Is Whit Stillman Right About the “Cathar Way of Love”?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 9 2012 3:00 PM

Fact-Checking Damsels in Distress: Were the Cathars Really Sodomists?

Still from Damsels in Distress
Xavier (Hugo Becker) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton) in Damsels in Distress.

© Sony Pictures Classics 2012

Whit Stillman’s characters tend to be equal parts erudite and full of baloney. In his latest movie, Damsels in Distress, Stillman even attempts to stem the spread of their misinformation, amending a brief fact-check before the credits: The waltz, he notes, was popularized by Johann Strauss II, not Richard Strauss as Violet (Greta Gerwig) suggests. But another odd claim in Damsels doesn’t get a fact-check: Xavier, the Frenchman and avowed Cathar, suggests that “the Cathar way” of love is anal sex. (In an earlier cut of the movie, his suggestion was more explicit.) Were the Cathars really sodomists?

There’s no evidence that they were—though Xavier is by no means the first to make the claim. Typically, though, the people claiming as much were enemies, not allies, of the medieval ascetic movement. The Cathars’ enemies within Christianity saw them as heretics and depicted them as sodomites in order to make them appear more perverted, helping to justify their attacks on them. It was common to marginalize unorthodox Christians by accusing them of being unorthodox in the sack—the justification harkens back to Sodom—and the allegation may have been made without any basis. Today, no writings remain that indicate that the Cathars commonly practiced anal sex. As one historian put it, “It may well be that some Cathars practiced sodomy … but if they did, they kept it to themselves as best they could and did not write songs about it.”

Xavier’s other facts are spot on. The Cathars were adherents of an ascetic Christian movement that spread across parts of France and Italy between the 11th and 13th centuries.  They were, in fact, opposed to procreative sex—or, in Xavier’s words, “sex from the front”—because it was not only sinful in itself, but, worse, would bring other souls into what they viewed as a world of sin. For this reason, their opponents may have thought that they resorted to sodomy instead of vaginal intercourse, as a non-procreative alternative—but a strict Cathar would have avoided sexual activity altogether. (The ascetic Cathars viewed all such activity as a sinful wordly pleasure of the flesh; they condemned other worldly pleasures, too, like eating meat.)

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Though it may lack any factual basis, the association between Catharism and sodomy remains strong. Even the slang term bugger, meaning to sodomize, stems from the association between anal sex and Christian sects connected with the Cathars. The word derives from the French for Bulgarian, which was used to refer to the (Bulgarian) Bogomils, who  shared similar beliefs to the Cathars, and, like them, condemned procreation. It wasn’t long before the Bogomils, too, were accused of sodomy. The Catholic Church successfully targeted both groups during the Albigensian Crusade and the Medieval Inquisition, and very few Cathars and Bogomils survived through the 14th and 15th centuries.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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