Foix was the hometown of the woman who probably epitomises how far ahead of their time the Cathars were. Esclarmonde de Foix was born around 1160 and had six children with her husband before he died in 1200. She then moved to her house in Pamiers where she took the consolamentum in 1204.

The consolamentum was a spiritual baptism, as described in the New Testament, where the ritual practice of baptism by water was done away with. Only a Parfait (“Perfect one”) could administer the consolamentum, which meant every new Parfait stood at the end of a chain of predecessor Parfaits linking him or her to the apostles and to Jesus himself.

The Consolamentum was the most significant ceremony in Cathar theology, marking the transition from ordinary believer (auditore or credente) to a Parfait, one of the elect. During the ceremony the Holy Spirit was believed to descend from heaven and inhabit the Parfait’s body. It was largely because of this belief Parfaits were expected and willing to lead such ascetic lives.

The ceremony was striking in its simplicity. It required no material elements such as water or anointing oil. Cathars claimed the rite had been initiated by Jesus and had been handed down from generation to generation by Les Bonnhommes. For Catholics of the time, the best explanation was the Cathar rite was a distorted imitation of various Catholic rituals.

After taking the consolamentum, Esclarmonde sold all her worldly goods and gave Montsegur Castle to Raymond de Pereille and Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix. According to the Chronicle of Guillaume de Puylaurens in 1207 Esclarmonde took part in the dispute between Cathars and Catholics (including Dominic de Guzman) at Pamiers Castle where one of the catholics, Brother Steven of Misericord, dismissed her presence by saying “Really Madam, spin on your distaff, it ill becomes you to participate in such discussions”.

Esclarmonde disappeared from the pages of history after this dispute – she almost certainly died when Pamiers fell into the hands of the crusaders in 1209. Raymond de Pereille gave his daughter the same name and this daughter died on the pyre at Montsegur in 1244.

Foix has a few interesting squares and some attractive 14th Century houses. The church of St Volusien is worth a visit with its well-worn choir stalls and light, airy interior. The main reason to come to Foix is to see the chateau, whose three towers dominate the skyline. Simon de Montfort besieged this place four times but never took it. The towers are all from different eras. The turret is from the 12th Century, the stubby keep is 14th Century and the broad, rounded tower is 15th Century.

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker