Catharism itself was a Christian religious movement with dualistic and Gnostic elements that appeared in the Languedoc region of France (Occitania at the time) around the middle of the 12th century. The movement was branded by the Catholic Church as heretical with some authorities denouncing them as not being Christian at all. It existed throughout much of Western Europe (including Aragon and Catalonia in Spain, the Rhineland and Flanders in Northern Europe and Lombardy and Tuscany in Italy), but its focus was in the Languedoc and surrounding areas of what is now southern France. In addition it had links with the similar Christian movement the Bogomils (Friends of God) from the Balkans. The Cathars were ruthlessly suppressed and finally exterminated by the Catholic Church in the 14th century.
The Cathars believed that there were two principal powers in the Universe. One, God, was entirely good and dwelt in a condition of pure Spirit and Light, while the other, Satan/Lucifer, "the prince of this world" was entirely evil and ruled over the world of Matter, hence their rejection of physical pleasures. This dualism they drew from a particular reading of the Gospels, for example "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit" (Gospel of John 3:6). For the Cathars, Christ was an emissary of the Light sent into this world to lead humanity back to God. Each individual contained within them a shard of the Divine Light, the Angelic Soul which was trapped in a "garment" of flesh (the Body) by Lucifer. While confined in this "garment" of matter the Soul would forget its origin with God and instead find itself suffering the privations of this world. Cathars held to a Doctrine of Reincarnation, believing that the Soul was doomed to incarnate into this world time and again until through a process of spiritual growth and purification it was able to return to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. According to the records of the Inquisition, it was believed that this process of death and rebirth towards final Perfection took place over seven lives:
Denying also the Resurrection of the flesh, they invented some unheard of notions, saying, that our souls are those of angelic spirits who, being cast down from heaven by the apostasy of pride, left their glorified bodies in the air; and that these souls themselves, after successively inhabiting seven terrene bodies, of one sort or another, having at length fulfilled their penance, return to those deserted bodies.
Many Perfects chose to become so late in their lives, choosing to abjure their previous existences for their spiritual beliefs. The famous female Perfect Esclarmonde of Foix, for instance, became a 'Bonne Femme' after having reared eight children with her husband, who consented to her choice. Thus the decision to achieve this state was one reached after some experience in the world.
The Cathar Perfect was believed to have reached the point in his or her cycle of incarnations at which the state of spiritual purity had been achieved through which the Holy Spirit could dwell within them, thus releasing them from the burden of reincarnation and the suffering of this world. Their ministry among the Credentes was to help them in their journey through this life and perhaps enable them to move closer to the spiritual state in which they too could return to God. As Perfects they were seen to be "equal unto the angels" and thus already semi-Divine by Cathar believers.