A Book of the Cevennes/Le Vigan

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A Book of the Cevennes by Sabine Baring-Gould
Le Vigan

CHAPTER XIV


LE VIGAN


Schist ravines—Valley of the Arre—Wolves—Vindomagus—Fountain of Isis—Saracens—Priory—Jean Peyrenc—Persecution of Huguenots—Murder of Daudé—Execution of Bénézet—Reprisals—Avèze—Pont de Mousse—Brigand barons—A long lawsuit—The Montcalm family—Aulos—A man of many duels—The Vis—Montdardier—The Ginestous—Causse de Blandas—Navacelles—Le Vigan—The Chevalier d'Assas—Triaire.


WHEN the line leaves Ganges it leaves the white limestone crags and plunges among broken schist mountains, and the curious rugged mass of Esparon stands up before one as a fortress against the blue sky. The valley of the Arre is entered, and presently we arrive at Le Vigan in a pleasant site, a green smiling valley enclosed within a triple range, first of hills terraced up, step above step, with walls to retain the meagre deposit of soil laboriously cultivated. The second stage is one of mountains dense with chestnuts. Above this rises the rugged range of granite that forms the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Among the higher rocks sprout a few twisted and stunted beech, the relics of the ancient forests that formerly sheltered the bear, the wild boar, and the wolf. These forests have disappeared, partly through fires kindled to clear away the lurking-places of the Camisards, partly to destroy the shelter of the wolves, mainly through the improvidence of the peasantry. It has been found simpler to get rid of the wolves by strychnine than by fire, and they are now very nearly exterminated. But the destruction of the forests has had such lamentable results that the Board of Forestry is engaged in replanting large tracts.

Le Vigan is supposed to occupy the site of the old Gallo-Roman town of Vindomagus. The name implies that a Celtic population was settled there. Magh signifies meadow or plain, and vindo is the Latin form given to the word we find in so many places to signify open country, wind-swept, sun-scorched, rambled over by sheep, that still lingers on upon the Welsh border, as Gwent. No descriptive appellation could better suit Le Vigan.

The town gathered a little way below the great sacred spring that now supplies its fountains and runnels with limpid water, once dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian goddess, who was introduced into Rome and became fashionable. It is still called the Fontaine d'Is, and the bath and remains of her temple are under the present corn market.

The Saracens penetrated the defiles of the Cevennes, and attacked and destroyed Vindomagus. They have left their traces in the terminology of certain localities about the town, as Le Champ de Mâoureses and Le Camp Sarrasin.

In the Middle Ages Le Vigan was a walled town, about a priory; the prior exercised rights of high justice alternately with the King of France, each for three years, turn and turn about, one of these clumsy, confusing arrangements only possible in those topsy-turvy days. It suffered the usual miseries also of those days from English freebooters. It was always zealous on the national side. In the reign of Louis XV. a grandson of a barber of Le Vigan became Minister of Marine, and fitted out the fleets in the struggle against England for the supremacy of the seas and the maintenance of French dominions in North America. An epigram was written on this man, Jean Peyrenc:—

 "Pour raser l'Angleterre,
 On met au ministère
 Peyrenc dont le grand-père,
 Faisait fort proprement,
 Des barbes au Vigan.
"

The most woeful time of all for the place was that of persecution of the Huguenots. The odious Edict of 1685 brought perturbation into the town and neighbourhood, which had become Calvinist. Companies of dragoons were quartered on the Protestants, and made them suffer such vexations that the townsfolk passed bodily over to the Church in less than a twelvemonth; but thirty families, rather than submit to forcible conversion, expatriated themselves. Others were arrested and condemned to deportation. Among these was a Seigneur du Fouquet, who died on the voyage. His daughter, Madeleine, was sent to be educated in a convent, and left it only when she had abjured heresy, and she became the grandmother of the Chevalier d'Assas, a son of the soil, the hero of Clostercamp, whose statue adorns a square in Le Vigan, and of whom more presently.

On the night of October 6th, 1686, two thousand of the Reformed assembled on a little plateau near the height of l'Oiselette, visible from Le Vigan, to hear one of the pastors preach, when a body of dragoons, guided by a traitor, Moreau, rushed upon them after having shot down the sentinels. The Protestants were armed, and seeing the military approach fired on them, and shot the captain in command; the lieutenant was stabbed by a bayonet in the belly, and died two days later. The assembly dispersed in all directions, but twenty-two persons were arrested, and eight of them, among them three women, were hung in the marketplace of Le Vigan.

On June 5th, 1704, the delegate of Bâville at Le Vigan, named Daudé, was murdered by the Camisards. He was walking home from a little property he had at La Valette when he was assailed by shots from the insurgents, who had concealed themselves in a cornfield. They blew out his brains, but they did no harm to Claude d'Assas, who was accompanying him, other than depriving him of his sword and his embroidered cap. They were caught, and convicted on the evidence of that cap found on them. At the same time were taken two farmers, who had given them asylum. One of these was proved not to be a Camisard, and knew nothing of the plot. Nevertheless, at the instance of Judith, the widow of the murdered man, he was condemned and hung.

Two days after, the implacable widow was found dead; she had died of uterine hemorrhage.

The last of the assemblies of the Calvinists in the desert was on Sunday, January 3Oth, 1752. It was presided over by the pastor, Marazel, and a candidate for the ministry named Bénézet, who in his prayer invoked God "for the King, the Queen, and the Royal Family." That same evening the two preachers were in a house at Le Vigan, when it was surrounded by
THE GOAT'S LEAP, LE VIGAN - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


The Goat's Leap, Le Vigan

the dragoons. Marazel managed to escape; the other was conveyed a prisoner to Montpellier. Bénzét was not a full-blown pastor, and it was hoped that he would be sentenced to exile only, and his young wife made ready to accompany him. But on March 27th, by order of Louis XV., for whom he had prayed in the forest of Quinte two months before, he was sentenced to the gallows. This drama had its terrible epilogue. A few days later a woman, Marie Flavier, who was suspected of having betrayed the ministers, was found dead, with her tongue torn out of her head.

Above Le Vigan is Avèze, where is the sacred spring of Isis, the source of the Vézénobres, a torrent that flows under a natural bridge called Le Pont de Mousse. The spring is actually fed by the stream of Coudeloux, that disappears in the fissures of the calcareous rocks near Aulas. Avèze is a village built in amphitheatre above the junction of the Gleppe and the Coudeloux, which disembouch into the Arre. Avèze was founded by three Benedictine monks in the year 803. The castle commanding the village was the seat of two seigneurs, who successively occupied it, and who lived as brigands, pillaging the neighbourhood and carrying off women from the very gates of Le Vigan. In consequence of a colloquy, one of these robber nobles was induced to abandon the castle. To bring the other to reason, th$ civil authorities at Le Vigan implored the Constable Montmorency to lend them aid. This he did, and the castle was subjected to a formal siege in 1607; it was taken, and the sergeant was hung from the top of the keep. As to the two seigneurs, both came to a violent end. The first, Jean d'Ayémard, was assassinated on the high road by murderers sent after him by his enemy, Jean de Vabres, who contested with him the ownership of the castle. Three years later this second seigneur was shot on his way to Arre. The castle of Avèze was a matter of a lawsuit that lasted over a century and a half. Sentence was pronounced against De Beaufort, its legitimate owner, but he refused submission to the judgment. He armed his vassals, defended himself, and killed some of the constables sent to demand the surrender of the castle. He had, however, finally to yield; and the château became later, by a judgment of the Parliament of Toulouse in 1788, the property of the family of Montcalm, descended from the Sire de Beaufort. Next year the marquess, son of the heroic defender of Quebec, came to inhabit Avèze, and it is a satisfaction to know that during the turmoil of the Revolution the venerated name of Montcalm preserved the château from being destroyed. It still belongs to the family, and is surrounded by a handsome park—as parks go in France.

Aulas, now a small village, was in the thirteenth century the chief town of the barony of Hierle; and in 1621 it was one of the five most important places in the district devoted to the principles of the Reformation, that was fortified by De Châtillon, grandson of the Admiral Coligny. Castle and walls have fallen; they were levelled after the peace of Alais. Just beyond Aulas is the Château de Clapisse, in which was born, in 1740, Henri de Celadon, Chevalier de Lanuéjols, noted for his periodic duels. M. de Celadon left home every year on a fixed day and took his way to the Isle of Basthellasse in the Rhone, near Avignon. At the same time, annually, another gentleman left Lyons, and made his way to the same spot, from which one or the other returned wounded. This continued for twelve years; but on the last De Celadon must have inflicted a more than ordinary wound, for on the thirteenth visit to the isle, in the following year, his adversary was not there. He withdrew, but in the fourteenth year returned, and again he with whom he had crossed swords twelve successive times was not there. Then he instituted inquiries, and ascertained that his foe had died two years previously. What the cause of the long-protracted quarrel was never came to light; De Celadon, who died in 1810, carried the secret with him to the grave.

The source of the ravine of that strange river, half subterranean, the Vis, is best visited from Le Vigan. The Vis, a river as large as the Hérault, where it effects its junction with the latter, rises at S. Guiral, near the frontier of Aveyron. It passes Alzon, flows below the sheer limestone escarpments of the Larzac, and receives the immense spring of the Foux, after which only does it become a river; passing between the rocks of Tude and d'Aujean it traverses a fine ravine. Montdardier (mons arduus} is five miles from Le Vigan, and to reach it the Causse has to be passed under from Avèse. Here the limestone is so compact that it can be exploited as lithographic stones. Much of the way is shaded by chestnuts below the white escarpments of the rocks of La Tude and of the Pic d'Anjeau, forming the edge of the Causse de Blandas, an islet of limestone separated from Larzac by the Vis, as is also the much smaller islet of Campestre, that lies between the Vis and the Virenque. These causses are strewn with dolmens and bristle with menhirs.

The Castle of Montdardier, that has been restored by Violet le Duc, occupies a well-timbered height above the little stream that joins the Arre at Avèze. The village clusters about the hill, the extremity of which sustains the castle and the park.

In 1684, the last male heir of the Ginestous, lords of Montdardier, was a Protestant pastor. He had an only child, a daughter, whom he married to François d'Assas on condition that her descendants should assume the name and bear the arms of Ginestous. The castle is now the property of the Viscount de Ginestous at Montpellier. In the village are the remains of a hospital of the Templars.

On leaving Montdardier the causse appears before one in all its nudity, and the eye that has been gratified by the green woods and pastures of the valley is now smitten and half blinded by the glare of the bald limestone, with here and there only a little field of corn where some snuff-coloured earth has accumulated. Not a stream, not a spring, all the water that falls is absorbed and disappears in the fissures to fill the mysterious reservoirs that feed the rivers. Flocks of lean sheep wander about the waste and eat the herbs and bushes that attempt to grow, as well as the burnt and scanty grass. Even the droppings of the sheep are not suffered to remain and enrich the meagre soil. They are carefully collected and sold to the vinedressers of the plain.

Blandas is four miles from Montdardier. There are eleven megalithic monuments in this commune alone. Nothing breaks the monotony of the Causse, beyond the white plateau of which is the blue chain of distant mountains, of pure cobalt. All at once, what seems to be a fold in the plain gives way, and we stand at the edge of a tremendous depression of 960 feet. Below, beneath the escarpments of white Jura limestone, a silver line appears winding among green meadows, and flowing from a cascade.


"The view of Navacelles produces an impression never to be forgotten. I really do not know how better to advise those who accompany tourists than to make them halt at a great tree about two hundred yards from the gap. There they should have their eyes bandaged, and they should be led to the edge of the precipice, and their backs turned to it. The bandage removed, they would see before them only the nakedness of the Causse. But let them turn about, and they would spring back filled with amazement. Even the details of the spectacle presented before them are most curious. The position of the declivity against which leans the village of Navacelles has an extraordinary resemblance to a gigantic oyster-shell, whilst to right and to left the spirals of the Vis are surmounted by precipitous rocks in fangs.

The source of this strange river is not less interesting than its cañon. In half an hour one reaches La Foux. There between the escarped flanks of the Causse the river pours out of a deep cavern, and at once puts a mill in movement."[1]


Neither pencil, camera, nor description can do justice to the remarkable scene. The road, a zigzag, descends into a veritable crater-like hollow down a shoulder less precipitous than the rest of the sides of the abyss, here barred with the horizontal beds of rock, there covered with rubble slides, scantily sprinkled over with box and juniper. At the bottom a ring of green meadow encircles a cone of rock. To live in Navacelles requires the constitution of a salamander, as the sun's rays are reflected from every side.

Le Vigan is becoming annually more appreciated, and justly so, as a summer residence. The knowledge that it is abundantly supplied with pure water, that it is well drained, cleaner than most towns in the Cevennes, enjoys fresh air, and is surrounded by scenery of a high character, and that almost endless excursions may be made from it to places of great interest, have drawn to it numerous visitors. I have but touched on some of the attractions of the neighbourhood. I would recommend those who feel disposed to stay there for a few weeks to provide themselves with the little guide from which I have drawn my last quotation.

And now, finally, for the Chevalier d'Assas, whose statue adorns one of the squares.

Louis d'Assas was born at Le Vigan in 1733. He entered early on a military career, and at the age of twenty-seven was captain in the Auvergne regiment—that regiment in violet uniform which immortalised itself on the field of Parma, in the war in Italy 1733-4. The king of Sardinia, the ally of France, was in the battle. Seeing the field strewn with the violet uniforms, he turned to a French marshal at his side and asked, "Where are the rest of the violets?" "Those not cropped are still fighting," was the reply.

The action that made the name of Assas one dear to the hearts of the men of Le Vigan took place during the War of Seven Years. After the disgraceful defeats of Rossbach and Crevelt, a detachment was sent against the Prussians, and a battle was fought at Clostercamp in 1760; the corps of d'Assas lost fifty-eight officers out of eighty, and eight hundred soldiers. On the night of the 15th October, Captain Assas fell into an ambuscade. Surrounded by the enemy, who threatened to run him through with their bayonets if he uttered a cry of warning, he thought only of patriotic devotion, and shouted, "A moi, Auvergne! ce sont les ennemis!" and fell pierced through and through.

In 1777, Louis XVI. granted a pension for all time of a thousand livres to the eldest son of the race. During the Revolution this ceased to be paid, but it was restored by Napoleon I., and is still received by the representative of the family.

But he is not the only hero Le Vigan has honoured by a monument. Pierre Triaire was born there in 1771. He was sergeant of artillery in Egypt, and was in the battle of the Pyramids, was at the taking of Cairo, and was in El Arish, which according to Bonaparte was one of the two keys to Egypt. It was defended by 300 men under the command of Cazal, when it was invested by the Turks. A portion of the garrison, discouraged by the desertion of his post by the General Commander in Egypt at a critical moment, and having but one desire, to return, like Napoleon, to France, paralysed the defence. Some traitors cast cords down to the Turks, who climbed over the walls. At this moment Triaire, indignant at the cowardice of a portion of the garrison, rushed to the powder magazine, of which he had the key, and blew the fort up. According to General Desaix, 3,000 Turks were destroyed by the explosion.

This was on December 30th, 1799, when Triaire was aged twenty-nine.

The statue in bronze of Triaire was inaugurated in 1891.

  1. Chante: Un Coin des Cevennes. Paris, Berger-Levrault.