France – Les Baux – The Great Castle

Before crossing to the western bank of the Rhone, I think we must visit Les Baux, the great castle on the ridge of the Alpines, which, during the Middle Ages, was the rallying ground of the Troubadours, who made Provence so famous.

The origin of the family of Les Baux, or Les Bathes, is, as the guide book expresses it, ” lost in the mists of ages! ”

But, fortunately, we were accompanied, on our visit, by a friend, himself a Provencal Troubadour of no mean repute, and while we crossed the valley and climbed the steep road” to the castle, our omniscient guide told us the legend of the coming of the descendant and namesake of Baltazar, Le Roi Mage, to Les Baux, or, as the name signifies—The Rocks. I do not know when this king came, or why he came. Some people say that he had followed the Emperor Theodosius from the East, and that, seduced by the beauty of Provence, remained in that Circe land. But come he surely must have done, or why should the Seigneurs of Les Baux have borne a comet with sib rays as their crest, unless in memory of the star which led the first Baltazar and his companion kings to the Stable of Bethlehem?

Besides, look at their war cry, ” Au hazar Bauthazar! ” Absolutely convincing, is it not? And yet there are sceptics who say that the family of Les Baux owed its existence to the coming of a certain princely race of Visigoths, named Balthes, who established themselves in Provence during the fifth or sixth century. But let us believe the legend of Le Bon Baltazar, it is so much less prosaic!

I can fancy his arriving with his wife and children—the legend especially mentions his bringing them with him. They had been wandering about a long time, and no doubt the poor wife was tired and homesick for the East. Now, even to-day, there is something Galilean about the landscape of Les Baux. As the strange white rocks of the hidden valley suddenly revealed themselves to her, I can hear her saying to her husband, ” It reminds me of home! Let us remain here, 0 Baltazar! ” And so, on the culminating rock, Baltazar built his tower, which later grew into the great and marvellous fortress of Les Baux.

Dreams and fancies? Of course, what else does one expect in Provence! I always make it a point to believe what I want to believe; at all events for the time being. The naked truth is so ugly, we must find a few rags of fancy, a garment or two of legend, in which to clothe her. And what garments are there not laid away among the ruins of Les Baux?

Even as we enter the fortifications, our friend the troubadour finds one forgotten fragment, in which he hides the prosaic reality of a certain siege by the Saracens. I wish I could tell it in his own words.

Les Baux was straitly shut up. Not a mouthful of food could she obtain from without, and her provisions were exhausted. ” We shall have to capitulate,” said the Seigneur des Baux, sadly, ” and then God have mercy upon us, for these pagans will show none.” But, even as he was speaking, a man was brought to him in whose cellar had been found a pig, which he had been keeping as a last meal for himself and his family. It was still in good condition, and as he looked at it an idea came into the mind of the Seigneur des Baux. ” There are still a few handfuls of corn,” said he; ” bring them here.” It is done. Poor pig has paid the penalty of his fatness. Into his bleeding mouth has been thrust the last corn of the garrison. ” Throw him over the wall,” cries the chief, eagerly; and the wondering soldiers obey. Ah, but not for nothing is that Seigneur descended from the magicians of India. ” Pig! ” cry the besiegers, who themselves are in a bad way. ” A pig! And so stuffed with corn that he actually couldn’t swallow the last mouthful? By Allah, if they can afford to waste good food like this, what is the use of our waiting? ” And they went.

And there is the tale of Berengere des Baux, first love of poor Guillaume Cabestaing, who died in such a tragic manner. All good Provencal children have been told of the handsome troubadour, and how the lady of Les Baux, wishing to keep him all to herself, consulted one of the old witches who used to haunt the Grotte des Fees, from whom she obtained a love potion. It must have contained some poison, for Cabestaing, after drinking it, went raving mad, and when he recovered, was so frightened of the Lady Berengere that he fled from Les Baux in terror. So flying, he came to Roussillon, and entered the service of the lovely Lady Tricline. Then commenced a long and romantic story. The troubadour sang love songs to the lady, and the lady smiled upon the troubadour, till one day her old husband became jealous, and taxed the young man with making love to his wife.

” No indeed! ” cried Cabestaing. ” You are quite mistaken. Why, it is her sister Agnes of Tarascon whom I love.”

The old lord may have believed him, or on the other hand he may not. At all events, he pro-posed a visit to Tarascon, and the three went off together. But when she found Cabestaing writing love songs for her sister, Tricline became jealous, and her husband found that he had been deceived. The vengeance he took was horrible, even for those times. Inviting Cabestaing to go hunting one day, he fell upon him and killed him, cut off his head, and tore out his heart. The former he kept in his hunting-bag; the latter he had cooked and served to his wife for supper.

” How do you like that meat, my lady? ” he inquired. And when she said she had never tasted anything so delicious, out he took the bloody head, and set it before her, explaining that it was her lover’s heart she had just been eating.

For a moment Tricline turned sick and faint. Then starting up, she cried desperately, ” And good it was! So good that nothing more shall pass my lips while I live! ” and, running to the window, she sprang out, and so perished.

And there are the eccentricities of Pierre Vidal. A regular Don Juan was he, according to his own account, but as mad as a March hare in reality. And though all the ladies flattered him, for the sake of the songs he knew so well how to sing, they laughed at him behind his back. We find him here at Les Baux making violent love to Adelaide, wife of Lord Barrel des Baux, even venturing to creep into her room to kiss her as she lay asleep. This Adelaide des Baux was also loved by the troubadour Foulquet, who afterwards entered the Church, and became Bishop of Toulouse.

And then do you remember Geoffrey Rudel, who fell in love with Melisande, daughter of the Count of Tripoli, only from hearing the reports of her beauty? No doubt he made his debut at the celebrated Court of Love held at Les Baux.

” I love an object whom I have never seen,” he cries, in one of his songs, ” one to whom I have never been able to reveal my feelings, or ask for an explanation of hers. But I know that among all the beauties, Saracen, Jew, or Christian, there is not one who can compare with my lady.” That is the true troubadour spirit.

Afterwards he goes sailing away, dressed as a pilgrim, to seek his lady-love. “The fair one I adore shall see me with a staff, dressed as a pilgrim in my gown of cloth. Ah, if, for the love of God, she would but grant me hospitality in her palace! But no, it will be happiness enough for me if I am made prisoner by. the Saracens, and lodged in the same town which owns her.”

Geoffrey had a friend, Bertrand d’Allamanon, who went with him to the East. On the voyage the poor troubadour became very ill, and, as he grew worse, his one fear was that he should die without meeting his lady, Melisande. So as soon as they were within sight of land Bertrand hastened ashore, and went and implored the Countess to come and see this unknown lover who had travelled so far to meet her. And come she did, and Rudel died with her hand in his, feeling her kiss upon his brow.

And never did Melisande love another man; but, dressed like a widow, retired to a convent, where she spent the remainder of her life, praying for his soul, and weeping over the verses he had written in praise of her yet unknown charms.

But we cannot speak of all the gay ladies of Les Baux:—Raimbaude, beloved of Sordel and Blacus; Clairette and Alasie, celebrated by Pierre d’Auvergne. Above all, the lovely Passe Rose, that Queen of Love and Beauty, concerning whom all poets of her time sang.

It is difficult to-day to picture the gay Court of Les Baux. The castle and even the little town are in ruins. The Place is the only spot unencumbered with debris, and that is only large enough to hold a table, two or three chairs, and the village omnibus. There, where once the haughty princes lived and ruled, the landlord of the Hotel Monte Carlo and his friends sit discussing the affairs of the nation, while a handful of squalid peasants clamour for halfpence.

The church is old and quaint, with a crypt in which were buried the lords and ladies of Les Baux. Here, a few years ago, they found the skeleton of a young girl with golden hair. Who was she? No one knew, till at last some scholar suggested that it must be the body of the lady Strella, an Italian Princess, who, having come to Les Baux some centuries since to marry the young Seigneur, died on the eve of her wedding.

And here beside the Church is the Maison des Porcellets.

“You remember Guillaume de Porcellet? ” said our friend, as we were looking at the old hearth of what was once the salon. ” He was the companion and brother-in-arms of your Richard Cceur-de-Lion, who, by the bye, was also a troubadour. They went together to the Crusade.” And he told me of a day when this Guillaume and the King of England, being out hunting among the hills of Palestine, found them-selves surrounded by a company of Saracens. Already the two or three lords who were with them had fallen, for they were completely out-numbered, and Richard was fighting with his back against a rock. Then Guillaume de Porcellet, knowing that the King was the prize they coveted, cried out in Saracen, ” Let my squire go! Do you not see that I am the King! ” Instantly they closed round him, thus giving Richard time to make off. No sooner was he in a place of -safety than he sent to offer a ransom for his gallant friend, and six of the great Saracen lords, whom he held as prisoners, he had to give before Guillaume de Porcellet was set at liberty.

The local guide who had taken us round had listened with great attention to the story, nodding his head condescendingly here and there, though I don’t believe he had ever heard a word of it before.

“It is true! ” said he. ” There are many such stories, for they were a great race, Les Porcellets. Madame knows how the family came by that name? ” I shook my head.

“Ah, that is a story worth remembering,” with a sidelong glance at our companion. ” It was in the great days of Les Baux, when the Courts of Love were held, and beneath every window a troubadour sighed in the moonlight,, waiting till his love dropped him the flower, or the word which gave him the permission to depart. The lady, I forget her name, but no matter, she was the mother of all the Porcellets who warmed themselves at this great hearth, was walking down the road to the valley, when she met an old woman who asked her for alms. But the lady was in no mood to be stopped. These great folk had not then discovered that they were of the same flesh and blood as the people they ruled. So she passed on haughtily. ` A widow’s curse upon you! ‘ screamed the old woman, and, a row passing at that moment, she added, ` May Fou have as many sons at a birth as that beast.”

What a terrible wish! ” exclaimed my husband. ” And how many was it? ”

” Nine, monsieur. If the legend speaks true, there were nine Seigneurs de Porcellet born a few weeks later, for such they were named, in memory of the event I have related.”

There is a spot which perhaps above all others recalls the palmy days of Les Baux. Do you see, down in the valley, a little octagonal summer-house still standing at one angle of an enclosed field? It is called by the farmer’s wife, who shows it to us, ” Le Pavilion de la Reine Jeanne,” though, to be sure, poor Jeanne and her four husbands had been in the other world nearly a couple of hundred years when this architectural gem was raised. In reality it is the Pavillon d’Amour, the only vestige left of the famous gardens of Les Baux, where once were held the Courts of Love. This hidden valley was always, as I have shown, renowned as one of the chief centres of le gai Scavoir. Troubadours from early times found their way to the Castle of the Rocks. No doubt this enclosure was dedicated to that strange sentimental cult of women which grew up in the thirteenth century. Here poet lovers met their ladies and sighed with them beneath the moon. Here were celebrated those mystical marriages which consoled the poor girls of feudal times for the loveless, and often repulsive, alliances they were forced to contract. Here assembled at stated intervals the various officers of the High Privileges of Love, the Provosts of the Hawthorn, the Seneschal of the Eglantine, the Judges of Mourning, the Bailiffs of Delight, to discuss questions of gallantry, and pass judgment on all lovers who had in any way offended their ladies. And what a number of ways there were! All day long you must be at her beck and call, observing a thousand little formalities, the omission of any of which might draw down upon you her displeasure, and the chastisement of the officers of the High Privileges of Love.

But le gai Scavoir had almost ceased by the beginning of the sixteenth century. It had served its purpose; woman was no longer the mere chattel she had been, and the world was richer by a whole literature of love-songs and ballads which had arisen in her honour. Still, the cult had gone out of fashion.

But in the days of King Rene of Provence ” courtesy ” revived.

Then, once more, were seen the curious rites of which I have spoken; love songs again came into vogue, poets and painters found themselves no longer neglected, the Court of Love at Les Baux was restored, and at each corner arose an exquisite little temple, of which the example we still see is the only survival. What gay scenes has it not witnessed, this little ” Pavilion! ” What lovely ladies have not sat within it! What vows and songs has it not heard!

I was listening vaguely to the woman’s talk, and thinking, perhaps somewhat regretfully, of those romantic days of long ago, when a chance word caught my ear.

” Yes, I see the tower. What of it? ” I answered vaguely. ” It was the pigeon-house. In those days the pigeons fed on the people’s corn, and the lords and ladies fed on the pigeons.” ” Good old times! ”

” For the nobles and troubadours,” rejoined the woman, ” but for the peasants, Mon Dieu! ”

We have lingered long at Les Baux, but I wish we could stay still longer. For, in spite of that disquieting pigeon-house, a strange fragrant atmosphere lingers about every stone of the valley. And as we climb our way out through the great white pylons which guard the entrance, we turn to see the summits of Les Alpines gilded, like the memories of the days when the troubadours ruled the land; and we too find ourselves saying: ” Farewell, sweet ladies, God give you a good night! “