History in the Languedoc: Article

The Languedoc is particularly rich in history. And prehistory. A small country town not three miles away from our little village has an impressive dinosaur museum. A European centre for research is based here because of the extent of dinosaur discoveries made locally - creatures have been found here that are otherwise unknown. A little further to the East is Tautovel, where a cave was found to contain human remains from Neolithic times. Prehistoric menhirs litter our landscape. North-west of the Languedoc are caves decorated with some of the earliest known human art - Lascaux is probably the best known, but there are others.
The Celts settled here, and Hannibal passed this way taking his elephants from Spain to Italy. Over two thousand years ago Greeks settled here, so did the Etruscans, and later the Romans. There are still reminders of the Romans: their towns and cities, roads and aqueducts. Names of towns often reveal Roman origins, for example Minerve is named after the goddess Minerva, and Fanjeaux was still called fanum jovis, in the thirteenth century, after its ancient temple dedicated to the god Jove. After the Romans came the Visigoths who founded new cities. One of their capitals, a city of 20,000 people, was sited on a hill top not 5 miles from where I live. It has been in decline for over a thousand years now. Today it is a village of fewer than 100 inhabitants.
The border between the empire of Charlemagne and that of the visigoths ran through here. After that the Moors arrived from Spain, controlling an area that extended north of Toulouse. Places like Castelmaur (Castle-Moor) and Castelsarrazin (Castle-Saracen) still bear witness to their presence. When they were driven back south the area came under the control of the Counts of Barcelona, who later got themselves promoted to Kings of Aragon. Their possessions covered most of what is now Southern France. France was then a small alien kingdom that far lay to the North. Aquitaine to the West of here was subject to the Kings of England after Eleanor of Aquitaine secured an annulment of her marriage to the King of France and married Henry II of England, bringing her lands with her.
Throughout the early Middle Ages the area for hundreds of miles around Toulouse was run by local Counts. They were well connected and related to important Royal families: Aragon, England, even France. One of these Counts, Raymond VI, was the son-in-law of King Henry II and therefore brother-in-law to both King Richard the Lionheart and King John. John sent military help to Raymond when French crusaders attacked his territories in the thirteenth century. Many books have been written about this crusade, a pivotal event in European history which set important precedents for Papal power in temporal matters, and also saw the development of the Inquisition. After long and bitter wars the area was annexed to France, more than doubling its size. Thousands were dispossessed and took to the maquis, leading occasional guerrilla attacks against the invaders. Maquis is the French name given to the wild scrub landscape where they found refuge.
The Black Prince (Le Prince Noire) ravaged the area in the middle of the fourteenth century, and the Aragonese, who then held the nearby Rousillon, raided it sporadically for centuries to come. The present borders between France and Spain were settled by the Treaty of the Pyrenees only in 1659. Road signs just ten miles away from us are written in Catalan as well as French. Everywhere ruined mountaintop castles and walled villages witness a turbulent past. The area suffered badly during the Wars of religion which raged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A previous owner of house where we live was killed commanding a Catholic army in 1586. The next few centuries were a little more peaceful, but still not as safe as most of Europe. As in Scotland, people here were still building defensible castles long after people in most of France and England had taken to building comfortable buildings with large windows. Even modest houses here were built to be defensible, especially isolated ones. A local woman was asking us about England. She had heard that houses in England were not usually fitted with shutters. We told her that it was true. She thought about it for a while and then asked how people kept the bandits out.
Cholera carried off much of the population in repeated outbreaks for many centuries. Every church in this area has a statue of St-Roche, the patron saint of cholera victims. The French Revolution affected this area as it did the rest of France, but apparently with little bloodshed. The two main effects were that the extensive and arbitrary powers of the nobility were transferred wholesale to elected mayors, and that many historical records were burned.
The area became a refuge for Spanish exiles when Franco won the Spanish Civil War. It had always provided a refuge for Spanish refugees, so this was just a revival of ancient practices. Spanish surnames are not uncommon here, and the second language taught in schools here is not English but Spanish. Local villages have memorials to those killed during the Spanish Civil War. During the Second World War the area became part of Vichy France. This time the human traffic was in the other direction, into neutral Spain. The resistance escorted allied soldiers and others over the Pyrenees using the same paths that local people had used centuries earlier to escape the French Crusaders. Once over the border sympathetic Spaniards could help them back to their own countries. The Resistance operating from the remote were called the Maquis, their role like their name a reminder of earlier times and earlier guerrilla wars.
On the main road a few miles away, near a town called Alet-les-Bains, is an isolated roadside grave. The name on it is that of an American soldier. He died there towards the end of the Second World War leading an attack on an enemy convoy. The original plan had been to attack the convoy from above as it drove through a through a steep valley, but hostages had been tied to the vehicle roofs in anticipation of just such an attack. The young American officer made a quick decision. He jumped in the middle of the road with a machine gun and faced the convoy head on, succeeding in his mission but loosing his life. It was just one more story in a very long history of war, but one that the original Maquis would have admired.

JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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