Alarmed with the growing perceived influence of Satan in the Europe of the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III actively began to chastise heretics as soon as he ascended to the papacy in 1198. The first burnings for heresy may have taken place in about the year 1000 in Ravenna, but the first actual recorded burning occurred at Orleans in 1022, followed by others at Monforte in 1028. Such executions for heresy by burning at the stake were sporadic and few until 1197 when Pedro II of Aragon (c. 1184–1213) ordered the burning of heretics who had relapsed in their promises to repent of their sins of doubt and questioning. In 1198, Pope Innocent declared such individuals as traitors against Christ and condemned them to death by burning.
In 1208, the Cathar sect—also known as the Albigensians—had become so popular among the people in Europe that Pope Innocent III considered them a greater threat to Christianity than the Islamic warriors who were pummeling the Christian knights on the Crusades. To satisfy his concern, he ordered the only crusade ever launched against fellow Christians by attacking the Cathars who resided in the Albi region of southern France.
In the opinion of Pope Innocent III and many of the church hierarchy, the Cathars were teaching the rudiments of witchcraft. Although the Cathars centered their faith in Christ, they perceived him as pure spirit that had descended from heaven on the instructions of the God of Good to liberate humankind from the world of matter. According to the Cathars, because Christ was pure spirit, he did not die on the cross and the teachings of the church were false. The Cathars rejected all the Catholic sacraments, and they taught that the God of the Old Testament was the lord of matter, the prince of this world—all terms which the Catholic Church reserved for Satan. Not only did the Cathars believe that the God revered as the Creator by the Church was really the devil, the Cathars instructed their followers that most of the patriarchs and prophets mentioned in the Old Testament were really demons.
The Cathars somehow managed to hold out against the armies massed against them until Montsegur, their final stronghold, fell in 1246. Hundreds of the remaining Cathars were burned at the stake—men, women, and children—but Innocent III did not live to see his triumph over the heretics, for he died in 1216. Before he died, however, Innocent III enacted a papal bull that allowed a judge to try a suspected witch or heretic even when there was no accuser and granted the judge the power to be both judge and prosecutor.