Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Finding the Languedoc

Finding the Languedoc of the troubadours is not really difficult, but it is easy to be misled by modern labels. The Languedoc of the Middle Ages was much broader than the modern French Department, Languedoc-Roussillon. The cradle of chivalry was essentially the territories held by the largely autonomous lords in the South of France. The borders of such lands changed with the tides of war and marriages, but essentially was composed of the Duchy of Aquitaine, the Counties of Toulouse, Provence and Foix, and the Visounties of Montpellier, Beziers, Carcassonne and Albi.

A visit to this region shatters misconceptions about the Middle Ages being dark, cold, colorless, primitive and brutal. This is a sun-soaked corner of the earth, enriched by sufficient rain to be perpetually fertile. The scents of the Languedoc are lavender and rosemary, and the colors are the yellow of sunflowers, the green of plane and cypress trees, the blue-turquoise of the Mediterranean and the off-white of limestone -- all things that were no less abundant in the age of chivalry than now.

Because that limestone was used to build both the churches and the castles of the age, the buildings of the region are not grey or even red, but off-white and correspondingly cheerful. The medieval monuments, furthermore, demonstrate just how developed the artistic traditions of the region already were  a thousand years ago. The quality of the sculpture and painting, not to mention the symmetry, harmony and lightness of the architecture testify to the very high culture that reigned. One should never forget that here the Romans had built great cities with fountains fed by magnificent aqueducts and connected by broad, straight roads; they built coliseums, temples, bridges, barracks and luxury villas. The transition from Roman grandeur to Christian splendor was seamless. Ideology, religion, forms of government and the symbols changed, but the fundamental ability to live well remained.

To find the cradle of chivalry, therefore, one needs only go Southeastern France -- to Provence and what is now called "Languedoc-Roussillon" and look for the remnants of the Age of Chivalry. Leave the Cote d' Azure to the hoards of "wannabe" tourists gawking at the nouveau riche, and head inland instead to the great Romanesque Abbey of Senanque - set like a jewel among the fields of blooming lavender.  It is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and harmonious places on earth. Visit the stunningly elaborate palace of the Popes in Avignon -- and you will never again think life in the Middle Ages was drab, primitive and without luxury. Go to St. Gilles, the seat of the Counts of Toulouse, and to the symmetrical and efficient medieval harbor of Aigues Mortes, from which St. Louis sailed with 2,000 knights to re-capture Jerusalem for Christianity.

My secret tip, however, is Moustiers-Ste.-Marie. Here in a gorge in the Haute Provence a monastery was founded in the 5th century. At the mouth of the gorge, nestled in front of the sheer cliffs behind, is a small village with a crooked church (it bends in the middle), and over the gorge stretches a heavy, iron chain with a star hanging from it. According to legend, the star has hung from this chain in the 13th century by a knight called Blacas.  Blacas, so the legend says, had gone on crusade to the Holy Land and been taken captive by the Saracen.  When he was eventually freed, he came to Moustiers-Ste-Marie and hung the star on the chain -- a remarkable feat of engineering for the time! -- as a symbol of his gratitude.

But no one knows anymore which crusade it was or how long "Blacas" spent in captivity. No one knows why he chose a star rather than a cross or some other symbol. Did it represent the "Star of Bethlehem"? Had he been taken captive in Bethlehem or been held prisoner there? Had he rotted in a dark dungeon with only a single window from which he had seen, night after night, a star that came to represent freedom or salvation to him? And why hang his star at Moustiers-Ste-Marie? Had he made a vow to the Virgin Mary here? Did he come from the region? No one knows anymore, any more than we know who paid his ransom, and who was praying for him to come home.

Moustiers-Ste-Marie is just one of many places in the Languedoc that contains the seeds of a novel waiting to be written.

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