A Book of the Cevennes/Le Velay
The department of Haute Loire is made up mainly, but not wholly, of the ancient province of Le Velay. It is situated at the limit of the Langue d'Oc, on the confines of the region of the Langue d'Oïl. Le Velay forms a rude triangle of which the bounds are the mountains of the Vivarais on the east, those of the Velay on the west, and the broad basis of the triangle is to the north towards Auvergne and Forez, fringed there by lower heights. It consists of an uplifted plateau with an average elevation above the sea of 2,700 feet, and is the least rainy portion of France. The summers there are never oppressively hot; but, on the other hand, in winter it is a Southern Siberia. Originally composed of granite, it has been pierced by volcanic cones, and covered with igneous dejections. As many as a hundred craters have been counted in it, and through the rents in the granite and schist opened during the throes of eruption, dykes of trap have been thrust, forming spires and truncated columns. The heat of the molten matter so altered and disintegrated the rocks through which it was driven, that in many places these rocks have crumbled away, and have left the dykes erect in black nakedness high above the surrounding level. Such is the Aiguilhe by Le Puy, 210 feet high, to reach the summit of which a flight of steps has been hewn in the side, and on the top, in 962, Truan, Dean of Le Puy, erected a church in honour of S. Michael, and called it Seguret, The Secure Refuge; the church was consecrated in 980. Another of these obelisks is at Fay le Froid, another basaltic monolith is La Roche Rouge on the banks of the Gagne.
But sometimes the eruptive dykes are more massive, and form stone tables with precipitous sides, as at Polignac, the cradle of an illustrious family, and at Arlempdes on the Loire.
There are few crags of basalt or tufa in the Velay that are not crowned by a ruined castle, and to enumerate these would be a tedious and unprofitable task.
The last of all the volcanoes to explode was the Denise, near Le Puy, and that erupted when man was on the earth, for under the lava, in a bed of breccia or volcanic ash, was found in 1884 the skeleton of a man; another was discovered shortly after, and a third is reported to have been recently disinterred. In the case of the first of these, the man seems to have been overtaken by the shower of falling ash, to have sat down, placed his head between his knees, and held his hands over his skull to protect it, and so perished, and the rain of cinders finally enveloped and buried him. No weapons or ornaments have been found with these bodies. The relics of plants and animals in the same bed belong to species still existing in the neighbourhood.
Of the craters the most perfect is that of Bar, thus described by Georges Sand:—
"This ancient volcano rises isolated above a vast plateau that is as bare as it is sad. It stands there as if planted as a boundary mark between the old Velay and Auvergne. From the summit of its truncated cone a superb view is obtained extending to the Cevennes. A vast forest of beech crowns the mountain and clothes its sides, which are much rifted towards the base. The crater is a mighty bowl full of verdure, perfectly circular, and with the bottom covered with a turfy sward in which grow pale birch trees thinly scattered. Here was at one time a lake, dried up in the times of Roman occupation. The tradition of the country is strange. It was said that this tarn bred storms; and the inhabitants of Forez accordingly came hither, sword in hand, and forcibly drained it."
The Lac de Bouchet is not a sheet of water filling an ancient crater, but occupies a hollow produced by the bursting of a great bubble of air in the molten lava. It is almost circular, and the ground around it is very slightly raised. Curiously enough, Roman substructures have been traced in the lake. Probably some Gallo-Roman noble had his summer villa there, overhanging the water, as at Baiæ.
"Nullus in orbe sinus Baiis prælucet amœnis,
Si dixit dives—lacus et mare sentit amorem
This originated a tale told by the peasantry to the effect that a city lay submerged under the crystal water. The story is this: Our Lord visited Le Velay to see what way the Gospel was making there. He lodged with an aged widow, who nourished herself on the milk of a single goat. The people received Christ badly, and pelted Him with stones. Then He laid hold of the widow by the hand and drew her away; and she, leading the goat, followed. They had not proceeded far before she turned and looked back. And lo! where the town had been was now a lake. Three stones mark the spot where the widow took up her final residence, and on one of these she is said to have sat to milk her goat. The same story is told of another of these lakes, that of Arconne, near Fay le Froid, and there also are found three blocks ranged in a line.
That these lakes were held sacred admits of no dispute.
Gregory of Tours, in the sixth century, says that in the land of the Gabali (the adjoining Gevaudan) was a Mount Helanus, where was a lake. Every year the inhabitants of the country flocked thither and cast oblations into the water—linen, weaving-materials, cheese, wax, bread, and coins. They arrived in wagons, bringing their food with them, and feasted by the lakeside during three days. On the last day a storm of thunder, lightning, and hail was wont to break over the sheet of water. This usage lasted till a bishop of Clermont went thither, and preached to the people; but as he found it impossible to dissuade the natives from the practice, he built there a chapel to S. Hilary, and exhorted them to leave their gifts there instead of throwing them into the tarn. This lake is now called Lac S. Andéol, on the mountains of Aubrac, and the ruined chapel of S. Hilary remains. The people still reverence the pool, which they call the Father of Hail Storms, and till last century continued to cast offerings into the water. The visible result of the efforts of the good bishop so many centuries ago was no more than the construction of a chapel now in ruins.
It is probable enough that were the Lac de Bouchet drained, it would yield a rich spoil of coins. The lake is 2,800 feet across and 98 feet deep. In the morass occupying the bowl of Bar have been found a great many early coins, a necklace, and bracelets of bronze.
The loftiest of the Cevennes is Mézenc, on the frontier of Haute Loire. It is 5,750 feet high, and was at one time the central point of violent Plutonic eruptions. Several craters poured forth trachyte, phonolith, and basalt, which overflowed the granite, gneiss, clay deposits, and limestone to a great distance.
One of the craters, La Croix-des-Boutières, remains very distinct.
"The phonolith of which Mézenc is composed," says Elisée Reclus, "appears to have issued from the crater in a state of high fluidity, and to have spread very rapidly over the slopes of the crystalline plateau. The result is that the volcanic cones have, relatively to the anterior formations that support them, but a feeble elevation. The lavas which issued from the crater of Mézenc, of very unequal texture, have been attacked by storms, so as to represent a range of distinct cones on which grow forests of oak and pine."
If the map be studied, it will be seen that there are two features in the water system of this region that merit notice.
In the first place, we have the Allier on the west, and the Loire in the midst of this tableland flowing due north to shed their waters ultimately into the Atlantic. Parallel with them, divided from the Loire only by the chain just described, distant from it from forty to fifty miles, is the Rhone, running in a precisely opposite direction, due south, to discharge into the Mediterranean.
Then, again, going west, we have the Lot, the Tarn, the Jonte, the Truyére, and the Dordogne, all in their early youth streaming from east to west, their sources, or those of some of them, twenty miles from the Allier, which is racing as hard as it can run to the north. The explanation of this last feature is easy. When the granite was upheaved it lifted a crust of Dolomite on its back like a huge shell, and in lifting split the shell in many places.
The rivers, rising in the granite of the Margeride, the Mont d'Aubrac, the Aigoual, the Monts de Lozère, and slipping off their impervious sides looking for outlets, found these fissures, took possession of them, and rushed down them on their way to the plains in the west.
The average depth of these chasms is from 1,300 to 1,500 feet, and their width at the bottom varies from 160 to 1,500 feet. Their rocky walls are carved by rain and frost into the most fantastic forms. At one time I held, with M. Martel, that these cañons were originally subterranean watercourses, and that the caverns formed by the underground waters became open valleys by the falling in of their roofs. But this idea is untenable, as I now see. The rivers descending from the granitic range must have found a passage, and they found it in the already cleft masses of the Gausses. They rise outside the limestone area, and cut right through it, separating one Causse from another.
A second feature in the river system of Haute Loire is that a certain number of the affluents of the Loire run into it from the direction in which it is flowing, and their mouths are more or less against the stream they are about to feed. A river usually affects the form of a deciduous tree, of which the branches represent the tributaries. The branches are attached to the trunk at an obtuse angle, as seen from below. With pines it is different; with them the limbs are attached in the reverse fashion, at an acute angle as seen from below. Some of the affluents of the Loire come into it in the way in which a fir branch grows out of the main trunk. This is notably the case with the Arzon and the Borne. The reason for this is that the basin of Le Velay has a rim to the north, and the drainage from the north naturally runs down to the lowest point in the basin. But on reaching this spot the streams come on the Loire, which has cut for itself a huge gap through the northern lip of the bowl, and is able to discharge its waters through that.
How this was done demands some explanation. The Rhone is the mightiest of the rivers of France, but its sources are in the Swiss Alps, and it does not enter France till after it has passed through the Lake of Geneva. But the Loire is next in size and importance, and it flows through French soil only. The source is under the Gerbier de Jonc, in the department of Ardèche, but flows in it for a short course only. It is still a feeble stream when it enters the department of Haute Loire, through which it makes its way till it leaves it for Forez. The Loire rises 4,500 feet above the sea, and when it quits the department it has fallen to 1,450 feet. When the volcanoes of Le Velay were in eruption and the tableland was overflowed with molten lava, the Loire must have been arrested and have mounted to heaven in a column of steam. In time the lava cooled, and the stream groped for beds of scoria and fallen dust through which it could nibble its way with ease. But when it encountered a barrier of basalt the case was altered. This blocked its course as with rows of iron piles rammed into the ground and running far back. But the crystallisation of the lava into basaltic prisms helped the river to break through.
The molten matter, of the consistency of treacle, flowing over the country followed its undulations, filling hollows here and rounding obstructions there. When it cooled it began to crystallise, and form hexagonal columns that are upright. But when the surface of the original soil would not allow of regular crystallisation, there the columns shaped themselves in all directions and in great confusion; the result being that in many places the basalt was fractured, fissured, and ruinous from the very first. The water speedily detected these weak points, worked at them, tumbled the columns down, overleaped them, bored further, and did not rest till it had cut its way completely through the barrier.Hercules in his cradle strangled a couple of serpents, and the infant Loire, a ridiculously small stream for the work it effected, on entering the department laid hold of and split the bed of Plutonic deposit, and held on its way between basaltic escarpments. It is, however, below Le Puy, after the Sumène has entered it, under
Castle of La Voute-Sur-Loire
Cascade Des Estreys
was dammed back in the basin of Le Puy, where it spread into an extensive lake. In time, however, it succeeded in sawing a way through. The railway from Le Puy to St. Etienne runs through the furrow that it formed. The barrier had been thrown up from both sides by the meeting and overlapping of lava floods from the volcanoes of Velay in the west, and those of the Vivarais in the east, and the beds were piled one upon another. It is marvellous to see the passage which the river forced for itself through these super-incumbent beds, from Peyredeyre to La Voute. The rock at this latter place sustains a restored castle belonging to the Duke of Polignac.
Below this point the gorge ceases for a while, till another barricade was reached below Vorey, where the Arzon enters the Loire.
There the river struggles between the Miaune and the Gerbizon, in the defiles of Chambon and Chamalières. The beds of phonolith of these mountains, which formerly corresponded unbrokenly, are now separated by a gash 1,500 feet deep, which the waters of the Loire have achieved, cutting through the lava to the granite beneath.
The Borne, on which is Le Puy, also traverses gorges, notably that of Estreys, and passes the well-preserved castle of the Leaguer Baron de S. Vidal. Then it sweeps under the pillared rocks of Espaly and slides beneath l'Aiguilhe. Perhaps as interesting an example as any of the way in which an insignificant stream has overmastered all difficulties may be seen in the Valley of Ceyssac. The rill flows into the Borne at an acute angle against the current. The valley was choked with a mass of tufa ejected from La Denise, and the current was arrested in its downward course. The stream then formed a lake that rose till it overflowed the dam in two places, leaving between them a prong of somewhat harder rock. When the water had poured for a considerable time over the left-hand lip, and it had worn this down to the depth of about seventy feet, it all at once abandoned this mode of outlet and concentrated its efforts on the right-hand portion of the barrier, where it found that the tufa was less compact, and it sawed this down till it reached its present level, leaving the prong of rock in the middle rising precipitously out of the valley with the water flowing below it, but attached to the mountain-side by the neck it had abandoned. The Polignacs seized on the fang of tufa and built a castle on the top, only to be reached by steps cut in the face of the rock; and the villagers covered the neck with their houses. They then proceeded to scoop out a great vault in the body of the living rock, blocked the entrance with a wall in which is inserted a pretty Romanesque doorway, and so provided themselves with a parish church at very little expense. On a saddle overhead they constructed a belfry for three bells.In no part of Europe can be studied with greater facility the process of valley formation, for here that process is comparatively recent. That which has been accomplished elsewhere in hundreds of thousands of years, has here been achieved in thousands only. The great elevation of the valley, and the fact that it lies open to the north cause it to be a cold country. The
A Lacemaker, Le Puy
"In these quasi-Alpine regions," says M. Malegue, "snow, scourged by the blasts, flies in clouds, heaps itself up in drifts, encumbers the roads that have to be marked out with poles to guide the traveller, buries the cottages of the poor mountaineers, holding them prisoners for months at a time in their dwellings, and by its long stay, as by the intensity of the cold, makes administrative and commercial relations often impossible and sometimes perilous."
To this fact is due the creation of the great industry of the land–lacemaking.
In feudal times Le Velay was a small province inaccessible for half the year, obliged accordingly to depend on itself for its existence. Auvergne, Forez, the Vivarais circumscribed it; these were rich provinces. Moreover, the Velaviens had to pay tax and tithe and toll to the barons, the clergy, the king. Such burdens might be borne elsewhere with a grumble, but here they ate into the sinews of life, unless the culture of the soil were supplemented from some other source. And it was precisely this that created the industry of Le Velay–lacemaking.
So soon as the first snows appeared, the men abandoned their farms and cottages, and went, some to Le Puy, where they occupied an entire quarter, and gained their livelihood as tapsters, farriers, weavers, carpenters, pin-makers, etc., or else departed for Lyons, Nîmes Montpellier, and Toulouse, to work as masons. All the women of the country pressed into Le Puy. There they formed congregations under the name and age of some saint. Each of these congregations had its hall, and in this gathered the wives and daughters of the absent men, and spent their days and evenings in making pillow-lace, in singing, telling tales, and in gossip. There they remained working at their little squares with flying bobbins, till the spring sun brought back fathers and husbands and brothers, when the women put aside their bobbins and returned to their several farms.
Lacemaking was a flourishing business till the year 1547, when a sumptuary law was promulgated by the Parliament of Toulouse and sanctioned by the King, forbidding the wearing of lace by any save nobles, for the odd reason that there was no means of obtaining domestic servants in Le Velay, as every girl was a lace-maker.
Great consternation was caused by this edict. That same year a late frost smote the vines, corn was dear, and a pestilence broke out. In the midst of this discontent, Huguenot preachers appeared in the land, and they did their utmost to direct the disaffection of the people against the Church. Happily, S. Francis Regis arrived in Le Velay on a preaching mission, andspeedily saw that the limitations imposed on the production of lace was the real grievance angering the people and inducing them to hit out blindly at all authority. He hurried to Toulouse and obtained the withdrawal of the law. He did more: his brethren of the Jesuit Order, incited by him, spread abroad the passion for lace in the New World, became in fact commis voyageurs for the industry, and thus opened out fresh fields for the produce. It is due to this that the memory of S. Francis Regis is still fragrant in the
The paralysis of the industry had hit more than the women of Le Velay. It had affected the colporteurs who brought to the market of Le Puy the linen thread out of which the lace was made. It is remarkable that at a time when roads were execrable, and means of communication faulty, the lacemakers were dependent on Holland for the material with which they worked. The linen of the district was too coarse to serve, and all that was used by them was derived from the Low Countries.
Lacemaking continues to be the main industry of the country. In fact, Haute Loire is the most important centre in the world. In the report on the lace at the Exhibition at Chicago, it is stated that the number of women there engaged on this dainty and beautiful art was 92,000, whereas in Belgium but 65,000 are thus employed.
In the most remote hamlets, in the most solitary cottages among the mountains, the societies of lace workers still gather, in summer before their doors, in winter in the cottage of la béate. The house of this woman is surmounted by a little bell-cott. One such is to be found in the smallest cluster of cottages. The house consists uniformly, on the ground floor, of one large room that serves as chapel, refuge, school, and place of assembly. In the upper story lives la Béate. This woman, whose official title is Dame de l'Instruction, fulfils many duties. In a land where the children are occupied in the fields throughout the summer, they can attend school only in winter, precisely when communications are difficult and are often impossible. It is then that they flock to the house of the Béate, who gives them the first elements of instruction. She also teaches the young girls how to use the bobbins. During the summer she has a crêche, and attends to the infants whilst their mothers are in the fields; she nurses the sick, lays out the dead, and exerts her influence, which is second only to that of the curé, to counsel those who are in perplexity, to console the sorrowful, and to reconcile those who have quarrelled. She is the peacemaker in every little agglomeration of cottages. As a return for her services she obtains her lodging gratis, corn and wood sufficient for her needs. Every well-to-do peasant also contributes fifty centimes per month for her maintenance. In her house in the winter evenings the women gather to work together, and each meeting is begun and concluded with prayer. How valuable are the services of these women may be judged by the fact that in Haute Loire there are 265 parishes, but made up of 3,300 widely-scattered hamlets.
The peasant of the uplands of Le Velay and Le Vivarais is of medium height, is strongly built, and of a vigorous constitution. Accustomed from childhood to follow his sheep and oxen in their leisurely movements, he also becomes a being of slow habit of body and even slower of mind. He is shy, timorous, and cautious of compromising himself in any way with his neighbours, above all with the officials.
A writer in 1829 says:–
Descriptions of character of a people are never satisfactory. I shall give in a subsequent chapter the story of the Tavern of Peyrabeille, that shows what the character of this people is in a way unmistakable.
Robert Louis Stevenson's account of the people of Le Velay is peculiarly unpleasant. He speaks of their discourtesy, and accentuates their brutality of manner and speech. I venture, with all due deference, to differ from him. The peasant in Languedoc is much towards you as you are to him. If you meet him with courtesy and kindliness it is cordially reciprocated, and my experience is altogether the reverse of his. I do not think that R. L. Stevenson treated the French peasant quite as he expects to be treated. Here is one instance:—
"At the bridge of Langogne a lassie of some seven or eight addressed me in the sacramental phrase,She did it with so high an air that she set me laughing; and this cut her to the quick. She was evidently one who reckoned on respect, and stood looking after me in silent dudgeon as I crossed the bridge."
But I will quote again, and this time from Georges Sand:–
"I find here a race very marked in its characteristics, altogether in harmony with the soil that supports it; meagre, gloomy, rough, and angular in its forms and in its instincts. At the tavern every one has his knife in his belt, and he drives the point into the lower face of the table, between his legs; after that they talk, they drink, they contradict one another, they become excited, and they fight. The houses are of an incredible dirtiness. The ceiling, made up of a number of strips of wood, serves as a receptacle for all their food and for all their rags. Alongside with their faults I cannot but recognise some great qualities. They are honest and proud. There is nothing servile in the manner in which they receive you, with an air of frankness and genuine hospitality. In their innermost soul they partake of the beauties and the asperities of their climate and their soil. The women have all an air of cordiality and daring. I hold them to be good at heart, but violent in character. They do not lack beauty so much as charm. Their heads capped with a little hat of black felt, decked out with jet and feathers, give to them, when young, a certain fascination, and in old age a look of dignified austerity. But it is all too masculine, and the lack of cleanliness makes their toilette disagreeable. It is an exhibition of discoloured rags above legs long and stained with mud, that makes one totally disregard their jewellery of gold and even the rock crystals about their necks."
The elder women alone preserve a distinctive costume, and that is confined to the head-dress. Its main feature consists in a white frilled cap with a highly coloured broad ribbon forming a bow in front; the ends are carried back over the ears, and a little peculiarly shaped black felt hat, fit only for a child, is perched on the front of the head. It is not becoming, therefore the young women will have none of it. But in flying the smoke they fall into the smother, for in place of this they adopt the most tawdry modern hats, a congeries of feathers and cheap sham flowers.
The history of Le Velay is involved in that of the bishops of Le Puy, who were counts under the sovereignty of the King of France. They were either under the domination of the Polignacs, or were fighting with them over the rights to coin money. This right had been conceded to the bishops in 924. But the viscounts of Polignac also had their mint, and neither could debase his coinage lest his rival should obtain a predominant circulation for his currency. In the twelfth century Pons de Polignac fought the bishop on this question. Louis VII. had to intervene. He carried off the viscount and his son Heracleus prisoners to Paris, and the strife was only concluded four years later, in 1173, by a compact, by virtue of which the bishop and the viscount were to share equally the profits of a mint held in common.
The Polignacs were a thorn in the side of the Bishop and Chapter of Le Puy. Sometimes by menace with the sword they determined the elections to the see, and when it suited them they appointed one of the family to the throne. At the close of the eleventh century, one of these Polignac prelates, Stephen Taillefer, surnamed "The Ravager," brought down on his head the anathema of Pope Gregory VII. He had been Bishop of Clermont, but in 1073, when the see of Le Puy was vacant, transferred himself to it as the wealthier of the two. Another Stephen had been elected by the Chapter, and there was fighting in the streets. Taillefer summoned his kinsman of Polignac to his aid, and drove the rival candidate out of the city. But as the canonicity of his election was disputed, he deemed it advisable to visit Rome with a valise stuffed with gold, and establish his claim by the most cogent of all arguments. He persuaded the Pope to consent to his retaining the see, but the case was so gross, and his hands were so steeped in blood, that Gregory imposed the condition that he should not exercise episcopal functions, which were to be delegated to a suffragan, and that he should revisit Rome with another load of gold somewhat later. This was in 1074, but in 1076 the Pope excommunicated him because he had not fulfilled his promise of again visiting Rome. Gregory was in the midst of his strife with the Emperor Henry IV., whom he deposed in that year, and he was sorely in need of money wherewith to support William of Utrecht, whom he had set up in opposition.
It is remarkable how sensitive Rome was to simony when practised anywhere else save in Rome itself.
At a council held at Clermont in 1077, Stephen was deposed by order of Gregory. Nevertheless, he managed to retain the see till 1078.
After a while open oppression of the Church by the Polignacs came to an end; cadets of the family quietly appropriated to themselves the canonries and best benefices; and the last bishop of the name, William de Chalençon, has left a memory that was even savoury.
But if the Polignacs were meddlesome neighbours of the see, they lent lustre to Le Velay. These masters of the rock were brave nobles. They fought in the Crusades; they fought the English. They espoused the faith, the passions, the fervour of their native land. In every generation illustrious marriages added to the splendour of their escutcheon. As the feudal towers of Polignac dominated, and dominate still, the green and flowery land that lies spread below it, so does the name of Polignac dominate the history of Velay. The race was one that abounded in energy, was robust and patriotic.
Velay was ravaged by the Free Companies, and summoned Du Guesclin to its aid against them. Of its troubles in the Wars of Religion I shall have to speak in the next chapter. Le Puy was occupied by the Leaguers, who made themselves masters of nearly every stronghold in Velay, and it was not till some years after Henry IV. had come to the throne that it submitted to his authority.
The Revolution brought the same results in Velay as elsewhere; the cathedral of Le Puy was pillaged, the monasteries destroyed, and a certain amount of blood was shed; sixty priests were hung or shot, and many nobles guillotined. Since then it has enjoyed tranquillity, only recently ruffled by the taking of the Inventories, leading to the breaking open of the church doors.
- Jean de la Roche, Paris, Calmann-Lévy.
- See "The Cañons of Southern France," by A. T. Jukes-Browne, in Natural Science, vol. vi., 1895.