Tabariane: New Light on the Dark Ages revisited

Which of my posts about our time in France to re-blog this month?  In the end, it was easy.  I fell to thinking about all the wonderful trips we had learning about the history of the area we’d chosen as our home, courtesy of  Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares.  Here’s a memorable day from July six years ago…

July 13th 2013

Tabariane: new light on the Dark Ages

When I was at school (back in the Dark Ages), we learnt in history that the Romans came after the Greeks.  They left us a legacy of Romance languages, our alphabet, Roman law, neo-Classical architecture, impossibly straight roads and under floor central heating.  As the empire crumbled, so we were told, the continent descended into the Dark Ages.  Barbarians, Vandals, and unpleasantly savage descendants of Asterix the Gaul ravaged Europe, raping, pillaging and generally leaving little time for culture and a settled everyday life.

I think we all knew it was a bit less straightforward than that.  The Frankish Germanic tribes entering the late Roman empire had a very different culture from that developed by the Romans, and it’s been much harder to research systematically because there are few contemporary written records.

This week though, we went to visit a Merovingian site, Tabariane, recently excavated and interpreted near Teilhet, not far from Mirepoix.  The Merovingians were an early Frankish dynasty established by Clovis, and they ruled an area roughly equivalent to much of France and Germany from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and are the kind of tribe that was dismissed as one of those from the very heart of the Dark Ages.

It was a burial site we’d come to see.  It has first been discovered in the very early 20th century by Captain Henri Maurel, and had been partly excavated according to the fairly invasive practices of the period.  War and economic upheaval meant the site became first neglected, and then entirely forgotten about until recently.

Recent research lead by Nicolas Portet has meant that the burial ground, now carefully excavated, is now, as it almost certainly was then, a burial garden.  It’s a large site, on a hillside overlooking the site of the now disappeared Merovingian settlement  on the opposite side of the valley.  The 166 tombs seem to have been arranged in ‘clans’: loose arrangements of extended families and friends, over a long period of time.  It seems to have been a burial ground which held a place in the life of the community for many years, rather than being a cemetery developed as a result of tragedy – war or plague say.  Most of the bodies were laid with their heads to the west, their feet to the east.  Originally they were clothed, but little remained apart from metal objects: belt buckles, brooches, jewellery and, with some of the men, weapons.

This is where ideas have changed. Early 20th century archaeologists sent excavated objects to museums far and wide, even to America: modern practice which encourages an area’s ‘patrimoine’ (heritage) to remain as far as possible intact did not then exist, but you can find examples of objects found here in the Museum at Mazères, and in Saint Raymond de Toulouse.

Now as then, the tombs are planted with local flowering plants: lavenders, marguerites, herbs.  It’s thought that locals would have visited the grounds with their families, spent time there, as we might in a modern park.  So it was important to both the living and the dead to make it a pleasant, calm place to be.  The burial ground overlooked the village. The village overlooked the burial ground.  Each had an interest in the other.  Each could intercede for the other.

It’s a tranquil, special place, surrounded by meadows and hilly countryside.  A circular walk of some two and a half kilometres , starting and ending in the village of Teilhet gives you a chance to spend a peaceful  hour or two exploring scenery that may not be so very different from the way it was when the Merovingian villagers first laid out their burial ground, some 800 years ago.  Excellent information boards will help you understand a little more about those Merovingian people who made their lives in this still rural area.

While you’re there, make time to enjoy the facade of the 14th century church at Teilhet.  Here are some pictures to whet your appetite.

 

Museu Marès: A Collector’s Collection

Were you a collector as a child? I was. Stamps; seashells; those evocative sheets of fine tissue that they used to wrap individual citrus fruits. Another month, another collection. By the time I was ten, I’d abandoned the lot.

Not Frederic Marès though. You may not know him, but he’s Catalonia’s foremost 20th century sculptor, and you’ll find his work on public buildings and in churches here.

How he made time for his work is a mystery. He was an obsessive collector. He collected sculpture to inform his own studies, and …. stuff, because it was interesting.

This is Marès suitcase. He seems pretty well-travelled.

By 1947, his collection was so large that he made it public. On his death in 1991, he bequeathed it to the City of Barcelona. It fills an entire museum.

Here’s the place to come to find an eclectic mix of religious sculpture: crucifixions and Pietàs by the score, as well as Christmas crib figures from the 19th century. It sounds dour, but it’s not. His personal choices make for fascinating viewing…. but if it all gets a bit intense, pop upstairs.

Here are tin soldiers; toy theatres; pairs of spectacles; early bicycles; pipes; dolls; door keys; clocks: walking sticks; extraordinary glass domes that seem to be full of dried flowers – look again. Each flower is made from dozens of shells – this was 19th century seaside art.

This museum, in the heart of Tourist Barcelona, is not crowded. Which was fine by us. But those tourists who amble past, never noticing it’s there, are missing out.

May Day

I find it sad that May Day isn’t really A Thing in the UK.  Even the early-in-the-month Bank Holiday is relegated to the first Monday of May, diluting its significance to that of merely a day off.

When we lived in France it was far more important.  It was a day off work of course, because it was the all important Fête du Travail. No shops (apart from bakers and neighbourhood shops, just for a few hours).  No garages. No newspapers.  Only essential workers turned up for duty.

But the streets were quite busy, because May 1st is the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented.  In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent the previous day gathering and tying into pretty posies.  It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).

I used to ask people the origin of this tradition.  Nobody knew.  ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged.  But my friend Léonce had a couple of stories to tell.  We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume.  The nightingale notices and smells them coming into flower on the first day of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing.  And those bell shaped flowers?  Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.

Lilies of the Valley in our garden in France, one rainy May Day.

Just to prove though that at least one place in England celebrates May Day:  here are the choristers of Magdalen College Oxford greeting the day at 6.00 a.m. as they do every year on this date.  And the whole of Oxford joins in the fun.

The Eccentric Aristocrat: Sir Tatton Sykes, 4th Baronet.

As you travel on the B1252 to Driffield in East Yorkshire, you may notice ahead of you a strange spire thrusting skywards. Is it a steeple? No, too slender. Is it some piece of machinery, agricultural or otherwise? No, that’s just … wrong.

The Sledmere Monument, a first glance.

Then suddenly, you’re upon it – it’s there, at the side of the road, a needle-sharp column rising some 120 feet towards the heavens. You get out. You read the story. And then you come home and find out more about the extraordinary man whose life is commemorated in this memorial.

The Sledmere Monument: a second glance.

Sir Tatton Sykes was born in 1772: and he chose to wear 18th century dress all his life. He lived on the 34,000 acres of the family seat of Sledmere House, the largest estate in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Sykes family was one that thought little of building an entire village – Sledmere – to support it, or of hiring the most noted landscape designer of the age, Capability Brown, to transform its parkland. They employed the foremost designers, plasterers and architects of the period to fashion the house itself. They were rich, energetic, resourceful … and eccentric. You can read all about it here.

Sledmere House (geograph.co.uk)

Sir Tatton grew up to be an informed and intelligent sheep breeder, but his first love was horse racing. Apparently he even sold a copy of the Gutenberg Bible to support his stables and foxhounds. In the unlikely event that a copy of this book came onto the market today, it would probably sell for between $25 million and $35 million.

He’d travel miles on horseback – or even on foot – to see a horse race. He’d even be found riding the winning horse himself. He bred horses – some 200 at a time, and held quality stock, paying 3000 guineas for one particularly fine animal.

 

So far, so fairly normal for an upper class English eccentric. But here is a man who was also a bare-knuckle fighter; a man who’d roll up his shirtsleeves and work alongside his labourers, earning their admiration and respect. He noticed the grass growing more lushly where his foxhounds buried their bones, put two and two together, and invented … bonemeal.He didn’t marry till he was fifty, but then he went on to have eight children, seven of whom lived, before he finally died aged ninety.

Some 3000 people, rich and poor came to his funeral. And it was some of these people who came up with the idea for this monument. It comes complete with keeper’s cottage (Job? Keep the place in order, and conduct visitors up the presumably horribly narrow stairs to the viewing room at the top).

Sir Tatton Sykes, as shown on his monument.

‘To tenants he was a liberal landlord, to the poor a kind and considerate friend’, it says on the information board by the monument. Not a bad epitaph.

Virtual Vermeer

I spent a lot of 2018 being angry: most of you know why – the ‘B’ word. While our rage motivated us to take action and become more politically engaged than we’ve ever been in our lives, we were also probably largely impotent to effect change.

So in 2019, I at least am going to look after myself a bit more. How about spending a bit of time with Vermeer, that supreme documenter of everyday life among the Dutch merchant classes of the seventeenth century? He takes us into comfortable homes, and shows us simple moments of domestic life: a woman playing the lute, a servant patiently pouring milk. He shows their faces, expressive and full of inner light and makes us wonder about them and their thoughts.  He makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Maid pouring milk: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I’m revisiting Vermeer and his work thanks to an exhibition curated by the Mauritshuis.  No, I’ve not been to den Haag to visit this museum since about 1970.  But in a pioneering project with Google, it has brought together every surviving Vermeer painting for the first time and exhibited them on-line.

Here, I’ve been enjoying looking again at all his work.  I can examine any individual work in great detail, or consider recurrent themes that Vermeer returns to: paintings within the painting: musical instruments; maps…. I can read articles about his technique, his influence on pop art…. I can lose myself for as long as I wish in his world, and return as often as I want to.

Sadly, neither my computer nor my phone are as state-of-the-art as they could be to get the most out of all the features offered.  But I’m happy enough.  While I’m in the company of a young lady playing her virginal, observing a tired maid snatching a quiet moment’s sleep, a young woman making lace, or a reflective astronomer  I’m not engaged in twenty-first century life for a while.

And that’s all to the good.  Happy New Year!

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Virtual Vermeer”

Taking my new camera for a walk

Father Christmas came early.  Three months without a camera was enough, he reckoned.  He lacked a beard and red clothing, and looked remarkably like Malcolm, but he helped me choose, provided the credit card and carried the new camera home for me.

We trialled it on Sunday.  The grounds of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal is familiar territory, but reliably photogenic.

A misty morning over the Moon Ponds.

Even at ten o’clock, there was still mist rising from the Moon Ponds.  And even though the view from Surprise View is no longer surprising, it’s none the worse for that.

A distant view of Fountains Abbey from the High Ride, Studley Royal

But look!  This is what we spotted in a distant meadow.  Time to put the zoom lens through its paces.  Aren’t these deer magnificent?

Later, we passed the fine Elizabethan Fountains Hall.  It was fun to contrast the view of the house itself with the version spotted in a puddle we passed.

A good walk, and it’s good to have a camera once more.

Back in the valley, a less distant view of the Abbey.

As usual, click on any image to view it full size.

I enjoy Jo’s Monday Walks, and browsing through the posts of some of those who contribute too.  So I thought I’d join in the fun.  Yes, I know it’s Tuesday…..

Fields of mud – seeds of hope

Citizens of Ripon and beyond have been calling into the cathedral as often as they could over the last few weeks.  Not necessarily to view this ancient building, or even to spend quiet moments reflecting.  Perhaps not even to view the poppies which are here, as they are throughout the city centre.

We’ve all been visiting the Fields of Mud  in the Cathedral itself.  Back in early October, that’s all we could see.  A large brown rectangle of damp mud, surrounded by sandbags.  This mud is from Passchendaele, and from a Great War military camp in Ripon. As, over the weeks, the wet earth dried and cracked, five ghostly, battle weary figures slowly emerged on the surface.

This image, exhibited in the Cathedral, is a print projecting the final appearance of the piece.

There are millions of ungerminated poppy seeds lying dormant in that mud.  When the piece is decommissioned later this month, it will be broken up and segments will be made available to the public to create their own memorials.  This work’s legacy can continue indefinitely.

This astonishingly moving and evocative piece is the inspiration of Dan Metcalfe: his farming background has given him an understanding of mud.  It’s disagreeable, destructive and even dangerous, as every WWI tommy well knew. But it also harbours seeds, waiting to flourish and grow when conditions are right .

Now the figures are fully visible, as the mud which surrounds them has dried out.  And so we can see that these are the same figures that have appeared round town, near North Bridge and the Cathedral itself, at Hell Wath and Rotary Way: and in nearby Sharow, where the British Legion home for former service personnel used to be.  These soldiers, and a nurse appear as silhouettes, made from rusted metal, and they are trudging home, their backs to the conflict and facing the future.

Ripon city has recently made us keenly aware of the sacrifices  made in the Great War.  But the poppies, the Fields of Mud are not the whole story.  Tomorrow, on Remembrance Day, I’ll show you Ripon’s Remembrance Light Show.

Fred and Old Bones trudging home near North Bridge, Ripon. The soldier’s pipe is turned upside down to keep his baccy dry during the inevitable rain. This brilliant image was captured at sunset by Andrew Dobbs. (https://www.andrewdobbs.photo/)

Click on any image to see it full size.