France – Toulouse

FROM Limosis, son of Japhet, to General Soult and the Duke of Wellington is a long jump, and covers a considerable period of history. And that is what we have to study if we wish to know anything of Toulouse. For this Tolosa Tecto Sagum, as the Romans called it, or the country of the people in the long cloaks, claims to be the most ancient town in France, perhaps in Europe —some say older than the Eternal City itself. However, I do not think we need begin with Limosis, son of Japhet. He and the long line of kings who followed him are so mythical that one almost apologises for mentioning them. As to the Tecto Sages—their conquerors soon reduced them to the well-ordered uniformity of the other Roman colonies; so that they gave up their primitive religion, and adopted Jupiter and Minerva as the gods of their city.

And so we come to the days when Saint Saturnin brought Christianity to Toulouse. He, too, lived very long ago; many things have happened since his time. The old city on the Garonne has been the capital of the Visigoths; Clovis has beseiged and destroyed it; Simon de Montfort was killed while beseiging the excommunicated Raymond VI.; and Raymond himself, dying soon afterwards, was cast out like a dog, and left for the birds and beasts to devour.

Then there was Gaston Phcebus, of whom we have just been speaking. He came to pay a State visit to Charles VI., who, during his progress through Languedoc in 1390, stayed at the Castle of Toulouse. Froissart has given a fine picture of the Count arriving from Marzeres: ” He put up with his household at the Convent of the Friar Preachers; his other people, of whom he had brought upwards of six hundred, quartering them-selves as near him as they could. It was rather late in the evening when he entered Toulouse, and he did not visit the King till the next morning. Charles VI. had gone to meet him in the great hall of the castle, for he was very anxious to see him, for the gallant actions he had performed, and on account of his fair reputation. The Count of Foix, who was very handsome in person and countenance, entered the hall bareheaded (he never wore a cap), with his hair blown by the wind… .

” Fair cousin of Foix! ” said the King, ” you are welcome; your visit has greatly rejoiced us.”

” My lord,” replied the Count, ” I thank you much for what you are pleased to say.”

Then follows the description of the dinner, when the Count dined with the King, and Sir Menaut de Noailles presented him with the ” Comfit Box.” Afterwards the minstrels performed, to the music-loving Count’s delight. And at four o’clock Gaston Phcebus took leave of the King, returning to his lodgings, ” much pleased with the reception and entertainment the King of France had given him.” –

And there is a story of Charles VI. going hunting in the Forest of Boucone, which lay a few leagues from Toulouse. Surprised by the night, he lost himself, and made a vow that if he could but escape from peril—and in those days to be lost in a dark wood was a very real peril—he would offer the price of his horse to the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Esperance in the Church of the Carmelites at Toulouse. The story goes on to say that no sooner was the vow made, than the night cleared, the moon came out, and the King was able to find his way home. The very next morning he acquitted himself of his vow, and founded a military order—that of Notre-Dame-d’Esperance—to commemorate the event. There used to be a picture on the wall of the cloister of the Carmelites, representing the King on horseback, bowing before the image of Notre-Dame-d’Esperance.

But the Church of the Carmelites seems to have gone; the Castle has gone; the Convent of the Friar Preachers on the Ile de Tounis is gone; Gaston Phoebus and Charles VI. have gone.

Yet, with all these changes, one element of old Toulouse remains, Saturnin, patron of the city. You have scarcely passed the long suburb leading from the Octroi, and reached the bridge over the Garonne, when you are reminded of the Saint. First to catch your eye is the odd-shaped facade of the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, and near it, with its tall brick tower, the Musee, once the Church of the Augustines. Then you notice the thin, flattened west front of the Church of the Bull, marking the site of the Saint’s martyrdom, and, dominating them all, the magnificent oriental-looking belfry of Saint-Saturnin, or Saint-Sernin, as it is called. The exterior of the church is impressive enough, especially in the evening light, when it flushes like a rose against the purple sky. In the early morning, too, before it has thrown off the mists of night, it lies coral-pink upon the turquoise blue. But it is when one enters and finds the vast nave stretching away and away, that one realises what may be done with bricks, given artists to use them, and centuries to mellow them.

According to the most ancient traditions, it was in the year A.D. 44 that Christianity reached Toulouse. Saturnin is said to have been the son of AEgeus, King of Achaea, by his wife Cassandra, who, herself, was the daughter of Ptolemy, King of the Ninevites. It is a strange old story, telling how the young Prince heard the preaching of John the Baptist, and was baptized by him. Later, however, seeing the miracles of Our Lord, he forsook his first teacher, and became one of Jesus Christ’s numerous disciples. It is even said that he was present at the Last Supper, and at the Ascension. In the year 42, Saturnin accompanied Saint Peter to Rome; whence he was sent by the Apostle to carry the Gospel to Toulouse. On his arrival he had the good fortune to cure a very rich woman named Cyriac, who was covered with leprosy. This miracle made a great stir, and a little band of Christians quickly gathered. They worshipped in an oratory adjoining the Capitol, where stood a heathen temple. The oracle (I believe the temple was dedicated to Apollo) became sulky and refused to speak.

” What has shut the mouth of our god? ” cried the priests. And it was then that some enemy of the new faith suggested the name of Saturnin. A magnificent bull had just been led up for sacrifice. At that moment Saturnin happened to pass on his way to the oratory. Immediately from the crowd of pagan worshippers arose a cry: ” Behold the enemy of our gods, who closes the mouth of the oracle! ”

So he was seized, and offered the choice between death and sacrificing to the false god.

” Why should I fear a god, who, even according to yourselves, trembles before me? ” cried the Bishop. ” I know of but one God. To Him only will I sacrifice.”

The reply infuriated the priests. Passing a cord round the loins of the bull, they tied Saturnin by the feet. The bull, pricked and maddened, rushed off, drawing the Saint at his heels, and, springing down the steps of the Capitol, the old man’s head was broken so that ” his brains lay scattered on the soil, while his soul ascended to heaven.” For some time longer the dead body of Saturnin was dragged hither and thither, till presently, the cord breaking, all that was left of him was gathered up by two women, venerated ever since by the name of ” Les Puelles,” who placed it in a tomb, above which later rose that ancient church, still called in memory of the martyrdom, Notre-Dame-du-Taur.

In the fourth century the Martyr’s body was removed and buried beneath the church which had been raised to his memory by Bishop Exupere. This building was destroyed by the Saracens, and rebuilt by Charlemagne. The present glorious structure arose in the eleventh century on the site of its predecessors. And all the while, in that crypt below the altar, lay the body of the martyr; the early bishops, his immediate successors, grouped around him. It was here in the fourteenth century they found his bones, and no doubt Charles VI. and Gaston Phoebus came here from the castle to Mass.

Very dark it was in the crypt; we had much ado to see the relics, though the priest carried a lamp, and did his best to show us the magnificent thirteenth-century reliquaries with which the vault is crowded. Such a collection I never saw. The place is a perfect Museum of Saints. No less than six of the Apostles are said to be represented in one way or another. One fragment interested me greatly. It was that of a saint called, I think, Apollon, who had been martyred by having his tongue torn out. His relic, it appears, has great virtue when rubbed on the gums of babies suffering with painful teething. The priest was just showing us this object when the sacristan came and whispered to him.

” Show her in,” said the priest, and, turning to me, added, ” It is a poor woman who has come on this very account. You will not mind waiting while I attend to her.”

So we drew aside, and watched while he rubbed the baby’s inflamed gums with the relic, and afterwards gave it to the mother to kiss. And the curious medieval ceremony, seen in that dim and ancient place, is always before my eyes when I think of Toulouse and Saint Saturnin.

Next morning, as I looked down from my high window, I could see the fruit market going on below, but hurriedly, for it was Sunday. The sky was grey, but the clouds looked thin, and later, just as we took our seats in the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, the sun shone out, lighting up the yellowed plaster, which covers the brickwork, like ancient ivory. Indeed, the whole interior of this wonderful church is as though carved in ivory and oak; and as the rich colours of the windows fall upon the walls, they seem once more painted with the frescoes which formerly adorned them.

But colour is not the only charm of Saint-Etienne. Its strange form is most captivating. I am no architect, so I cannot describe it in technical terms, but I have memories of a great central pillar, of dark hanging lace-like galleries, and high curtained recesses; of a mighty reredos, carved with the delicacy of a Chinese ivory; and of great splendid paintings, mostly recalling the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, to whom the church is dedicated. I love to see the Saints remembered in their churches. Is it not our highest human ambition to be remembered? And who should live in our memories if not the good Saints? So there we sat, letting it sink in—the solemnity, the age, the medieval atmosphere—till the music began, and the beauty of sound was added to the charms of form, colour, and the romance of history.

An old priest led the singing. As he stood, just behind the screen, with the red-robed boys and men grouped around him, he seemed as though he were interpreting those mystic rites which were being performed at the far-distant altar. The music was divine; boys and choir organ answered by the great organ above; and the Gloria in Excelsis filling all space with its triumph of thanksgiving. There were many men present, who listened with critical delight; one -old fellow, with a fine cut face and long, thin, silvery hair, seeming absolutely enthralled. And indeed, what can be more impressive than such music? Should not all worship be the offering of the best beauty we have, to the ideal beauty after which we yearn?

But see! Mass is over, we must not linger in the Cathedral. And we must do no more than glance in at the Capitol, which, according to tradition, stands on the site of Saint Saturnin’s martyrdom. It is a pity, for we should find many interesting things there:—a bust of our old friend the miller’s son, Pope Benedict XII., whom .we last met at Avignon; the axe by which the Duc de Montmorency was beheaded, his prison, the place of his execution; and perhaps, most curious of all, the room where, I believe, are still held the meetings of that most ancient literary society —La Societe des Jeux Floraux—founded by Clemence Isaure in 1333. Neither must we pause long at the museum, perhaps the finest provincial museum in France. Its site alone, in the old Church of the Augustines, makes it worth a visit.