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Monthly Archives: May 2009

Rhone-2-copyThe broad delta of the Rhone river had since the earliest days, been a centre for religious cults. The river itself connected the Mediterranean world with that of northern Europe and was a vehicle for the transmission of legends and religious ideas.

The Greeks had brought the worship of the Goddess Artemis and from this originated a strong tendency for the development of cults devoted to feminine deities. Arles-3-MarysBy the middle ages these had been transformed into the cults of Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and the women who had bought perfume to administer to Jesus’ body after the Crucifixion,  Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi.

They had arrived with Lazarus and Maximinus and seventy-two disciples from Palestine.

At Tarascon were the relics of Martha and at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the relics of the Marys Salome and Jacoby and their servant Sara. At La Sainte Baume was the cave in which Mary Magdalene had lived out the rest of her life as a hermit.Myrrophore-1

The Roman period had brought martyrs from the persecutions and as the metropolitan see of Gaul, Arles had produced Holy Men and Confessor Saints.

It was a region exceptionally rich in sacred legends. Pilgrims to Compostela travelling along the Toulouse Road could venerate the relics of Saint Honoratus and Caesarius at the Alyscans and Trophimus at Arles’ cathedral. At Trinquetaille was the marble column to which Saint Genesius had been tied and decapitated, still reddened by his blood.

On the western edge of the marshy delta the great abbey of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard kept the relics of Gilles, a Visigothic Holy Man and Confessor to Charlemagne himself.

St-Guilhem-Abbey-GVThe abbey of Gellone was an important stop for pilgrims to Compostela traveling the Via Tolosana even though it required them abandoning the most direct way and instead heading up into the rugged hill region of the Languedoc.

There, were kept the relics of Saint Guillaume d’Orange. Guillaume was a warrior monk, an early archetype of the Christian knight that would eventually would lead to the formation of the Order of Knights Templar. Guillaume was a paladin of the time of Charlemagne and his successor Louis the Pious. Count of the region of Orange, Guillaume was instrumental in repulsing the Saracens from southern France.

After numerous victories he turned his back on the world into order to spend his last years as a hermit in a remote valley in a rocky region where the Herault river has worn a narrow defile rendering the site  virtually inaccessible. Guillaume’s example attracted other monks who eventually formed the abbey of Gellone, known later as Saint Guilhem le Désert.

Guillaume’s actual exploits became the stuff of legend and a rich source for the Chansons de Geste which flourished in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. His successful campaigns against the Saracens were rendered as epic battles, one of which took place at the necropolis of the Alyscans where the fallen heroes were  subsequently buried. The abbey of Gellone grew into a major monastic centre  and Guillaume’s cycle of Chansons was the most popular of all the Chansons de Geste. Pilgrims were drawn by his relics and the fragment of the Holy Cross which he had donated .

St-Guilhem-bridge-2A bridge was built in the eleventh century to connect the abbey of Gellone with the nearby abbey of Aniane and facilitated the passage of pilgrims across the deep gorge of the river Hérault which seperated the two monasteries.

Like many medieval bridges its construction involves a legendary story involving a duel with the Devil from which it derives its name. The road continued after the abbey upwards towards the aptly named Cirque du Bout du Monde