Otto Rahn's Crusade Book


Crusade Against the Grail

, The Struggle Between the Cathars,

the Templars, and the Church of Rome

(Inner Traditions 2006, originally published

in German in 1933, not translated into

English until 2006 by Christopher Jones).

In my last book review [A Most Holy War, The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, by Mark Gregory Pegg (Oxford University Press, 2008)], a professional historian, I cited another book, the one by Otto Rahn identified above.

I said that it had done my soul good to read Rahn’s book (Rahn is not a professional historian) on the nature of the cultural cauldron that allowed the "Cathar” movement to thrive. (See previous review for the reason “Cathar” is in quotes, it is not what these so-called heretics called themselves.)

In my review of Pegg’s book I agreed that from a historical-evidence point of view much of what is written about the Cathars-so-called is imaginary and fantastical, even though it may reflect heartfelt belief in some. Rahn’s journeys through the former heretic lands and his listening to the stories told him by the natives are no doubt in that latter category: heartfelt beliefs.

Rahn strung together his own biases from his own prior readings, his own observations, and what he heard expressed to him by the kind people who took him to caves and woods, temples inside caves, etc. All of it encouraged him to see the medieval tale of Parsifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach as the key to the mystery of the society of the so-called "Cathars" (whom he describes as the Church of Amor, or Love). Rahn describes the wandering poets and singers, the troubadours, as Cathar pure ones or perfecti.  He describes courtly love as a Cathar invention and tradition.

Since at some time in the past I made exactly these same connections, and felt the same way that Rahn felt about their core meaning, I instantly loved this book.  BUT: I have now done enough reading, some from very reliable historians like Pegg, who rightly tell me, and the deceased Rahn, that we are off-base where historical evidence is concerned.

OK, so Rahn’s book and my own speculations are a-historical. I’ll accept and live with that verdict.

But that does not mean I don’t revel in finding a soul from the past stirred with the same imaginings that stirred me when I first ran into this historical phenomenon of the church in Rome instigating a war against fellow Christians. Having been a member, and believer, in an upstart, once-persecuted church myself this really intrigued me. So I dove into the literature, visited some of the sites (that Rahn also visited) and liked the texture and temperature of the spiritual waters I dove into.

Spiritual? Well, yes, I am not so much intrigued with the physical facts of history as I am with what on earth could have convinced good people from all walks of life to join themselves, to one degree or another, with a group clearly at odds with the dominant local religion. I have come to the conclusion that it was a social support thing and a spiritual thing that attracted them.

Socially the heresy blurred some of the sharp lines that feudalism had drawn between nobles and peasants. Support-wise there was good community structure leading to a good locally managed safety net.  It has been reported that at harvest time when all hands were needed, masters and peasants worked in the same fields, side by side to assure next year's survival for all.  Splendid!

Spiritually the people were told their salvation did not depend on serving and obeying a venal and parasitic clergy but on living good lives and loving the God who is Love. I would be attracted to all of that, given the difficulties in mere survival for peasants, and church-corruption that forcibly taxed farmers and merchants and made survival even more difficult in lean years.

Stories abound concerning the Roman clergy’s misdeeds at this time and place, even in Pegg’s historically correct book. Rahn lays it on as well, citing reliable sources. Even the Roman church acknowledged that part of the blame for the popularity of the heresy in this area was the misconduct of Rome's own clergy: priests and bishops alike.

So how does the troubadour tradition and courtly love, the latter condemned by the church, fit in with "Catharism” so -called? Rahn says the two are one and the same, which is a bit much, but perhaps Jonathan Kirsch has it a little bit too historically correct in his The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, A History of Terror in the Name of God (HarperCollins 2008) when he suggests that troubadours were just entertainers, and their bawdy songs of (courtly) love between knights and ladies to whom they were not married scandalized the church (page 26).

Interestingly, Kirsch then suggests the invention of devotion to Mary as the Mother of God was a direct attempt at replacing the courtly love ideal of devoting oneself (if one were a noble male) to a perfect woman that was out of reach (because she was married to someone else, usually). On page 26 Kirsch suggests Mary-devotion was . . . “a specific antidote to the 'lady-fair’ and her knight-suitors.”

That may be a 35,000-foot high view of this episode in history, but when one comes down a bit lower one sees that there are very distinct differences between the messages in the songs of the troubadours. Some troubadours of note were even recognized leaders in the church, good Catholics while others were definitely a bit on the heretical side.

Rahn, perhaps, focuses too strongly on the heretical messages in troubadour poetry, and needs to raise himself a bit higher for a more balanced view. It is true that at some point in time the crusaders got wise to the idea that some troubadours were “Cathars” in disguise and they were no longer safe from attack. But Rahn goes a bit too far in my opinion when he suggests on his pages 45-46:

I just love the way the religion of Zoroaster was here unexpectedly sucked into Rahn’s explanation of the “Cathar” faith. Speaking of comparative religion, in contrast with Pegg’s disavowal of a direct Bogomil-Cathar connection Kirsch compares and contrasts their beliefs (what is known of them) and the accusations against them by their Orthodox and Roman persecutors, and finds them as good as identical, with crusaders ranging through the known world as likely importers of this heresy.

And was it really all that heretical? Did not a goodly number of Orthodox and Catholic saints receive acclaim for renouncing the world of the flesh and all its pleasures? Instead living out their lives in a self-imposed deprived state, suffering in the body so as to live in the spirit even while still in the flesh? At least the “Cathar” perfecti were not this crazy, they longed for the other world but would not deprive themselves of nourishment to get there until it appeared their time was very near anyway.

Otto Rahn is said to have imposed an endura on himself (page xiii)—a ritual “Cathar” fast until death–as his chosen method of suicide, although his betaking himself into cold snowy mountains made quite sure his death (from exposure more likely) was relatively swift (a day and night, perhaps?).

The idea that because there is a wonderful after-life, this life can be discounted, is just as Catholic as it is Cathar or any other Christian religion. But look at all the bloodshed that has been shoved under this faith-rug! The idea that it was OK to kill both Christians and heretics during this crusade because God would ‘know His own’ is a great example.

Here is where everyday, normal believers have their heads screwed on much straighter than some of their more radical, though saintly, religious models. Most people feel exactly like the Zoroastrians did. Although the afterlife is promised to be wonderful: this life IS important and ought to be lived well and happy and ought to be spent doing good.  According to the religion for which Ahura Mazda was supreme God, the god we do in this world, as insignificant as it may seem, is part of the cosmic conflict.

Zoroastrians believed that warfare between good and evil will be settled at the end of time when the good God, Ahura Mazda, finally overcomes the evil one ruling this world through his chosen one.  This was a belief also had by the Cathars according to Rahn on his page 82, but with a twist, we are apparently waiting for a chosen angel to repent and get on with defeating Lucifer.  An angel named Luzbel will repent and rise to the occasion and make all things right again.

In Zoroaster's teachings the chosen one has already come to Earth once, and will return to finish the job. In the meantime it is every believer’s duty to till the ground and make it productive, to beautify their homes, to keep clean and live clean lives and in such minor ways thwart the chaos desired at every scale by the evil one.

If you have ever read any of the sermons by Brigham Young to the Mormons in early Utah, you will be amazed how similar-in-spirit he and Zoroaster were as prophets, in terms of their daily-living advice, bound together with cosmic meaning.

But I am straying far from Rahn’s assertion that all of this ancient lore was wrapped into “Catharism.” (He spends much time on this, but I am only excerpting and interpreting from his pages 73-74.) He says that the Celtic Druids living contemplative lives in the Pyrenees were the last to be reached by Christianity, rejecting the Roman church but making room for a persecuted dualist sect, the Priscillians, among them at some point in time.

The Druids rejected the idea that Christ was God come down to be tortured and killed as a human, as did the Priscillians. His stemming from the adulterous house of David was further proof to them that this was not the “divinity of light,” “the Universal Father” that they worshiped. Rahn suggests they became Christianized by the Priscillians and by blending their old and new beliefs they created “Catharism.”

That seems really far-fetched I know, but why not? Kirsch, who tries to hew the line to what is historically accepted, says that (his page 25):

Kirsch uses Joan of Arc as example, who was pious, a devoted Catholic believer, yet also, as a child with her girlfriends participated in attempts to seek intervention in their young lives by “Fairy Ladies” associated with a large tree and nearby spring [there is a photo of what purportedly is this spring on this website].

So why all of this discussion? Because I am trying to establish that the imaginings of Rahn at least lie within the margins of the envelope of possibility. And why is it important to do that? Because my fantasies about “Cathars,” troubadours and courtly love so closely match Rahn’s that I feel to try and protect him from the heavy hammer of judgment by the historical-evidence-only=fact crowd.  Don't get me wrong, that crowd needs to exist.  It needs to be heard and understood in order for people like Rahn and myself to know when we are treading thin ice, or resting on vapors, in some of our cherished suppositions.

So my plea is not for Rahn (thereby myself) being believed as having written what was true.  But I would like for us to be believed for writing what could possibly have been true.  I am acknowledging that Rahn's suppositions (and mine) flow a long way over and away from the walls of what is historically directly supportable, but I am claiming that these suppositions are not totally detached from those walls either.

What am I talking about? A direct relationship between some troubadours and the leading lights of "Catharism.” A direct relationship between the rules of courtly love and the ideals of “Catharism.” The nexus of “Catharism” and the “Religion of Love” that saw itself reflected in courtly love ideals.

Ideals only, mind you. When it comes to human implementation, those ideals of love at a distance and only in the heart regularly suffered and led to wondrous adulterous affairs also celebrated in the poetry of the troubadours as heart-wrenching lessons on life.  And they were indeed very entertaining, as Kirsch suggests.

I said all these things in other sections of this website, too numerous to link here, but I will cite some of Rahn's statements on these relationships in their ideal state:

First the idea that courtly love was a spiritual ideal (pages 3-4):

The effect of devotion to Love, Minnedienst, was . . . “the joy d’amor: desire, energy, and impetuousness that led the poet to create the Minne.” Perhaps several sought the same lady to devote themselves to, Rahn explains, and a Minne contest would decide the winner who would then swear fidelity to his lady, she would give him a token to seal the relationship of Love, and one kiss, ideally the ONLY kiss, Rahn emphasizes.

Next the idea that feudal barriers were broken down in the lands of courtly love (pages 4-5):

Ladies could be courted, in the courtly-love realm, by those who were wondrous poets from whatever walk of life:

Rahn gives several examples we won't repeat here.

Finally, the assertion that courtly love was supposed to be the spiritual substitute for carnal love, and was therefore in full harmony with the Cathar belief that carnal love was the devil’s invention to assure more angels would be captured into his physical kingdom (page 106 among others):

Of course Rahn makes points with me by invoking my favorite example of courtly love and its intended outcome: Beatrice helping Dante purify his love so as to then be able to enter the Divine Presence, an experience that actually leaves the poet wordless!

Believing any of this means a radical rejection of the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden story, and Rahn explains on page 45 that devotees of courtly love outright rejected the Genesis creation of Eve from Adam story as propaganda. If anything, they were equals.  She was his lady, and he her Minne-servant, hence his obedience to her once she had been led astray by the snake (Lucifer) who was in disguise as a wise serpent.

Several times Rahn equates the “Cathars” with the "Church of Amor.” (Pages 91 and 111 are two examples). He also makes the all-important point that the pure Minne is God, and shows the importance of the Gospel of John to the “Cathars” in the process (page 86):

Rahn’s presumptions and assumptions and associations are probably not seen in a favorable light by those who wish to stick to the known, extant, available historical facts, which I respect.  But what the heck, his speculations are after my own heart. I like them very much, and I like this work by Rahn very much, fully realizing it is only possibility that he (and therefore I) was right.

Unless a miracle happens and a cache of esoteric documents from these heretics is unearthed, “we” will never know the whole truth.  Chances of that miracle? Near zero.  

If there is an afterlife, we will learn the whole truth. Chances of that miracle?  Below zero.

Being alive, and being aware of being alive, on this Earth, is the only miracle I acknowledge and experience daily.  I do not look to a new life to give me what I lacked in this one.  I am just grateful for this life and all things and persons I have experienced and known and loved in it.  Simply being alive in what is a rather lifeless universe on the whole fills me with awe, wonder, and gratitude.  It is miracle enough for me.

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