The Lost Kingdom of Burgundy, France – Auxerre

So I tuned my lute and went adventuring into Burgundy. Despite the shivery stories that had circulated about madame’s hearth on nights when the rain walked on the roof, there was not much promise in the quest. Flat fields succeeded one another in a monotonous march southward from Paris. Little squares of grain, little squares of garden truck, little squares of towns, little squares of toy woods, little square church spires all of a kind, little square trees mathematically spaced along the highways to the left and right, little square wheels ticking off the kilometers with a nerve-racking tattoo until even the most thorough-going troubadour might wish for a return of the days when this journey was to be accomplished only on horseback or by closely guarded carriage.

For nearly an hour the railroad skirts the Seine, plunging presently into a more heavily forested district and emerging upon a path of crimson poppies. There is something appropriate in the poppies. Many times in the days of the mailed knights of Burgundy this road from Paris to the south was reddened, and not with poppy petals. This is the highway of the ready sword, where a fight was to be had for the asking, and death often attended the dropping of a lace handkerchief. . . . There is consolation in the thought of the dead men who stand along this road patiently waiting for judgment day. They make good company for a troubadour. Even the scenic monotony that surrounds them, even the quaint antics of a thoroughly modern and totally disagreeable railroad train cannot make one forget their history.

At Montereau the road leaves the Seine and pursues an upward course through the valley of the Yonne. Here one begins to feel that the chroniclers have been wrong in attempting to prove Old Burgundy merely an artificial arrangement of colors on a map. There is a geological difference between Burgundy and the Isle of France that is readily discernible. As one ascends the Yonne the hills become more numerous and more abrupt, the forests more shaggy and more irregularly spaced. The smooth vistas of green fields are lacking, and in their place spread rugged terraces of staked vineyards with stretches of brown earth between them. Bare rock emerges from the slopes with increasing frequency as the way leads southward, and one senses that this is as characteristic of Burgundy as the wines by which the present incarnation of the ancient kingdom is known.

The little train staggers on up through narrower passes, plays hide-and-seek in tunnels, and breaks through rock walls to a valley where the horizons are higher and the hills rise from yellow green to mountain blue in the distance. Here, on a point of rock, still girt round with its ancient enceintes, sits Auxerre, northernmost sentry of the lost kingdom.

Auxerre was the capital of the Capetian dukes of Burgundy and remains an impressive monument to their memory, the only town distinctly theirs, perhaps, in all the central region of France. Viewed from the left bank of the river, Auxerre is two cities, one nestling in the sunlight on two hills, the other seemingly below the water as deep as sunken Lyonesse in the reflection on the smooth surface. Clean white buildings front on the river with a mass of greenery beyond them. Other buildings cling to the terraces in the farther distance, points of relief in a striking panorama of formal gardens. High above the highest of the red-tiled roofs rises the square tower of St.-Etienne.

Auxerre is a summer-time city. The hills beyond the old ramparts are squared with vineyards and gay with fields of wild poppies. Sunlight drenches the white streets save in the sequined shade of willowed arbors. The air is heavy with the scents of flowers and vines.

Center of the famous vineyard district that bears its name, the ancient Autissiodurum of Roman Gaul has acquired sufficient wealth to heal its medieval scars. Its towers are not the gaunt ruins of bare rock that one sees in the lower Rhone country. Instead they resemble the abbey remains of England, deep green with ivy and set in the midst of luxuriant foliage. It is only here and there that the remnants of the Capetian fortifications break through their covering of pastoral loveliness like gloves of mail beneath lace cuffs.

Two bridges lead across the Yonne into the town, one of them a bit of twelfth-century engineering, restored and reinforced for modern traffic. The older bridge strikes the quai of the Yonne at a spot once protected by thick walls. As in many another ancient fortress city come upon the ways of peace, the outer cincture has been used as a foundation for a broad circular boulevard. The bastions of the old ducal stronghold are thatched with roses. The moats in which many an assaulting lancer fell to his death are sunken gardens filled with acacia and vines. Streets, wider and whiter than one might expect in so old a place, curve through the site of the vanished citadel. The remains of the interior fortifications and buildings of state emerge unexpectedly from the commercial town that dances on the grave of the half-forgotten capital.

Just out of the Rue Fourier, near the market-place, the street wanders through a tower-flanked arch, one of the gates of the wall that encircled the city during the days of Philippe de Rouveres. This relic, the Tour de l’Horloge, is the only visible remnant of that portion of the enceinte. Over the arch is the great clock that gives the monument its name. It is usually wrong, but has run slow enough to take step with the correct time on hundreds of occasions during its centuries of service. Who could ask more of a tower clock?

Auxerre is rich in churches. Two of them at least have sat by the side of the Yonne serene and complacent as Burgundy changed from kingdom to fief, from fief to empire, and from empire to the empty echo of a name. No one can tell you how old the Cathedral of St. Etienne actually is. The present structure was begun in the thirteenth century and remodeled during the fifteenth. But there is plenty of evidence that a Romanesque church of indeterminate date was incorporated—in part, at least—in the Gothic structure that one sees today.

Lack of attention has cost St. Etienne many of its decorations, but the beauties of its ensemble are still sufficient to make it one of the most notable examples of ecclesiastical architecture in France. Inside and out it is elaborately ornamented and still possesses a fine set of rare old painted windows.

To the left of the altar is a statue in white marble to the memory of Jacques Aymot, translator of Plutarch, who was a native of Auxerre. The sculpture, which is very well executed, shows the old man kneeling at a prie-dieu as he was frequently seen in the ancient church during his life. Another statue of note is that of Nicolas Colbert, Bishop of Auxerre. The Colberts, descendants of a Scotch family that settled at Rheims in the thirteenth century, gave many remarkable men to France, among them this same Nicolas and his brother, Jean Baptiste Colbert, famous minister of state for foreign affairs under Louis XIV. Two other great men of Auxerre are represented in marble on the most remarkable tomb of the cathedral, the Marshal and the Admiral de Chastellaux. They are shown recumbent, side by side in full armor. A bas-relief on the side of the tomb represents the battle of Cravant, where, in 1423, the English and Burgundians raised the siege successfully started by Charles VII.

The church of St. Eusebe near the post-office was founded while the kings of the first dynasty were still reigning in Burgundy. It was rebuilt in 64o and has come down to the present generation with little change. Its architecture is a mixture of the Arabesque and Roman, a combination as pleasing as it is novel. Its stone spire is one of the striking features of the town’s profile as seen from across the Yonne.

St. Germain, originally part of a royal abbey founded in 623, is another landmark that retains a quaint atmosphere of the early Burgundian civilization, despite numerous additions and restorations. The church itself is all that remains of the abbey. The greater part of the structure is new and was used for centuries as a hospice. The church is made remarkable not so much by what remains of it above ground—for its grandeurs have disappeared bit by bit during the centuries—but by its subterranean extensions. It has two crypts, one above the other, both of them spacious and splendidly built. In these dim vaults one finds the history of the town carved in the epitaphs of the great—bishops, statesmen, warriors, dukes, counts, saints, and martyrs. St. Germain will muster a noble con-course when Gabriel sounds his trumpet.

A pleasant enough place this for an inquisitive troubadour. Water from a clear spring trickles down the hill under the old buttresses behind the cathedral. Red-headed babies play in the streets. Where the boulevard curves from the ancient wall to follow the river, cobalt glass in the shop doors makes a magic mirror in which the river is purple and the trees black. The street signs bring back the days of the Capetians: “Street of the Holy Pilgrims,” “Street of the Housewives’ Well,” “Street of the Under Walls,” “Street of the Arquebus,” “Street of the Sign of the Sword.” Gradually the atmosphere of the medieval town that was envelops one. . . . Auxerre is still the capital of Burgundy. . . . And then from the white buildings above the bridge comes the sharp tapping of a woodpecker, a steel woodpecker with an appetite for hot rivets. . . .

Auxerre is a manufacturing center nowadays. Close to the spot where once an armorer with a hand forge, a hammer, and an anvil battered out buckler, casque, sword, and other trade-arguments for the nobility of Burgundy, a factory now repeats his processes on a large scale in the manufacture of tools.

Near the Tower of the Horloge I came upon Pere Le Brun, a somewhat aged canal pilot, large-boned, heavy of feature, typically Burgundian, a modern of the moderns. He was just concluding a heated argument with one of the mill-workers—concluding it because his adversary had arisen from the table and was striding rapidly out of hearing.

“He is a new-corner to Auxerre,” Monsieur Le Brun declared, addressing himself to me for want of better audience. “What should he know about the traditions of Auxerre who has lived all his life like a ground-hog making repairs in the Paris subway? . . . I was trying to tell him that the city came upon evil days because of the great famine of the tenth century and because of the curse of the wolf. It was because of the wolves and the evil stories of this plateau that the dukes moved their capital to Dijon. And you know how poorly Burgundy prospered with Dijon as its first city.

“The wolves used to bother us a great deal. It has always been so in the wine-growing districts. The wild animals learn to eat the food that is available, and so, hereabouts, we have had to guard the grapes against the wolves and dogs.

“There seems to be an exhilarating effect in ripe grapes. I suspect the stomach of the wolf is so constructed that the fermentation of the fruit juices proceeds rapidly after the animal has eaten the grapes. At any rate, intoxication is frequently the result.

“We don’t see as much of that now as formerly. The wolves nearly all have been exterminated, but I can remember one occasion when they ran in a drunken pack right through this very street. Few who saw that sight will forget it.

“The wolves were all intoxicated. That was what caused them to come into the town in the first place, and it was also what saved the townsfolk after they had come in. They were too drunk to remember that they were wolves.

“They just lay down in the street, stupidly drunk. Then the townsfolk came out and killed them. That was the last wolf scare in these parts. The dogs still bother us. They are inveterate grape thieves. But unless there should be another famine sufficient to reduce the population of the district, these animals will never endanger our lives again.”

The rocky, wine-growing regions of France were a frequent prey to famine in the none too paternal days of feudalism. The most prosperous wine cities of to-day are naturally located in rocky, sandy soil that is adapted to grape growing and of little use for any other sort of agriculture. The tradition of these famines has come down to the present generation with thrilling detail; and there are many well fed vintners not yet past the age for military service who can tell you all the harrowing details of the period immediately preceding the Truce of God.

Perhaps these stories of starvation have kept alive the legends of the wolves, for somehow in human imagination the two go together—the dim, terrible form of famine, driving before it the lean, hollow-eyed wolf. It was usually only at times of universal starvation that the wolves came out of their haunts to penetrate the towns.

Old Pere Le Brun seemed to be bearing all the weight of suffering of the entire community of those far-gone days as he recited tale after gruesome tale of cannibalism and death. One of his stories is interesting as demonstrating a possible source for one very wide-spread bit of folk-lore:

“Many people were missing from the towns hereabouts, monsieur. At first it was thought that they might have fallen dead of starvation in the woods and on the roads. But it was noticed that not only the weak were taken but the strong as well. It was a great mystery.

“During these sad days there was a man near Tonnerre who used to sell fresh pork at a high price. Inasmuch as many of those who disappeared had been last seen near Tonnerre, an investigation was directed towards this butcher shop. It was discovered that the proprietor had been dealing in human flesh. The skeletons of a dozen of his victims were found under the earthen floor of his cottage. Ah, monsieur, a man goes back to the animal immediately when he is hungry.”

It is not difficult to see, in this and other more or less authentic accounts of the cannibalism to which the private wars of the iron chevaliers of feudalism had reduced the country-side, the germ of the werwolf legend. The connection between the human being who dealt in the flesh of his fellow-man and the human being turned wolf long enough to obtain a similar repast seems evident. It is not surprising that a region rich in the lore of grape-eating dogs, drunken wolves, and flesh markets should also cling to traditions of ghouls and their nauseous cousins.

A story in point is that of the Chevalier de Broussy, whose chateau stood near to that of the dukes of Burgundy in the region of Auxerre. He was a strong, stern man and well loved by Robert of Burgundy, his patron.

De Broussy had a beautiful wife whom he adored with all the ardor of an elemental nature. He protected her against the temptations of the dissolute feudal courts, gave her everything that a woman could desire, even to the point of impoverishing himself, and made her life a long honey-moon in a castle where the stairs were marble and fountains played in the courtyards. And yet he was never able to penetrate her reserve. She seemed to love him, but always there was a mystery behind her blue eyes, always a hint of fear in her fleeting smile.

He left her alone one day to go hunting in the woods with Hugh of Cravant, his close friend. It was a beautiful day in mid-spring, the sort of day when Burgundy is at its best; and he should have felt the exhilaration that such days always bring. But a moodiness was on him as he left the castle . . . a moodiness that seemed to increase as he rode onward.

Toward noon he came to an open space in the woods, near the rocky summit of a hill, and there found the realization of his forebodings. Lying on the greensward, surrounded by daisies, wild roses, and poppies, was the body of a child. Standing over it with bloody jowls was a wolf. The knights rushed upon the beast immediately, maneuvering so suddenly and so skilfully that the wolf was caught between a precipitous rock and two naked swords.

The wolf leaped at Hugh of Cravant first, cleared his guard, and caught him by the throat. He fell dying. De Broussy made a quick, cutting stroke and slashed the beast on the right foreleg. The wolf leaped once more and disappeared among the rocks of the hillside, leaving a paw lying on the ground beside the body of the knight.

De Broussy picked up this relic of the terrible affair, put it into his pocket, and proceeded home. He washed at the banks of the Yonne, lest his blood-stained clothes should alarm his wife, and he considered for a long time the story that he should tell to her to explain the death of his companion. Her eyes had told him of great unspoken sorrows in her life. He hoped he might be able to spare her the shock of this newest tragedy.

He heard some one weeping as he passed through the Salle des Chevaliers. Wondering men-at-arms stood at the foot of the winding staircase, gazing dumbly toward the upper floor, which their master’s strict orders had forbidden them to penetrate. The evening had brought a bit of springtime chill, and the freshly lighted fires were casting an eery shadow-dance over the high vaults.

De Broussy dashed up the stairs. In her apartment sat his beautiful wife. She was huddled before the fireplace, weeping piteously. She looked up and shrank back in terror as her lord approached. Then he saw her right hand was missing at the wrist. The bleeding stump of her arm showed a cut as clean as that of a sharp sword.