Have you ever heard of Europe’s first vegans, the Cathars? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either, until recently.
In the past year-and-a-half of journeying around the world I’ve gotten hundreds of weird looks from people and an endless number of questions regarding veganism.
A few people have even decided to make it their personal mission to try and prove to me why veganism is illogical, or unnatural, or unhealthy, or just simply something they could never do. At times this can get a bit annoying, as you can probably imagine. Having to constantly explain a lifestyle choice gets weary for anyone who experiences it on a daily basis.
Luckily, however, I have never had to flee a country or city because I feared being murdered for my vegan beliefs, unlike the ancient European group, the Cathars.
I first heard about the Cathars over dinner in Berguedà, Spain. The Cathars, or the “Bons Hommes” (the Good Men) were a religious group whose origins trace back to the Byzantine empire, and whose existence ended tragically and brutally in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Over a special vegan meal, which included a spectacularly creamy mushroom cannelloni, one of our hosts, Imma, told us tales about the now almost mythical people, and explained that their diet was nearly vegan.
Many of the Cathars, including their clergy, abstained from eating animals and their byproducts. Their belief in a complex system of reincarnation meant they thought human souls could exist within all animals. Because of this they despised killing in any form. A lack of scientific knowledge meant that some Cathars ate fish because they didn’t realize they were animals but instead thought they were spontaneously existing fruit of the sea.
But nevermind that…their intentions were good and I’ll still consider them to be the the earliest group in history I know of to follow a vegan diet.
In the days that followed I learned that their diet wasn’t the only fascinating thing about the Cathars. They also considered gender to be meaningless because of the reincarnation thing. Therefore women had equal rights to men and could even be priests. The Cathars also rejected marriage and the material world in general.
Unfortunately, the Cathars’ unorthodox views drew the extreme ire of the Catholic Church who labeled them heretics. Apparently back then it was heretical to deny the consumption of flesh, as the accepted view was that God had granted man dominion over beasts, and their flesh was his to consume. So everyone ate meat, especially if they were rich and could have a pig slain, gutted, and spitted at will.
The quasi veganism of the Cathars was only one of many reasons the church decided to rid the world of them, but it certainly is the one that resonated with me the most. Killed for refusing to eat flesh, amongst other things. Hmmm…thank god we have moved on as a society, huh?
So, anyway, the Pope commanded King Philip Augustus of France to carry out an inquisition against the Good Men, and he acquiesced. A brutal extermination began, often involving torture and burning at the stake, and the Good Men were driven out of France. The surviving Cathars traveled 200 kilometers through the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain on a path that is now called the Cami dels Bons Homes (Path of the Good Men and Women).
Walking in the Steps of the Cathars
After hearing the fascinating story of the Cathars and learning about their divergent beliefs Michael and I decided to follow in the footsteps of this progressive, some-what vegan, some-what feminist group. We set out to walk a five day section of the Cami Dels Bons Homes[link], from the upper reaches of Catalonia, 90 kilometers south through the mountains and valleys.
Even though the lifestyle of the Cathars was based on some sort of religious beliefs that I cannot relate to, I felt a connection to these ghosts of the past. My journey in life, especially in the last year and a half, has given me a similar outlook on life. I’ve become vegan, I’ve rejected most material possessions, have no desire to marry, and believe in equal rights for all.
There were moments along the way that I felt I was walking in the footsteps of kindred souls, walking quite literally on a path they paved 800 years before. My persecution is not at all comparable to theirs, of course, and my veganism is far stricter and a product borne of completely different reasons from theirs, but never you mind that. We, in some ways, kin.
Thankfully I had no problems sticking to my vegan diet due to the efforts of the wonderful people at Cami dels Bons Homes Regulatory Counsel and I ate marvelous food along the way, as our trek took us from one small town to the next.