A Book of the Cevennes/Alais

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A Book of the Cevennes by Sabine Baring-Gould



Descent from La Bastide—Viaduct of the Luech—Coal-beds—The town of Alais—Rochebelle—Ancient oppidum—Hermitage—The last hermit—Sidonius Apollinaris—The Citadel—Family quarrels—The Cambis family—A ghost story—Making polemical use of a ghost—Huguenots take Alais—Murders—The Bishopric—The Cathedral—Silk culture—Introduction of the mulberry and the worm to Europe—Silk husbandry in France—Favoured by Henry IV.—Olivier de Serre—Colbert—The Magnanerie—Silk-weaving introduced into England—A disaster that proved a blessing—Transformations of the caterpillar—Florian—The faults of an Englishman.

WHEN the train, after quitting La Bastide, has passed through a tunnel at the highest point of the pass, you rush out of a northern clime, with northern vegetation, into a climate with tree, shrub, and flower wholly southern. The Allier and its tributaries were making full gallop for the Atlantic; you see at once torrents racing down gorges to fling themselves into the Mediterranean in which no Greenland icebergs ever float to chill alike the currents and the air. Gulfs open beside the line clothed in chestnuts, mulberries, almonds, vines; oleanders appear, and the kermes oak with its varnished leaves covering the slopes.

The line does not descend the first valley entered, but bores its way through spur after spur of the mountain chain till it reaches the furrow through which flows the Gardon d'Alais. Génolhac is passed, that suffered cruelly from Catholic and Camisard alike, whence Pont-de-Montvert may be visited, and the house seen where lived the Abbé du Chayla.

A magnificent curved viaduct crosses the basin of the Luech, carried on two stages of arcades 180 feet above the river to Chamborigaud, the tragic story of which has been told in the preceding chapter. The line traverses the masses of a rock and earth slide from the Montagne du Gouffre, and enters a region of coal-beds. The coal seams can be seen between sandstone in the cuttings for the line. On the right is the donjon of La Tour commanding the abbey of Cendras, burnt by the Camisards, then gorges and smoking cinder heaps, and we arrive at Alais, a neat, pleasant, cheerful town, once the seat of a bishop, situated in a loop formed by the Gardon with the lofty rock of Rochebelle opposite on the further side of the river. This height was the site of the primitive oppidum of Alesia, or Alestia. The cyclopean walls remain in places fairly perfect, and the enclosure can be traced throughout. Alais never was a Roman city; it was, however, probably a place where the iron mines were worked. A hermitage was there till the Revolution. When the plague raged in Alais in 1721, a Carmelite, Esprit Boyer, worked indefatigably among the sick, and on its cessation obtained leave to retire to this hermitage, where he planted a garden and reared a chapel. On his death another hermit took his place, and he assumed the honoured name of Esprit, but as he was a drunkard he was nicknamed Esprit de Vin. He ran away, carrying with him the chapel bell, but was caught and ordered to return to his hermitage. In 1793 he was denounced as suspect, and some individuals were sent up the height to arrest him. He refused to open to them, and threw stones at their heads and threatened to shoot the first man who entered. They, however, stove in the door with a pole, whereupon Esprit escaped out of a window, but in trying to crawl away unseen fell over the rocks and broke his leg. He was taken to the hospital and died there.

In the year 472 that magnificent prelate, Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Clermont, and a great noble to boot, came to Alais to pay a visit to Tonantius Ferreolus, Prefect of Gaul, who had his villa at Prusianus, now Brégis, a little to the south-west of Alais. Another friend, a Roman senator, had his country house on the opposite or Alesian side of the river. Sidonius says: "The Vardo (Gardon) separates the two domains. These splendid dwellings were commanded by hills covered with vines and olives; before one of them stretched a rich and vast plain, the other looked out on woods. Every morning there was a strife between our two hosts, very flattering to myself, as to which should have our society for the day, which should make his kitchen smoke on our behalf. With them we flew from pleasure to pleasure. Hardly had we set foot in the vestibule of one or the other, before there appeared bands of those who played tennis, and above their noisy shouts we could hear the braying of cornets. … Whilst any one of us was occupied in reading or in playing, the butler would come to inform us that it was time for us to take our places at table. We dined promptly, after the manner of senators."

Where stands now the citadel of Alais stood formerly two castles frowning at one another side by side. The lordship of Alais was in the family of De Pelet, but the last of the name died in 1405, leaving two daughters and the barony to be divided between them. Naturally they quarrelled. Each would have the rock and a castle on the summit, and as neither could be induced to yield a right, they had their two castles and scolded and swore at one another out of the windows. At last the situation became so intolerable that first one and then the other sold their half baronies to a De Cambis, and he ran the two castles into one.

Jacques de Cambis, lord of Alais, was engaged in Catalonia under the great Condé. His war-cry was "Allez comme Alès!" and on his son's sword was inscribed:

"Je suis Cambis pour ma foi,
 Ma maitresse et mon roi,
 Si tu m'attends, confesse toi!

Both Jacques and his son died on the same day, August 21st, 1653, of wounds received at the taking of Tortosa. With them died out the male branch of the barons of Alais.

On November 15th, 1323, died a citizen of Alais, named Guy de Corbian. A week after his burial his widow came in great agitation to the Dominican convent to say that her husband walked and made unpleasant noises in the house, and she begged that the prior would lay his spirit. Jean Gobi was prior at the time. He took three brethren with him and went to the house. As soon as darkness settled in, all at once the widow screamed out, "There he is! There is my husband!" All present were dreadfully frightened, but the prior recovered first, and bade the woman question the ghost. She asked, "Are you a good or a bad spirit?" Answer: "Good."—"Where are you now?" Ans.: "In purgatory."—"Why do you trouble the house?" Ans.: "A sin was committed in it by my mother."—" What did she commit?" Ans.: "That is a delicate question, which I decline to answer."—"Can you make the sign of the cross?" Ans.: "Do not ask silly questions. How can I when I have no hands?"—"How then is it that you can hear, having no ears?" was the shrewd repartee. The ghost hesitated a moment and then replied, "By a special privilege of God." Now it so happened that at this very period a furious controversy was going on between the Dominicans and the Franciscans as to whether the disembodied spirits of the just had the sight of the Face of God. The Franciscans said they had not, the Dominicans asserted that they had. The strife became so hot and acrimonious that Pope John XXII. on November 12th, 1323, issued a decision condemning the opinion of the Friars Minor. They refused to surrender their tenet. The General of the Order appealed from an ill-informed Pope to a General Council. Such an appeal is absurd, argued their adversaries. A council derives all its authority from the Pope. Philip of Valois threatened that unless John withdrew his judgment he would have him burned as a heretic. But he had not the power to carry his threat into execution. Now this ghost story occurred a week or fortnight after John XXII. had issued his homily, in which he asserted that the dead did enjoy the beatific vision. Jean Gobi saw his opportunity. He published at once an account of his interview with a good spirit, and related how that he had catechised the ghost on the very point under dispute, and that the departed Guy de Corbian had affirmed precisely the doctrine for which the Dominicans contended, and which the Pope had ratified. What better evidence could be desired:

The Franciscans might have replied that they had no better evidence than the word of Gobi, and that they doubted his veracity. But they said nothing, they saw that every sensible man would judge that Jean Gobi told fibs.

"The tenet," says Milman, "had become a passion with the Pope; benefices and preferments were showered on those who inclined to his opinions—the rest were regarded with coldness and neglect."

Jean Gobi doubtless had hopes of reaping some solid advantages by his opportune revelation. But he was disappointed. John XXII. died, and his successor, Benedict XII., published his judgment on the question, determining that the holy dead did not immediately behold the Godhead, thus at least implying the heresy of his predecessor.

In 1567 the Huguenots occupied Alais, and massacred six of the canons in the church whilst they were singing Matins, as also two cordeliers and several other ecclesiastics. But Alais was retaken. In 1575 they again surrounded Alais, under their captains Guidau and Broise, the latter of whom managed to escalade the walls by means of a vine-trellis. One part of the population was massacred; those who could fled into the castle. Damville came to the aid of the besiegers, and on Easter Eve, after nine weeks of gallant defence, the castle surrendered. The see of Alais was constituted in 1694. The cathedral was consecrated in 1780, and is a heavy and hideous building. Only the west tower remains of the old church. At the Revolution it was turned into a place for clubs to assemble; but as the church was inconveniently large for the purpose, it was decided to pull it down. No one in Alais, however, could be found to set his hand to its destruction.

The last bishop, De Bausset, escaped into Switzerland at the time of the outbreak; but unable to endure exile from France he incautiously returned, was arrested, and thrown into prison. It was only due to his having been forgotten that he escaped the guillotine. In 1801, by order of Pius VII., he resigned the see to facilitate the reorganisaton of the dioceses under the Concordat, and he died in Paris in 1824. The great esplanade above the Gardon before the Place de la République, planted with plane trees, commands an extensive view over the plain green with mulberries and chestnut, and with here and there the silver-grey of the olive rising from among the darker leaves like a puff of smoke.

Alais is one of the principal centres of silkworm culture in Languedoc, and it has raised a statue to Pasteur, representing him holding a twig of mulberry in his hand, in gratitude for his discovery of the fibrine, the malady which threatened the industry, and for indicating the means of arresting the plague.

Neither the white mulberry nor the bombyx—the silkworm that feeds on its leaves—is a native of Europe. Both come from China. The history of the origin of the silkworm culture and the introduction of both the mulberry and the worm into Europe is sufficiently curious, and may be summed up in a few lines.

The Chinese assert that the discovery of the use of silk and how to weave it took place in the year B.C. 2,697, and great secrecy was observed as to how the silkworm was reared and how the cocoon was unwound; and Chinese laws forbade under penalty of death the divulgation of the secret and the exportation beyond the limits of the Celestial Empire of the seed of the mulberry and the eggs of the worm.

However, about three thousand years later, in the year A.D. 400, a Chinese princess married the King of Khotan on the borders of Turkestan, and she, at the peril of her life, carried off some of the grains of mulberry and the eggs of the caterpillar, and by this means introduced the culture of silk into the domains of the king. Some years later, in 462, Japan got possession of the means of sericulture by a similar method.

From Khotan the industry slowly spread to Persia and India.

A century and a half later, about 550, two monks of Mount Athos, but of Persian origin, went to preach Christianity in the unknown regions beyond the Caspian Sea. These courageous apostles penetrated to Khotan, and there discovered whence came the silk stuffs that found their way into Europe in small quantities, and which were so costly that they sold for their weight in gold.

Rejoiced at their discovery, the monks schemed how they might make Greece benefit by it. This, however, was not easy, as the inhabitants of Khotan, knowing the value of their industry, had, like the Chinese, forbidden the exportation of the seeds of the mulberry and the eggs of the silkworm. The monks employed craft. In all caution and secrecy they collected mulberries, crushed them in water, and obtaining thus the seed alone, dried it and enclosed it in their hollow bamboo canes. Then they departed on their return journey. On reaching Greece they related their adventures and sowed the seed.

The young plants did not fail to spring up, and thus was Greece supplied with the precious tree that is today spread along all the coast of the Mediterranean.

But they had not done enough. Only half of their self-imposed task was accomplished. The Emperor Justinian sent for the monks, listened to their narrative, gave them money, and urged them to return into the East and obtain a supply of the bombyx grain. Nothing loath they started, arrived in Khotan, and in much the same manner as before secreted and brought to Europe in all haste the eggs that would hatch out in spring. The date of their return was 553.

Meanwhile the young mulberries had grown vigorously, and when the worms issued from their shells they found abundant nourishment. They passed through their several stages of development and gave vigorous descendants.

European sericulture was created, but was slow in making progress. However, in Greece the diffusion was so rapid that in a short time what had been called the Peloponnesus changed its name to Morea, the land of the mulberry. From the borders of the Ægean the culture spread to Sicily, to Italy, and to Spain. The Arabs, who had already in the East acquired a knowledge of how to produce silk, spread the industry through all the countries that they conquered.

France was slow in acquiring it. The raw silk was indeed imported to Lyons and Tours in the latter part of the fifteenth century, but it was not till after the campaign in Naples of 1495 that the gentlemen who had attended Charles VIII. brought back with them the seed of the white mulberry and the eggs of the silkworm into Languedoc and Provence. The first mulberries planted there were at Alban, near Montélimar, by Guy Pape, Sieur de Saint-Alban.

The first steps taken in this new culture were slow and timid during nearly a century. Francis I. accorded special favours. His successor, Henry II., is said to have been the first King of France to wear silk stockings, 1550. The religious troubles and the rivalries between the great seigneurs did much to impede the progress of agriculture and of sericulture. The cultivators of the soil were crushed by taxation and exactions of every sort, as well as by the ravages of rival political and religious factions.

But when Henry IV. was well settled on his throne, and the League was at an end, it was possible for agriculture and all the trades save that of the armourer to revive. Henry was keenly desirous to raise them from the deplorable condition into which they had been plunged during the long period of civil and religious discord which had marked the end of the dynasty of the Valois.

The Béarnais, who had spent his early years among farmers, nourished great ideas as to how to help them on and to make trade flourish in the land, so great as sometimes to startle his most devoted councillors, notably Sully, his finance minister. The King, seeing that the industry of weaving silks was on the increase, and that to supply the looms raw material had to be imported in great quantities, was desirous of encouraging the production of silk in France, and he confided to a gentleman of the Vivarais, Olivier de Serres, the mission of developing sericulture by writing a treatise advocating it. De Serres published his "La cueillette de la soie" in 1599. Two years later he brought to Paris twenty thousand young mulberry trees, which were planted in the gardens of the Tuileries. At the same time Traucat, a gardener at Nîmes, with royal assistance, erected vast nurseries, which in forty years supplied over five millions of mulberry stocks. Sully, who had at first thought the King's projects chimerical, threw himself eagerly into them when he saw that they were likely to increase the wealth of the country; prizes were offered, subventions were promised to such as should take active part in the development of the industry. There exist still some of the old mulberry trees planted four centuries ago, that the Cevenol peasants designated Sullys in commemoration of the great minister of Henry.

Sericulture made no progress during the reign of Louis XIII. It lost ground, and it was Colbert, the celebrated minister of Louis XIV., who resumed forty years later the policy of Henry IV., and had to struggle against just the same difficulties of inertia and indifference among nobles and peasants alike. Colbert, following the same idea as his predecessors, wished that France should produce the raw material needed for the looms of Lyons, which were using 500,000 kilogrammes of foreign silk, whereas the French harvest produced at the outside 20,000 kilos of raw silk.

To attain this result, exemptions from taxation were accorded to plantations of mulberry trees and to magnanaries of silk. In the Langue d'Oc, the silkworm is called magnan, derived from the Latin magnus, as giving the greatest profit to the farmer, and the sheds in which the worm is brought to spin is called a magnanerie. A bonus of twenty-four sols, equal to five francs, was given for every mulberry plant that lived over three years. The Protestants of the south devoted themselves especially and with great energy to the rearing of silkworms. In 1650 De Comprieu, Consul of Le Vigan, introduced the new industry into the Cevennes from the Vivarais where it had taken root, due to the initiation of Olivier de Serres.

A few years later Colbert brought a silk-spinner, Pierre Benay, from Bologna and installed him near Aubenas, in a factory for the spinning of the thread.

The production of the cocoon and of silk was prospering and developing, when in 1605 the Edict of Nantes was revoked, and this disastrously affected the growing industry. The Protestants, hunted out and persecuted, were forced to expatriate themselves, and carry their knowledge and their energies elsewhere. The creation of silk-weaving factories in Switzerland, Germany, and England was mainly due to these refugees. Some 50,000 French Protestants had come to England. Of these the silk -spinners settled in Spitalfields, and introduced several new branches of their art. At this time foreign silks were freely imported, and about 700,000 pounds' worth were annually admitted. But the establishment of the refugees in this country led to monopolies and restrictions. In 1692 they obtained a patent, giving them the exclusive right to manufacture lute-strings and à-la-modes, the two fashionable silks of the day, and in 1697 their solicitations were effectual in obtaining from Parliament a prohibition, not only of the importation of all European manufactured goods, but also of those of India and China. From this period the smuggling of silks from France became extensive, reaching, it is said, to the value of £500,000 per annum.

In France a disaster at the beginning of the eighteenth century gave a new impulse to sericulture in the south. The winter of 1709 was of exceptional severity, and froze the olive trees of Languedoc and Provence. The farmers, obliged to root out their stricken olives, replaced them by mulberries, and the rearing of silkworms, the spinning and weaving of the silk made rapid progress. From this time sericulture issued from a period of groping and hesitation to become a standard industry. The production of cocoons rose to six and seven millions of kilogrammes between 1760 and 1790, again to slacken during the period of revolution. Nor were the first years of the nineteenth century, marked as they were by the great wars of the Empire, favourable to the industry. But an event that had considerable influence on the destinies of agricultural France had taken place. The lands of the clergy and of the emigrated nobility had been declared national property, and had been sold at ridiculously low prices to the peasants on account of the depreciation of the paper money of the period, the assignats. The peasants worked with enthusiasm and energy on the land as proprietors where they had lived painfully as common labourers. Great plantations were made on ground newly cleared, and so soon as peace gave the people breathing time, the production of France doubled as by enchantment. From 500,000 kilogrammes, the output of silk passed to a million, between 1826 and 1830, and between 1840 and 1854 it grew to two millions.

"The silkworm is the caterpillar of the mulberry-tree moth (Bornbyx mori) belonging to the tribe of mealy-winged nocturnal insects, of which in the summer evenings we see so many examples. The eggs of this moth are smaller than grains of mustard-seed, very numerous, slightly flattened, yellowish at first, but changing in a few days to a slate colour. In temperate climates they can be preserved through the winter without hatching until the time when the mulberry tree puts forth its leaves in the following spring. This tree forms the entire food of the caterpillar, and seems almost exclusively its own; for while other trees and vegetables nourish myriads of insects, the mulberry tree is seldom attacked by any but this insect, which in many parts of its native country, China, inhabits the leaves in the open air, and goes through all its changes without any attention from man. The common mulberry (Morus nigra), so well known in Great Britain, is not the best species for the nourishment of the silkworm. The white-fruited mulberry (M. alba), a native of China, is the best, and is greatly preferred by the insect."[1]

The silkworm when first hatched is about a quarter of an inch long. After eight days' feeding, it prepares to change its skin. It throws out filaments of silk, attaching its skin to adjacent objects, becomes sluggish, raises the forepart of its body, and finally the whole outer case is cast off, including the feet and jaws. The newly moulted worm is pale in colour, but speedily regains its appetite, which had failed previous to the change, and it swells so fast that in five days another uncasing becomes necessary. Four of these moults and renewals of the skin bring the caterpillar to its full size, when its appetite becomes voracious, and the succulent parts of the mulberry leaf disappear with extraordinary rapidity. The insect is now nearly three inches long. Beneath the jaw are two small orifices through which the worm draws the silken lines out of its body.

Having acquired full size in the course of twenty-five to thirty days, and ceasing to eat during the remainder of its life, it begins to discharge a viscid secretion in the form of pulpy twin lines that rapidly harden in the air. It begins now to climb and seek out a suitable place for spinning the cocoon. For this purpose broom and heath-bushes are erected about the trays in which they have hitherto lived and fed and sloughed their skins. The insect first forms a loose structure of floss-silk, and then within it the closer texture of its nest, of an ovoid shape; within this the caterpillar remains working out of sight, spinning its own beautiful winding-sheet, the production of which reduces its size to one-half. On the completion of the cocoon it changes its skin once more and becomes a chrysalis. In this corpse-like state it remains for a fortnight or three weeks. Then it bursts its cerements and comes forth furnished with wings, antennae and feet for living in its new element—the atmosphere. The female moth flutters its wings, but rarely uses them for flight, but the male employs his for seeking a partner. As the moth is not furnished with teeth, it perforates its tomb by knocking with its head against the end of the cocoon, after moistening it with saliva, and thus rendering the filaments more easily torn asunder by its claws. In the perfect or imago form the insect takes no food, and lives only two or three days; the female dies after laying her eggs, and the male does not long survive her.

The cocoons destined for filature are not suffered to remain many days with the worms alive within them. Those containing male moths are distinguished as being lighter than those that hold the female. Only so many of each are retained as are required for the propagation of the worm. The rest are plunged in boiling water or put into an oven to extinguish the life in the chrysalis. The reeling off of the silk is the next process.

The cocoons are softened by immersion in warm water, and then the reeler stirs them with brushes, to which the loose threads adhere, and are thus drawn out of the water. They are taken up four or five together and twisted by the fingers into one thread, passed through a metal loop, and reeled off. The silk husbandry is completed within six weeks from the end of April.[2]

The life of the insect from leaving the egg has been about fifty days, and in that period what a series of changes—transformations even—it has gone through; and all for what, but the produce of one of the most beautiful imaginable textures for the adornment of womankind! Verily Nature has made laborious provision that she should be coquette.

Even the severe Quakeress, objecting on principle to all adornment, must don a pearl-grey silk bonnet.

On the Place de la République is a bronze statue to Florian (Jean Pierre Claris), born in the château of Florian, near Sauve, in 1755, and who died in 1794. He wrote plays, stories, verses, and fables. Not knowing much about his works, I went to a bookseller at Alais to ask if he had them.

"The works of Florian!" he exclaimed. "We have his statue in the place."

"Yes; but that is the work of the sculptor Gaudez, not of Florian himself."

"Les œuvres de Florian—mais—" The man looked puzzled. "He lived a very long time ago. What did he write?"

"I fancy, fables."

"Ah, monsieur! you mistake. That was La Fontaine."

"There is an 'F' in each," said I, "as there is a river in Macedon, and there is also a river in Monmouth, and there is salmon in both." Of course, the allusion was lost on him.

"I think his works have never been reprinted," said the bookseller. "I will tell my child to ask the schoolmaster about him."

Now I happen to possess at home an edition of Florian, printed in the year III. of the Republic, 1797, and on my return I read some of his works—as much as was possible. Among them is an "English novel," very complimentary to our nation at the opening, but full of the most amusing blunders. The characters are Sir Edouerd Selmours, Mistriss Hartlay, a M. Pikle, and a Mekelfort. Florian gives a translation into French verse of "Auld Robin Gray," but in an evil moment appended the original Scottish text, which is rendered thus—

"Vhen the shepare in the fauld, and the kyeat hame
And all the weary warld asleop is gane,
Thewaes o my heart fall in shovers fra my eye"—

and so on.

We have a fault, Florian is kind enough to inform us:—

"Ils dédaignent d'ouvrir les yeux sur le mérite, sur les qualités qui sont propres à chaque peuple; cette insouciance donne à leurs vertus un air d'orgueil qui en diminue l'attrait; enfin, ils comptent pour fort peu de chose l'approbation, le suffrage des autres; et le seul moyen d'être aimable, c'est de les compter pour beaucoup."

I suspect that this criticism is more just than his rendering of English surnames and his spelling of Scottish words.

Castle Court, Ganges - A book of the Cevennes.jpg

Castle Court, Ganges

  1. Tomlinson's Cyclopedia of the Useful Arts, sub voce.
  2. De l'Arbousset, Les Cevennes Séricoles, and Court de Séricultur e Pratique Alais, n.d. Maillot (E.), Leçons sur le Ver à Soie, Paris, 1885.