From the village of Limoux, not far from Carcassonne, the road to Saint-Hilaire and its Benedictine abbey, winds through woods and vineyards. In October, the mists and autumn colours add to the sense of time-travel as stone walls loom out of nowhere. This probably means you are lost, as we were, and that you should have taken the much shorter road. But then you would not have seen the cemetery on the hill, blooming with chrysanthemums in preparation for Toussaint, All Saints' Day, a national holiday when the French pay their respects to their dead.
|The houses of the village encroaching on the abbey|
The dead were all around me as I walked alone in the cloisters, the only visitor to an abbey founded in the early 9th century, the place where the body of Saint Hilaire was buried. It was mentioned at this time in a charter from Louis le Debonnaire, confirming donations from his father Charlemagne to Abbot Monellus of St-Hilaire. Early features remain in the later buildings and over time, the village has crept from outside the abbey walls to lean over the church itself.
|My spirit guide|
If you love medieval history, as I do, you will find treasure here. One of the fascinating characters who has turned up in my 12th century research is the Master of Cabestany but I never expected to find one of his masterpieces in this little village in the Languedoc. Made of one slab of white marble from the Pyrenees, this 'sarcophagus' is more accurately an altar piece because it is far too narrow and could not contain a corpse.
|The current setting of the sarcophagus,|
which was probably once the main altar, in the choir
Look at the people, gawking out their windows as the martyred Saint Sernin is beaten and torn apart by a goaded bull. He still manages to bless the two women who pray for him. Medieval brutality and Christianity in all its horrific richness.
|A jongleur on a tight-rope is distracted by the goings-on|
|The goaded bull and animals representing the bestial nature of the saint's oppressors|
The identity of the Master of Cabestany is a mystery but his - or could it be their? or even her? work is famous throughout Catalonia, known for a certain style. I find it strange that the story progresses from right to left and, having written about left-handers, I wonder whether this was an accidental left-handed reversal of European writing convention? Or deliberate left-handed choice? Or could the Master have been from another culture, where writing flowed from right to left? It seems more than odd for an artist of this quality not to be aware of conventions. Do let me know your theories!
|The story of Saint Sernin, reading from right to left (missing the two side panels), |
from his evangelical preaching to his gory end
Mysteries and ghosts were all around me and I jumped when something brushed my leg - a cat who accompanied me with the air of a guide who knew all and wasn't telling. Many monks must have met unnatural ends here and when you climb the pulpit in the monks' refectory, you hear your words of warning ringing out around the hall. The protection of the Counts of Carcassonne was not enough to keep the abbey safe in the madness of the Albigensian Crusade that swept Languedoc in the 13th century and the monks were accused of heresy and merged with Les Frères Prêcheurs, the Dominicans.
The Benedictines emerged from their troubles and endowments from the local nobles continued. Naturally the Abbot's apartment benefited from such generosity and I was feeling cynical as I walked into a room that took my breath away. The textures and patterns on the ceiling reminded me of those in the Palace of Joy in Zaragossa but the addition of satirical portraits make it look like an illuminated manuscript, with which a scribe has had fun in the margins.
|Abbot's chamber ceiling, with portraits|
|Detail of ceiling portraits|
|Heraldic shields on the walls below the decorated ceiling|
|My favourite motif - a heraldic beast with banner in its teeth|
|Patterned rows carved in wood|
The walls bear the shields and names of all the Abbots and you can imagine how excited I felt at seeing the dates 1146 and 1154. I get the shivers every time I come across details of the period I write about.
|The Abbots of 1146 and 1154|
Perhaps the Abbey's biggest contribution to the world came in the 16th century. In 1531 the monks created what is claimed here to be the first sparkling wine in the world, the 'blanquette' for which Limoux is now known and I stood in the very 'cave' or cellar where a monk was surprised by bubbles forming in the corked bottles of white wine, as if they were undergoing a second fermentation...
|The birth-place of sparkling wine: the wine cave in St-Hilaire|
From its origin in this cellar, bubbly gained international popularity, leading 17th century Irish dramatist George Farquahar to comment, 'Brut sparkles like the lively remarks of a man of wit.'
As I turned to go, I sensed a lighter presence than the black monks. A faded inscription above a door lintel gave me enough of a clue to work out who used to come here and why. Can you figure it out?
A long discussion with the Abbey curator confirmed my guess - this became the 'Ecole Publique des Filles' in the 19th century so the girls and small boys from the village came here for their lessons. The curator also clarified much else about St-Hilaire and played troubadour CDs for me. Now all I need to know is whether Estela and Dragonetz passed this way, and, if so, why.
What a wonderful post. I've never been to Saint-Hillaire although I've passed the road to it many time when driving around Couiza and Limoux. I would have loved to have gone there with you!! Maybe next time.ReplyDelete
That would be good! It was strange because I had no desire to go to Carcassonne or into the Cathar castles (which I visited 20 years ago) and yet was drawn to Saint-Hilaire. So glad I went and being there alone really added to the atmosphere.Delete
I've never been in any of the Cathar castles. My husband wanted to check out the one in Puivert but the steep road up to it made me too uncomfortable. Have you ever been in the little museum in Puivert, though? It's very nice.ReplyDelete
It was closed and I really wanted to go there to see the musical instruments! Did you get any pictures? Or notice anything that would be relevant to my novels?Delete
Just checked through my photos - I just took pictures of combs and a reproduction of a workshop but I'm sure it was from after your time.ReplyDelete
OK Tant mieux! I was hoping for decorations on lutes and ouds...Delete
I'm pretty sure that the instruments were there - I just didn't photograph them. You should really try to check it out sometime. During our visit there was troubadour music playing throughout the building; it was beautiful but the girl at the desk didn't know which CD it was from. I wanted to buy the recording and was frustrated!ReplyDelete
It was closed from October till March!Delete
Really! We were there on October 7th, 2010. They must have changed their hours.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Laura!ReplyDelete
I am only commenting to make you be aware of of the brilliant experience my cousin's daughter undergone studying your web page. She noticed many things, which included what it is like to possess an excellent giving nature to have the others just thoroughly grasp a variety of problematic subject matter. You truly exceeded her desires. Thank you for churning out such good, dependable, edifying and as well as cool tips about that topic to Kate. robes de noReplyDelete
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.ReplyDelete