Journey to Périgord
Recently, Jehan du Lac had the opportunity to "go home" to Périgord,
his native province. He was, of course, a largely invisible presence but
his commentary, emotions, and memories were a vivid part of the experience.
The following are photos from a recent twentieth century journey, informed
by a sixteenth century sensibility.
Jehan finds a great comfort in city walls, and even with the boom of cannon
in his ears there is probably no place on earth that conveys to him a sense
of comfort and security more than La Rochelle. Most of the walls are down
now, of course -- a thing Jehan find totally bizarre about modern cities.
The fact of walls creates communal space, the very essence of civilization.
They are a sign of a town's pride and independence. It is within the walls
that wealth is created, that the ordering of human life according to the
will of God is so sharply
contested. The wars of his age were wars for the control of cities, and
Jehan has spent a great deal of his life both inside and outside their
walls in the struggle.
La Rochelle is in the Aunis region, which is not exactly Périgord,
but is key to the French Southwest. Its prominence as a stronghold made
it the de facto capital of the Protestant community in France for almost
two centuries. It became a refuge in the aftermath of the St. Bartholomew's
Day massacre (1572), and was besieged for refusing to admit the royal governor
in '73. Jehan has spent many long, cold, rainy hours on the parapets looking
out toward the sea, with its inscrutable vastness. Lucky for him, he didn't
live to see Cardinal Richilieu's dike across the harbor starve the town
into submission in 1628. An amazing feat of engineering, it took 18 months
to reduce the city. Of a population of 30,000 people, less than 5,000 lived
to surrender. It was a crucial step in the path to absolute monarchy in
in the Place outside the Hôtel de Ville is of Jean Guiton, the heroic
mayor of La Rochelle in 1628. It was donated by the citizens of New Rochelle
in the United States, which was founded by Huguenot refugees fleeing the
town after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
St. Emilion is named for a hermit who settled here in the 8th century.
The church in the center of town is carved from the living rock around
the grotto where the hermit made his home. As wine-lovers know, the town
is renowned for its soft, exquisite claret which includes such great names
as Château Petrus. Part of the Bordeaux region, it was under Catholic
control in the wars of religion. Protestants often harried and destroyed
the outlaying vineyards in an attempt to cut the economic lifeblood of
Bordeaux. It is a soft and gentle countryside, and even Jehan has to wince
now at the thought of tramping through it on a warhorse, hacking and burning...
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
might have been an exceptional man in any century, but in the 16th
century it must have been even more of an achievement to be a rational,
tolerant, sceptic with a fine sense of judgement in an age of hatred, intolerance
and savagery. He wrote that it was setting a high price on one's own opinions
to burn someone else for them. His Essais
paint the picture of someone with whom you would still like to
sit and have a friendly after-dinner conversation over a good bottle of
the local wine. A Catholic himself, he got on well with both his Protestant
and Catholic neighbors (which included Jehan's uncle Raimond), and was
a faithful supporter of Henri de Navarre. In fact, Navarre stopped at his
house on his way back from his great victory at Coutras. Most of the original
chateau burnt in 1865, but the tower which housed Montaigne's library survived.
He describes it in his Essais, and talks about the Latin and Greek
quotations he had carved into the roof beams to inspire him.
The Battle of Coutras in 1587 was a stunning
Protestant victory. Henri IV made the quip that after Coutras, no
one could say that the Protestants didn't know how to win a battle. There
is little recognizable of the place where Jehan and his well-worn companions
made their charge against a much larger host, but you can sense its outlines.
Coutras is still a town at the junction of the Isle and the Dronne rivers,
but the little pavilion in the photo (located near the Mairie) is all that
is left of the chateau that used to stand on this high ground between the
two rivers. The church spire is still the same one whose bell rang for
the battle, but one has to work hard to see through buildings to the imagine
the glittering Catholic army stretched out along the road that approaches
The chateau at Monbazillac is quite impressive to Jehan's eyes. The latest
thing in elegant design, it was built in 1550. Even then it was famous
for its sweet white wine, which became particularly popular with the Dutch
(fellow Protestant entrepreneurs).
Nobles with the
rights of high justice on their domains could hold religious services on
their own estates even when they were banned in public. The Seigneurs de
Monbazillac protected refugee Protestant pastors, and the chateau was used
for religious meetings and consistories. The Périgord was heavily
Protestant, a fact reflected in the Salle de Protestantisme in the chateau
today, where various artifacts such as maps, engravings, letters, medals,
and personal mementos of the Protestant movement are preserved. The design
on the copper warming pan shows the "Huguenot cross" and a dove, popular
And if you should ever choose to sojourn in the area, the nearby guest
house of La Rouquette, set amongst the vineyards of Monbazillac, is absolutely
delightful, reasonably priced, and possessed of a very gracious hostess.
(24240 Monbazillac Dordogne, France, tel. #05 53 58 30 60).
St. Foy is an old bastide town on the banks of the Dordogne River. It and
the nearby town of Bergerac were key to Protestant control of the central
Dordogne Valley in the 16th century. After the Edict of Nantes in 1598
is was one of four "free royal towns" given to the Protestants.
A bastide is a fortified town built on a characteristic grid pattern
-- they were built all over this region from the 13th to 15th centuries
to provide protection to the ordinary people in the wars between England
and France. Bastides typically have a central square with an covered market
and a fortified church. The houses surrounding the square have colonnades
on the ground floor, with shops inside. The shop owners, families, and
apprentices lived on the floors above.
The quay below
the ramparts along the river is a peaceful spot in the evening. The air
is alive with swallows, the water makes it slow and inexorable way to the
sea, and the gently rolling hillsides stretch away like the curves of a
Sarlat is a more-or-less
intact medieval town in a good state of preservation. It was a prosperous
Protestant town in the 16th century, but it was saved from modern development
in the 19th and 20th centuries as rail and highway trade routes abandoned
it. A government program in the 1960's allowed the old buildings to be
maintained and restored instead of replaced with cheaper modern ones --
the fate of many lovely old places. The town is built of a golden limestone,
with steep, twisty streets, half-timbered buildings, archways, little corner
staircases... Jehan does not expect to see flowerpots spilling from every
balcony, but the effect is certainly charming.
Sarlat was the home of La Boëtie, Montaigne's dearest friend. La
Boëtie died fairly young, and Montaigne mourned for him the rest of
Jehan can sometimes be a tedious travelling companion -- he is constantly
thinking of artillery and fortifications.
The Périgord is dotted with chateaux, the relics of centuries as
a war zone, but a picturesque old place does not particularly impress him.
A strategic location draws his admiration, and a family with an ancient
lineage gets his respect. As for the rest, he's likely to think that an
old pile could use a few improvements. His taste in country houses runs
to graceful Renaissance manors like Monbazillac, and his taste in fortifications
runs to artillery-proof citadels like Lille (built after his time, but
one he could recognize as the best of its kind).
certainly has a strategic location. Perched on a cliff in a cingle
of the Dordogne (a loop in the river), it commands the countryside
around. It was a possession of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, and his routier
captain Mercadier who held it for him is still remembered with hostility
by the locals. It was rebuilt in 1236 by the barons of Beynac, but has
been added onto over the centuries. Just across the river is its heriditary
enemy, Castelnaud. During the Hundred Years War the Dordogne River was
the frontier between France and England, and through a good part of that
time Beynac stood on the French side and Castelnaud on the English side.
During the Wars of Religion, both Beynac and Castelnaud were held by the
Protestants, and sealed off the valley from the Catholics. Beynac was the
meeting place of the estates of Périgord, and the banners of the
four great baronies of the province still hang in the great hall.
and bastides of Perigord have a great many natural advantages, even if
the fortifications are a little old-fashioned to Jehan's eyes (he spent
enough time throwing up makeshift "fortifications
à la Huguenotte" around medieval town walls in his day).
The well-preserved bastide town of Domme
was built in the 13th century and had a reputation for being impregnable
(although like everywhere else in the region, it changed hands several
times during the Hundred Years War). Besides its thick walls and gates,
it is built at the top of a cliff, and one side of the ramparts has a sheer
drop down to the river. It was captured for the Protestants in 1588 by
Henri de Navarre's captain, Geoffrey de Vivans. The Protestants made a
noisy demonstration outside the main gates and while the defenders were
distracted, 30 men scaled the cliff in the dark, climbed over the wall,
overpowered the watch, and opened the gates from the inside. Vivans finally
sold the town back to the Catholics in 1592, but he blew up the church
(since restored) before leaving.
Underneath the market is an entrance to the Grottes de Domme -- stunningly
beautiful caverns full of fantastic stalagmites and stalactites. Apparently
the populace took refuge here during times of trouble.
Cahors is not in
the Périgord, but in Quercy, a little to the South. It was primarily
a Catholic town in the 16th century. It
was captured briefly by Henri de Navarre in 1580, in a spectacular campaign
involving fierce house-to-house fighting. He stayed one night in a house
that still bears his name. It is a lovely town that has existed since Roman
times in a bend of the Lot River, surrounded on three sides by the water.
It is famous for its "black wine."
It was home to a medieval university, a pope (John XXII), and the hero
of the Third Republic, Leon Gambetta. The
Pont Valentré, part of the town's early fortifications, is still
one of its notable features. The cloisters around the Eglise St. Etienne
are still beautiful, although they show the ravages of the religious wars
and the Revolution, when many of their statues and decorations were defaced.
to Poulet Gauche Bibliography