Carcassonne – France

In the year 1 A.D. there lived in the vaguely known interior of what now is Germany a wild tribe of savage men, the Goths. In the year 250 they had grown into a powerful but barbaric people, having no part in the history of the civilized world. Five centuries more, and they had crushed the civilization that despised them, they had swept the Roman armies from the world, they had placed a Gothic emperor on the throne of the Caesars, they had ruled from the Bosporus to the Gates of Hercules, and they had vanished utterly, leaving scant trace upon the earth of their language, their customs and their savage power.

Of all that has come down into our own day of this strange and meteoric people, perhaps the most complete and important is the city of Carcassonne in southwestern France. By this it is not meant that this most wonderful of the walled cities of Europe that still exists, is in all respects the Carcassonne of the Visigothic period, but it is a fact that from early in the four hundreds, down to 725, this city was one of the most notable seats of Visigothic power, and that here, more than elsewhere, are still preserved Gothic walls and Gothic fortifications. It is said, indeed, that the whole great northern wall, which looks down so majestically from the steep hillside, is practically unchanged since those days when, at the close of the Sixth Century, it helped to turn back the beleaguering armies of the Franks.

In those far-off times of Gothic supremacy, the territory just north of the Pyrenees was politically part of Spain, then a Visigothic kingdom. It lay, however, so invitingly open to attack from the Frankish power, then dominant in what is now northern and central France, that over and again the Goths were driven back beyond the mountains, only to return in fresh numbers as soon as the soldiers of the Franks withdrew. Finally an army of sixty thousand men sat down before the walls of Carcassonne. But the town was impregnable, and, sallying forth from its two gates (and to this day there are only these two means of entering and leaving the city), the Goths so defeated the besiegers that never again, while the Gothic power remained, was a Frankish army seen in the south.

The power of the city thus begun by the Goths did not end with their final overthrow, but grew to still greater splendor under succeeding rulers, till it reached its zenith in the twelve hundreds.

After the Goths, and in turn the Saracens, had been expelled from the city, it passed into the possession of rulers known as the Viscounts of Carcassonne, who maintained for nearly five centuries an independent government save for the feudal overlordship of the kings of France. This independence came to an end in 1209. For some time there had been growing up in southern France a religious movement that, born before its time, was doomed to failure, but found its successful counterpart in the Reformation three centuries later. This movement was a protest against the claims of the Papacy to temporal power and the alleged corruption of the clergy. Its adherents demanded a simpler ritual of worship, and a stricter morality of life. They abjured the Mass, denied purgatory, and denounced as ” image worship ” the presence in the churches of statues and pictures. These people were known as Albigenses, and among their adherents at the beginning of the twelve hundreds was the’ youthful Raymond Roger, Viscount of Carcassonne.

Against this sect the Pope declared a crusade, which was to be carried on under the same conditions as the crusades to the Holy Land, and in 1209 there encamped before the Viscount’s city an army led by Simon de Montfort, the English Knight.

But the giant walls of Carcassonne could not be stormed, could not be battered down. And then this Englishman (I am ashamed that he was one) proposed to the boyish Viscount a conference just outside the walls. After all, could they not arrange these little matters-for the sake of peace could they not agree on a purgatory, with an image or two thrown in? The clanging portcullis was raised, the great gate thrown open. Rows of spearmen kept back the crowd, who cheered young Raymond Roger, as in gleaming armor he rode forth with but half a dozen horsemen at his side, the golden banner of his house carried proudly before him, to meet the grizzled de Montfort, where, across the river, lay the white tents of the enemy. Over the ramparts we tread today leaned many a man-at-arms, men and ramparts that would have kept their young master safe against half the hosts of Christendom, and, as he went down the path, he turned and waved farewell, and they cheered him as he went.

And Simon de Montfort lied; and the Viscount came no more to his city and his people, who, to gain him back, surrendered themselves and their town to the traitorous Englishman. And then de Montfort lied again, and the boy whom he had captured by fair, false words was given a poisoned cup, and laid down his life, first martyr to the spirit of the Reformation, and de Montfort reigned in his stead.

A few years later de Montfort’s son, plagued by the constant uprising of his subjects, gave up the city to the throne of France, and thenceforward the history of Carcassonne merged in the history of France, of which it has since remained a part.

And now this city remains, a white dream of the Middle Ages, just as it was on that day seven hundred odd years ago, when young Raymond Roger rode down the hill to captivity and to death. The circle of the great walls is neither more nor less than then, being somewhat more than a mile in circumference. I know of only two other towns in Europe that present precisely the same appearance now as when armed knights rode in and out their gates, Rothenburg in Bavaria, and Avila in Spain. But Rothenburg was never a stronghold, and a few days’ siege was sufficient for its capture. She is lovely, a bit out of fairyland, but she is not majestic. Avila’s great walls circle the city for mile after mile in crude, unpicturesque strength. They are merely a fence, utterly hiding the low houses that huddle within. But Carcassonne is a piledup majesty, like some fantastic city in the clouds-intact, unchanged, invulnerable to all the forces of its time. Its half-hundred soaring towers are grouped as by an artist; it is the pictured past. It is incarnate history and romance.

And this ” distinct medieval silhouette,” as Henry James calls it, has a worthy setting. On the very borderland of southern France, in sight of the peaks of the Pyrenees that mark where Spain begins, and only a few hours’ ride to the westward from the blue reaches of the Mediterranean, it lords it over the most beautiful country in France.

The way thither from the coast at Narbonne leads along a valley of sheer loveliness. On the right, the outlines of far lavender mountains are suggested through the haze, and on the left the foothills of the Pyrenees come closer. Along the road are faded old towns of immense and picturesque antiquity, bridges of beautiful curves, bits of city walls, turreted castles, and here and there the isolated, ruined round towers where, of old, watchmen guarded the approaches to the valley, which is now one vast vineyard. For miles and miles, and as far on either hand as the eye can reach, stretches the vivid green of the vines. Coming from the brown, parched hillsides of central France, the impression is of infinite freshness and beauty. The vines are not grown on stakes or wires, but cut low, not above two feet or so from the ground. The stalks are strong and thick, but they bend to the earth with the weight of the fruit, much of which must ripen on the ground as it does in the Dalmatian vineyards, a thousand miles to the eastward.

The cultivation is of the highest order, no weeds show, and the earth is loose and rich. At no great distance from each other are wells, each with a water-wheel turned creakingly by a slow plodding mule or ox, and, as the wheel revolves, the water is plashed from the little buckets into ditches that run out among the vines; a primitive system of irrigation brought across the mountains from Spain, where, centuries ago, it was introduced by the Moors. Already the peasants are making ready for the vintage, for the roads are filled with giant wagons piled high with hogsheads, and drawn by six or seven horses harnessed in tandem.

As the distance from the coast increases, the foothills break down into the valley, and suddenly on one low crest appears the vision of Carcassonne.

I have traveled many miles in many lands searching solely for the picturesque and the medieval, but never have I seen so perfect and splendid a picture, so complete an embodiment of what I sought. Everything one expects is there, and more. It is the one perfect, flawless thing I have so far found on earth.

At a respectful distance, and with a defending stream between, the railroad pauses at the new town (new six hundred years ago), one of the most distressingly commonplace towns conceivable, with open sewers flowing through the streets, and more dogs to howl at night than are to be found in Constantinople. Its only redeeming feature is that it stays away from the real Carcassonne on the hill. It is respectful at least, and that, in this instance, is everything. There is a hotel in this new town, at which everybody advises you to stop, which is the third noisiest in Europe} and where you are some two miles from what you came out to see. But up on the hill, in the very heart of things, there is a quiet little inn with a magic courtyard full of palms and flowers, where automobiles cannot come, and where you can always be at peace.

Crossing the bridge with the stately towers and battlements of the city on the hill ever before you, you meet a path that clambers up the steep and pauses at the gate. Starting here, another path leads round the walls. This walk is the best of all. The solid masonry lifts far above you, and every turn brings to view new combinations of surpassing picturesqueness. Seventy miles to the south the great bulk of the Pyrenees blocks the horizon, and dotting all the tree-set valley that lies between are red-roofed villages and clustering farmhouses. A fresh, sweet wind comes out from the west and carries great white clouds across a sky of brilliant blue. The hot sun brings out the scent of the pines and the grass and the earth, and one is alone with nature and the past and a matchless day-a day of dreams and visions and delight. Carcassonne must be seen alone, the presence of a companion would break the spell.

Around by the farther gate, the Narbonne Gate, is the cemetery, its pointed trees and white crosses making an unexpected picture against the gray town. Keeping on under the cliff-like walls of the Gothic period, and we come back again to where the high-roofed citadel and tall flanking towers of the only other gateway compose into what is probably the most splendid medieval picture to be found anywhere. This entrance is a complicated one; you twist in and out among huge towers and vast defending walls, and under four distinct gates, above which the iron-barred portcullis still hangs, before you finally emerge into the narrow street that goes on to the little market-place. In the second story of the tower that guards the outermost entrance is a fireplace, where swung a caldron which in time of siege was filled with boiling oil, and in the floor is a round hole where it was poured down upon the enemy.

There are two great walls to the city, one within the other, and between the two is an empty, grass-grown space. Within the inner wall the little city lies-and silence. Men and women live in these whitewashed houses, and children pass in the rough-paved streets. But all seem conscious of, even oppressed by, their unique environment that so sets them apart. In the perpetual presence of the past, life speaks in whispers. They seem in some way like ghosts, these quiet people of Carcassonne. They flit through the streets as shadows pass, in a colorless, shade-like existence, utterly different from the hearty, full-blooded peasants of the town below. There is little for them to do, and they do nothing. Two or three little shops that no one appears to tend, and where no one comes to buy; some stonecutters in the tiny square, a priest slipping by in the shadow of a wall; a woman alone at a well; some boys silently passing, intent on some mysterious business; an old woman who sits in the sun and begs-this was all the life I found.

I do not believe anyone dares follow these narrow streets at night, for there must be ghosts in Carcassonne; you are quite sure of it, even by day. The buildings are all made for someone else-for folk long dead. There is the Tower of the Inquisition with the Judges’ room, long and low, and a wicked fireplace where torture irons were heated; and down below are other rooms, cell-like rooms; and still farther down other rooms, graves, where obdurate victims were walled up until they died; and below-but you do not want to follow. And beyond this grim old tower, where men did so devilishly, is the radiant, beautiful cathedral where they worshiped theologically ‘mid purpling incense, and roll of organ, and pomp of crimson vestment, while a tortured Christ looked down from His cross above the altar.

And there is the Tower of Justice, where some wrongs, perhaps, were righted, and others perpetrated, and beyond this the Bishop’s Palace, with walls and defenses making it a certain refuge in time of trouble.

Nothing is for today, or of today, or for the use of the pale people living there, it is all part of a past life, but unchanged, untouched. Of course, there are ghosts in Carcassonne. Wouldn’t you like to be in that old torture chamber some still night when the moon looks in at the window?

Over the Narbonne Gate is a curious, battered statue. Some say it is the image of the patron saint of the city, but much to be preferred is the picturesque legend sometimes told concerning it. When Charlemagne and his army encamped before the city in those remote times, when it was held by the Saracens, he found it impossible to take by storm its impregnable walls or force its mighty gates, but he drew his lines close, and day by day picked off the defenders. Finally only one old woman was left alive. Night and day she toiled along the walls, shooting arrows at the besiegers, hurling great stones from the machines, sounding a trumpet as for the gathering of a regiment, and doing this and doing that till Charlemagne was convinced that an army still held the town.

In triumph the old woman watched the folding tents of the mighty Emperor as he made ready to abandon the siege. And then a miracle happened. Alone on his white horse, Charlemagne came forth for a last look at the city he could not take. On his shield was blazoned the cross, but the crescent still waved defiantly from the towers of Carcassonne. And then, as the old woman watched the Emperor, and the Emperor gazed at the towers, one by one those towers bowed down their heads before him, and unseen hands wiped out the crescent from the Saracen banner, and painted there the cross. By this miracle converted to the faith, the solitary defender opened wide the gates, and the astonished Emperor entered in. To commemorate her heroic defense, and her conversion to Christianity, Charlemagne caused the old woman’s image to be made and placed above the gate, where to this day it may be seen.

Of course, there are ghosts at Carcassonne.