Thursday, December 29, 2011

Religion, Wine and Smoke

I've still got second-hand smoke in the back of my nose, a smell I can just barely detect after 24 hours. Or maybe it's just the memory. But there's a lot of burning out there, which doubtless has something to do with the way the air is hazy even though the sun is shining brightly. And there's a good reason for this, as I found out yesterday.

E was rarin' to go on another drive, but I nixed Romans this time, even though he's found another good-looking oppidum. I wanted to move ahead in time and start unsnarling the church history here -- which is to say the Roman Catholic history -- so that I could start to make sense of the Catholic heretics and the Protestants, both of whom were big in these parts. The logical place to start was Maguelone.

If you look at a map, you won't find it; you'll find Villeneuve lès Maguelone instead. But just below that, you'll see a round landform in the Mediterranean with a skinny road going to it and the name Maguelone. It's just that nobody lives there. Not now, at least. But for a few centuries, it ran this whole part of France.

The only story I could find starts in the 700s, when the Crusader Charles Martel arrived and wiped out the town that was on this island, which was apparently called Maguelone, and was a "Saracen" (ie, probably North African Muslim) town. Before that, there had probably been a Christian church there. At any rate, Martel reported that the island was clear, and somewhere in the bowels of the Vatican, it was decided that the Diocese should switch from Narbonne (where Christianity had been introduced to the resident Romans by a guy who'd walked around with his severed head in his hands) to a new cathedral, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, on this island. It went up in the 11th century, and it was where the church was run, along with all its other businesses, which eventually included Montpellier University, until 1563.

"I always wondered about that place!" E said, as we blasted off out of town. It sure wasn't far, although the road there is, basically, one lane, with sand dunes on one side and the Étang de l'Arnel, a small bay, through which the Sète-Rhône Canal goes. As you walk from the parking lot to the church (which is free to visit), you get a good sense of where you are.

It's a pretty extensive vineyard, and, apparently, it's where the cathedral's graveyard was.

Off in the distance, not visible above, are some of the permanent residents.

The flamingoes were everywhere yesterday, busily finding shrimp so they could get pinker.

The cathedral itself is both impressive and disappointing. I rented an audio guide, in hopes that I'd get some insight into the story of what went on there, but, while not quite a bust, it wasn't as helpful as it might be. The British bird who was chirping the narration had an annoying habit of mispronouncing everything, rendering façade as f'SAYD, and, most annoyingly, the adjective used to describe the buildings that weren't the cathedral, episcopal, as eppiSCOPPal. That's just gotta be wrong. Hell, she even misprounounced Montpellier.

But one bit of useful information came out of all of this: this building had been trashed during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution, and then, as a Treasure of France, had been sold by the revolutionaries to a guy with some money. in the early 19th century, a guy named Frédéric Fabrège bought it and began restoring it. Since the original entryway had been nuked by rampaging peasants, he bought bits and pieces of other Romanesque churches and framed the door with St Paul

and St. Peter

and then a lintel with a horrible inscription about how, as you enter, you should weep for all of the sins you've committed and bathe in your tears and I forget what else, and, on top of that, a pretty standard-issue Christ In Glory surrounded by the four evangelists. This particular Jesus has an odd look on his face, as if he's sat on a whoopie cushion.

Inside, unsurprisingly enough, the place is huge.

Upstairs is a dormitory where the monks who kept the place up lived, while the Bishop and his people had their own residences nearby. As with all these churches, people with power got buried near the altar, with some pretty impressive tombs.

The front of the church was once guarded by two defensive towers, only one of which is still standing. The stones of the other, as was the case with a lot of churches around here after the Revolution, were donated to help build the canal.

Today, most of the island which isn't vineyards is a huge park which was put together in the 1890s, and everything is gradually being restored, thanks to the fact that the property is now in the hands of a foundation with some money. It's a huge tourist attraction, particularly in the summer, and is close enough to Montpellier that we saw some folks who'd ridden down on the VeloMagg bikes you can rent from the city.

What happened to the cathedral of Maguelone? Well, as I said, the diocese controlled a lot of stuff in the area, and as Montpellier grew -- there was almost nothing here when the cathedral went up -- the people who'd normally spend most of their time at the cathedral were spending time in town. Eventually, with the University booming and the city growing like mad, and becoming a commercial center and an important center for politics, it just didn't make sense to sit out on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean and try to run things. There was probably a skeleton staff left when the peasants started going nuts and trashing the place. As to why they did this, we had to go to another huge church for the answer.

* * * 

On the way out of Maguelone, we stopped for a minute to look at the beach. Rounded stones gave testimony to rough waves out there, and from what I could see from the tiny ones rolling in, there appeared to be a hell of an undertow. 

We got back to the mainland and headed towards Sète, from where we'd head to Villeveyrac, our next destination. White smoke was everywhere: wine-growers were trimming last year's growth off of their vines so that next year's would eventually start up and bear the next crop of grapes. Somehow we got lost and missed Sète entirely, but as E noted as we rolled along, it hardly mattered: we were headed in the right direction and the scenery was soothing, the garrigue and its stubby bushes and small trees rolling on in every direction. 

"Now, it's really great you wanted to see this, because I've wondered about this place, too. I've driven by it but never stopped," E said as we went into the bus parking lot across the street from the Abbaye de Valmagne. I'd been curious about this place since before I moved here. In Berlin, Galleries Lafayette, the huge French department store, had opened its only non-French branch, and although the prices were punishing, I sometimes went there to shop for stuff I couldn't get anywhere else, and it had a nice selection of wines, of course. I'd look at the Languedoc section, and I realized I could afford the lower-end bottles, some of which were Abbaye de Valmagne. I'd gotten a story in my head that the Revolution had left the Cistercian monks there alone because the wine was so good, and that somehow their vines had escaped the phylloxera plague. 

Both parts of that turned out to be false. 

The abbey was founded by the Viscount of Béziers, and started out as a Benedictine community, but soon became a Cistercian one. Cistercians are noted for their hard work, excellent farming skills, and innovation with machinery. Nestled in prime wine country, in the grès de Montpellier terroir, with abundant game and farmland given to it by local landowners, it was one fat monastery. Its inhabitants might have been monks, but they lived well. 

You can imagine how the local peasants felt about that, especially considering a lot of them were "protestants," which, depending on when you find the term used, meant either Cathar (Albigensian Heresy) or actual Calvinists. To be Roman Catholic was to play along with the French king and the folks in Rome, and was roughly equivalent to being a Republican in America today, while you could say that the "protestants" were the 99%. At any rate, the bishop of the abbey became a Huguenot protestant in 1575 and organized a riot that destroyed all the stained glass and a lot of the other decoration. He was quickly hustled out and a declining number of monks started rebuilding. And I do mean declining: from around 300 in the abbey's heyday, there were only five left when the next bunch of raging peasants happened along with the Revolution. We're lucky that some of the highest-up decorations up front didn't get erased, because they're weird and charming. 

Once again, cash-strapped revolutionaries looked for a rich person to buy a national treasure, and found one in a guy named Granier-Joyeuse, who immediately recognized the value of an empty church stripped of all its art and decoration and installed the furnishings it has today. 

It's hard to explain just how weird it is to someone who, like me, has been in dozens of old churches of greater or lesser importance to see gigantic wine-barrels lining the sanctuary of a Gothic cathedral. 

Other evidence of the virulence of the reaction against the church is piled against the walls of a couple of the rooms off the cloister next door. 

They not only smashed the sculptures, but they sanded down the Bible stories and other narrative features on them. That said, the cloister itself is a very nice space, and is probably even nicer in summertime. 

Admission to the place is pretty steep: €7.50, but it gets you a dégustation, a wine-tasting, and that's worth it, since these folks make very nice rosés and some decent reds that need to be laid down a while. There are also some lesser wines (check the website) that are ready for drinking right now. 

They were burning the trimmings as we walked up to the place and they were still doing it as we left. I was lucky to get a shot of the abbey without smoke, and the smell is probably still in my jacket as well as, as I said, in the back of my nose. I know that in America, people like to grill over vine trimmings, and it's just a shame there isn't more outdoor cooking around here, because I can tell it'd be a great addition to just about anything cooked over it. 

As the sun was setting, we headed back to Montpellier, reflecting that if you were pressed for time, it'd be easy enough to drive out here and back in an hour or so. But E got a wild hair and decided he wanted to look at a wind farm that was up on a rise between the abbey and the road back home, so we drove up a dirt road to the summit -- or near enough -- and checked it out. 

It was cold, but it wasn't raining, at least. That's going to come to an end, I -- and countless farmers -- hope, so that the crops can get some water and, when the springtime starts to return in March, the cycle can start again. 


  1. Hey Ed,

    Isn't the Abbaye de Valmagne and the wine-barrel-filled nave fascinating? We were there one afternoon just about two months ago, at which time it was a snakey business trying to get through the cloister walkways, chapter room, etcetera....the whole joint was taken over by caterers who, having set up about fifty large tables with six chairs apiece, were frantically hauling-ass...loads of glasses, cutlery, plates, giant flower arrangements, etcetera. Turns out that someone was about to hold an enormous reception for a Jewish wedding. Between that and those enromous barrels in the nave, I considered that the monks would probably be surprised at the various productive uses to which folks have finally put the place.

    thanks again for the always-interesting blog,

    david Terry

  2. Ed, sorry to use your comments box but couldn't find email link. The Nightingales, influential Bham band, have been invited to SXSW but are broke (not poor). Any advice re funding avenues?

  3. Arabella, you leave no way for me to contact you, either. Other than trying Kickstarter, I have no advice for your friends.


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