Tales of Fortune and Ruin...
June 6, 2000

(Our guide Alice explains the function of the keystone at her feet. 
It once held the arc that supported the glorious
monastery of Maillezais that fell to ruins in the religious wars of the late 1500's.)

Our first boarding of the great Vendée-mobile, 2000.  Today our driver is Francis, who will take us south to the former Gulf of the Pictons, a site of mystery and history not too far from our base in Les Sables.


As we travel, we pass through the town of Luçon, the city where the great Cardinal Richelieu began a career that would make King Louis XIII the greatest European monarch of his day, laying the groundwork for the rising sun -- King Louis XIV.  Here we see the steeple of Richelieu's first cathedral  and a statue raised in honor of the Cardinal.


As short disance down the road we pass by the village of Nieul-sur-l'Autize, birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and of England, but first and last Duchesse of Aquitaine.  Soon we enter the former Gulf of the Pictons, the ancient Celtic people who left their name to the region of Poitou to which Vendée once belonged and to the city of Poitiers.  Here some of the Vendéens settle into the "flat barks" that are used to navigate the waters that were once a part of this vast bay.


In the middle ages the monks of the five great monesteries near the Gulf began work to drain the sea marshes and make them suitable for a variety of agricultural purposes.  Soon these newly fresh waters and the brand new land they drained were an unexpectedly productive source of wealth for the abbeys that had brought them into being.  Today, the canals are largely a source of tourist revenue, made possible by the "natural manmade" wonders of the middle ages.  Among the most recent changes to this former gulf is the devastation brought about by last winter's record tempests.  Here Jennifer Lawrence observes the remains of an uprooted poplar tree.


Here Pascal, the guide for one of our barks, uses his eco-friendly "pigouille" to push the bark through the narrow channels.  He explains that this method or propulsion makes far less noise and is far less disturbing to the waters and fragile earthen banks than the oars and paddles used by some here.  The use of motors of any sort is reserved for the police and for other special purposes. 


Trailing just behind our bark is the second group of Vendéens, lead by their guide, Hervé.


Here we see the pastures of the marshes, as Senan Mashat contemplates the scenery and Natelle Gray greets her friends back home!


After a morning on the waters of the former Gulf of the Pictons, we take a break for pleasant lunch.  Natelle, lower left, misses this chance to send her salutations.


Next we visit the picturesque ruins of the former Abbey of Maillezais.  The greatest and richest of the monasteries on the former Gulf, its apogee lasted from the 13th to the 16th century.  The church you see here was once as large as Notre Dame de Paris, but it fell during to Protestant raiders during the religious wars.  The general and poet Agrippa d'Aubiné took many stones from the edifices here to fortify this relatively high ground against the danger or Catholic reprisal.  After him, Cardinal Richelieu moved the bishopry from here to nearby La Rochelle.  Thus ended the glorious days of Maillezais.


Here Natelle stands over one of the tombs of an abbot that once ruled over this Benedictine monastery.  The tombs of dignitaries buried in churches like this were often in the floor, a sign of the humility demanded by the orders of Saint Benedict.

Before leaving Maillezais, we should note the years spent here in the early 1500's by the great Renaissance writer Rabelais, author of Gargantua and Pantagruel.  Rabelais is considered by many to be the father of the modern French language, filling much the same role for French as did Shakespeare for English a generation later.  In homage to this region to which he owed his fortunate beginnings, Rabelais made Gargantua a descendant of the great Lusignan family and of the fairy Mélusine, whose legend is a standard part of the folklore and literature of this part of France.


Leaving Maillezais, we head back across the Vendée river, which gives its name to the region, then through the famous forest of Mervent.  Our next stop is in the ancient village of Vouvent.   The Romanesque church here is the first object of our attention.


After admiring the art of the 11th century, we stroll through the village on our way to the legendary tower of the fairy Mélusine.  Brian Hill knows the story well, as do Cindy Howley, Senan Mashat, and Jennifer Lawrence.


Here Katie McMullen, stands near the tower of Mélusine, a part of a castle that belonged to the Lusignan, great knights and erstwhile kings of Cyprus.  Mélusine's story exists in several legendary versions dating from the middle ages.  Here is the version I rendered from our 1998 pages:

"Like Merlin or the Lady of the Lake in the tales of Arthur, Mélusine is a figure in the oldest stories of Vendée and Poitou.  A central part of these tales is Mélusine's marriage to a mortal named Raimondin de Lusignan who was unaware of his bride's true nature as fairy and mermaid of the nearby coasts.  Although wishing to live her life ashore, Mélusine was condemned to return at least one day of seven to her maritime body.  This she did on Saturday, asking her husband never to seek audience with her on this day, which she always spent alone in her tower.  Over the years she and Raimondin had many children, each having some exceptional physical trait.  Long patient, Mélusine's husband eventually became jealous of her Saturday's alone.   Suspecting some treason or infidelity, he finally burst in upon her and discovered her in her bath -- and in a body resembling at once that of a woman, a fish, and a serpent.  Mélusine, broken-hearted and ashamed, flew out of her bath and leapt from the window of her tower.  Her body was for a moment suspended between her two opposing natures.  Then her entire being dissipated into the airs and the waters around and beneath the towers.  Today in Vendée, when the air  is just right, you can see the scales of Mélusine in the light of the rippling waters, and you can hear her gentle wail in the breeze that filters through the trees of this enchanted land."


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