France – Mont Beuvray

In between the Cote d’Or and the Monts de Morvan, Civilization on its march from Yesterday to To-day remained long enough to transcribe a few notes. A dozen races and four or five distinct epochs of culture collaborated in the writing of that record. The result is still plainly legible in ciphers of stone, or in the immense picture-writings draped from the peaks of the eternal hills. If no other chronicles of human achievement in western Europe were to remain, if Rome were to be destroyed and Paris to disappear, learned antiquarians of the new day would rake over the mounds of dead bones in this one district and page by page put together the great volume of history. One recalls, in this haunted region, the story of the Chinese emperor who destroyed all the books in his domain save one hidden library from which learning sprang anew. There is an analogy here. One who would wipe out the crowded memories of France’s glorious past must first destroy Autun.

Here are traces of the paleolithic man and the prehistoric Aryan who overcame him. Here in the streets of forgotten cities one may follow the course of the Gaul from savagery to an industrial development closely approximating civilization. Druid altars, witches’ mounds and Christian temples lean upon one another in the hills. Up toward the sky-line mount Gallic roads upon foundations that the Phenicians built. Roman arches leap the streets. Burgundian, Visigoth, and Franks have left an imprint of personality on the walls and vaults of house and church. Feudal donjon and Renaissance chateau dominate the valleys. Revolutionary cannon-balls remain imbedded in the walls of fortifications that Louis XIV reconstructed. German guns decorate the promenades and at least one building—a concrete garage—remains as a monument to the tenancy of the American troops.

From the point of view of an antiquarian, Mont Beuvray, about ten miles to the southwest of Autun, is the most interesting spot in the region. This “mountain” is an igneous plateau, 2690 feet above sea-level and about 1800 feet above the elevation of Autun. And here, long before Caesar came into Gaul to write of it, stood Bibracte, oppidum AEduorum.

There is no longer any doubt concerning the site of Bibracte. Excavations begun in 1869 by Gabriel Bulliot and J. Dechelette and completed in 1905 brought to light not only the outer extremities of the Gallic town, but its streets and houses and market-places—and factories. For there were factories in Bibracte. Mont Beuvray was an industrial district many hundred years before Creusot set up his little forge in the valley of the Arroux. It is not without precedent that Burgundy—no longer a hoplite of Mars—has essayed the role of armorer.

When this city was built is a question that even the antiquarians who restored it could not venture to answer. It has been said, probably with good authority, that the Phenicians taught the AEdui how to build houses. There is nothing improbable in the theory.

Tradition, founded upon Roman observation, has it that the iron-works of Bibracte were so well known that the Phenicians, the Greeks, the Gauls of the south, and other peoples engaged in trade used to send delegates each year to an industrial fair on Mont Beuvray. Such a fair is held there annually to this day, although few of the traders attending realize that they are keeping alive a custom that originated perhaps two thousand years ago.

The road from Autun takes twenty miles of twists and turns and dips and rises to cover the ten miles of map distance between the city and the ancient metropolis of Gaul. It passes first through Monthelon, celebrated in church history as the residence of the Baronne de Chantal, saint and founder of the Order of the Visitation. A few kilometers farther on is the Castle of Vautheau that P. G. Hamerton declared to be “one of the most perfect examples of the feudal castle in Burgundy,” which is saying a great deal in a district where the remains of chivalry’s proud strongholds rise from every granite peak.

One tower of the donjon is still well preserved. The rest is a ruin that would be somber were it not for its ivy draperies.

The men of Vautheau played a real part in the affairs of their times. Sire Jacques de Vautheau was a Huguenot leader in the Morvan. This in itself marks him for an heroic character, for in those days the Huguenots were not popular in Burgundy.

Fanciful Romance as it appears hereabouts has taken full advantage of the religious acrobatics of the house of Vautheau in casting its characters. There is the story of a beautiful but languishing lady who tucks up her shroud in a fair adaptation of the prevailing mode once or twice a year and returns to the old tower to practise moaning in a throaty barytone. Those who have heard her say that she does it very well.

The road swings lazily from Vautheau to St.-Leger-sous-Beuvray, a quiet old town by a turquoise lake that catches and magnifies the profile of the haunted hill. Hamerton calls this place “a poet’s dream of Arcady,” and it is all of that—water and wood and beckoning road, ancient houses with half-closed shutters that seem to be blinking in the warm sun of the afternoon, two medieval towers . . . yes, and the pipes of Pan himself, for these slopes are peopled with the vanished gods of Rome.

Here and there as the grade mounts upward one glimpses strange mounds that have the appearance of recent earthworks. Old Pierre, the guide, says that they outline the enceinte of the ancient Gallic fortifications within which arose the prosperous city of Bibracte. Bulliot, who uncovered nearly all of the city, took the precaution early in his work to rebury the ruins as soon as they had been sketched and plotted. The Gauls, being a primitive people, built generally with adobe and timber, and the antiquarians who brought Bibracte back to human ken were afraid that a single bad winter might destroy for ever the world’s most interesting relics of ante-Roman Gaul.

Despite this fact, however, it is still possible to trace much of the city. Where Gallic workmanship was good enough to permit, whole sections of wall, sample bits of streets and rooms of dwellings have been left exposed. In such spots one feels the fascination common to Mesa Verde or the pueblo towns in the Painted Desert—one senses an indescribable contact with the beings who lived here.

One relic that has caused more speculation than any other monument in the vicinity is the Pierre de Wivre, named after the Wouvre, which in its day was the play-mate and zoological cousin of the Drac and the Tarasque of Provence.

There is little doubt that the Pierre de Wivre was a sacrificial stone of the druids for a long time before the founding of Bibracte. The position of it—east and west —would attest its druidic origin even were it not identified by the characteristic carvings and the blood-troughs on the side. Some accounts designate this spot as the scene of a witches’ sabbath. Other authorities reject the evidence of its use for such purposes and designate the volcanoes of Auvergne, far to the south, as the meeting-place for the witches. But whether or not the ancient butcher-block of the druids came into use as an altar for devil-worship, the legends of the neighborhood are none the less unsavory.

The old folk of Autun are persuaded that the Wivre once lived within the rock—does yet for that matter, al-though he is growing old and causes less trouble than he did when he was younger and more excitable. And they say that deep in the grottoes under Mont Beuvray he has amassed all the loose treasures of the earth: the gold lost at sea, jewels dropped from the careless fingers of queens, coins of long burned empires, the hordes that misers had hoped vainly to take past the grave.

Be that as it may. They tell the story, also, that once every year the Wivre, feeling in his eon-old bones the thrill of springtime, leaves his cave under the rock and wanders out over the country-side, where in the days of his misspent youth he was wont to consort with other shapeless monsters.

According to the legend, a youthful widow of St. Leger absented herself from Easter services to raid the Wivre’s cave during this annual absence. In her hurry to carry out a prodigious quantity of loot she forgot her baby and was forestalled in an attempt to rectify this error by the return of the monster.

Weeping bitterly, she went to the old cure of St. Leger and confessed what she had done, and he advised her to expiate her flirtation with the devil by spreading milk and honey on the rock of the Wivre every day for a year.

So the girl did as she was told. For an entire year she denied herself all luxuries in food and dress so that she might buy milk and honey for the Wivre. How the sleeping monster found time to experiment with this diet is not stated.

The process worked. The virtues of the milk and honey as a bait to appease Wivres of all ages will never again be doubted on the slopes of Mont Beuvray. Promptly according to schedule the Wivre stepped out and the excited mother dashed into the cave. There she found her child unharmed, seated upon a stone table eating an apple.

The apple probably grew in the cave, inasmuch as the Wivre was constitutionally opposed to going out oftener than once a year, and the baby wasn’t able to walk. The incident had a profound moral effect on the community. Not a single mother, so far as one can learn, has left her baby in the Wivre’s cave since.

Another legend of Mont Beuvray relates how St. Martin, widely celebrated in Burgundian lore, escaped from his enemies at this spot through miraculous intervention.

According to this story, St. Martin, who was traveling to Autun, was met on the highway by a necromancer, a somber fellow in a black garb with a yellow cap on his head and a sprig of hazel wood in his hand.

“Holy person,” saluted the necromancer, “as you may recognize from my costume I am a master of druidic lore. Until you came into my life I was doing a pretty good business in serpents’ eggs, vivisections, and ceremonial post-mortems. But recently my trade has been dropping off scandalously. I ’11 tell you candidly I should like to make a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with you to put an end to this ruinous competition.”

Martin smiled tolerantly.

“My friend,” he said, “you probably are a good enough sort. I should like to help you to rehabilitate yourself. But you would have to change your ways decidedly. The field for ecclesiastical coroners in my diocese is a bit limited as matters stand at present.”

“I was on the point of saying,” put in the necromancer hurriedly, “that I am willing to make another offer. If you will come before my people and present your case without criticizing me too severely, I shall promise to leave off necromancing entirely and go in for alchemy. That ‘s the coming profession, anyway.”

The saint was touched by the modesty of the plea.

“I certainly entertain no personal malice against you nor any other priest of your craft,” he explained. “I shall be glad to tell your people that you expounded to them the doctrines which you believed to be true and that in so doing you were merely following the dictates of your conscience. Surely they could not hold you accountable for that.”

The smiling necromancer accepted this decision with great delight. He guided St. Martin through the woods and up the long winding slopes to the summit of the hill, where thousands of Gauls were assembled.

The druid priest did not wait for St. Martin to alight from his horse before introducing him.

“This old reprobate,” he said, “is the man who has been slandering you throughout Burgundy and Aquitaine. I have brought him here for a little experiment in autopsy, by which I shall endeavor to determine whether or not we are going to have a profitable winter.”

The crowd, roaring for blood, surged forward. But the saint remained firm in the face of danger. He waved his hand, and the temple of the Dea Bibracte tumbled down. Then, before the stupefied pagans could reach him, he had gathered his horse for a leap.

The animal cleared the gorge of Malvaux, southwest of the summit, and landed safely on the other side, about ten kilometers distant. Peasants will point out to you the peculiar markings in the rock that are said to have been made by the hoofs of St. Martin’s mount in landing after the leap.

That this legend is related also of the gorge at Nantoux does not diminish its interest for visitors to Mont Beuvray. It seems not at all out of place as a part of the lore of the dead city of Bibracte and certainly no less credible. A little chapel, dedicated to St. Martin, is said to mark the site of the temple of the Dea Bibracte on the summit of the mount. Near by is a cross commemorating St. Martin’s works of charity—evidence enough that local tradition has seized upon him for its own.

As Hamerton and Buillot the antiquarian had done a generation ago in their work on the mount, we searched diligently at the edge of one of the recently constructed tumuli for the remains of a Gaulish fireplace. We found it, still marked with the smoke of the fires that had been banked when the population of this great city had moved away. In one corner of the square stone hearth we found, as they had found, the charred remains of the last fire. We lighted the charcoal with the awed reverence that should attend a religious rite.

The red edges of the charcoal glowed in the soft evening breeze, smoked, then flamed. No one with imagination could have sat there in the cool twilight, before the hearth of a mysterious dead and gone race, and watched that flame curling lazily upward without feeling the thrill of it. More than twenty centuries had been bridged by that fire. When the glowing embers had been covered by the skin-clad Gaul who two thousand years ago reared his family in this dwelling-place, Rome ruled the world and Christianity existed not even in name. Savages sat upon the hills of western Europe. Druid priests plied their bloody trade in the oak forests. Between the dying of that ember and the resurrection of the fire at the magic call of a modem safety-match, empires had marched to glory and to death, great conquerors had risen and been conquered. A new world had been discovered beyond the pillars of Hercules and over the western seas. Christianity had spread to the far corners of the earth. Feudalism had come and gone. Burgundy had had its day as kingdom, county, duchy, and untitled empire. There had come the modern miracles of steam, electricity, and gasolene, the harnessing of the ether, the conquest of the air.

The reflection of the flame, shining through the shrubbery before the ruined fireplace, made dancing sequins on the old wall. The picture was vivid. I could feel the breath of an ancient warrior on my cheek, and my ears were ringing; not with the words of the guide but with the whispering voices that had come to me over the chasm of two thousand years.

I felt as the monk Felix must have felt when he walked “out of his convent of gray stone,” listened for a moment to the sweet singing of a bird, and returned to the abbey to discover that he had been gone a hundred years.

Years, decades, lifetimes seemed hardly worth considering in the light of that ancient fire. It is typical of Burgundy, this place. The hoary past seems young and real and vital and just across the threshold. It is tied to the present not only by gray ruins, moss-grown tombs, and other relics of a departed grandeur, but by an atmosphere such as that of old Bibracte. . . .

“The touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still” are easily found here. Yesterday is slow in going, and the To-morrow that will dispossess the old ghosts and rout the old memories seems never to come.

There were lights twinkling in Autun . . . needle-points of brilliants in a purple gray distance. Up from the unseen valley came the moaning of an automobile siren.