France – About “Les Baux”

If the witches still meet in Provence, if Saracen necromancers with their golden goats and numbing spells still sail down the Rhone in phantom ships, if damned knights must come back from the grave to lament of their folly and warn their descendants of approaching doom, Les Baux is their meeting-place.

Here in the Alpilles, to the northeast of Arles, great masses of limestone have been hurled up in a threatening barrier—rocks that scale off in queer twisted patterns and lie across the green base of the hills like bleaching bones. Chaotic shapes, crazy spires, leaning towers, drunken peaks, lean over the winding path that leads upward from Montmaj our toward the city of magic that crowns the heights. Here the yellow mountain drops sheer away for hundreds of feet into a gorge lined with pipe-organ flutings. Just ahead two cliff walls careen toward each other but do not touch, presenting to the eye the picture of a gigantic arch from which some ancestor of the Titans plucked out the keystone.

There is a legend in Provence that Dante was inspired to write his Inferno by a sight of Les Baux. To one who has seen this heaped-up desolation, the suggestion no longer seems fantastic. Even with the sun of Provence blazing out of a clear blue sky, one cannot but see phantoms stealing about among these peaks. For the peaks themselves are phantoms. Already staggering in defiance of gravity, they take up a strange motion in the blue-white haze of the heat-waves.

At the head of the path the ancient chateau of the lords of Baux adds its bones to the skeleton of the hillside, its little old dead town, the magic city of Provence, stark and stiff beneath its disintegrating ramparts.

The troubadours are gone, God rest their bones. There is little in this street, now so reminiscent of November 11 at Verdun, to remind one that once a group of strong-armed, strong-willed princes made Les Baux the capital of the lower Rhone. The resplendent heralds, the lovely ladies, the guitar-strumming knights of the days when Baux was powerful have vanished. Rank weeds grow between the tumbled rocks of Queen Jeanne’s walled court of love. The royal house of Baux itself is as dead as Balthazar, its founder, who came into Provence in pursuit of the star of Bethlehem. And of those departed glories there remain only the fairy caverns, a few mysterious haunted halls, the witches, and the golden goat.

In front of the Hotel Chevelure d’Or sat Martin Tournier in scraps of a faded uniform, braiding a rope—a strange successor to the one-time inhabitants of this March Hare world.

“A curious place, monsieur,” he observed with a friendly smile. “I have lived here for many years, and I never get used to it. I do not wonder that folks come here; and they are not all sight-seers and tourists, monsieur. There are still many who come up from the valley on nights when the moon is full to seek the treasure of the golden goat or the aid of the fairies in the interest of love.

“There are still young folk who hope to gain happiness by bringing their affairs of the heart to the scene of the old court of love. . . .”

The “courts of love” were one of the strangest developments in the life of a childish people who seem to have stepped bodily out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Here came the troubadours in great troupes like Little Tommy Tucker, singing for their supper, suppliants at the court of Queen Jeanne and under the protection of the princes of Baux.

In the walled court between banks of flowers and under a marble dome that may have been stolen in toto from some woodland shrine of mysterious Greece, the judges of the court of love assembled—the fairest women of the district, for none other were held qualified to judge the intricacies of love.

Comes a troubadour with a stirring chanson. A herald in the tabard of Baux steps forward with a golden trumpet to sound a call that echoes through the steeps of the Al-

286 THE LOST KINGDOM OF BURGUNDY pilles and across the still valley of the Rhone. The court is in session.

The minstel strums his lute and takes up the burden of his song, the simple tale of a lovely lady. At the sound of her voice brave hearts burst asunder in the ecstasy of love. At the sight of her marvelous brown eyes, strong men faint dead away. And there comes a true lover who kills her aged husband and right assiduously belabors the caitiffs who would pursue—and all that sort of thing.

Then is filed the bill of particulars in the case in trial, of which the following is a translation which may not be exact but is close enough for pratical purposes:

Comes now your deponent, Jacques Lemaitre, to pray judgment in the case of Lady Jane Doe, personal injury.

And deponent saith that on or about the seventh day of April he and two other sweet singers, of like repute and skill at the tinkling of the lute, did pay court to a lady of marvelous beauty and charm and that in the garden of Bellevue they did sit and converse with her, all displaying their wares of song and making sweet music. And that the while they injected into their chansons that personal element without which no love-lyric can amount to much, that gentle sighing which denotes deep and otherwise inexpressible feeling and the fluttering of the eyelids which the best practice has found effective in portraying an uncertain hope. And that all three of the aforesaid troubadours did perform in such fashion in the garden with the lady in question, seeking vainly to lead her into a declaration of her love, and that at no time did she depart from her coy neutrality to bare the instincts of her heart and denote a preference. And that presently, as the nightingale began to sing and the stars came out and the moon shone through the olive-trees and the songs of the singers became more plaintive, the maiden looked at one and sighed, moved her foot gently against that of the second, and slightly pressed with her own fair hand the hand of your deponent.

Wherefore your deponent demands a writ of injunction for-bidding these other minstrels from encroaching upon the love of the lady so obviously given to him. For, may it please the court, a hand-clasp is worth two sighs and an equal number of foot movements as an indication of affection.

Such were the suits brought by troubled swains for decision by the beauteous judges of the courts of love. The medieval mind saw nothing ludicrous in argument on the pleas. Often three or four days might be devoted to heated discussion of the relative values of smiles and sighs, interpretation of the various movements of a fan, keen analysis of abstruse problems of etiquette. As pageants the courts must have been wonderful sights, for feudalism was in its best clothes when the page in his velvet and silk stepped forward to call “Oyez, oyez !” The complainants and their guitar-strumming lawyers presented most of the evidence in impromptu verse with musical accompaniment while the negligible males of the noble houses in attendance sat in dignified and serious silence.

Modern students of Renaissance poetry have found the chansons of the troubadours remarkable chiefly in that they were so openly fulsome in their praises of beautiful dames already married and beyond the hopes of the minstrels who paid them court. One might naturally wonder what a husband was doing on a chill morning when a tattered troubadour stood in the eaves-drip beneath the bedroom window of the lady of the house and chanted her charms in a querulous voice with an ardor that no mere perfunctory musical performance seemed to warrant.

If the truth be told, the sword-swinging gentry of Les Baux probably were not so keen about the nasal tenor voices of guitar-strumming poets. But what could they do about it’? Ridicule was as potent a weapon in those days as it is to-day, and the lumbering warriors to whom the fitting of metrical lines was akin to magic were unwilling to risk a lampooning at the hands of the lady-worshippers whom they thoroughly detested. So, as a matter of convenience, they believed or pretended to believe that Platonism had come at last into its own; and they acquiesced to the solicitations of their wives in buying new strings for cracked lutes when they probably would have preferred to buy a few lengths of good stout hemp and use it in stilling some sleep-disturbing voices.

Take the case of William of Cabestaing, who sang well but not too wisely. In his day he was one of the favorites of Les Baux, and palpitating hearts had greeted his chansons in all the principal towns of the valley.

William’s first poetical love was Berengaria, wife of the Seigneur des Baux, and it would have been fortunate for him had he remained faithful to this lofty and unattainable ideal. But he was a gentleman of many moods, this William, and, while putting a new string to his lute one day, decided to fit a new character to his chanson. He selected Tricline Carbonelle, sister-in-law of Berengaria, and young wife of old Raymond of Roussillon.

Eventually Raymond became suspicious. One day in a burst of wrath he broke William’s lute over his head and threatened him with death.

“You are very foolish,” said the troubadour calmly. “I am ready to admit that I have not been wearing callouses on the ends of my fingers purely in the interest of my art. Were you to press me I might even go so far as to admit that my love is a married lady. There need be no secrets between us. She is the Lady Agnes, your wife’s sister.”

Raymond met the situation like a true medieval knight. He laughed uproariously at this strange jest. Quite logically it would have been a hanging offense had William dared to make love to Tricline. His amorous leanings to-ward any other married woman in all Provence naturally could be treated as nothing but a joke. Raymond agreed to do what he could to further the amour with Agnes.

So the knight and the troubadour journeyed to Tarascon, where the unsuspecting Agnes lived as the wife of the Seigneur Robert. William, lacking any other course, ,played his part by making love to Agnes.

The ruse was perfectly successful. Whatever suspicions Raymond might have had were disarmed when he noticed the ardor with which the troubadour paid court to his sister-in-law. But, if de Roussillon was deceived, so was Tricline. One day she chided William on his perfidy, and to calm her he wrote in his own inimitable style the story of the ruse and despatched it to her. She had just finished reading it when her husband came into the room. Immediately afterward the seigneur, Tricline, and the troubadour went back to the court of Les Baux. The lovely woman went to her room in the castle. The outraged husband lured William to Cabestaing into the gorge below the peak and killed him.

A short time later Raymond appeared in Tricline’s room with a savory dish, and he stood over her threateningly until she ate all of it.

“How did you like that?” he asked when she had finished.

“Very well, indeed,” she replied.

“You should,” he observed very calmly. “That was the heart of William of Cabestaing. It was always yours, I understand—more so now than formerly.”

“Yes, always mine,” said the lady, deadly white but queenly in her reserve. “I shall never have another.”

Whereupon she leaped out of the window. Her body fell at the base of the cliff only a few feet from the mutilated corpse of William.

Perhaps Lady Tricline’s was the body unearthed some years ago in the crypt of the Church of St. Vincent. In the unmarked coffin lay the body of a girl that rapidly disintegrated save for a wreath of golden hair that remained to shine in the sun as it had shone many centuries ago. This relic gave a name to the Hotel Chevelure d’Or, but later it was rescued from the hands of the innkeeper by Frederick Mistral and taken to the museum of Arles, where it is still to be seen.

Other bodies of dead ladies and knights were found in the stone coffins in the crypt. They were well preserved and life-like when the slabs were first removed, but crumbled like the citadel they built when the air reached them. Their dust was reinterred in the ancient church.

The Chevre d’Or, which haunts the solitudes of the high peaks, is a character from the Arabian Nights, left to linger in Provence after the men who wrote that book were expelled from Europe. The life of this goat is a bit of biography that seems to have puzzled the facile wits of the legend-manufacturers of the Midi. According to some ac-counts, he is a prisoner of four witches, who make his life miserable in the depths of a grotto below the ancient donjon.

He is the possessor of the great secret of the treasures of the earth but cannot buy his freedom from the witches. The jewels of Ind, which would be at his command should he utter a single plaintive “baa,” can avail him nothing against the dark enchantments that hold him captive.

Some day, of course, he is to be rescued. The witches are to be put to flight by some modern knight whose character is pure enough to make him proof against their vile incantations, and the generous and grateful goat will there-upon share with him the world’s wealth. That is one version of the tale.

The second is a bit more complicated. In this narrative of the goat’s activities he is represented as the personification of all the evil impulses of the Saracen and Hungarian invaders. The picture is more logical. Here is the goat, voracious, destructive, glittering with the proceeds of con-quest, a type of the aliens who bequeathed him to Provence.

The goat naturally bears the curse that the early inhabitants of the Rhone valley so willingly called down upon the Saracens. Woe to the man who sees this Chevre d’Or. Sometimes he is merely petrified on the spot, adding another bit of insane sculpture to the temple of dipsomania that crowns the ridge. More often he is lured to follow the goat to its cavernous lair, tracking it down by the gold flecks on the stones, until presently he is a captive beneath the ground.

Whether a distorted application of the intense hatreds that the Saracen brought into Europe, or a fairy-tale echoing in the haunts of the troubadours who made it, this legend is not illogical. One does not look into it far with-out seeing a homely lesson upon the evils of avarice, a rustic view of the curse of gold.

The goat in one form or another is common to all the varied lore of lower Provence. Ghosts of less evil import bear the goat company in the lost tunnels of Les Baux. The little woman who played the great jest on the Porcellet family, for instance, is still hereabouts. She has been kept alive by Provencal recitals of her Porcelline humor.

Adelaide Sabbattier, grande dame of her family, was the proud victim of the jest. She cast aspersions on the character of a widow with twins who ventured to ask her for alms, and for her haughtiness received a curse.

“If twins are a mark of depravity, consider your own case when your time shall come,” the woman warned her. “Mark your model.” And she pointed to a pig.

And within the year Madame Sabbattier gave birth to nine children who were known, by reason of the widow’s reference to the pig, as the Porcellets. Eventually this appellation was adopted as the family name of the Sabbattiers.

There is no prettier story in all the lore of Provence and Burgundy than that of the star of Bethlehem, last chapter in the lore of the vanished dukes. It is known, of course, that after the Magi had made their offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh at the manger in Bethlehem they followed the star of the east over devious paths into Provence. Their coming is celebrated every year at Christmas-tide with a number of pictureque ceremonials. One of these three kings—probably Gaspar, “the white one,” al-though history and legend alike are hazy on this interesting subject—built a castle on the ridge of Baux and founded the race of nobles that came later to rule in the, valley of the Rhone.

History takes up their record with the beginning of the tenth century and after that places them in every bit of battle or king-manufacture that affected their territory during nearly five hundred years. In the fifteenth century the direct male line came to an end. The Baronne Alix of Baux was the last of the Provencal branch. And when she was forty years old she began to hear the mysterious message from off the sea.

She lay dying in the cool tower of the donjon, her bed so placed that she could look out across the Crau, across the spires of Arles and the marshes of the Rhone to the ocean. The best physicians of Provence and Languedoc came to attend her. Holy friars and ardent pilgrims flocked to the castle to pray for her recovery. But Alix felt that she was going to die. One night she knew. . . .

From out of the east came a gleaming star, the star that had guided her illustrious ancestor into Provence. It hung throughout one whole night just above the tower, so close that it seemed she had only to reach from her bed to touch it. And toward morning it floated away again. And the soul of the Princess Alix followed it.

Baux seems to have been since the coming of man to the Rhone a refuge for those driven from homes by the invader. Above the phantom city are man-made cliff-dwellings that probably antedate the coming of the illustrious Gaspar. Farther on up the slope are the remains of a camp that tradition assigns to Marius. The walls of this stronghold are still nearly intact.

Another relic of Roman times is to be found at the foot of the cliffs, a crude sculpture of three life-size figures which Christian tradition takes to be a representation of the Three Marys of the gospel. Archaeologists have declined to accept this explanation of the carving and identify the figures as the Roman Caius Marius, his wife, Julia Marii, and the Syrian prophetess who accompanied the conqueror on his campaign. If this theory is correct the work dates from 100 B.C.

From the gargoyled summit of Les Baux one looks down upon most of the old kingdom of Arles. In the foreground lie the ornate windows of echoing empty houses, sculptured chimney-pots that hum strange dirges in the mistral, gray walls that fade to amorphous shadows in the bright sun-shine, the Church of St. Vincent where lie the princes of Baux, and the white road, winding dizzily down to the plain of the Rhone. Westward Arles and Montmajour, the latter a supposed terminus to a forgotten tunnel that be-gins in the grotto of the fairies, rise white from amid bands of blue where the Rhone rolls out to the sea. Eastward three mountain ranges come up to meet the sky.

To the south a captive rainbow strews its tints. From the foot of the Alpilles stretches a band of red earth—the Bauxite that is bringing more wealth in aluminum to this part of Provence than the most fruitful imagination had envisioned in the treasure of gold hoarded by the mystic goat. Beyond it a belt of purple-green olive-trees bends beneath the mistral. In cloudy distance marshes catch the sun and pull down the sky until, under a waving veil of changing color, the blue land blends with the bluer sea. It is not alone in the miracles of its haunted caverns that Les Baux is the enchanted mountain.