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Category Archives: Arles

The History of Charlemagne and Roland tells us that the Alyscans necropolis at Arles was the burial site for ten thousand Frankish warriors killed at Roncevaux. Alyscans WP 008In addition to these ten thousand, the list includes thirteen paladins mentioned by name: Estout of Langres, Salomon, Sanson of Burgundy, Arnaud de Beaulande, Auberi le Bourgoin, Esturmi, Aton, Yvorius, Naimes of Bavaria, Berenger, Thierry, Guinardus and Bérart of Nubles.


The Alyscans was the Antique necropolis by the banks of the River Rhône at Arles. In the early middle ages it had a reputation as being one of the most hallowed of all Christian burial sites, equal in prestige to the cemetery of the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux to which another large number of dead of Roncevaux had been similarly transported for burial.

Alyscans WP 007In the same way that the Pyrenean passes had historic cause to be identified with the Saracen threat to the Franks, so did Provence. This would help to account for the legend of the burials of the fallen warriors of Roncevaux at the Alyscans, despite the great distance of four hundred kilometres which separated Arles from the battle ground beneath the Cize Pass. These legends were deeply rooted and grew right through the middle ages.

The Saracens had established a number of strongholds in Provence, notably in the coastal mountains at a place called Fraxinetum. They ravaged a wide area throughout the tenth century, along the coast and up towards the Alps.

Alyscans WP 010It was not until they had captured the abbot of Cluny, Mayeul in 972 that vigorous offensive action was eventually taken under Guillaume Ist of Provence who led several expeditions against them. These culminated in the decisive victory of the battle of Tourtour.

The capture of the abbot of Cluny by the Moors of Provence pitted them against the Benedictine monastic order who waged a polemical war which cast the Saracens in an Apocalyptic context, which then fed into legendary traditions.

Guillaume was one of several historical prototypes for the personage of Guillaume d’Orange the hero of the most important cycle of Chansons de Geste. This poetic tradition presented him as a great warrior leading Frankish armies against the Saracens in the time of Charlemagne’s immediate successor, Louis the Pious.

In epic poems such as Le Charroi de Nîmes, La Prise d’Orange and La Chevalerie de Vivien, Guillaume fought against massive Saracen armies who had invaded the region. In one poem, Alyscans, battle is waged on the very site of the necropolis itself.

Alyscans WP 009Archbishop Turpin’s History of Charlemagne and Roland tells us that it was at Arles that Charlemagne rejoined the Burgundian army in the aftermath of Roncevaux. Charlemagne had gone first to Blaye to entomb Roland.

The History recounts that, “the Burgundians had seperated from us at Ostabat and had arrived by way of Morlaas and Toulouse with their dead and wounded who they had transported on horseback, litters and carts to bury them in the cemetery of the Alyscans”.

Burgundy had been a separate realm in the Frankish domains from the fifth century, reaching from Troyes in the north as far as the Mediterranean. For a period in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, Arles had been assumed into the kingdom. Therein must lie an explanation for why the Burgundians might choose to bury their dead at Arles. The Alyscans would be the nearest important consecrated site within their own lands.

The confusion inherent in identifiying the heroes of early French epic legend precludes much solid conviction in distinguishing which paladins were of Burgundian origin.

Alyscans WP 002

Of those mentioned by name two, Sanson de Bourgogne and Auberi le Bourgouin bear the epithet of Burgundy. A third, Estout de Langres was a lord of the Burgundian domain.

Some were of the tradition represented by the cycle of the Chansons de Geste of Guillaume d’Orange set in Provence, such as Esturmi and Arnaud de Beaulande who, in Turpin’s account had killed the Saracen king Aigolandus at the battle of Pamplona.

These named paladins were illustrious figures in the early medieval imagination. According to the History, both Sanson de Bourgogne and Naimes of Bavaria led ten thousand men each into battle under Charlemagne. Yvorius was killed by the Saracen king of Saragossa, Marsilius.

The Tours Road to Santiago de Compostela was most redolent of the Roncevaux mythology, with its shrines at Saint Seurin, Blaye and Belin. With the tradition of the burials at the Alyscans, the Toulouse Road was also availed of its own martyrs who sprang from the same legendary source.

As the author of the Pilgrim’s Guide writes of the Alyscans, “In effect, the remains of numerous holy martyrs are resting there, while their souls rejoice already in the paradisiacal realm”.

Biblio: Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145. Les légendes épiques : recherches sur la formation des chansons de geste. Bédier, Joseph, 1914. History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014. The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela Melczer Italica Press New York 1993. An abbot between two cultures: Maiolus of Cluny considers the Muslims of La Garde-Freinet. Scott G. Bruce, Early Medieval Europe Volume 15, Issue 4, pages 426–440, November 2007


Arles-St-Honorat-church-VLSThere were seven churches at the Alyscans, the ancient necropolis where pilgrims congregated before setting out on the Toulouse Road to Compostela. In the Pilgrim’s Guide it was written that “the remains of numerous holy martyrs and confessors are resting there”.

These relics were powerful enough to assure salvation at the final Resurrection. One of the seven was the imposing pilgrimage church of Saint Honoratus, a founder of western monasticism, whose mortal remains were held in the crypt.

Arle-St-Honor-tower-from-saThe body of Honoratus was entombed at the Alyscans following his death in the late 420’s in a church which was dedicated at that time to Saint Genesius.

According to his biographer Hilarius of Arles, Honoratus was so revered in his lifetime that the whole city of Arles came out to be near his body. “Who, from within the walls of our city, did not come to this church, as though stricken by a personal grief? The people considered it a privilege to have touched his bier or to have carried it on their shoulders”, it was declared.

Hilarius was a close disciple of Honoratus and was his immediate successor as bishop of Arles. His account of the life of Honoratus was delivered in the form of  funerary sermon on the first anniversary of his death. He describes how the townspeople of Arles snatched pieces of the shroud as the body was being conducted to the tomb, considering the cloth to be sanctified by its contact with the body.

Already by the time of his death, it appears, that like Saint Martin, Honoratus was considered a saint. As Hilarius wrote: “it is a rare confidence which is given to us by the Grace which surrounds his tomb, as we are certain that he whose relics we have conserved here, protects us in heaven.

By the twelfth century a new Romanesque building dedicated to Honoratus had replaced the original church.  Pilgrims at Arles were enjoined to venerate his relics:  “In the cemetery of the said city, the assistance of the Blessed Honoratus, bishop, should be invoked”.

Honoratus followed quickly in the wake of Saint Martin and Saint Augustine in founding one of the first monastic communities in western Europe.

Lerins-WP-2A date of 410 has been given for his arrival at the island of Lerins on the coast of Provence. He was accompanied by a small group of followers to this small deserted island, reputedly infested with serpents. It was said that “He went forward without fear and dissipated by his assurance the fears of his companions”.

Miraculously, the serpents fled and the previously dry island now flowed with sweet water.

This miracle story was intended to associate Honoratus with the Seventy Disciples of the Gospel of Luke: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you”.

St-Honorat-Sarc-3Initially the monks lived separately in small cells dotted around Lerins but already by 427,  Saint John Cassian, who visited the island then, recorded that the initial group had swollen its ranks to form an “immense community”.

Word of Honoratus’ monastery spread throughout Gaul very quickly and it was soon accepting newcomers from as far as northern France. It’s reputation was of a brilliant monastic school and many who were later to hold high ecclesiastical office were formed in its vigorous intellectual atmosphere, including two bishops of Arles, Hilarius and Caesarius.

St-Honorat-Sarc-1Honoratus, himself was called to hold that office at the end of his life. The church at Arles was undergoing a period of strife at the time, the preceding bishop having been assassinated. Honoratus was to die only two years later.

Caesarius writing a hundred years later declared that “we firmly believe that he received martyrdom without enduring the passion”. In other words, Honoratus was a confessor saint, one who had achieved sanctity through his life rather than death.

Biblio: M. Labrousse, Saint Honiorat Fondateur de Lerins et Evêque d’Arles. Vie Monastique No. 31, Abbaye de Bellefontaine. W. Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane

Caesarius-of-ArlesPilgrims to Compostela travelling along the Toulouse Road were admonished to venerate the relics of Saint Caesarius of Arles.

Despite of the extreme brevity of his entry in the Pilgrim’s Guide, through his many writings and celebrated life, Saint Caesarius was remembered as the leading man of the church during one of its most defining periods in the first half of the sixth century.

He was archbishop of Arles for forty years during a particularly tumultuous time in its history. During his tenure which began in 503, four separate Germanic peoples vied for control of the region. First the Burgundians and the Visigoths and then Ostrogoths controlled the city which was finally ruled by the  Merovingian Franks from 536. In particular, a war of 507 was particularly harsh on the inhabitants.

In this difficult environment, Caesarius managed to combine strong qualities of statesmanship with a common touch which endeared him to the people. He was known to free captives by selling church ornaments to pay ransoms. Even during his lifetime he had a considerable reputation as a miracle worker.

On one occasion, in order to relieve a period of drought, he was said to have trapped the wind from the sea in his hand glove and released it over a dry valley which then became fertile.

Caesarius’ life is well documented because of his own prolific writing and the hagiography written by his disciple Saint Cyprien.

Lerins ChapelBorn  into the fifth century Gallo-Roman landed gentry, Caesarius left his family home in Burgundy to enter the monastic life on the island of Lerins off the coast of Provence. Saint Honoratus had founded the first community of monks there in 410 and the monastery was soon established as an important academy for illustrious men of the church.

The fervour with which he applied himself to his devotions caused the young Caesarius to fall foul of his fellow monks. When acting as the monastery’s cellarer he decided that the meals offered to the monks were not sufficiently frugal and Caesarius withheld rations accordingly.

He was sent to Arles where he was taken under the wing of bishop Aeonius and made prior of a monastery on an island in the Rhône.

After Aeonius’s death, Caesarius was elected archbishop. He soon found himself in conflict politically and theologically. On the political front  he was exiled by the Visigothic ruler Alaric II, after being accused of siding with the Burgundians. _Arles-Cl-TS-3After a year Caesarius managed to clear his name and was reinstated. It was not long before he ran into trouble with the new Ostrogothic ruler Theoderic, who had him imprisoned in 512. Again, he was released after he had pleaded his cause.

Caesarius was very active in the debate over the heresy of semi-Pelagianism, arguing at the Council of Orange in 529, that man could not be predestined to evil.

Generally considered to be the first western cleric to receive the Papal pallium, this was a mark of the exceptional esteem Caesarius enjoyed at Rome.  This attribute, a woollen band worn over the head and draping down in the form of a Y, was originally reserved for the Papacy only.

During his long term in office, Caesarius was very active in defining the nature and role of the Church in society at a time when Western civilisation was at a crossroads.

Among his numerous works, he established a monastic rule for convents which was the most widely used until it was superceded by the Benedictine Rule.

The Guide erroneously tells us that Caesarius was a martyr, however this is not the case. After the Franks had succeeded in taking over Arles, he retired from public life. His relics were kept at the cathedral of Saint Trophime at Arles.

Biblio. W Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrims journeying to Compostela on the Toulouse Road were able to venerate the mortal remains of a major saint who had been, according to tradition, a disciple and  travelling companion of Saint Paul.Arles-Fac-Apostles-L It was written that Trophimus had been directed by the Apostle Peter to evangelise Gaul. He was the first bishop of Arles and his relics were held in the cathedral.

As a direct link to the original Apostolic Mission, Trophimus was held in the highest esteem. This perception is graphically rendered in the sculpture of the west facade of the cathedral where Trophimus is admitted into the college of the Apostles standing alongside James of Compostela.

The Pilgrim’s Guide declares that travellers: “Must visit in Arles the remains of the Blessed Trophimus the confessor.”

Arles-Fac Troph 1-

Trophimus was ordained by Saint Paul himself. “He was the first one to be directed to the said city to preach the Gospel of Christ”, continued the text of the Guide.

Arles had long been an important Roman administrative centre and in 412 its bishopric became the Metropolitan See for the whole of Gaul.

Trophimus is mentioned by name in the Acts of The Apostles.After Paul was driven from Ephesus he travelled with a select band of eight disciples whom he joined at Troas.

From there they journeyed on to Miletus where, Paul wrote in his Second Epistle to Timothy that he was obliged to leave behind Trophimus who had fallen sick.

The twelfth century tradition held that Trophimus had rejoined Paul in Spain when Saint Peter intervened and directed him to evangelise Gaul.

Trophimus’ bishopric had in reality occurred at some point in the third century. A general tendency to idealise the evangelisation of Gaul and antedate it to the time of the first Apostles  meant that during the medieval period, his conflation with Paul’s disciple was accepted. Trophimus-Canon-1-WP Such a direct and intimate link to the original Apostolic mission meant that Trophimus’ mortal remains were highly revered. Initially his relics were kept in a tomb at the cemetery of Honoratus, part of the Alyscans.

During the tenth century they were transferred to the cathedral of Arles, then under the patronym of Saint Stephen but shortly to be renamed the cathedral of Saint Trophimus.

Trophimus was a confessor saint who had, according to Gregory of Tours, passed his life “In great holiness, winning many people over to the church”.

In the twelfth century a large new cathedral church was constructed and the relics of Trophimus were ceremoniously translated there in 1152.

The Rhône River was a vital trade artery of the ancient world connecting the Mediterranean with northern Europe. Its delta region was exploited early on and the Greeks founded a flourishing colony at Marseilles on its eastern edge. Later Arles grew to be an important centre of Roman power.

Rhone-2-copyWhere trade went, so stories, myths and religious traditions followed. The cult of the goddess Artemis was brought by Ephesians and the tradition of Mary Magdalene designated the region as the place she came to, fleeing persecution in Palestine.

The cults of numerous saints flourished. Trophimus, Honoratus, Genesius, Martha, Caesarius, Mary Salomé and Mary Jacoby and others.

The river itself was associated with numerous legends. The Tarasque dragon which lived in the river terrorising the local people until it was slain by Saint Martha. Genesius, the cephalorous martyr threw his own head into the river.

Alyscans-3-WPHowever, it was its proximity to the great necropolis of the Alyscans which gave the mythology of the Rhône a particular meaning.

Situated at a sharp bend in the river it was a place where driftwood and detritus would be washed ashore. So grew a tradition or legend that the dead placed in boats or barges could be floated downstream from the upper reaches to come to ground by the burial field.

A coin placed in the mouth of the deceased was intended for the funerary rites at the legendary and hallowed necropolis. Thus the vast and turbid river acquired Stygian connotations and the Roman writer Strabo recorded that it passed underground.

The river Styx, according to ancient mythology, connected earth with the underworld. Alyscans-Sarc-HeadThe dead were transported across it waters by Charon the ferryman. A coin in the mouth of the dead was his fee.

This coin was known as an Obol and Charon’s Obol was part of funerary rites throughout the classical ancient  and Celtic world continuing even into the Christian era.

The Alyscans is mentioned at length in the Pilgrims Guide as a place so sacred that the numerous saintly relics entombed there would guarantee intercession of sufficient power to ensure salvation at the end of time.

Biblio: W Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela.  R Heggen, Underground Rivers

Arles is generally considered the first substantial station on the Toulouse Road and tradition has it that pilgrims congregated beyond its city walls at the ancient necropolis of the Alyscans before making their way to the cathedral.

Just twenty miles from the Mediterranean shore, the city of Arles is situated on the main branch of the Rhône river as it spreads to form the broad plain of its delta region. It was an important crossroads of trade and culture from Roman times.

At Arles, the Via Aurelia which connected Rome with Southern France ended at the eastern gate. The city was linked to Spain by the Via Domitia. The fluvial axis of the Rhône was the main artery between the Mediterranean world and the North.

The proliferation of important Roman buildings, including an amphitheatre, circus, and a triumphal arch are testament to the existence of a thriving city known as Arelate. It was regularly used as a temporary seat of government by a succession of emperors, notably Constantine the Great.

The unusually high concentration of celebrated reliquary shrines in its immediate vicinity would have been sufficient in itself to afford Arles its elevated status as a pilgrimage station of high order but this was added to the town’s association with the very beginnings of Christianity in Roman Gaul. As early as 417 it was elected Metropolitan see of the Gallic church.

Its connection to the Compostelan pilgrimage was fundamental. This is strikingly illustrated by the sculpture of the Emmaus story in the cathedral cloister. Here one of the favourite St-Trophime-Pilgrim-1themes of Romanesque art depicts the story of Christ’s appearance to two followers after the Crucifixion.

To the right of the figure of Christ one of the disciples is shown with the badge of the pilgrim to Santiago, the scallop shell displayed on his pointed bonnet.

During the medieval period,  having venerated the numerous saintly relics at the Alyscans, notably those of Caesarius and Honoratus, pilgrims would proceed to the cathedral in order to visit the tomb of the confessor Saint Trophimus, whose mortal remains were translated there from the Alyscans in great ceremony in 1152.

The cathedral’s western façade features life size sculptures of the College of the Apostles each holding the Gospel Texts with their names inscribed. Trophimus’ inclusion is a reference to his Apostolic status, conferred by the mission given to him personally by Peter and Paul to evangelise Gaul.

On their way out of Arles, pilgrims were able to stop by the tall marble column in the village of Trinquetaille, which still bore the blood stains of the martyr Genesius.

Genesius had been the victim of a wave of persecutions in the early fourth century and was a highly regarded saint who captured the popular imagination. Several writers from Late Antiquity had noted the powerful miracle working effects of the relics and the numbers of pilgrims who chose to be buried next to them in order to await the final Resurrection.

alyscamps-1 The Alyscans is the Provencal name for the Elysean Fields. This was the name given to the ancient burial ground on the edge of the city of Arles, which became the starting point of the Toulouse Road to Santiago de Compostela.

The Romans had used it as a major necropolis and right up to the city gates row upon row of stone tombs stretched a great distance either side. Through it ran the road which linked Rome with Arles, the Aurelian Way.

A hallowed site and much prized as a resting place for the dead, it was an old custom to transport the deceased there from the upper reaches of the Rhone. Situated on a sharp bend in the river, boats would run aground  a short distance away from the cemetery. The custom arose of placing the dead in a shallow boat  floated downstream, a coin clamped in the mouth to pay for the funeral rite. The stone cutters and carvers of Arles had a deserved reputation for their skill in making ornately carved burial sacrophagi.

alyscamps-st-honorat-pictBy the middle ages it was a Christian cemetery with seven churches. The now ancient stone tombs were believed to hold the relics of martyrs, the more ornate the decoration of the sacrophagous, the more illustrious  the saint. Legend declared that the fallen Frankish warriors of Roncevaux lay buried here. Moreover, adding another layer of sanctity to the already sacred site was the  notion that actual battle had  taken place at the Alyscans when forces led by the warrior monk Saint Guilhem defeated a large Saracen army there.

Among the celebrated saints entombed at the Alyscans were Honoratus, founder of the first monastic community of western Europe; Genesius a martyr of Roman persecution whose relics were widely considered to be especially powerful and Caesarius, the sixth century archbishop of Arles who had grasped a sea wind in his hand and released it on a barren valley thereby rendering it fruitful.

At this site of exceptional mythical status, the pilgrims to Compostela congregated as they set out on their journey by the Toulouse Road. The Guide urged them to make use of the intercessory power that was present, so that the pilgrim “may be certain to have those pious deceased lying there intercede for his salvation in the presence of God at the final Resurrection”.