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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

In the Land of Troubadours and Heretics, the Anniversary of a Lost Cause Is Remembered

Eight hundred years ago today, the allied armies of Occitania suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Muret, dooming that proud region to a brutal occupation during the Albigensian Crusade and ultimately changing the map of France.  

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost were vastly outnumbered.

Yet on the morning of September 12, 1213, Simon de Montfort, weary from a forced ride across the desolate plateaux and hostile valleys in the foothills of the Pyrenees, led his mounted troop of 900 men out from the besieged city of Muret, which sat a few kilometers south of Toulouse. Convinced that God rode with him, Montfort had divided his troop into three squadrons, assigning a member of the Holy Trinity to each.

A fiery monk named Dominic Guzman, later to be canonized as the father of the Dominicans, cheered on Rome’s military leader with prayers and blessings. For months, Dominic had been waging his own war–a spiritual one–against pacifist Cathar heretics protected by the Occitan nobles. That day, the Castilian preacher had armed Montfort’s troopers with a powerful new weapon: the rosary, which he claimed had been inspired by a vision from the Virgin Mary.

Facing Montfort across the Garonne River lay the camps of the allied Occitan armies, led by their self-proclaimed savior, King Peter of Aragon. The troubadour-loving monarch had crossed the mountains to avenge the atrocities committed by Montfort, who had gouged out of the eyes of the entire garrison at Bram, thrown Cathar women into wells, and participated in the burning of several thousand Occitans, both Cathar and Catholic, inside the cathedral at Beziers. Joined by the local Counts of Toulouse, Foix, and Commiges, King Peter commanded an estimated 4,000 cavalry and 30,000 to 40,000 infantry. All of Occitania was confident of victory.

But Peter, a throwback to the lost halcyon days of chivalry, refused to even consider the possibility that Montfort might launch a surprise attack. When the stealthy dawn assault came, Peter rejected pleas from the Occitan nobles to resort to a defensive formation. Instead, he held back his archers and met the wily Montfort head on, knight against knight. With no time to retrieve his royal armor, he hurled himself into the fray shouting “I am king!” Mistaken for a common soldier, he was quickly butchered by Montfort’s troops. Stunned by the king’s death, the Occitan forces broke, and their remnants, along with those of the Toulousian militia, were driven into the river, where many drowned.

The Church’s war against Occitania and the Cathars would drag on and off for several decades, leading to the creation of the French Inquisition and culminating in the siege and capture of the heretic stronghold of Montsegur in 1244. But the fate of the region was sealed at Muret, and eventually the King Louis IX of France would annex devastated Toulouse and the Trencavel lands in the Languedoc to his kingdom.

Today, the region is dotted with villages once ravaged by Montfort, and hard feelings against him still run deep there. A fellow novelist told me she once made the mistake of remarking to a taxi driver in Carcassonne that her favorite historical character was the son of Montfort, Simon IV, who became a champion of England’s Parliament. The cabbie became so indignant that he braked to a stop and ordered the woman to get out. All that remains of the battle site of Muret, which sits in suburb of Toulouse intersected by the A64 highway, is the small monument below:

The Battle of Muret Memorial

In my historical novel, The Fire and the Light, the Muret disaster was a turning point in the story of the Cathars. To honor the anniversary of the battle, I’ve included this LINK to the chapter for those who would like to read more about it.



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