West Virginia University in Vendée, France
On the trail of giants and fairies...
June 22, 1999
The first giant we encounter today is in the figure of the great Cardinal Richelieu, who was largely responsible for the zenith of the French monarchy that occurred in the 17th century. Richelieu began his career in the city of Luçon, whose cathedral we see below just behind the cardinal's statue. Richelieu's subsequent promotions would soon lead him to the capital of Europe's greatest power, but even in Paris he would not forget the strategic importance of western France. His greatest victory would in fact occur only a few kilometers from here, when he crushed the independent Protestant forces in nearby La Rochelle (siege in 1628).
After passing near the village of Nieul-sur-l'Autise where another giant, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was born, we soon arrive on the site of one of the greatest abbeys of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Founded by the first dukes of Aquitaine in the 11th century, this spot was chosen for its strategic importance in what was then the Gulf of the Pictons. Over the years monks and workers came here from around Europe to push the sea back and create a rich matrix of farm and forest-land. This labor, along with a strategic location near the coast and on the major route of the pilgrims to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (Santiago) in Spain, made Maillezais one of the richest monasteries in the world. The ruins below are a reminder of a cathedral whose dimensions rivaled those of Notre Dame de Paris!
Since the promontory (once an island) on which the monastery was built made it a strategic military position as well, this site was often fortified in anticipation of major conflicts: the Vikings in the 9th century, the English or French (depending on who held the site) during the Hundred Years War, and the Catholics or Protestants during the religious wars of the late 1500's. The most striking remains today, however are those of the Romanesque and Gothic arches that still mark the northern walls of the great cathedral. It was the Protestant conquest of the site in 1589 by the grand general and epic writer Agrippa d'Aubigné that effectively ended the monastic era of Maillezais.
Only a few years before, Maillezais was a center of wealth and learning that attracted scholars and worshipers from around Europe. In 1524 François Rabelais, the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, came here under the protection of the bishop Geoffroi d'Estissac. Rabelais' career would continue as he went on to study medicine in Montpellier and to write the works that would in large part define the modern French language.
Below, the WVU-Vendéens stand in the old "capitulary room" just off the Benedictine cloister of the abbey. This room served primarily as the place where the chapters from Saint Benedict's rule were read and discussed. These rules laid out in detail every aspect of the monk's life here. Rabelais, not having taken his final vows and serving mainly as secretary to Bishop d'Estissac, was of course never allowed to enter this space.
The oldest part of Maillezais lies in the narthex. The original church was built here and the tombs below are nearly 1,000 years old. It was common to bury servants of God in the floors of religious spaces, where they hoped that being walked over by future generations would confirm their humility and devotion. Our guide today will lead us over a series of tombs placed on this site over a period from around the year 1000 up to the late 1500's.
Below, the Vendéens visit the underground cellars and salt rooms where the monks kept all the foods and drink necessary to their survival. Our guide, Marie-Odile Linzer, outlines for us the simple and strict diet required by Saint Benedict's monastic rules.
Long abandoned by the monks by the time of the Revolution, this land and its buildings were confiscated by the new government in 1791. In order to raise monies, the state sold the property to private speculators who then opened up the grounds to building contractors. The once great monastery became a quarry, and its stones were used to build houses and other structures in surrounding areas. The village near here is filled with houses boasting some of the most beautiful stones in France. Below, is the capstone of a column that once decorated the church and which escaped being sold off during the last century.
Not being subject to the Benedictine rules, Rabelais' curiosity and his quick tongue often tended to get the best of him. His career would be marked by brushes with the law brought on by his wit and audacious ideas. Below is a stairwell to what is reputed to be the "cachot de Rabelais," a cellar where he is said to have been locked up for reading forbidden books or saying forbidden things here in Maillezais. Due to their innovative thinking, many of Rabelais's books would have to be published in that northern bastion of Renaissance liberalism, Holland.
Our lunch today is just across the way from Maillezais on the borders of "Green Venice," the canals that crisscross the swamps of souther Vendée. Jennifer Jeffries (lower right) today sports a new hairdo, fresh from her French "coiffeur."
We are soon off on the canals of this "Venice," which was in fact begun by the medieval monks of Maillezais and other monasteries in the region. The Gulf of the Pictons once covered this area and over the centuries these canals were dug and dikes were built that would push the sea back several kilimeters from here. The most ambitious work here was done under the work of the "Good King" Henry IV, a Protestant who put an end to the religious wars by converting to Catholicism and declaring religious freedom with the Edict of Nantes (1598). Henry's campaign to insure peace was based primarily on a plan to bring economic prosperity to all of France. The labors here were aimed at producing arable land where the sea once stood. Like Rabelais a generation earlier, Henry also relied on the Dutch, whose skill and daring in printing was surpassed only by their ability to push back the sea!!!
The rich earth and the fermenting foliage produce gases that our guides today stir up and set afire. The water itself seems aflame.
After our ride on the canals of "la Venise Verte", we head back for Les Sables through the forests and hills of inland Vendée. Our route takes us through the village of Vouvant, where we stop to admire the legendary Tour de Mélusine. 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 ressembling at once that of a woman, a fish, and a serpent. Mélusine, broken-hearted and ashamed, flew out of her bath and lept 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.
There are a few other villages in Vendée that pretend to be home to the Tower of Mélusine, but the claims of Vouvant are fairly convincing to the WVU-Vendéens below.
A genuine historical figure who claimed to be descended from the marriage of Raimondin and Mélusine was Geoffroi de Lusignan, who lived in the early 1200's and who once ruled the lands around Maillezais. This great and terrible lord was known to his contemporaries as Geoffroi de la Grand-Dent, or "Jeffrey Big-Tooth," a name that described both a physical trait and a voracious appetite. Geoffroi extracted by force immense wealth from his subjects and even laid sack to the abbey of Maillezais. In later years, however, he would repent and render to the abbey with interest all he had taken from it. Rabelais would become familiar with these stories and in his tales of Gargantua would make Geoffroi and Mélusine the ancestors of his good-hearted giant with an insatiable appetite for food as well as ideas -- and of course drink!
In additon to Mélusine's tower, Vouvant is also blessed with a magnificent Romanesque church, Notre-Dame de Vouvant (Our Lady of Vouvant). This village seems obviously to be under the spell of two eternal ladies...
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