologize.

  4. I think this is an excellent adaptation of historical material to a game setting, and I particularly like the linkage of the cult to something the players might be sympathetic toward, in this case a sense of "nationalism" or local identity. In WFRP 1E, the cults of the Empire are more or less modeled on the structure of the Catholic Church in the late Medieval/early Renaissance period -- particularly the cult of Sigmar. I often made use of heretical and schismatic factions, both in the present of the campaign and in the cult's past, to give some texture to the campaign and provide adventure hooks. I'll be interested to see further entries on the cults of Averoigne. :)

  5. @scottsz
    I apologize if you find this particular understanding of gnostic practice to be offensive. It is meant to be primarily for the purposes of game material, but as with all analogues, there is a grain of truth in it.

    Prior to becoming an Orthodox Christian, I dabbled very heavily in gnosticism. Ultimately, it was its very disdain of the material world‚ which is often seen as a prison and/or the consequences of a mistake, that ultimately convinced me that gnosticism — if taken to its logical conclusions — could be very dangerous indeed. There is historical evidence for these practices (particularly the extreme asceticism).

    However, I am guessing that the way I phrased the use of torture is the primary source of your ire and therefore I will edit my post to rephrase so as to make it less offensive. Thanks for the criticism.

  6. I think the issue re real-word Catharism is that most of our info comes from hostile sources, often repeating claims made by Fathers from centuries before about totally different peoples (e.g. recycling Augustine's polemics contra Manicheans).

    That said, it's totally on for a game analogue.

  7. Your theological cause and effect can be debated. Despite having gnostic views on the evilness of Creation - the Cathars didn't torture anybody. It was the Romanists with their orthodox views on Creation but their views that they were the one true Church that produced torture chambers and inquisitions.

  8. @Mild Colonial Boy
    First, I would remind you that the above post does imply a rather cynical view of the Inquisition, where both the historical and gaming versions are primarily nationalist and not Christian movements. The assassination of the papal legate was used as an excuse to further political gain via the crusade — a characteristic of all the crusades. Thus, the source of violence isn't the Church or the insistence on being the one true Church. Rather, the source of the violence is placing worldly affairs above Christianity.

    Second, I come at gnosticism from the perspective of being one for many years. I seriously read many of the available gnostic texts before I seriously read the
    Bible. Ironically, when I went to St. Ireneaus as one of the primary witnesses to the gnostic texts prior to the finding of the Nag Hammadi codices I was convinced that the Church was right.

    Note that no gnostic group has ever survived in the long term. While some have been violently suppressed (like the Cathars), many were not. A large factor in this has to do with gnostic theology — it isn't designed for the long haul (because of its negative view of creation). If God were behind it, don't you think He would have revealed something that could withstand not only its own theology, but violent persecution?

    Besides, having seen my share of gorgeous sunsets and looked through my share of microscopes — how is it possible that such beauty was created by a demiurge through a mistake? How can this be the source of all evil in the world? Personally, I find that God's assessment of His own creation in Genesis 1:31 is far easier to believe.

  9. What an interesting debate. I've come to enjoy this blog, and this is why. I'm not much of a gamer, so some of that is lost on me. But the topics - how interesting.

    FWIW, my two cents: We can't just lay the blame of anything and everything that happened in the Middle Ages at the foot of the Catholic Church. There were more influences than Church dogma running around.

    Second, regarding this: "real-word Catharism is that most of our info comes from hostile sources"

    It's worth noting that much popular knowledge of Religion in general, and Christainity and the Catholic Church in particular, comes from hostile sources. That's always a problem with getting to the bottom of something.

  10. Cathars called themselves bonn hommes, ”good men”. ”Oamenbun” means the same in romanian language ”oameni” = men ”bun” = good. I don't think this is a coincidence. Is it ?

    1. You are entirely correct, this was done quite on purpose. Romanian is closer to Latin than any other romance language, and is therefore akin to modern Latin. For the purposes of emulating a fantasy version of Latin (with which I am pathetic) I like using Romanian because I am far more familiar and have native speakers in the family to fall back on.