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A Yankee Notebook

December 4, 2014


MONTPELIER – Snow is floating past the office window as I write. It’s perfect weather for what I’ve been doing for the last couple of days: plowing through the early stages of a travel book and giving thanks for the invention of the word processor. I have some photocopied facsimiles of Charles Dickens manuscripts, and can see that he, like me, was constantly assaulted by second thoughts, new inspirations, or thought-better-of-it moments, which he incorporated into the script with balloons full of scribbling; long, curved arrows to the insertion points; and vigorous scratchings-out. After that, some lowly typesetter, working by daylight or candlelight, had to transform that almost illegible chaos into orderly print. How much might Dickens have accomplished if he’d had, instead of a messy, splattering goose quill, an iMac?

Today’s literary destination for me has been a little medieval village in southern France that feels quite remote from anything, but is actually only about thirty miles from the Mediterranean coast. Located at the mouth of a huge-steep-walled limestone canyon, and on a high bank over a gorge of the Herault River, St.-Guilhem-le-Desert was founded no later than the ninth century and has managed to maintain its medieval character – most recently by the incredibly artful and invisible installation of electricity, water, and sewer utilities. Mother and I have been there three times so far, each time for a little longer, while we explore more of its narrow cobbled streets, olive groves, soaring cliffs, and rainbow trout in the pools of the Verdus, a clear alkaline stream flowing out of the cirque. Not for nothing has it been officially designated one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France - the most beautiful villages of France – and it’s the reason the place is jammed with tourists during the hot summer vacation months. We go in October.

The name, ending in “-le-desert,” seems to imply that it’s a desert. Instead, that’s an ancient French designation meaning roughly “in the middle of nowhere.” And so it was in the ninth century, when Guillaume d’Orange, a battle-scarred Frankish warrior worn out by leading battles against the Visigoths, Saracens, and Moors, trekked up the Herault Valley with a reliquary containing a piece of the True Cross and a desire to become a cloistered monk. Beside the rippling little Verdus, he founded a church and monastery that were soon named after him – St.-Guilhem.

Guilhem is the Occitan form of his name in what was once the language of Languedoc. Both those words express the disdain the northern French felt for the “ox-tongued” southerners who spoke a different dialect. Occitan is being absorbed nowadays by “proper” French. Frankly (no pun intended), I can’t tell the difference; my stumbling efforts at the French are understood everywhere in France– as long as I preface whatever I say with, “Excusez-moi.”

Guillaume was a grandson of Charles Martel, generally recognized as the founding father of the Franks, and was a cousin of Charlemagne. Raised in the imperial court, he had only two professions open to him – the military or holy orders. He chose the military, and spent the next decade and a half defending the southern frontiers of the Frankish empire.

In ancient and medieval history, moreso than with recent history, it’s often difficult to tell where fact gives way to fiction and legend – especially with heroes – so that much of what we know of Guillaume of Orange may or may not be accurate. He is, for example, the hero of a romantic chanson de geste celebrating his victorious exploits. But it’s apparently true that after battling and more or less dismantling the military capability of the Basques, Moors, and Gascons, he then in 793 defeated a vastly superior Moorish army at Orange, where he founded the House of Orange – remembered today in the royal line of the Netherlands and the Orangemen of Northern Ireland. Then ten years later he played a major role in defeating and expelling the Moors from Barcelona.

Somewhere along the way, Guillaume apparently lost a piece of his nose, no doubt to an unfriendly blade. After his death, the disfigurement was laid to a fierce Saracen giant or a Visigoth warrior; but in any case, a bit of his nose was clearly gone. He became known as Guillaume Court-Nez, or William Short-Nose. That, by the way, is one of the two possible sources of the name Courtney; but I don’t suggest you mention it to any lovely Courtneys you may meet.

That last battle, for Barcelona, was apparently Guillaume’s final military act. He decided on the monastic life. So, leaving behind his beautiful Saracen second wife (whose husband he had killed before taking over his estates), he headed up the Herault with a few followers and the piece of the Cross that Charlemagne had given him, which promised financial success to any shrine it graced. On their way up the valley, they passed the struggling monastery at Aniane, whose abbot, later Saint Benedict of Aniane, committed the sin of covetousness concerning the jeweled reliquary.

There’s nothing but limestone around St.-Guilhem-le-Desert – a lovely yellow (the tourist board calls it “amber”) limestone that cuts easily into rough, but regular blocks. The entire village is made of it, from the barrel-roofed Romanesque church and ancient dungeon, to the streets and houses all the way through the town to the olive orchards and the trails that climb the cliff faces in spectacular switchbacks. Pilgrims making the trek to Santiago de Compostela from Arles (called the southern route) climb up and over the col to the next valley and the hostel there.

Mother and I go to church in the village, though we understand few words of the service. Last time, before going up for communion, I thought, “Hmm...I wonder.” I felt under the book rack with one hand. Sure enough; over ten centuries of old chewing gum were stuck to the bottom.

Photo by Willem lange