Montségur is a commune in the Ariège department in south-western France.
It is famous for its fort and was one of the last strongholds of the Cathars. The present fortress on the site, though described as one of the "Cathar castles," is actually of a later period. It has been listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture since 1862.
The ruins of Montségur are perched at a precarious 3000-foot (1207 m) altitude in the south of France near the Pyrenees Mountains. Located in the heart of France's Languedoc-Midi-Pyrénées regions, 80 km (50 mi) southwest of Carcassonne, Montségur dominates a rock formation known as a pog — a term derived from the local Occitan dialect — pueg, or puog, meaning "peak," "hill," "mountain."
The earliest signs of human settlement in the area date back to the stone age, around 80,000 years ago. Evidence of Roman occupation such as Roman currency and tools have also been found in and around the site. In the Middle Ages the Montsegur region was ruled by the Counts of Toulouse, the Viscounts of Carcassone and finally the Counts of Foix. In 1243–44, the Cathars (a religious sect considered heretical by the Catholic Church) were besieged at Montségur by 10,000 troops at the end of the Albigensian Crusade. In March 1244, the Cathars finally surrendered and approximately 220 were burned en masse in a bonfire at the foot of the pog when they refused to renounce their faith. Some 25 actually took the ultimate Cathar vow of consolamentum perfecti in the two weeks before the final surrender.
In the days prior to the fall of the fortress, several Cathars allegedly slipped through the besiegers' lines carrying away a mysterious "treasure" with them. While the nature and fate of this treasure has never been identified, there has been much speculation as to what it might have consisted of — from the treasury of the Cathar Church to esoteric books or even the actual Holy Grail.
Montségur is often named as a candidate for the Holy Grail castle — and indeed there are linguistic similarities in the Grail romance Parzival (circa 1200–1210) written by Wolfram von Eschenbach. In Parzival, the grail castle is called Monsalvat, similar to Montségur and with the same meaning: "safe mountain, secure mountain." The name of Raymond de Péreille, the actual historic seigneur of Montségur, has a slight similarity to the protagonist of Eschenbach's epic, the knight Parzival. In Jüngerer Titurel (1272) by Albrecht von Scharfenberg, another Grail epic, the first king of the Holy Grail is named Perilla.
Myths and legends apart, the history of Montségur actually is both dramatic and mysterious. The siege was an epic event of heroism and zealotry: a veritable Masada of the Cathar faith whose demise is symbolized by the fall of the mountain-top fortress (although isolated Cathar cells persisted into the 1320s in southern France and northern Italy).
The present fortress ruin at Montségur is not from the Cathar era. The original Cathar fortress of Montségur was entirely pulled down by the victorious royal forces after its capture in 1244. It was gradually rebuilt and upgraded over the next three centuries by royal forces. The current ruin so dramatically occupying the site, and featured in illustrations, is referred to by French archeologists as "Montsegur III" and is typical of post-medieval royal French defensive architecture of the 1600s. It is not "Montsegur II," the structure in which the Cathars lived and were besieged and of which no trace remains today.
This is a discrepancy that the French tourist authority underplays and one that Cathar enthusiasts often overlook, especially when discussing Montségur's alleged solar alignment characteristics said to be visible on the morning of the summer solstice. This often mentioned solar phenomenon, allegedly occurring in an alignment of two windows in the fortress wall, has not been scientifically surveyed, measured, recorded, or confirmed.
The Groupe de Récherches Archéologiques de Montségur et Environs (GRAME) (Archeological Research Group of Montsegur and Vicinity), which conducted a definitive 13-year archeological excavation of Montségur in 1964–76, concluded in its final report that:
"There remains no trace within the current ruin of the first fortress which was abandoned before the 13th century (Montsegur I), nor of the one which was built by Raymond de Péreille around 1210 (Montsegur II)..." (Il ne reste aucune trace dans les ruines actuelles ni du premier château qui était à l'abandon au début du XIIIe siècle (Montségur I), ni de celui que construisit Raimon de Pereilles vers 1210 (Montségur II)...)
The small ruins of the terraced dwellings, immediately outside the perimeter of the current fortress walls on the north-eastern flank are, however, confirmed to be traces of authentic former Cathar habitations.
The Nazis at Montségur?
The Nazis learned of the myths surrounding Montségur from a man named Otto Rahn in 1929, one year after the probable formation of the Ahnenerbe, an institution for research into German racial and cultural ancestry. Rahn wrote two bestseller Grail novels linking Montségur and Cathars with the Holy Grail: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral ("Crusade Against the Grail") in 1933 and Luzifers Hofgesind ("Lucifer's Court") in 1937. Rahn joined the SS "Totenkopf" unit as a junior NCO in 1936, the same year that Heinrich Himmler took overall control of the Ahnenerbe, proclaiming himself chairman of the Kuratorium. Rahn was then seconded on detached duty to the South of France in search of the Grail. Himmler's wish was to try and rediscover and reinvigorate Germanic culture. On 13 March 1939 as reported in the National Socialist newspaper Völkischer Beobachter — three days before the anniversary of the fall of Montségur — Otto Rahn mysteriously froze to death on a Tyrolean mountain top. His death is believed to be likely a suicide.
Local sources reported that on the 700th anniversary of the fall of Montségur, 16 March 1944, German aircraft overflew Montségur in strange formations, either Celtic crosses or swastikas, depending on the source of the reports. Some claim that Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi Germany's ideologue and author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, was aboard one of the aircraft. It is alleged that the purpose of the aerial demonstration was to mark the fulfilment of the prophecy of a 13th century troubadour that at the end of 700 years following the demise of the Cathars, "the laurel will be green once more".