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Category Archives: Tours Road

St-Seurin-6-WPAccording to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, there were two “hallowed and venerable cemeteries”. One was the Alyscans at Arles and the other was the necropolis of the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux. The abbey was presided over by canons of the Rule of Saint Augustine.

These cemeteries had been consecrated by the seven evangelisers of Gaul; Maximin of Aix, Trophimus of Arles, Paul of Narbonne, Saturninus of Toulouse, Front of Périgeux, Martial of Limoges and Eutropius of Saintes. It was to these burial grounds that Charlemagne took his fallen warriors to be entombed after the battle of Roncevaux.

St-Seurin-12-WPThe cemetery at Saint Seurin had developed around the tomb of Saint Severinus in the fourth century and by the middle ages it was a vast necropolis. Seurin was the patron of the city of Bordeaux, since 1058 the most important ecclesiastical centre in Aquitaine when it became the Metropolitan see.

Five thousand dead Frankish warriors were brought there in the aftermath of Roncevaux. Among them were several of the highest members of the Carolingian court.  Gaifier King of Bordeaux, the historic Visigothic ruler of Aquitaine, Lambert King of Bourges, Begon of Belin who was brother to Garin de Lorraine, Gaultier of Termes, Renaut of Aubespin, Guielin.

There was Duke Engelerus of Aquitaine who had led four thousand troops at the battle of Pamplona. The number of martyrs also included two of the twelve peers, Garin and Gerier.

Also taken to Bordeaux for burial were some of those who had died mysteriously and miraculously at the battle of Monjardin.

St-Seurin-22-WPDespite the sanctity conferred on the necropolis by the existence of so many Christian warrior martyrs at Saint Seurin, the Pilgrim’s Guide drew attention to one remarkable relic, the Olifant of Roland.

According to the Song of Roland, it was Charlemagne himself who had placed, on the altar of the abbey church, “the olifant, full of gold and mangions. Pilgrims who visit the place still see it”.

This was the ivory horn which Roland had sounded too late to prevent his own death. Reaching Charlemagne and the main body of the Frankish army which lay encamped in the valley of Valcarlos below the Cize Pass, the force of Roland’s call had caused the Olifant to split apart.

In doing so he sustained his mortal injuries, bursting the veins in his neck and temple. The Olifant was both the instrument of Roland’s martyrdom and with its Old Testament connotations, the symbolic voice of God.

The sounding of the horn had led ultimately to Charlemagne’s vengeance and the taking of Saragossa.

St-Seurin-13-WPAt the time of the writing of the Song of Roland, Saragossa was the great prize sought by the Crusaders of Spain who came to venerate the relic of the Olifant as they embarked on their succesful expedition to recover the city in 1118.

The relic of Roland’s horn formed a vital part of the Carolingian legacy on the Tours Road to Compostela, along with those relics at Blaye and Belin. The Olifant on view at the altar of the abbey of Saint-Seurin bore the unmistakable sign of its authenticity, as the Pilgrims’ Guide pointedly informs us: “His ivory horn parted thus in the middle is found in the basilica of the Blessed Seurin”.

Biblio: 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. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145. Autour de Saint-Seurin: lieu, mémoire, pouvouir. Des Premiers temps chrétiens à la fin du Moyen Âge – Actes du colloque de Bordeaux (12-14 octobre 2006) ed. Isabelle Cartron, Dany Barraud, Patrick Henriet, Anne Michel Bordeaux 2009 Ausonius Editions – Mémoires 21

The town of Belin was a natural way passage on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being as it was, on the Tours Road between Bordeaux and the Cize Pass over the Pyrenees.

According to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, once the Emperor had avenged the loss of his beloved nephew Roland at the battle of Roncevaux, his first task was to arrange suitable burials for the fallen heroes.

Mons-9-WPBoth the Pilgrims’ Guide and Turpin’s History tell us that a number of the martyred Paladins were buried in a single grave by the side of the old Roman road south of Bordeaux at a place called Belin.

Pilgrims were ordained to visit this grave where the Frankish warriors “lie together in a single grave from which emanates an extremely soft scent that heals the sick.”

At Belin an old Roman bridge carried travellers across the River Eyre. Nearby stood a castle, later to be the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine and a hospital set among a number of ancient burial tumuli. It was in one of these that the Paladins were buried. By the eleventh century a church, Saint Pierre de Mons, was erected over the site.

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The History tells us, “Joyful is the town of Belin adorned by so many barons who were buried there together.”

The most illustrious paladin to be buried at Belin, was Olivier the companion of Roland. Although later versions, including the Chanson de Roland place his tomb next to Roland’s at Blaye, it seems that there was a prior tradition of Olivier’s burial at Belin.

Count of Gennes, Olivier played an important role in Turpin’s history which records that he led three thousand of his men into battle at Pamplona. In the Song of Roland, as the close companion of the protagonist, Olivier is a vital figure. The central part of the narrative concerns a protracted debate about whether or not Roland should sound his horn, the Olifant to recall Charlemagne’s army to their aid.

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Olivier earns the epithet, the “wise one” as he urges Roland to do the reasonable thing and not hesitate.   Significantly, the specific manner of his death is recorded in the poem. He is flayed alive.

Although the History tells us that a large number of unidentified warriors were buried in the single grave, four paladins are singled out and mentioned by name. Despite the modest site of Belin they were figures of great renown in the Carolingian world: Gondebaud, Ogier, Arestain and Garin.

Three of them are mentioned in the description of Charlemagne’s army at the beginning of the History which listed the number of troops led by each paladin. Gondebaud King of Frisia led seven thousand, Arestain King of Brittany seven thousand and Garin Duke of Lorraine, four thousand.

Landes-River-Eyre-1-WPAll of the named heroes of the Belin burial site were known through other legendary epics. Ogier, King of Dacia sometimes referred to as King of Denmark was perhaps the most notable of these. The character of Ogier features in the cycle of the Geste de Doon de Mayence which deals largely with barons who rebelled against Charlemagne and eventually were reconciled. Ogier was very likely derived from a real life Autcherius and rather than being of Denmark would have been a lord of the Ardennes. Autcherius had been an ally of Charlemagne’s brother Carloman. In later legends Ogier became heroic Frankish warrior in the wars against the Saracens.

Olivier featured in many of the epic tales and is the central character in the poem Fierabras. This was another version of the epic of Charlemagne’s war against the Saracens based around a Moorish giant named Fierabras, similar to Ferracutus in Turpin’s History. In this account it is Olivier rather than Roland who defeats him in single combat and then converts the giant to Christianity. In another poem the Chanson de Girart de Roussillon, he is ordered to fight his friend Roland in order to settle a dispute between Charlemagne and Girart.

Mons-1-WPThe town of Belin was known through a cycle of epic legends which related the wars between Lorraine and Gascony which had taken place in the ninth century. It was Garin’s brother Begon, Lord of the castle of Belin who had caused a war between Lorraine and Gascony in the years before the reign of Charlemagne.

According to Turpin’s History the brothers became martyrs of Roncevaux, Begon buried at Saint Seurin and Garin at Belin.

The Pilgrim’s Guide describes the sandy wasteland south of Bordeaux as “a desolate region, deprived of all good”. While great care was made, according to the legends, to bury the warriors killed at Roncevaux in hallowed burial grounds such as the necropolises at Saint Seurin and the Alyscans, the interment at Belin suggests a hasty mass burial in unconsecrated ground.

Landes-Mist-6-WPThat Belin would be chosen for such a momentous site, with no seeming poetic or propagandist premise seems unaccountable unless there were some historical basis.

How and when a legend arose that a tumulus at Belin contained the bodies of martyrs of Roncevaux remains lost in the developing oral accounts which preceded their setting down in text. By the time of the compilation of the Jacobus in the twelfth century, the ancient burial grounds and the legendary traditions concerning them were, it seems already established.

The heroes buried at Belin were based on historical prototypes who had played significant roles during the Carolingian past and gone on to become figures of legend. By the eleventh century they had been assumed into the mythos of Roncevaux.

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. The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela Melczer Italica Press New York 1993

The church of Saint Etienne de Tauriac is situated a short distance from the Tours Road. It lies near the right bank of the Dordogne River midway between the major Compostelan halts of Blaye and Bordeaux.

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The sculptural ensemble of its west facade is especially enigmatic and original.
The structure of the existing church features elements from several  campaigns suggestive of rebuilding necessitated by the violent history of the Gironde region. Some elements date from the Paleo-Christian era and could originate from a very early church existing at the site.
The remarkable west facade dates from the late eleventh century or early twelfth.

Tauriac-Rider-2-WPThe style of the facade is in the arcaded style of churches of the Saintonge region and it bears some similarity with the church at Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Poitou, further north on the Tours Road. Notably in the two blinds arcades on either side of the main doorway. Each of the arcades features a sculpted tympanum.

The left hand tympanum features an equestrian figure, such as we have seen elsewhere on the Tours Road in an identical placement, as at Airvault and Parthenay. In the case of the rider at Tauriac, he holds a lance horizontally indicating the attitude of a charge. The tip of the lance features a pennant. The poor condition of the relief maybe the reason we see no crouching figure beneath the rider, as at Parthenay, Oloron and other sites where such an image is widely taken to represent the triumph over paganism, most often identified with the Emperor Constantine.
Tauriac-Rider1-WPHowever, taken together with the pointed lance, this absence of the figure of the pagan, draws us away from the Constantinian identification. Given the proximity of Tauriac to the burial sites of the fallen heroes of Roncevaux at Blaye, Saint Seurin of Bordeaux and Belin it seems eminently plausible to suggest that the equestrian figure actually represents a scene from the battle of Roncevaux, possibly even Roland himself.
Whereas at Parthenay the horseman is paired, on it’s opposing tympanum with Samson prising apart the jaws of a lion, at Tauriac the right hand tympanum features the Lamb of God.
Tauriac-Lamb-3Presented within a circular mandorla held by a pair of doves. The attitude of Lamb of Tauriac is contorted so that although facing right its head is turned round towards the left where a crucifix surmounts a standard. The Latin inscription on the mandorla and scroll beneath are from the Agnus Dei liturgy of the Eucharist.
Beneath a false lintel, two lions with scrolls emerging from their tails and jaws echo the twelve leafy scrolls surrounding the tympanum, symbolic of Christ as the Vine.
Tauriac-Lamb-1-WPThese clear Eucharistic references should not preclude wider signification, particularly with reference to other similar facades and not ignoring the location on the western end of the church.
The Lamb of Tauriac performs a similar function to the Samson at Parthenay, which is to symbolise Christ’s victory over Death.
In both cases, the emplacement of secular horseman indicates the military aspect of the Christian church during the Crusading era.
Biblio: Guyenne Romane, P Dubourg-Noves, Vol. 31 1969 La Nuit des Temps, Zodiaque

On the pilgrimage road to Compostela, the greatest relic of the Carolingian past was to be found on the Gironde estuary at the abbey church of Saint Romanus of Blaye on the Tours Road.

There, pilgrims were able to venerate the mortal remains of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew who was martyred at the battle of Roncevaux. This event was the narrative climax for the both, the Chanson de Roland and the History of Charlemagne and Roland, which was included in the Book of Saint James.

During the Carolingian period, the abbey of Blaye was the first significant monastic establishment to be reached on Frankish territory after traversing Gascony. This explains why it was deemed that Charlemagne would have deferred the burial of his most important paladin until he had crossed the estuary.

Blaye-3-WPTurpin’s History relates that, after the battle Charlemagne himself had arranged for Roland’s body to be swathed in a tapestry of gold and transported on two mules to Blaye.

Blaye was an Augustinian abbey dedicated to Romanus, a saint who had been entombed there by none other than Martin of Tours, the original patron of the Frankish monarchy.

Hugh of Fleury in 1109 attests to the existence of the tomb of Roland at Blaye and we can presume that pilgrims, who preferred passage over the Gironde by boat rather than negotiate the separate crossings of the great rivers downstream, would have made the tomb of Roland an important pilgrimage site.

The Chanson de Roland, held that Roland was entombed there with his companion Olivier. Charlemagne, the poem relates “Crosses the Gironde in the great ships found there and brought his nephew as far as Blaye, and Olivier too. In white coffins he has the lords placed.”

Blaye-2-WPThe History of Charlemagne tells us that “His sword was placed above his head, and his ivory horn at his feet.” The hero of Roncevaux was buried with the emblems of his martyrdom, the sword Durendal and the ivory horn, the Olifant.

Subsequently, the Olifant was to be ceremoniously translated to Saint-Seurin at Bordeaux.

Others of the Paladins were entombed at Blaye; Garin of Lorraine, Ogier of Denmark, Aristagnus of Brittany and Galdebode of Frisia.

According to Turpin’s History the emperor endowed the town with twelve thousand pieces of silver for the poor of the region as well as the liturgical rituals which were now to be devoted entirely to the memory of Roland and the Paladins.

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Blaye was a “Joyful town, graced with the sepulchres of so many heroes”.

The abbey of Saint Romanus was razed in the seventeenth century to make way for new defensive fortifications. Today the foundations of the church are still visible, revealing the original Merovingian crypt where Roland was supposed to have been entombed. These remains are evidence of a church of vast proportions.

Biblio: Blaye à grands traits – Du promontoire à la citadelle: 7000 ans d’histoire, Marie-Ange Landais, Les Cahiers du Vitrezais, Revue Archéologique, Historique et Littéraire des Hauts de Gironde No.92. The Interaction of Life and Literature in the peregrinaciones ad loca sancta and the Chansons de Geste, SG Nichols Speculum 44 1969 51-77. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145

With thanks to Marie-Ange Landais of the Musée de Blaye

Parthenay-GV-1-WPThe town of Parthenay lies approximately thirty miles west of Poitiers and the great shrine of Saint-Hilaire on the Road of Tours, the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela. It is just to the south of the abbeys of Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes and Airvault.

Treasurers to the abbey of Saint-Hilaire who counted archbishops of Bordeaux among their number,  the lords of Parthenay were prominent figures in medieval Aquitaine.

 At the crossing of the river Thouet a fortified bridge was built and was named the Pont Saint-Jacques after the Apostle of Compostela. The main town is perched on heights above.

 Parthenay-Fac-3-WPSaint James was also the designation given to one of the suburbs of the town. These toponyms suggest that the authorities were keen to identify Parthenay with the passage of an important artery on the pilgrimage to Spain from an early date.

The town benefitted from two churches. Notre-Dame-de-la-Couldre was in the elevated quarter.

In the late eleventh century a new quarter was established known as Parthenay-le-Vieux around the priory of Saint-Pierre which was a dependency of the Benedictine abbey of La Chaise-Dieu.

Both churches, Notre-Dame and Saint-Pierre, feature the same iconographic programme. A relief of an equestrian figure to the left and on the right a man wrestling a lion.

Parthenay-64The latter figure has most often been identified as a representation of Samson in a story from the Book of Judges.  This image was intended to evoke Christ triumphing over Death and His representative on earth, the Church.

Similar riders to those featured at the Parthenay churches are a recurrent motif on twelfth century Poitevin facades such can be found at Airvault and elsewhere. Many have been lost, disfigured and dismantled as at Aulnay or replaced as at Melle. The rider at Parthenay-le-Vieux is the most complete that remains.

The continuing association of the Parthenay family with high ecclesiastical office led to them adopting the name Parthenay-l’Archevêque. The secular function of local lord was passed onto the brother or son of the cleric, who assumed the title of Vidame. The church of Saint-Pierre was possibly founded by either by Joscelin Archbishop of Bordeaux or by his brother Ebbo, Vidame of Parthenay.

Having originally shared and then contested the role of Vidame with another brother Gelduin, Ebbo Parthenay-45committed fratricide to take over as sole ruler of Parthenay. It was in this capacity that he travelled to Jerusalem and fought with the First Crusade.

The sculpture on the facade of Parthenay-le-Vieux may be a way of rendering the dual role of the local lords. The one representing the Archbishopric and the Church, the other the Vidame of Parthenay, secular Defender of the Faith.

Biblio Y. Labande-Mailfert, Poitou Roman

isle-daugerThis route would have drawn pilgrims from Paris and the shrine of Saint Denis along the valley of the river Loire past Orléans and the relics of Saint Euvert towards the great pilgrimage abbey of Tours and the tomb of one of the most celebrated saints of the medieval world – Saint Martin.

A roman soldier who had famously shared his cloak by cutting it in half to shelter a poor beggar who had turned out to be Christ. Tours was an important Frankish city protected by one of the great saints.

poitou-24-copyThe Road of Tours passed down the western side of France to another great medieval city Poitiers with its numerous churches and shrines, particularly those of Hilary and Radegonde.

The prosperous region of Aquitaine was well supplied with important saintly relics. At Angèly was the head of John the Baptist around which the monks sang prayers all day long.

At Saintes was the priory of Saint Eutropius, his tomb kept in a large crypt. At Bordeaux were the relics of Saint Seurin and at Belin the burial site of the fallen martyrs of the battle of Roncevaux.

aquitaineAt Blaye at the abbey where the tomb of Saint Romanus was to be found was also the burial place of Roland, the most famous hero of the medieval world. The attributes of his martyrdom, the sword Durendal and the Oliphant horn were also displayed there. The sight of Roland’s tomb would have been an important visit as the pilgrims then continued on to the Cize pass over the Pyrenees and the site of the great battle of Roncevaux where Roland had met his celebrated martyrdom at the hands of the Saracens.