Occitania -- stretching from the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees in the south, to beyond Limoges in the north, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west and to the Alps in the east -- was a linguistic entity where dialects of Occitan, a romance language similar to Catalan, were spoken.

Occitania was never an independent kingdom or country, but it was ahead of its time in that it was not structured as a feudalistic society; independent semi-autonomous regions were controlled by counts and viscounts; councils called capitouls administered the major towns; religious tolerance was practiced; women had certain rights; a code of ethics was practiced; there was social mobility, and it was the birthplace of the troubadours who virtually invented Western European lyric poetry.

Unfortunately, very little is heard of this civilization because the language itself is not widely taught outside the south of France; and that it is taught there at all is a relatively new phenomenon. Only rarely is Occitan, or Provençal as it was erroneously called, taught in universities and then at the graduate level, and as such, its knowledge is the provenance of scholars whose articles can be overly specialized for the uninitiated. On the other hand, certain medieval novels about the period can take excessive liberties with the facts and not present a true picture. This brilliant society died out very quickly, and it is thought by some scholars that the Renaissance may have started here rather than in Italy had it not been for a certain event.

The purpose of Occitan Cultural Initiatives – OCi – is to explore all aspects of this extraordinary and almost forgotten civilization and make it more accessible to the general public.

The Occitan civilization flourished for only a short time, but it is famous for its troubadours who sang of Fin'amor. Guilhèm de Peitieus, Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1070-1127) and grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine was the first troubadour. He was a colorful character, going on crusade, spending time in Antioch and bringing back Moorish musicians. He was twice excommunicated, once for abducting his vassal's wife, installing her in a tower and refusing to part with her. His vida (life) says of him:

"Lo coms de Peitieus si fo uns dels majors cortes del mon e dels majors trichadors de dompnas, e bons cavaliers d'armas e larcs de domnejar; e saup ben trobar e cantar. Et anet lonc temps per lo mon per enganar las domnas." [i]

"The Count of Poitou was one of the noblest men in the world and one of the greatest deceivers of women, and he was a good knight at arms, and generous with women; and he well knew how to compose and sing. And for a long time he went through the world courting women."

Fin'Amor had at its heart the theme of spiritual transcendence, through the transformative power of Love as manifest through the purest form of relationship between man and woman. Raising the level of woman from their previous position as little more than chattel, women were now praised throughout Occitania for their intelligence, beauty and their intrinsic goodness, the ultimate expression in the eyes of the troubadour of the manifestation of the Divine Feminine.

Occitania was also a land rife with what the Roman church defined as heresy. Of all the "heretical" sects, the Cathars also called Les Bons Chrétiens (Good Christians--or Good Men and Women) posed the greatest threat to the religious totalitarianism of the Roman church. People from all levels of Occitan society embraced the Cathar philosophy, which in its essence presented the antithesis to the corrupt and materialistic "spirituality" of the power hungry Roman church. Of particular irritation to the papal see, was the Cathar policy of denying the Roman church its self-appointed right to tithing by the people of Occitania. Also, while French, and much of Western European society, disallowed social mobility, religious tolerance and gender equality, those very concepts defined the more cultured and wealthy Occitan society: as such, that society posed a threat to the entire feudalistic structure. René Nelli writes that:

"L'hétérodoxie cathare se présentait, elle dans son fond, comme une idéologie de libération, en entendant par là la suppression non seulement de tel ou de tel droit particulier, mais du Droit feudal lui-même, dans son principe." [ii]

"In effect, the Cathar heterodoxy presented itself as a liberation ideology, meaning by that the suppression not only of this or that particular right, but the principal of Feudal Law itself."

Innocent III, who became pope in 1208, claimed supremacy not only over the faithful but also over all Christian kings. Anything thus threatening not only the power of his church but also the state had to be eradicated. The Cathars had been growing in number for years, despite the Roman church's attempt at bringing them to the fold through preaching, debate and papal bull, the latter of which, Ab Abolendum in 1184, threatened not only the "heretics" but also their supporters with excommunication, deprivation of the rights to trial, to hold public office, to make a will and to pass their property and titles on to their heirs. The murder of one of his legates in Provence gave the pope the excuse he was looking for to call for a campaign to purge Occitania of heresy and bring it under control. It also conveniently provided the French crown a way to expand its territorial control southward and lengthen its trade routes. The ensuing Albigensian Crusade, waged from 1209-1229, resulted in the death of over one million people devastated the economy, destroyed its culture, crushed the philosophy that had threatened the status quo, and eventually brought the land under complete French control with the Treaty of Paris in 1229.


[i] Hamlin, Frank R., Ricketts, Peter T., & Hathaway, John. Introduction à L'Étude de L'Ancien Provençal. Genève: Librairie Droz, 1967, p. 53.
[ii] Nelli, René. Spiritualité et l'Hérésie : Le Catharisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953, p. 41

For more information on the troubadours, the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, please see the Resources page.