Countess Zebella Trencavel of Carcassone and her husband Roger Bernard, the count of Foix, gave their daughter an Occitan name, “Light of the world.”
In a period when women were often despised, and treated as mere possession, Esclarmonde was a shining light, both for the enlightenment of human beings and for the condition of women – the issue she was most deeply involved with.
At her parents’ court in Foix, the esoteric and romantic culture of troubadour love was lived and practiced. Esclarmonde married the Lord of L’Isle Jourdain, with whom she had six children. When, in 1200 AD, she became a widow, she finally publicly confessed her faith in Catharism, a heretical reform movement practiced in northern Italy and southern France.
Esclarmonde created a series of institutions for women and reinforced the walls of the castle of Montségur, realizing that the French catholic crusaders would almost certainly attack it.
When, in the year 1167, Bishop Nicetas of Constantinople, a member of the Bogomil sect, visited Lombardy and northern Italy (Esclarmonde was then 12 years old) he also came to Occitania, also called Languedoc.
Nicetas represented the religious and political movement of the Bogomil sect that had been founded in the 10th century by the priest Bogomil in Bulgaria. The Bogomils had a very strong influence on the religion of the Cathars who called themselves “Christians” and “good Christians” and above all “friends of God.”
A fundamental issue in the Bogomil belief was that women and men had equal rights and treated each other according to that principle. This equality of the genders was totally adopted by the Cathar movement.
in 1204, several years after Bishop Niceta’s visit to southern France, Esclarmonde, was appointed “Prefect” of the Cathari and was appointed manager of a community of hospitals and schools.
In 1207, she organized a final debate with leaders of the the Roman Catholic church in Palmiers, where Esclarmonde, a highly educated and a brilliant speaker, won the debate. The defeated catholics, having run out of arguments against Esclarmonde and contesting her accusation about the cruelty of the Church, replied: “You had better go back to your spinning- wheel, Madame. It’s not suitable for a woman to interfere in this sort of debate.”
A year later, in 1208, Pope Innocent III initiated the crusade against the Albigenses and as Esclarmonde refused to submit herself to the dominion of the Roman Catholic church, the pope put a bounty on her capture and the crusader knights named her “the fox of Foix.”
They did not succeed in capturing her, however, and ordinary people began to call her “Esclarmonde, the Great.” She became, in this way, the symbol of the resistance against the crusade.
According to some legends, Esclarmonde was on the run for another 30 years, sometimes sleeping in caves and barns, feeling sometimes the breath of her pursuers in close proximity.
Her work gave the people of Occitania such courage and hope that her memory has survived until the present time.
Esclarmonde de Foix is a #NastyWomanHereticandWriter
© Karin Peschau 2017
(My niece, Sophie Charlotte Arnaud, allowed me to paint her as the model for Esclarmonde. Sophie’s family roots, both maternal and paternal, (her father Jacques came from Foix), are in the Languedoc, in Foix itself.)