France – Beaune And Its Beaune Mots

Beaune, a pleasant town of Roman origin sheltered in the Cote d’Or, preserving a medieval character in the midst of its anomalous present, dreaming its dreams, tending its vines, spinning its strange tales, and pouring its rich red wine, has written the entire history of Burgundy on the books of its town hall. In miniature it is Burgundy. Quiet, friendly people walk its old streets. Machicolated towers peer inquisitively from amid Mansards and chimney-pots. The song that rolls from the open door of the cool cafe is thrown back upon the town by the fragment of a forgotten bastion. Knights, dukes, kings, and emperors have followed one another through Beaune’s ad-venturous ruelles. Blood has flowed in its gutters. Wars, for civilization, for country, for faith, for political creed, for that elusive thing called liberty, have made their trail across it, a trail as wide as the town itself, as red as Beaune wine.

The fortifications of Beaune were made formidable in 1502 on orders from Louis XII. Henry IV, whose antipathy for moated cities was so well demonstrated in the destruction of Semur, tore down the walls one hundred years later.

Beaune played a considerable part in the religious wars and was for a time one of the most important cities of the Calvinists in France. During the time of their occupation it took on an importance as an industrial community. With the renewal of religious wrangles under Louis XIV, how-ever, the men in charge of its manufactories sought new fields, and the town went back to its ancient wine trade and a placid commercial existence.

Two towers are all that remain of the feudal castle about which Beaune sprang up. Another tall prism of dark rock holds title for the ancient Hotel de Ville. The collegiate Church of Notre Dame is a twelfth-century relic but has lost its character as a Burgundian structure through periodic additions and reconstructions. The principal monument of the town is the hospice, which, architecturally and as a charitable institution, is probably the most remark-able building of its kind in France.

The Hostel Dieu is a great meandering chateau with high sloping roofs of the snake-skin type, Gothic gables and double arcades built about a flowered courtyard. It was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Burgundy, in honor of his wife Guicone de Salins and still bears above its doors the carven record of his vow to her, “I will have no other.” Antiquarians with a leaning toward accurate expression translate this pledge to mean, “I will have no other wife.” For, they observe, Nicolas as chancellor in the court of Philippe le Bon was not proof against the wiles of the lovely ladies who cluttered up the palaces at Dijon, Tallant, and elsewhere. The Hostel Dieu seems to have been Rolin’s only contribution to the religious life.

Over the main entrance of the hospital a Gothic canopy hangs to the wall without pillared support. A carved door swings open to admit the visitor to the fifteenth century. One finds oneself in a paneled hall, the oak walls of which have been blackened by the burning wax of hundreds of years. Burgundian chairs and chests and tables of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries flank the corridor, not as objects on display in a museum but as furniture of everyday use. The atmosphere they create is indescribable.

To the left stretches the Grand’ Chambre, a splendid spacious room with an ogival ceiling strangely carved and frescoed. Oaken beams which cross the vault at regular intervals are finished in blue, rose, gold, and black. One recognizes instantly the hand of the Rolins in this decoration. Save for the high arch, this room might have been taken bodily from the palace of Cardinal Rolin at Autun. The bold coloring, the bold carving, the vastness of design are typical of the family, typical of the Burgundy in which they lived.

The beds of the poor patients who receive care here are ranged along the walls under canopies of white and separated from one another now, as they were when Guicone de Salins placed them here, by curtains of deep red velvet. The great polished floor of the hall is otherwise unobstructed. Guicone and her blustering husband knew nothing about twentieth-century theories of medicine, but they built their hospital according to one sound principle: they deter-mined that the sufferers who came here must have fresh air and plenty of it. Modern physicians have found nothing to change in their design.

There is a figure stirring in the shadows. A woman suddenly steps into the shaft of rose and gold light that falls from one of the stained glass windows, and the visitor is callous, indeed, who does not feel that he has seen a ghost. She wears a conical head-dress, this lady. The white veil of it falls over her shoulders and sets off the blue of her tight-fitting bodice and full flowing skirts. A strangely braided girdle of metal and rope loops her waist.

She seems to have stepped from one of the tapestries of the entrance-hall, a lady of Philippe’s court in all the quaint garments of her vanished day. She might be Guicone de Salins herself, or Marguerite of Bouilland, or that other Marguerite who laid her keys on the coffin of her ducal husband.

Even when one realizes that she is one of the nursing sisterhood in charge of the hospital the effect remains. It is difficult to realize that she is flesh and blood and not a phantom recreation of some belle come back to seek trace of the somewhat promiscuous Nicolas.

The sisters of the Holy Spirit were placed in charge of the hospice by Guicone at the time of the founding of the hospital. They came to serve the poor in the costume of their daily life, the court garb of Burgundy slightly influenced by the mode of Flanders. And to this day they have worn the same costume.

One passes through the Salle Saint-Nicolas, another great chamber now used as an anteroom to a surgical laboratory, and comes to one of the most curious corners in all France, the kitchen. Nothing has been changed in this vast, vaulted room since it was founded. Two stone columns support the ceiling, which is decorated with iron bracketing.

At the left of the entrance is the massive stone fireplace, where food is still prepared after the fashion of five centuries ago. In itself the fireplace is much like others still to be seen in Burgundy, a Gothic construction divided into two compartments. But before it is a device of a sort that probably is to be seen nowhere else in the world, a mechanical turnspit.

When Nicolas and Guicone designed this kitchen, the turnspit was an iron crank of the ordinary variety. The meat hung upon it was kept in motion by a boy who was kept in motion by a stout strap in the hands of the cook. The process, though ancient and honorable, was a bit crude.

A hundred years after Rolin’s death, an iron-worker of Beaune devised an improvement patterned after the vital economy of a cuckoo-clock. Since that time a series of gears actuated by lead weights has turned the spit, and, save for the refitting of a few bearings and the replacement of cords, the mechanism has required no attention.

The treasury of the hospice contains nearly a hundred vessels of silver and gold, some of them the handiwork of the most famous Flemish goldsmiths, all of them more valuable through historical association than for their very obvious intrinsic worth.

There is scarcely any end to the surprises of the place. Modernity has no right of entry here, and no collector in the world has gold enough to buy the art treasures that have accumulated in these brown halls during the centuries. It is as the perfect survival of old Burgundy that the hospice exerts its charm.

And yet Guicone de Salins sleeps the more peacefully, perhaps, because of modern science. You may see her tomb in the old chateau, but she has been lying in it only since 1876. At that time Doctors Leflaive and Saulgeot, surgeons of the hospital staff, opened a sarcophagus where Guicone lay in crowded quarters among the bones of dozens of other benefactors who had been buried there without attempt at identification.

Painstaking examination of all the bones to determine their age, and careful comparison with all available statistics concerning the height, weight, and age of Guicone at the time of her death, made it possible to reconstruct the lady’s skeleton. Her mortal remains were then removed to a more fitting resting-place.

Unlike so many of the dismantled citadels of Burgundy, Beaune has made no attempt to conceal its ancient dignity. It has the typical encircling boulevard which follows the line of the outer enceinte, but the walls have not been destroyed to make a living for the landscape-gardeners. They stand to-day, topped by rows of shady trees and manteled with roses and ivy. Below them the old moat remains formidably deep, although wild flowers carpet it. One may walk for kilometers along the boulevard without being able to enter the town proper, and one realizes how powerful this place must have been before Henri Quatre emasculated it.

It is quite probable that the might of Beaune is responsible for the dozens of naive stories that folks outside the walls were wont to tell concerning the inhabitants of the citadel. There are scores of these tales. One may still hear them in Dijon where they have been passed from lip to lip for centuries. Universally they have as a basic theme the alleged simplicity of the native of Beaune. American soldiers attending the Army University in the Cote d’Or after the armistice classified them all under the picturesque title of “Beaune Heads,” an appellation still given them by residents who do not know its meaning.

Here are some samples :

At a certain meeting for the election of echevins considerable bitterness was displayed, and long-winded orator, debated ad infinitum the merits of various candidates. Enter the town fool leading an ass.

“Honored sirs,” said the fool, “here is a citizen who has not been properly represented. If you do not care to choose him for echevin, at least you should allow him a voice with the rest of the asses.”

A regiment passing through Beaune found itself encumbered by much unnecessary baggage. The commanding officer decided to send it ahead by a short route through a forest. The mayor of Beaune immediately offered him four gendarmes to protect it from thieves en route.

A seigneur passing through Beaune stopped for refreshments at an inn. He was served eggs, which, according to the custom of the district in winter, had been preserved by immersion in oil.

“These eggs are very fresh,” said the seigneur.

“They ought to be,” replied his host. “I have watched them for three weeks.”

At one time in the vicinity of Beaune the slaughter of cattle for market had been so great that beef was hardly to be had, and butchers, cornering the remaining supply, proceeded to get rich. The mayor issued an order in which he intended to say that butchers would be allowed to purchase only a certain number of cattle and would be permitted to slaughter only a certain percentage of their allotment each week. But when the order was issued it read :

“Butchers will be allowed to slaughter only a part of each cow,” a mistake more easily made in French than in English.

The daughter of the mayor of Beaune had lost her pet canary. Immediately the mayor issued orders to raise the pont-levis and close all the city gates.

A prince passed through Beaune and was shocked that no salute of cannon had marked his arrival. He complained to the mayor.

“Why,” he inquired, “did you fail to fire the cannon in my honor?”

“For a variety of reasons,” replied the mayor. “The first is that we haven’t any cannon.”

After a great snowfall in Beaune the clearing of the streets became a civic problem. One citizen came before the public council to announce that he was willing to re-move the snow without recompense provided he should not be asked to complete the task before the middle of July. The police accepted the offer.

And so on in infinite variety. There is nothing about present-day Beaune that would seem to merit the raillery of its neighbors. Whatever may have been the mental equipment of the men about whom these stories are told, they have been dead a long time. But it was always thus. Wise men die and their works with them. Only folly is immortal.

In the ensemble Beaune strikes the visitor as being purely ancient. Its modern additions are well hidden in the curves of its twisting alleys. The houses for the most part have high sloping slate roofs with wide chimneys. Hanging gables of the fourteenth-century variety are common. Whole streets of dwellings look out at the world through leaded windows and permit of entrance through squat doorways with arquebus arches. Here and there are buildings of which the second story is scarcely head-high above the street, as if the weight of the upper masonry had pushed the foundations deeply into the ground.

In the center of town are many Romanesque double-arched shop-fronts. At night when the streets are dark as tunnels, and as cool, the shopkeepers come out to sit on the sidewalk, which, here as elsewhere in Burgundy, is the favored “front parlor.”

One is not surprised to find Philippe Pot’s town house here, a mansion that seems to sag under a mass of pale chocolate tile. Philippe—of whom more later—was not the only Burgundian knight who made this place a recreation center. They will show you a blood-stain on the floor of the attic of the ancient house opposite the cathedral and tell you of how two nobles from Dijon fought to the death there for the love of a lady. No one seems to have bothered to take the names of the combatants or to have inquired about the coveted woman. Such things were so small a matter in those days!