West Virginia University in Vendée, France
Saints and Sinners...
June 28, 1999
Our day began early this moring as we left Les Sables at 7:00. The road toward the Loire Valley leads us by this famous Vendée castle, which once belonged to the legendary Gilles de Rais, also known as Blue Beard and whose story was made famous in the same volume that brought Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood to fame. Charles Perrault's 1690's tale is based loosely on the exploits of one of Saint Joan of Arc's fighting companions. Gilles de Rais' exploits at Joan's side won him great honors and riches, but upon his return to this castle he quickly spent his fortune and contracted heavy debts. In hopes of solving his problems, Giles fell into satanic ritual and was told by a fellow warlock that if he would make regular sacrifice of "hand, eye, heart, and blood" of healthy children, his worries would be over. For several years Gilles de Rais preyed on the beautiful children from villages all around, until finally he was arrested and taken to Nantes to be tried. In 1440, just nine years after his friend Saint Joan was burned for heresy, Giles de Rais was hanged and then burned for his horrific deeds.
Crossing the Loire, we see the Château de Saumur on the skyline.
The Loire Valley is filled with a soft, white stoned called "tuffeau." Almost all the castles here are built with this material, and when a cliff exposes the tuffeau many build their wine cellars, garages, and even their homes directly into the rock.
Our first stop of the day is at the Abbey of Fontevraud. Robert d'Arbrissell founded this abbey in 1099, after living as a hermit in nearby forests and gathering a large number of followers. Before turning to the religious life d'Arbrissell felt he had sinned greatly, particularly against women. He therefore wrote his rules of monastic life in penitence of his sinful ways. The Abbey of Fontevrault would contain both men and women, that is monks and nuns under the same rule. D'Arbrissel also saw to it the the abbey was led, not by a man, but by a woman. From the 12th century up to the Revolution, this abbey was run by an abbess from some of the greatest families of the kingdom. Unlike Saint Benedict or Saint Francis, who also founded monastic orders, Robert d'Arbrissel was never canonized. Our guide today says this is perhaps due to his practice of "syneisactism." In order to test the power of his will against the temptations of the flesh, d'Arbrissell would sleep each night unclothed with two similarly (un)clad beautiful women at each side. When asked how well he stood the test, d'Arbrissel is said to have responded "as well as any man could." Like many chrurch properties, Fontevraud was confiscated by the state during the Revolution, and in 1804 Napoleon converted the buildings into a prison which functioned up until 1963. It is said the prisoners here were treated so badly that they pleaded to be sent to the infamaous French prisons of Devil's Island rather than be kept within these walls.
The abbey's church is a gem of Romanesque architecture, blending elements from different regional styles.
As previously noted in these pages, Eleanore of Aquitaine's disastrous marriage with Louis VII of France, was followed by a union with Henri de Plantagenêt, Count of Anjou and Touraine (these lands). Henri would soon inherit the lands of his ancestor William the Conqueror and become Duke of Normandy and King of England. In fact this family would spend little time in England, as their choice of burial place demonstrates. Below are the stones that once marked the tombs of Aliénor d'Aquitaine and Henri II Plantagenêt. The book in Aliénor's hand is an eternal reminder of her great erudition and love of the arts. The actual remains of the bodies were desecrated and thrown into common graves during the Revolution.
At Aliénor's and Henri's feet are the tombs of their son Richard the Lion Hearted and his sister-in-law, Isabelle d'Angoulême. Isabelle was the wife of Richard's brother John who succeeded him on the throne of England. John is perhaps best known to us at the signer of the Magna Carta (June 15, 1215). In France, King John is called Jean sans Terre, or John Without Land, in part because he would loose almost all his holdings on this side of the Channel to Louis VII's son (the one Eleanor could not give him), the "great and powerful" Philippe II Auguste. A footnote to this story is that, having fought together in the Third Crusade, either Philippe Auguste or Richard the Lion Hearted might well have been candidates for sainthood. Perhaps as much as anything the fact that these two great Christian warriors would later turns their swords on each other made their canonization impossible. Yet, in a marriage that Eleanore herself would make possible before her death, Philippe's son would marry Eleanore's granddaughter Blanche de Castille. Out of this union would be born the last great crusader and the only French king who did achieve sainthood, Louis IX -- better known to us and to all those in Missouri simply as Saint Louis.
The two columns under one capstone reflect Robert d'Arbrissel's desire set one woman as leader of both male and female follower of his rule.
Among the great abbesses of Fontevraud were the daughters of the Bourbon kings. Below we see the RB of Renée de Bourbon and winged L of Louise de Bourbon who ruled the abbey during the troubled 1500's. The shield with the three Fleurs-de-Lys is a symbol of the French monarchy, the bar inidicating an illegitimate branch.
Not at all coincidentally, our restaurant today is called "Les Trois Lys".
After lunch, we gather for a visit of one of the most charming castles on the Loire Valley, Azay-le-Rideau.
Like many Renaissance castles in this valley, Azay was built not as a fortress, but as "palace of pleasure." One of the great kings that helped encourage prosperity and good times in the early was François Ier, or Francis the First. The "Salamander" we see above the chimney below was a magical creature believed to be born of fire and was François' emblem.
The tapestries, which in their day served to insulate the great rooms, are among Azay's treasures.
After the visit of the castle, we take a pause to stroll through the gardens of Azay.
Azay is built on the river Indre. The moats here, like many other elements of Renaissance castles, are decorative rather than defensive in function.
Our stroll through the gardens of Azay, leave us refreshed and ready for walk through the old quarters of the nearby city of Tours.
The woodwork on some of these houses is simply incredible.
Tours is a city of great tradition and has been home to some of France's most important artists, thinkers, and writers, perhaps the greatest being Balzac. Saint Martin de Tours is perhaps less well known to some, but he is a figure of great legend here and to many around the world. Martin was a legionnaire in the Roman army stationed here in Gaule during the fourth century. One cold winter day, outside his camp, Martin came upon a beggar with no clothes. Martin took his coat, cut it in two with his sword and gave half to the hapless wonderer. The next night in a vision, the figure of Christ appeared to Martin, clad in the half-coat that Martin had selflessly given the stranger. Martin immediately reviews his life and is convinced that the roads of the Roman Legion are not the paths of Christ. He thus renounces his military life and begins to evangelize the lands he once pillaged -- a Christian soldier even earlier than Saint Louis!
Because of his renuciation of arms, Saint Martin today is the patron saint of conscientious objectors. Pilgrims from around the world still come to the basilica that holds his remains (or relics). As an illustration, our group was approached today by an American family asking for directions to the tomb. A little later, when we visited the basilca ourselves, this family was celebrating mass with dozens of other pilgrims in the crypt holding the body of Saint Martin of Tours who died in the Year of Our Lord 397.
After a visit of Old Tours, we head off to our hotel on the outskirts of town. Tomorrow will be another exciting day in the Loire Valley.
Stay tuned to WVU-V!
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