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.


Inspired by the Middle Ages

Mediaeval encampment at the Château de Lagarde.

Our third address in France was within a couple of miles of a splendidly ruined castle, Lagarde, commanding wonderful view of the Pyrenees.  And on Saturday, there was an event which commanded our attention from 10 o’clock in the morning, till 10 o’clock at night when it closed (we did pop home several times, but always came back for more).  I took masses of photos so I could share the day, but readers of my last post know why I no longer have the camera.  These shots are courtesy of my phone.

The distant Pyrenees.

It was an inspirational day.  Dozens of enthusiasts from all over southern France came to share their knowledge.  All were dressed authentically: linen was the material of choice – no cotton or polyester need apply.  They brought history to life, demonstrating the labour-intensive nature of making chain mail armour, for instance.  A chain mail tunic represented 400 hours of work, and cost as much as a farm.  Attack someone dressed in one and you wouldn’t kill him.  Far better to demand a ransom from the family of such a rich man.

We met a pilgrim on his way to Compostela, a shell at his belt.

A pilgrim on his way to Compostela.

We watched fighting spinning and weaving, musicians and dancing.  There were thrilling demonstrations of horsemanship.

A procession towards the end of the day.

As night fell, the medieval world fell away.  Jugglers and acrobats quite literally played with fire, and the event concluded with the most exciting and memorable firework display we have ever seen.  I got some rather good pictures.  Nobody will ever see them.  Grrr.

It brought the Château de Lagarde  to life.  We had an inspirational glance of the life of a bygone age.

Château de Lagarde

The Ragtag Daily Prompt today is ‘inspire’.

It takes a village to raise a loaf

A poster like this is irresistible:

A spot of history, a spot of lunch, a new village to explore …. had to be done.

Orliac-de-Bar is only a few miles from here.  Like so many others in the area, it has a little building, the village oven, built once upon a time to bake the loaves of those villagers who had no oven of their own.  These days, when everybody uses the boulangerie or a bread-making machine, they’re generally dusted down and used only on high days and holidays

We arrived as the oven was getting going.  As visitors from afar, the organisers seized on us, anxious to show off their little bit of village history.  A couple of men  thrust bundle after bundle of brushwood into the glowing maw of the oven.  When the oven was judged to be hot enough, the woody embers were swept out, and the oven allowed to cool – just a little.

Our new friends popped an ear of wheat into a wooden clasp and introduce it into the heat.  It singed.  Nope.  The oven was still too hot.  The wheat should be burnished gold, not burnt.  Try again soon…..


Eventually the oven was pronounced to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  A small team of villagers  jammed pizzas (that well known French country delicacy?) and apple tarts  into the oven to be baked.

An oven filled with good things.

Twenty minutes later we were sitting down at long refectory tables arranged in the village square, doing what the French do best: sharing food, wine and conversation.  No photos.  I was too busy enjoying myself, and never gave it a thought.

Pizz and apple tart.

The village also had an exhibition of aspects of its history.  Here are some photos of a not-so-long-departed way of life.  I think they need no explanation.


And here are our new-found friends, waving us off after a day well spent.

Goodbye, Orliac-de-Bar!

Back at home, we had a fine solid Orliac-baked loaf to accompany our cheese and salad.

Click on any photo to view full size, and see the captions.

The Old Grange

Here's the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.
Here’s the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

As we’ve been four months back in England, it’s perhaps time to introduce our home, which answers to the name of ‘The Old Grange’.  I’ve already mentioned that it’s in part of an older building which forms part of a large, mainly Georgian house.  To understand how it came to be built, we’ll have to pay a quick visit to UNESCO World Heritage site, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, some 5 miles from us as the crow flies.

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey
The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

Back in 1132, there was no Abbey.  But there were 13 monks anxious to build one.  These particular men had joined holy orders in order to live a simple, strict and holy life, and were dismayed by the lax conditions they found in the Benedictine order they had joined.  The Archbishop of York offered them his protection, and the gift of some land near Ripon on the banks of the River Skell.  This area now is a fertile place, with pastureland, woods, stone for quarrying, and the waters of the Skell.  Back then, it was a hostile, overgrown and thoroughly unpromising environment.  The monks joined the Cistercian order which they felt offered the structure and discipline they sought, and strove to emulate the lifestyle promoted by its founder Bernard of Clairvaux.  A tough life of manual labour, self-sufficiency, and prayerful spirituality was the order of the day.

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons
A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

To cut a very long  story short – one which I will tell in a future post, because it’s a fascinating one – the Abbey the monks built prospered, to the extent that it became one of the largest, most successful and wealthy monasteries in the whole of Europe.  When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, the buildings and lands belonging to Fountains Abbey sold for over £1,000,000 – unimaginable wealth at the time: the monastery had acquired land over much of Yorkshire and Lancashire.  The simple life of those early monks had changed over the years. The monks themselves devoted more of their time to their spiritual life, with prayerful ritual being an important part of their routine.  The day-to-day work, mainly with sheep and cattle and all the other work associated with farming, both at Fountains itself and at all the other sites, was done by the so-called ‘lay brothers’.  Less educated, they had far fewer spiritual obligations.   And they lived communally in ‘granges’.

All those older buildings you’ll see as you travel around this part of the world, which include ‘grange’ as part of their name owe their existence to the fact that once they housed those lay brothers, mainly from Fountains Abbey.  The room where we sleep once formed part of the dormitory where the men working at our ‘old grange’ once slept.

In truth, it’s hard to believe.  We live in a stone building of traditional design, but with all mod cons.  One of the few signs of the building’s age is the huge fireplace on the ground floor which is now simply an alcove, though we gather it wouldn’t take much to reveal the old spit mechanism.  We have only one room downstairs.  The other spaces, which we have no access to, are now, as then, workspaces and storage areas.

Upstairs, where the bulk of our living space is, was once a single room, as long as the building itself.  In Victorian times, the owners of the larger property which had been built onto the original Old Grange in Georgian times, decided to break up the space into a number of rooms, to make it convenient to use as servants’ quarters.  And this is where we now live.

We find all this thoroughly exciting.  We enjoy noticing other granges as we explore Yorkshire, and we appreciate the connection that we now know we have with Fountains Abbey, a wonderfully beautiful site, whose history has touched the area for so many many miles around.

The Old Grange seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.
The Old Grange – the top floor dormitory – seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.

Our Bank Holiday excursion: Castle Howard

Stately homes.  Back in the day, they were home to the landed gentry, and were local employers par excellence, what with large households to cook, clean, furbish and refurbish for, ornamental and vegetable gardens and even farmland to nurture, children to rear and educate, hunting grounds to stock and maintain, guests to cater for.

Nowadays, they’re where the English like to go on a Bank Holiday.  They provide the chance to get a glimpse of other, very different lives, to learn a little history and to enjoy a stroll round gardens on such a different scale from that little patch you potter around back home. And because it’s a Bank Holiday, a little entertainment doesn’t go amiss either.  People arrive in their hundreds, expecting to spend the entire day exploring house and gardens, snacking rather well in one of several tea rooms, mooching round the gift shop and having a little bit of extra fun too.

Castle Howard
Castle Howard

Emily had come over from Barcelona to visit, with boyfriend Miquel in tow.  Castle Howard seemed a good place to spend a day. Thanks to its frequent starring role in TV costume dramas and films, there can be few Brits who aren’t familiar with Castle Howard, even those who haven’t ventured north of Watford Gap.  Me, I’m the ‘Brideshead Revisited’ generation, and back in 1981, Tuesday evenings (I think) were put on hold for weeks and weeks as we turned the television to ITV and followed the Evelyn Waugh saga, feeding our nostalgia for a very different  pre-Second World War Britain.  Castle Howard was pretty much star of the show.

And really, why not? You can read its history here, but just spend a little time strolling round with us, as we re-discovered the parkland; the woodland; the walled gardens; the splendid 19th century Atlas fountain;  The Great Hall – where columns & arches covered with carved decorations rise towards the splendidly painted dome; the chapel decorated by Burne-Jones… and so on.


But because we went on a Bank Holiday we had extra things to do.  There were sheep dog displays.  We admired the skill of those so-well-trained dogs as they expertly rounded up not only sheep, but a gaggle of geese and a fussy line of ducks.

Sheep dog rounding up geese for a change.
Sheep dog rounding up geese for a change.

There were falconry displays.  Here is the splendid and majestic Ferruginous Buzzard who made a break for it and got away: last seen in a distant field, regarding us all with thorough disdain.  I hope handler Ben found him again: he was a very handsome beast indeed, as were all the birds of prey we saw that afternoon.

Ferruginous buzzard, contemplating his get-out plan.
Ferruginous buzzard, contemplating his get-out plan.

A final wander round the grounds, the walled garden, then we too made our excuses and left, just before closing time and the mass-escape for the car park.  We’d had a fine day.

A final glance at the parkland surrounding the house.
A final glance at the parkland surrounding the house.

‘L’auberge espagnole de la Résistance’

…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.

Posh picnic?  I think not. But it's the taste  and the company - that counts.
Posh picnic? I think not. But it’s the taste and the company – that counts.

Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II.  This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.

Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.

Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance.  This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground.  Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond.  There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind.  Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks.  And now there is a fine memorial to them.  Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation.  There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features.  In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food.  Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away.  Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix.  Petrol?  It could be organised, albeit with difficulty.  A key man ran a garage.

The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco.  A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art  is a clear influence on his work.  He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed.  His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.

Time to move on, however.  Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going.  However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan.  The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard .  Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.

We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round.  We unpacked our food:  as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course.  Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends.  The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect.  We became tearful.  But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first.  Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends.  We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The two of us, just after lunch.
The two of us, just after lunch.

Down among the dusty archives

Laroque d'Olmes' town insignia
Laroque d’Olmes’ town insignia

Like every commune in France – apart from those who’ve lost everything in flood, fire or time of war – Laroque has shelves, yards and yards of them, of municipal archives.   In the main these are bound volumes of directives from central government relating to the Ariège.  There are also endless files of copies of forms relating to hatches, matches and despatches, licenses for liquor, permission to drive carriages, horseless or otherwise, toll roads, road improvements, land sales, local disasters such as landslip and flooding, records of meetings, residency requests, paperwork relating to shops, artisans, workmen an apprentices, immigrants….  all human life is here.  That’s before you realise there are bundles of engravings, daguerreotypes, photographs…..

They aren’t indexed.

Laroque’s Commission du Patrimoine, of which I am an enthusiastic but fairly useless member (I have no Tales of the Oldest Inhabitant, no competence to research French documents, no skills in artefact restoration or in industrial archaeology) has realised this situation must change.

An early job is to trawl through the central government volumes, which date from the early 18th century, and extract any information relating to Laroque.  I can help here.  It’s a question of skimming these volumes for relevant entries.

A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque's Council Chamber
A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque’s Council Chamber

Three of us sat down on Friday morning in the old Council Chamber of the Mairie, with its wall decorations showing noted politicians and industrialists, as well as allusions to the all-important textile industry.  We had dusty piles of leather-bound volumes on the table in front of us.  We turned to. It was fairly dry repetitive work, so we kept each other amused by reading out things that caught our eye.  There were tales of Mayors drummed out of office (not from Laroque, no of course not) for inappropriate drunkenness.  There were the lists of clothes to be supplied to those children raised in institutions, and the money made available for the care of each child.

An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby's bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby’s bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes.  After 12, they made their own way in the world
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes. After 12, they made their own way in the world

I was intrigued to learn that there was in the 19th century, a single training school  in the Pas-de-Calais in the north of France for would-be shepherds.  Why would you spare your 16-year-old son to go to the other end of France, at some expense, to acquire his training (though there were no fees), when he could be back at home learning on the job?  There was a similar mining school in the east of France.

A demanding clothing list for the shepherds' school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners.  The shcool did the laundry though.
A demanding clothing list for the shepherds’ school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners. The school did the laundry though.

We were good though.  We completed our self-appointed tasks.  We found Laroque mentioned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as all other communes, in connection with, for example:

  • understanding its precise obligations to maintain communal roads and paths.
  • submitting to standardised checks to ensure fair weights and measures were being applied locally.
  • submitting returns showing who had joined the army, and in what capacity.
  • We learned where the nearest doctors, midwives (‘sage-femmes‘) and pharmacists to Laroque were.

Despite moments of tedium, this was a fascinating morning.  I was privileged to inspect these old records, and to gain a little more understanding of life during this period, and an appreciation of just how far the long arm of the state, whether imperial or republican, extended.

Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard,, and billhooks
Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, …er…mayflies, and billhooks
Imperial constitution and rights of succession
Imperial constitution and rights of succession