Skip navigation

Category Archives: Toulouse Road

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


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

From the summit of the Alpilles hills of Provence, one can survey the broad delta of the Rhone river extending below. Just as one reaches level ground, one finds the chapel of Saint Gabriel, all that remains of a settlement whose history goes back to pre-Roman times and was known as Eragnium. To the west is the great river and a short distance upstream, the reliquary church of Sainte Martha at Tarascon.

Pilgrims travelling from Aix-en-Provence towards the great shrine of Saint Trophimus Alpilles-6and the Alyscans would have stopped at the town of Saint Gabriel to embark on shallow boats which ferried them across the watery marshland which separated them from Arles.

Mentioned in a charter of the abbey of Saint Victor of Marseilles in 1030, the town had prospered since Roman times because of its strategic location at the western edge of the Alpilles hills where roads coming down the Durance valley and the Aurelian way met the natural obstacle of the delta marshland.  This stretch was navigable only by the special rafts constructed with inflated floats to enable them to move over the very shallow water.

 St-Gabriel-GVThe surrounding marshland has long since been drained and the church, now the sole vestige of the medieval town, resembles some stranded sea vessel set on a rocky promontory among the olive groves and cypress trees.

 The quality of workmanship of the single naved building and the extent of its sculptural decoration seem strangely disproportionate to the isolation of its surroundings but it is these very features which provide testimony to the once thriving community which existed there and  whose remains are now barely in evidence save for the long flight of worn stone steps leading up to the church porch.

 The singular impression is enhanced by the unusual design of the façade which takes some of its inspiration from the Roman amphitheatre at Arles and combines an elegant classicism with a rude sculptural style derived from paleo-Christian sarcophagi.

 St-Gabriel-Front-GVThe façade is made up of three distinct elements. The entrance is set back in a deep porch and above the door is a small tympanum with an exceptional iconographic programme which combines Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.

 Above the tympanum is a fronton surmounted by an Agnus Dei and featuring a bas-relief frieze divided by three arcades and depicting Saint Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin and the Visitation.

 The third element of the façade’s composition is an oculus surrounded by the tetramorphic symbols of the four evangelists.

 

Biblio: J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane

The twelfth century church of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is situated on a low lying rocky outcrop amid the sandy plain of the Camargue region of the Rhône delta. Today, because of the incursion of the sea it stands right by the littoral but during the medieval period it was a further distance inland.

An oratory at the site, built over a sweet water source, is first mentioned in the testament of Caesarius of Arles in the fifth century. Vestiges exist of earlier cults at the location. According to the Greek historian Strabo, a line of protective towers was built along this section of shore by the Phocaean settlers of Marseille and was served by a temple to the Goddess Artemis whose cult they had brought to Provence from Ephesus. The site of the temple appears to have been located at the same point as the present church.

In 1078 the church known as Sainte-Marie-de-Ratis and dependent on the monastery of Saint Caesarius was donated to the abbey of Montmajour. In 1114 it was rededicated as Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer.

The counts of Provence maintained an interest in the monastic buildings at Notre-Dame which were fortified and presented a strategic value in protecting Arles against Saracen raids from the sea.

The Benedictine monks of Montmajour, itself an important pilgrimage centre were installed at Notre-Dame. It was during this period that an oral tradition appears to have taken root concerning the disembarcation there in the first century of important figures from the Gospel fleeing persecution from the Roman authorities in Palestine. This legend was only set down in writing in 1212 by Gervais of Tilbury, the administrator of the Kingdom of Arles, although there were earlier accounts which placed the arrival of the group at Marseille.

The church of Notre-Dame had been built and consecrated, “By disciples chased from Judaea and carried over the sea on a boat without oars, Maximin of Aix, Lazarus of Marseille brother of Martha and Mary of the Gospel, the consecration taking place in the presence of Martha, Mary-Magdalene and many others”.

Gervais described “in a tradition full of authority” that the altar contained the heads of six saintly bodies laid out in the form of a square “In the middle of which it is affirmed are buried the two Marys who on the first Sabbath came with perfume to visit the Tomb”.

These two saintly relics were therefore the Myrrophores, the women who brought perfume to anoint the body of the Crucified Christ. Mary Jacoby, mother of James brother of Jesus and Mary Salomé, mother of the Sons of Zebedee, that is John the Evangelist and the Apostle of Compostela, Saint James. The third Myrrophore was Mary-Magdalene, whose relics were then believed to be at Vézelay in Burgundy.

According to the Gospel of Mark these three were the discoverers of the Empty Tomb and the first to learn that Christ had risen.

The legend of the existence of the body of the mother of the Apostle of Compostela at this point was given added further weight by the tradition of his preaching in Catalonia, at Barcelona and then later at Zaragossa, both stories combining so that Saint James would have travelled to Provence at the same time as his mother and Mary-Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and the rest of the disciples.

The church became known as Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and because of the presence of the relics of Mary Salomé attracted pilgrims who took a branch route of the Toulouse Road at Arles to visit the church by the sea.

The Toulouse road to Santiago de Compostela had a number of variants. The Book of Saint James mentions several places along the way, notably Saint Guilhem, Montpellier and Saint Thibéry which already indicate at least one, if not more alternatives through Languedoc to reach the shrine of Saint Saturninus at Toulouse from Saint Gilles.

One of these adopted the old Celtic road from Nîmes to Toulouse. Following the course of the valley of the Orb river in order to negotiate the rugged mountain terrain, the route passed by the abbey of Villemagne and its dependent priory of Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes. Reaching the priory of Saint-Julien at Olargues where the Orb turns sharply south, the road westward to Toulouse lies along the valley of the Jaur to the abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières.

The abbey of Saint-Pons was a hugely influential and powerful monastic centre heading its own federation of  dependent monasteries, many of them beyond the Pyrenees in Spain. An indication of the regard in which the monastery  was held can be guaged by the attendance of Pope Urban II at the dedication ceremony of the new church building in 1096 as he made his way from Clermont, where he had addressed the Frankish aristocracy with his call to the First Crusade.

Already in 1094, the abbot Frotard had been one of the group of  significant clerical figures at the consecration of the new church of San Juan de la Peña, the royal Aragonese abbey and a key institution in the Spanish Reconquista. One of the dependent monasteries in Spain belonging to Saint-Pons-de-Thomières was San Pedro el Viejo, donated by Pedro Ist of Aragon after it was conquered from the Moors.

The abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières had been founded in 936 by Raymond III Count of Toulouse. Previously, at this location close by the source of the Jaur river, there had been a hermitage dedicated to Saint Martin. One year after the foundation of the new monastery, Raymond and his wife Garcinda,  daughter of the Count of Narbonne had arranged the translation of the relics of Saint Pons from Cimiez,  site of his martyrdom in 257 in the region of Nice, henceforth becoming the new patron.

Raymond and Garcinda had also requested the assistance of the monks of Saint-Géraud d’Aurillac to help them establish their new foundation. Aurillac had a strong Cluniac tradition having itself been established under the influence of the great Burgundian abbey.

With the arrival of the relics of Saint Pons a flow of donation began which led to the abbey growing in considerable wealth. Their greatest abbot, Frotard held the position of head of the abbey for thirty-eight year until his death in 1099.

With the ever increasing influx of pilgrims and its position as a station on the Compostelan road a new larger church building was required. It was this building which was dedicated by Urban II.

Emerging from the lagoons of the Camargue and facing the broad expanse of the open sea stands a tall imposing edifice, the fortified cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Maguelone. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis who visited the site in the twelfth century described it as “A narrow island, uninhabited but for the bishop, his priests and a small retinue. It is simple, isolated and impoverished but well fortified against the attacks of the Saracens, who do not cease to infest the seas.”

Situated a short distance from the old Roman road which led from Arles to Béziers and Spain, Maguelone’s cathedral stands opposite Montpellier on the other side of the highway. Beyond, along the road lay the abbey of Saint-Thibéry towards which pilgrims to Compostela were headed.

The Guide specifies that those taking the Toulouse Road to Galicia pass via Montpellier, where there was a celebrated cult at Notre-Dame-des-Tables. Maguelone had no important relic cult itself, but situated as it was by the pilgrimage road between the important shrines at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Saint-Thibéry it was, together with its dependent priories in the locality, a part of the supportive fabric of that particular section of the way. As the great ecclesiastical centre of the region it was an important player in the affairs of the day.

Originally, Maguelone was an island of volcanic origin set in the middle of the Melgueil lagoon, accesible only by boat until the construction in the eleventh century of a stone and wooden bridge spanning a distance over the water of one kilometre.

This small volcanic island in the midst of the Camargue was a centre of religious cult since prehistory and its origins as the seat of a bishopric go back to at least the end of the sixth century. After a chequered history, its period of greatest prestige coincided with the height of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the middle of the twelfth century

The cathedral and its buildings had been razed by Charles Martel in 737 in a defensive manoeuvre after the island had fallen into Saracen hands and was being used as a base for their incursions into Septimania. The inhabitants and the bishop resettled on the mainland and the see was transferred to the town of Substantion where it remained for three centuries. Maguelone was abandoned and forgotten during the period of the Carolingian renaissance in favour of the developing monastic centres at Gellone and Aniane and the growing prosperity of Montpellier. Its feudal lords, the counts of Maguelone and Melgueil resided elsewhere.

It was not until the eleventh century that Maguelone was restored to its former eminence under bishop Arnaud who had applied to Rome for assistance in rebuilding the cathedral which according to Pope John XIX, “had been reduced to nothing”. The church was rebuilt and the channel on the south side leading to the sea which had provided an easy landing point for Saracen invaders was filled in and replaced by a narrower passage facing eastwards.

In 1085, under the influence of the reforms of Pope Gregory the Great, the feudal lord of Maguelone, Count Pierre de Melgueil donated all their rights over the bishopric to Rome and thereafter the cathedral became a close ally of the Papal See. When Urban II visited on his tour of 1096, he referred to Maguelone as the second church after Rome and accorded a plenary indulgence to all who were buried on the island. A number of Popes resided as guests of the bishop, notably Calixtus II, purported author of Libri Sancti Iacobi, in 1119.

It was Pons, scion of the Megueil family who was raised to the position of one of the most powerful figures of Western Christendom, the abbacy of Cluny. Although the period of his rule from 1109 until 1122 occurred during a particularly fractious period in the history of the Burgundian monastery, Pons was actively involved in the negotiations which took place in 1120 to raise the see of Santiago de Compostela to metropolitan status.

In the middle ages, Montpellier was celebrated for a cult centered on a miraculous Black Madonna.

According to the Pilgrims Guide the southernmost French route to Santiago de Compostela “Crosses Saint-Gilles, Montpellier, Toulouse and the pass of Somport”.  This is the route generally known as the Toulouse Road, and as with its description of the other three French routes, the Guide is brief in the extreme. Historians and specialists have attempted to add more definition to these routes by including information provided in the chapter which lists the saintly relics of the road recommended for veneration. Montpellier is anomalous in this context in that there is no mention of a cult. As at Notre-Dame-du-Puy, there was a celebrated Marian cult in existence in the twelfth century but unlike in the example of Le Puy en Velay, it is not included in the designation given in the Guide.

After Arles and Saint-Gilles, pilgrims to Compostela continued to Spain by way the shrine of Saint Saturninus at Toulouse some taking the road which led them up into the mountains to reach the abbey of Gellone while others continued along the Roman Domitian highway towards Béziers and Narbonne. This route crossed Montpellier.

The origins of the city lie in the period of Saracen invasion of the region and the destruction of the nearby cathedral island town of Maguelone by Charles Martel to prevent the Saracens from using it as a foothold in the region. Refugees were drawn to Montpellier and the neighbouring town of Substantion. A good number came from Moorish Spain and the town was able to benefit from the rich cultural mix provided by this new population. This led to its development as one of the great centres of learning of the middle ages exemplified by its celebrated medical school.

The cult of the Virgin was celebrated in the church of Notre-Dame-des-Tables, so-called because of the tables used by the money lenders in the immediate vicinity. Returning from the First Crusade, Guilhem V de Montpellier brought with him two notable items. The relics of Cleopas, a disciple of the Road to Emmaus and a black Madonna which he donated to the church of Notre-Dame.

In the early ninth century the Count of Substantion had paid for the construction of a small church at Montpellier dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Consecrated in 817 by Ricuinus Ist, bishop of the abandoned cathedral of Maguelone it was established on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the Goddess Vesta. Vesta was the Goddess of the flame of the hearth. It is worth noting that the likelihood of a preexisting Druidic cult is not to be ruled out and the  Celtic name for fire “visc” would provide an etymological  link to add to the religious one of Vesta and Virgin, given that the cult of Vesta involved a sacred fire which was maintained by the priestesses of the temple who were obliged to pursue a regime of chastity, the Vestal Virgins. The sacred fire was for the protection of the city.

The most striking of the miracle stories to emerge from Notre-Dame-des-Tables seems to be the product of long tradition. When Montpellier was affected by an outbreak of plague which was decimating the town, in the fourteenth century, the inhabitants constructed an enormous circular candle with which they surrounded the city walls and set to burn. In ceremony they wound up the giant burning candle and processed to the church where it was laid before the altar. As the flame diminished so did the plague.

Vesta was referred to as Mater, the Mother who had a beneficent influence on the argicultural cycle, a reflection of this can be detected in another of the Virgin of Montpellier’s miracles. During a time when great drought threatened the harvest of the region, the Magestat Antiqua was taken in procession to the river Lez and ritually submerged. By the time the black Madonna was returned to the altar at Notre-Dame-des-Tables, the rains had already come.

The miracles of Notre-Dame-des-Tables were well known throughout medieval western Christendom. In the early thirteenth century the Cistercian chronicler, Caesarius of Heisterbach wrote, “There is at Montpellier a church dedicated to Saint Mary where the cures are so numerous and so brilliant and to which, the doctors, in spite of the resources of their famous school send their patients”.

The medieval churches of Montpellier suffered greatly during the French Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Notre-Dame-des-Tables was attacked three times, finally in 1794, leaving nothing apart from the crypt and a fragment of Romanesque sculpture.

In the valley of the Orb river in the mountainous Languedoc region of southern France is the crossroads of two ancient Celtic routes.

At this intersection the road from Nîmes to Toulouse meets the road traveling from Béziers to Cahors. Long the site of busy traffic, it had been the location of a temple surrounded by a protective network of fortified emplacements. By the late tenth century the temple had been replaced by a priory of monks dependent on the nearby abbey of  Saint-Majan-de-Villemagne.

The priory of Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes was one of several monastic establishments along the route leading westwards from Nîmes towards Toulouse and used by pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela along the Via Tolosana after having made the visit to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, one of the stops indicated by the Pilgrim’s Guide.

From there, the road led via the abbeys of Joncels and Villemagne to the junction at Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes. It  was then possible to take the northern route by adopting the Béziers-Cahors road to the abbey of Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare where another road turns westwards to Toulouse by way of Brassac and La Salvetat-sur-Agout.  The southern route through the Languedoc mountains continued from Saint-Pierre along the Orb valley to the important abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières and Castres before reaching Toulouse and the great shrine of Saint Saturninus.

The church’s singular appearance arises from the unusual combination of  several stylistic strains which went into its creation and which may be an effect of the strategic position it occupied. One can detect a noticeable Lombard influence such as can be seen at the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le Désert only short distance away. More surprising is an apparent similarity with churches from the Velay region around Notre-Dame-du-Puy.

Both western and southern porches feature tympana of a most original design. These feature a cross formed out of inlaid stone marquetry. By alternating black volcanic basalt and sandstone,  two cruciform images are represented. Over the southern entrance, the crosses  are surrounded by two circles of alternating stone and a sawtooth arch of triangular section of the dark stone. This form of stone inlay marquetry suggests the influence of the Auvergne and the churches at Le Puy.

Beneath the tympanum is a lintel featuring crudely carved hieroglyphic figures which have been identified as Arabic letters although crouched human and animal figures can be discerned. The columns are of antique origin, suggesting that they have been reemployed from the earlier pre-Christian sanctuary.

High up at the rear of the church, on the apse is a crudely sculpted human form of rather mysterious significance. It has been proposed that this figure, apparently equipped with a staff and gourd might be a pilgrim, a notion which gains credibility by virtue of the fact that we are on the pilgrimage road between Saint-Gilles and Saint-Sernin.  To the left, this personage has the attributes of another staff similar to a bishop’s crosier and a square object with a handle which may be a key. These have led to suggestions of a representation of Saint Peter. With arms outstretched this figure is in the orant pose, the prayer position for intercession more commonly used in Byzantine depictions.

After Saint Thibéry, pilgrims to Compostela travelling along the old Domitian highway reached the Roman bridge across the Orb river where the city of Béziers was perched on the heights above.

Béziers was an episcopal town with illustrious relics and numerous churches and monastic foundations.

According to the legends of Charlemagne’s exploits in Spain, it was told that having liberated the shrine of the Apostle Saint James at Compostela, the emperor built five churches in France dedicated to the Apostle with the wealth he brought back from Spain. One of these was at Béziers. As the fifth book of the Codex of Calixtus, the History Charlemagne and Roland recounts, “With the gold and the wealth that the kings and princes of Spain gave and presented”, Charlemagne constructed the first church at Compostela dedicated to the Apostle. The chronicle continues by telling us that, “With the rest of the gold and silver that he brought from Spain he constructed many churches on his return to France”. Of these, five were dedicated to the Apostle of Compostela, including, “another church of Saint James in the city of Beziers”.

The church of Saint Jacques at Béziers, first recorded in 967, was part of an important abbey whose abbot was lord of an entire suburb of the city which included a hospital, presumably dedicated to the welfare of Compostelan pilgrims.

Also at Béziers was a church dedicated to Mary-Madgalene as well as the relics of Saint Aphrodisius who was claimed as the first bishop of the city. Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, relates that Aphrodisius was an Egyptian who had sheltered the Holy Family during the flight to Egypt and later became a disciple. Tradition also holds that Aphrodisius was one of the disciples who fled to Provence by boat with the family of Bethany. Along with Sergius Paulus, first bishop of Narbonne, Aphrodisius set out to evanglise Septimania, arriving at Béziers mounted on a camel.  Encountering the persecution of the Roman authorities, he was beheaded under the orders of Nero. His sanctity was confirmed when he raised himself up and carried his head in the tradition of cephalorous saints of whom Saint Denis is the most celebrated example. After his body was buried the inhabitants continued to care for Aphrodisius’ camel as a mark of their acceptance of his preaching. In 858 Usuard the monk of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près author of a well-known martyrology travelled through Béziers describing it as “An illustrious city by reason of the relics of blessed Aphrodisius”.

Béziers also maintained a shrine to Saint Nazarius, traditionally considered another martyr of Nero’s persecutions,  at the cathedral which was dedicated to him.

The unwitting visitor today will register a sense of some surprise as they pass through the narrow non-descript streets of the town of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard into a small square and suddenly find themselves in the presence of a massive, ornately carved church façade of a rare grandeur, all the more imposing for the banality of its surroundings.

Closer inspection will reveal that the faces of the stone carved figures have been systematically and most efficiently removed by some violent means. It can be reasonably said that no other standing religious edifice bears such severe scars from the turmoil which its presence apparently incited.

This is the abbey church of Saint-Gilles, great bastion of Cluny and it has been said, the fourth greatest pilgrimage destination of the medieval world after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Here were kept the relics of a hermit confessor saint who had lived some time in the eighth or ninth century, and whose cult had developed into one of real eminence in the medieval world.

Originally a monastery established in the seventh century dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, it was well located on a small defensible hill in the flat region of the Rhône delta on the banks of the Petit-Rhône equidistant between Nîmes and Arles. In the ninth century the monks arranged for the relics of Saint Gilles to be translated to the monastery and for the dedication to be changed to the new saint.

In 1066 the monastery was given over to Cluny by the local suzerain, the Countess of Nîmes, however this was greatly resented by the monks who only came to fully accept the authority of the Burgundian abbey after the intervention in 1077 of Pope Gregory VII.

So began the rise of Saint-Gilles into the most important monastic centre of Provence. Alongside Moissac and Vézelay it was one of only three Cluniac dependencies given the privilege of electing its own abbot.

Around the monastery a flourishing town of nine parishes grew up and its port became a great commercial hub. Genoans and Pisans competed for trade and the town boasted one hundred and thirty-five Italian and Jewish moneychangers.

Saint-Gilles was a veritable pilgrimage crossroads. As well as being a major destination in its own right, pilgrims used it as a point of departure for the sea journey to Rome and Jerusalem. In addition it was a rallying and embarcation point for Crusaders to the Holy Land. Perhaps most significantly, the abbey also benefited from the traffic to Spain and Compostela as a major station on the road between Arles and  Toulouse. Twelfth century chroniclers recorded the immense crowds that flocked there at times of festival. Benjamin of Tudela wrote “This town is a place of pilgrimage, visited by the inhabitants of distant countries and islands”

This prestigious position meant that the abbey and its town were the subject of continual dispute, between its own monks and the parent abbey of Cluny and the Counts of Toulouse all competing for control to the extent that the period of Saint-Gilles greatest success was one marked by a good deal of turbulence. The great building campaign inaugurated by Abbot Hugues of Cluny and consecrated by Pope Urban II in July 1096, was marked by long periods of disruption all through the twelfth century.

An eventful history saw the execution of heretics, the assassinations of Papal envoys and the ritual humiliation of one of the most powerful feudal lords of the day, all on the steps of the church. It culminated in 1562 with the capture and sacking of the abbey by Huguenots and the mutilation of the façade’s sculpture, the largest ensemble of Romanesque art in Languedoc, by means of precisely aimed musket fire.