The ruins of Montségur Castle in the Pyrenees.

Hors Course stage 16: Dinosaurs and some dark religious history in the Pyrenees

The third week of the Tour de France is upon us and the peloton is heading into the Pyrenees for stage 16.

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As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been is taking us off the race route for some local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

After a rest day in Carcassonne the Tour de France continues on Tuesday with stage 16 to Foix. We race towards the Pyrenees so courtesy of, some really old history for now. It involves dinosaurs and since I am a big Jurassic Park fan, this is up my alley too. 

The precursors of what we now call the Pyrenees already started to form at the end of the era of the dinosaurs, so at the end of the Cretaceous. The sea level was a lot higher than today because there was no ice on the poles. As a result, much of Europe was covered in shallow, tropical seas. The islands that rose up from these seas were the territory of plenty of dinosaurs. When the Pyrenees started to be pushed up, rivers dumped thick packages of sandy and muddy sediments. Sometimes a dinosaur bone, or even an entire skeleton, became covered by these sediments.

Not far south of Limoux, about 20 kilometers into the stage, countless remains of dinosaurs have been recovered. One species has even been named after the vineyards that now grow there: the titanosaur Ampelosaurus atacis. It’s a middle-large long-neck dinosaur that wore a special jacket of armor plates and that is well known from the excavation of Campargne-sur-Aude. ‘The vineyard-saur of the Aude’ is the literal translation of the name. These fossils can be visited in the dinosaur museum of Espéraza. 

French paleontologist Eric Buffetaut measures some Siamotyrannus fossil bones at the Museum of Dinosaurs in Espéraza.

Finally, don’t miss the magnificent helicopter shots this Tuesday of the Montségur castle. It was one of the last strongholds of the Cathars. Who were they again? In Church history, in addition to the official teachings of the Church, alternative views regularly emerged, sometimes in detail, sometimes with more important differences. In the course of the twelfth century, the followers of such an alternative teaching grew into larger communities, especially in southwestern France. There they received protection from regional rulers for various reasons, and sometimes those rulers also converted to this religion themselves. Later this movement became known as Catharism.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Pope wanted to put an end to this heretical teaching and called for a crusade. After two of these bloody campaigns, led by the French throne against the Cathars and their protectors, the adherents of this religion had been pushed back to the edge of the rugged Pyrenees. 

One of the most important places where the Cathars had retreated was Montségur. They had a rich and large settlement there, where there was plenty of living and trading. In total, the almost impregnable fortress was besieged four times, starting in 1212. Only in 1243 was a siege that turned out to be successful. 

At Christmas, a group of a total of 6,000 besiegers climbed up and seized a watchtower that stood on the hill at the far end of the plateau. There they were finally able to install their trébuchet, which then started launching stone bullets towards the fortifications of the village. About a month later, holes appeared in the defences and the inhabitants could do little more than surrender.

On March 1, 1244, the leader of the defending troops, Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix, negotiated with the attackers and negotiated that the lives of the soldiers and non-Cathars should be spared. This also applied to the Cathars who would give up their faith. The Cathars who did not would have two weeks to prepare for their death. 

On March 16, a funeral pyre was erected on which 220 Cathars were put to death. The fortifications and the entire village were razed to the ground ending a once thriving community.

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