As the festive seasons gears up, it’s time to think about reasons to feel good amid the global gloom…
Last weekend we were at the stunning medieval Cathédrale de St-Alain in Lavaur, to attend an equally stunning concert of Christmas music performed by the La Maîtrise de Toulouse.
The cathedral, a masterpiece of Southern French Gothic art, has recently undergone extensive renovation; as we sat in the vast nave (40 x13.8 metres) under its soaring 22-metre-high blue and gold painted roof, we experienced a moment of pure joy listening to these young choristers, transfixed by the beauty of the singing while simultaneous dying to leap to our feet and join in.
The Maîtrise, formed in 2006 by Mark Opstad under the auspices of the Conservatoire de Toulouse, is the first choir school of its kind in SW France. It has received a veritable cornucopia of glowing reviews (American Record Guide, Organists Review, Diapason Magazine, The Sunday Times…) and in 2017 was awarded the prestigious Prix Bettencourt for choral music. The choristers, aged 11 to 15, work under their talented director and founder, who himself began his career as a chorister at Bristol Cathedral. He continued his musical education at Oxford, then Cambridge, where he was assistant organist of Clare College before coming to France under the Entente Cordialescholarship scheme. Happily for those of us in Occitania, he moved from Caen to Toulouse, where he is now professor of music at the Conservatoire.
The concert was introduced by Michel Guipouy, President of les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur. Since leaving Big City Toulouse to settle in our rural paradise in the Tarn, I have been moved and inspired by the passion for all things artistic that flourishes here in the countryside. Lavaur (pop: 11,000) has two associations, Pastel en scène and Les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur, comprising a group of volunteers who work tirelessly to bring a rich and varied programme of cultural events to the inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area.
This passion goes hand in hand with a pride in local history and tradition. Lavaur is first mentioned in the 11th century, but became famous during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) as one of the places which paid most dearly for its tolerance of Catharism. In May 1211, after a siege lasting 37 days by the troops of Simon de Montfort, the castrum was taken. 80 knights were put to the sword, the Lady Guiraude, protector of the town, was thrown alive into a well and pelted with rocks, her brother Aymeric was hanged, and 400 citizens were burned at the stake in the biggest bonfire of the Crusade.
Building of the Cathedral started in 1255, after the ‘heresy’ had been stamped out. It predates by 30 years its cousin, the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile in Albi, now a world heritage site and reputedly the largest brick building in the world. While Sainte-Cécile might be bigger and more famous, we prefer Saint Alain 😉. Many of its features are typical of the Southern French Gothic style of architecture–fortress-like walls and an octagonal tower (of which the most famous example can be seen in Toulouse at the Basilique de St-Sernin), but Saint-Alain boasts other features, including a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ (which we heard in a solo by young organist George Gillow) and the only jacquemart in the south west. This little wooden man with his metal hammer appears every hour on the hour to strike the time on the cathedral clock, a descendant of the jacquemart first entrusted with this important task in 1604.
As we sat there listening to the music and admiring the restored murals and frescoes, I marvelled yet again at the power of the arts to bring people together and remind them of a shared heritage which transcends time and conflicts. The moment was both powerful and poignant: a British choirmaster conducting a French choir, young choristers singing in German, French, English and Latin, the music of Mendelssohn, Bach, Rachmaninov, the artistry of the two Italian brothers who painted the extraordinary grisaille murals. The 21st century audience–old and young, city folks and country folk, believers and at least one pagan (me)–had all come together in a small town marked by terrible religious and military persecution, to listen, to look, to reflect: taking time to remember what’s really important in life.
To all faithful blog readers, sincere wishes for a warm and jolly Christmas and a New Year bringing better prospects and hope to all, especially those in distress and those in need.
Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!
P.S. Six degrees of separation…on the cover of the summer programme of Pastel en scène is a photo of Poppy Beddoe, founder of The Temple Ensemble, who performed here in August at the Mediathèque Guiraude (named after the Lady). Poppy has a strong connexion with Cambridge, the city in which Mark Opstad was an organist and where, in another life, I used to walk down the hill to listen to another choir at Christmas, this one raising their voices to the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel, built two hundred years after its French relative in Lavaur. King’s College Choir this year celebrates its 100th birthday. The centenary CD can be found here, the CDs of the Maîtrise–Slava and Noël Français are available from : firstname.lastname@example.org. The beautiful book “Lavaur: Une Nouvelle Capitale aux portes de Toulouse was a gift from la Famille Bermond when we first arrived here in 2011. Merci!
Note: Minutes after posting this I learnt that Simone Veil died today. She’d been on my list of blog subjects for ages, such an amazing and inspirational person that I was lost for words to write about her. Today’s post about religious persecution is perhaps a fitting way to say ‘au revoir’ to this unforgettable lady, who survived Auschwitz and went on to become an icon for women everywhere. Simone Veil, 13 July 1927 – 30 June 2017.
I might have let slip that I’m a huge fan of Michel de Montaigne. How about this thought for the day from the great Renaissance humanist?
‘Si la vie n’est qu’un passage, sur ce passageau moins semons des fleurs.’ (If life is but a passage, then at least let us sow flowers along our way.)
The history of mankind, however, has shown that not everyone agrees with this way of seeing the world. A more appropriate quotation for this month’s blog comes from another favourite writer, Voltaire, in a letter to his old friend Lecornier de Cideville in 1754.
‘Ce monde-ci est un vaste naufrage; sauve qui peut; mais je suis bien loin du rivage!’ (This world of ours is a vast shipwreck; every man for himself; personally I’m a long way from the shore!’)
The April blog ended with the promise to resume, in May, with Part 2 of ‘L’Autoroute des Deux Mers’ as it entered les Corbières, a part of Cathar country which, eight centuries ago, was the theatre of one of the bloodiest struggles in the history of Occitania. The battles that were fought over two interpretations of one religion ended in a devastating trail of burnings and massacres, a lesson from those who considered themselves to have the right answer to those who disagreed. And the reason Part 2 is late is that during the past weeks I, like others, have been demoralised to the point of silence by acts committed in Manchester, London and elsewhere, as more recent pages of history have been branded with the mark of atrocities committed under the banner of another religious ideology.
In 1975 a relatively unknown French historian called Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published a book about a small village in the high Pyrenees. Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324’ (Montaillou, an Occitanian village, 1294 to 1324) recounts the daily life of this medieval rural community of 200 people, farmers, shepherds and mountain men.
To everyone’s surprise (including the author and his publisher) the book became an international best seller. Interest in regional history, in particular the Cathars, was undergoing a revival, and Ladurie’s book, with its detailed picture of this peaceful, progressive, egalitarian community, its complex social organisation and fascinating local characters, brought a unique perspective to this mysterious ‘branch’ of Christianity. It was based on the records kept by Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers (later Pope Benoit XII), the zealous Inquisitor tasked by the Catholic church to root out the heretics in this ‘Cathar-infested’ community. But what happened in Montaillou was the end of the story. Fournier, like his fellow Inquisitors in the region, was busy hammering the final nails into the coffin of a ‘heresy’ which, until the end of the 12th century, had coexisted peacefully alongside traditional Catholicism in the Midi.
So how did it all start? Why did the Cathars suddenly come under the scrutiny of Rome? One reason was the movement`s success. Albi, Agen, Toulouse, Carcassonne Mirepoix, Limoux-large swathes of the Languedoc had been seduced by this interpretation of Christianity. It was a spreading ‘leprosy’ that had to be cut out before it went further. Looking at what happened from a 21st century perspective (and not a little influenced by George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones), I’m guessing that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and that some aspects of Catharism more than others must have been particularly alarming to the established church. One was the idea that the relationship between believers and their God was personal, private and direct. It had no need of a hierarchy of self-appointed interpreters, particularly those who surrounded themselves with pomp and riches.
Along with this anti-clericalism was the practice of an ascetic, spiritual way of life as a way of transcending an earthly domain dominated by Satan. The ‘bons hommes’ and ‘bonnes femmes’ were tolerant and non-violent, but they firmly believed that their version of Christianity was the true one. (In one of those fascinating historical and literary loops, over in the east of France another ‘heretical’ movement was also growing. The Waldensians make an appearance in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, along with Inquisitor Bernard Gui, who happened to be the Inquisitor in Toulouse from 1307 to1323 and who, like Fournier, kept detailed records of his interrogations.)*
One can see how, at the time, all of this would have been a serious pain in the Papal derrière. If things carried on unchecked, a lot of people would be moving out of their sumptuous free housing, abandoning their well-stocked wine cellars and making their way to the medieval job centre. What was to be done about those rebellious Occitans, Cathar communities and the uppity, independent southern counts and viscounts who supported them, who didn’t speak ‘proper’ French, and who had somehow resisted all attempts to be brought back on the right path?
And therein lay another problem. Centuries later, Riquet, planning his Canal du Midi through the same territory, was flummoxed by a geographical handicap, the watershed at Naurouze. In medieval times, an equally vexatious watershed divided north from south, this one linguistic. The Northerners spoke the language of ‘oil’, while the southerners spoke the language of ‘oc’ (‘oil’ and ‘oc’ being the words for ‘yes’). The land of ‘oc’ (Languedoc) at that time extended roughly southwards from Bordeaux almost to Nice; and its lilting, musical language was that of the troubadours and their lyric poetry. In the Dictionnaire of 1762, the word ‘patois’, meaning non-standard French, is defined as ‘rustic, vulgar language as spoken by peasants or lower orders’ **.
History is full of examples of what happens when one lot of people start thinking things another lot don’t agree with. A frustrated Pope Innocent III, having in vain tried to get the Occitans to change their ways, decided enough was enough when one of his Papal legates, having failed to get the Count of Toulouse to toe the line, was mysteriously murdered on his way back to Rome. He appealed to the men in the north, the King of France and his vassals. The dogs of war were unleashed and a terrible revenge descended on the rich and fertile lands of the Midi. The days were numbered for this courtly society where religious tolerance was practised and the arts flourished.
In 1209 thousands of northerners donned the Crusader’s cross and marched south down the valley of the Rhone. We all know about the Crusades, right? All those books and films about the heroic time in the Middle Ages when brave and chivalrous knights set out for the Holy Land to fight against Saladin. Richard the Lionheart, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood…
But these French crusaders were not marching to defend the Holy Land. They were marching against their fellow countrymen. The Albigensian crusade was under way, flying the flag of the true faith against the Cathar heretics. Their noble mission was of course spurred on by the usual baser motives. Crusading may have been a way of getting to heaven but it was also a way of getting rich. Those nobles of the Midi, the Counts of Toulouse, the Trencavel family of Carcassonne, long engaged in their own political chess, were masters of rich territories that were not subject to the French crown.
The military struggle would last for decades until Toulouse, and the devastated and blackened countryside around, would finally belong to the King of France after the signing of the 1229 Treaty of Paris. After that would come the second, equally terrifying, prong of the attack, the Inquisition. By 1330, with the last turn of the Inquisitorial screw, the Cathars of Languedoc were finished.
We started our journey to the A61 north east of Toulouse in Lavaur, the peaceful market town which has been home for the past six years. Spring is a particularly beautiful season with gardens and hedgerows bursting with pink and white blossom. It`s hard to imagine what took place here in May 1211, two years after the Crusaders had first been let loose in the south. Lavaur was an important Cathar stronghold. In a terrible punishment for its intransigence the biggest bonfire of the whole campaign took place, with 400 heretics burned at the stake, 80 knights hanged in violation of the chivalric code, and the town’s Chatelaine, Dame Guiraude, handed over to the soldiers before being thrown down a well and stoned to death. The leader of the troops was a man called Simon De Montfort
But back to July 1209. The first city to feel the weight of the sword was Béziers, near the Mediterranean, where four centuries later Pierre-Paul Riquet would be born, and later build his incredible staircase of locks. The sack of Béziers was particularly horrifying. The town was heavily fortified and the local population had taken refuge inside the walls, refusing to hand over the Cathars. But there was a slip up; the defences were breached and the mob rushed inside the walls, killing and plundering indiscriminately. The leader of the troops, Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury, asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, gave the infamous reply ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’ In this first shock victory for the Crusaders, an estimated 20,000 people were massacred.
From Béziers the army wheeled into the Corbières, a great machine destroying everything in its path. The rugged, bleakly imposing landscape, parts of it unchanged over the last 800 years, is a fittingly dramatic backdrop to the atrocities carried out here. From the Autoroute des Deux Mers there are glimpses of ruined fortresses on hilltops, forlorn reminders of more doomed sieges. The Cathar way, running from Port-la-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean to Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees, takes in the dramatic sites of Quéribus, Peyrepertuse and Montségur, medieval ‘villages in the sky’. Montségur, built on a rocky hilltop at 1207 metres, fell after a siege lasting 10 months. 225 ‘bonshommes’ were burned at the stake. Quéribus, defying gravity on a rocky ridge, was the last to secede, in 1255.
But the most coveted and perhaps the most spectacular of all Cathar strongholds in the Corbières was that of Carcassonne, the seat of Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel. It appears on the left as you drive down the A 61, inevitably bringing a gasp of surprise from those who have never seen it before. Fallen into a sad pile of rubble, the fortified city was rebuilt in the 19th century by Violett-le-Duc in a 60-year long restauration project, and if you pull off the motorway and park at the viewpoint you’d think you were looking at a fairy-tale castle in a Disney film 😉 *** The air is full of the sound of cicadas and the smell of hot pine-needles, and in front of you, set against the shimmering blue of the distant mountains, a dreamlike vision rises from the vines, its slate turrets and stone ramparts transporting you back to the world of childhood, and stories of knights, castles, minstrels and troubadours.
In August 1209, de Trencavel and his knights watched and waited, stunned by the news from Béziers. The city had been expected to hold for forty days, the standard length of service for crusaders. De Trencavel’s hopes, that the army continuing on to Carcassonne would be much reduced in size, had been crushed. Now thousands of people had taken refuge inside the walls as a crushing heatwave descended on the region. On their arrival, the Crusaders occupied the bank of the River Aude, cutting off the water supply. Dysentery and typhoid broke out. With the situation worsening, deTrencavel offered himself as hostage in exchange for the free departure of those under his protection. Amaury allowed them to leave in what they were standing up in, then threw de Trencavel into the dungeons where he died three months later. The city and its fiefdoms were handed to a Catholic knight, Simon de Montfort.
Having completed their 40 days of service, many barons now went home. But De Montfort stayed on. He would become one of the richest of the conquerors, pursuing his campaigns with a zeal and a bitter relentlessness which made him the terror of Occitania. Ambitious, pitiless, he continued to burn and massacre until 1218, when he was killed during the siege of Toulouse, with some versions of the story recounting that the stone which fatally injured him was launched from the barricades by a woman…
With Carcassonne and the Corbières behind us, neat round silhouettes of pins parasols signal the approach to the Mediterranean. The Autoroute des Deux Mers is ending. Just north of Narbonne the road splits as we hit the A9, the motorway which runs along the coast between France’s natural barriers, the Pyrenees and the Alps.
We turn right, heading west, down through the vineyards of Fitou towards the snapping flags and screaming gulls of the Côte Vermeil. Canigou, Mountain of the Gods, dominates the horizon, its snow-capped peak dazzling against a cerulean sky. Signs announce we’re on La Catalane, the motorway through Catalonia, the province at the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenean range, with one foot in France and the other in Spain. It’s a province with its own language, Catalan, and its traditional dance, the sardana.
At the other end of the Pyrenees lies the Atlantic Ocean, where another region straddles the frontier between two countries, one with an even more mysterious culture and language, le pays basque.
On one side, the ghostly whalers of the Atlantic, on the other, the ships of Ulysses drifting across the wine dark sea.
But that’s another story, and another journey through history.
*An excellent, detailed account of Catharism can be found in Sean Martin’s book: The Cathars.
** Graham Robb, in his fascinating book The Discovery of France (thank you Margaret W. for this gift!) explains it all from a historical point of view. For a thrilling fictional account of 12th century political and religious intrigue, plus a great love story, read Jean’s Gill’s Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadour Quartet.