A Little Tour In France/Chapter XXIII
Carcassonne dates from the Roman occupation of Gaul. The place commanded one of the great roads into Spain, and in the fourth century Romans and Franks ousted each other from such a point of vantage. In the year 436, Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, superseded both these parties; and it is during his occupation that the inner enceinte was raised upon the ruins of the Roman fortifications. Most of the Visigoth towers that are still erect are seated upon Roman substructions which appear to have been formed hastily, probably at the moment of the Frankish invasion. The authors of these solid defences, though occasionally disturbed, held Carcassonne and the neighboring country, in which they had established their kingdom of Septimania, till the year 713, when they were expelled by the Moors of Spain, who ushered in an unillumined period of four centuries, of which no traces remain. These facts I derived from a source no more recondite than a pamphlet by M. Viollet-le-Duc, - a very luminous description of the fortifications, which you may buy from the accomplished custodian. The writer makes a jump to the year 1209, when Carcassonne, then forming part of the realm of the viscounts of Beziers and infected by the Albigensian heresy, was besieged, in the name of the Pope, by the terrible Simon de Montfort and his army of crusaders. Simon was accustomed to success, and the town succumbed in the course of a fortnight. Thirty-one years later, having passed into the hands of the King of France, it was again besieged by the young Raymond de Trincavel, the last of the viscounts of Beziers; and of this siege M. Viollet-le-Duc gives a long and minute account, which the visitor who has a head for such things may follow, with the brochure in hand, on the fortifications themselves. The young Raymond de Trincavel, baffled and repulsed, retired at the end of twenty-four days. Saint Louis and Philip the Bold, in the thirteenth century, multiplied the defences of Carcassonne, which was one of the bulwarks of their kingdom on the Spanish quarter; and from this time forth, being regarded as impregnable, the place had nothing to fear. It was not even attacked; and when, in 1355, Edward the Black Prince marched into it, the inhabitants had opened the gates to the conqueror before whom all Languedoc was prostrate. I am not one of those who, as I said just now, have a head for such things, and having extracted these few facts had made all the use of M. Viollet-le-Duc's, pamphlet of which I was capable.
I have mentioned that my obliging friend the amoureux-fou handed me over to the door-keeper of the citadel. I should add that I was at first committed to the wife of this functionary, a stout peasant-woman, who took a key down from a nail, conducted me to a postern door, and ushered me into the presence of her husband. Having just begun his rounds with a party of four persons, he was not many steps in advance. I added myself perforce to this party, which was not brilliantly composed, except that two of its members were gendarmes in full toggery, who announced in the course of our tour that they had been stationed for a year at Carcassonne, and had never before had the curiosity to come up to the Cite. There was something brilliant, certainly, in that. The gardien was an extraordinarily typical little Frenchman, who struck me even more forcibly than the wonders of the inner enceinte; and as I am bound to assume, at whatever cost to my literary vanity, that there is not the slightest danger of his reading these remarks, I may treat him as public property. With his diminutive stature and his perpendicular spirit, his flushed face, expressive protuberant eyes, high peremptory voice, extreme volubility, lucidity, and neatness of utterance, he reminded me of the gentry who figure in the revolutions of his native land. If he was not a fierce little Jacobin, he ought to have been, for I am sure there were many men of his pattern on the Committee of Public Safety. He knew absolutely what he was about, understood the place thoroughly, and constantly reminded his audience of what he himself had done in the way of excavations and reparations. He described himself as the brother of the architect of the work actually going forward (that which has been done since the death of M. Viollet-le-Duc, I suppose he meant), and this fact was more illustrative than all the others. It reminded me, as one is reminded at every turn, of the democratic conditions of French life: a man of the people, with a wife en bonnet, extremely intelligent, full of special knowledge, and yet remaining essentially of the people, and showing his intelligence with a kind of ferocity, of defiance. Such a personage helps one to understand the red radicalism of France, the revolutions, the barricades, the sinister passion for theories. (I do not, of course, take upon myself to say that the individual I describe - who can know nothing of the liberties I am taking with him - is actually devoted to these ideals; I only mean that many such devotees must have his qualities.) In just the nuance that I have tried to indicate here, it is a terrible pattern of man. Permeated in a high degree by civilization, it is yet untouched by the desire which one finds in the Englishman, in proportion as he rises in the world, to approximate to the figure of the gentleman. On the other hand, a nettete, a faculty of exposition, such as the English gentleman is rarely either blessed or cursed with.
This brilliant, this suggestive warden of Carcassonne marched us about for an hour, haranguing, explaining, illustrating, as he went; it was a complete little lecture, such as might have been delivered at the Lowell Institute, on the manger in which a firstrate place forte used to be attacked and defended Our peregrinations made it very clear that Carcassone was impregnable; it is impossible to imagine, without having seen them, such refinements of immurement, such ingenuities of resistance. We passed along the battlements and chemins de ronde, ascended and descended towers, crawled under arches, peered out of loop-holes, lowered ourselves into dungeons, halted in all sorts of tight places, while the purpose of something or other was described to us. It was very curious, very interesting; above all, it was very pictorial, and involved perpetual peeps into the little crooked, crumbling, sunny, grassy, empty Cite. In places, as you stand upon it, the great towered and embattled enceinte produces an illusion; it looks as if it were still equipped and defended. One vivid challenge, at any rate, it flings down before you; it calls upon you to make up your mind on the matter of restoration. For myself, I have no hesitation; I prefer in every case the ruined, however ruined, to the reconstructed, however splendid. What is left is more precious than what is added: the one is history, the other is fiction; and I like the former the better of the two, - it is so much more romantic. One is positive, so far as it goes; the other fills up the void with things more dead than the void itself, inasmuch as they have never had life. After that I am free to say that the restoration of Carcassonne is a splendid achievement. The little custodian dismissed us at last, after having, as usual, inducted us into the inevitable repository of photographs. These photographs are a great nuisance, all over the Midi. They are exceedingly bad, for the most part; and the worst those in the form of the hideous little album-panorama - are thrust upon you at every turn. They are a kind of tax that you must pay; the best way is to pay to be let off. It was not to be denied that there was a relief in separating from our accomplished guide, whose manner of imparting information reminded me of the energetic process by which I have seen mineral waters bottled. All this while the afternoon had grown more lovely; the sunset had deepened, the horizon of hills grown purple; the mass of the Canigou became more delicate, yet more distinct. The day had so far faded that the interior of the little cathedral was wrapped in twilight, into which the glowing windows projected something of their color. This church has high beauty and value, but I will spare the reader a presentation of details which I myself had no opportunity to master. It consists of a romanesque nave, of the end of the eleventh century, and a Gothic choir and transepts of the beginning of the fourteenth; and, shut up in its citadel like a precious casket in a cabinet, it seems - or seemed at that hour - to have a sort of double sanctity. After leaving it and passing out of the two circles of walls, I treated myself, in the most infatuated manner, to another walk round the Cite. It is certainly this general impression that is most striking, - the impression from outside, where the whole place detaches itself at once from the landscape. In the warm southern dusk it looked more than ever like a city in a fairy-tale. To make the thing perfect, a white young moon, in its first quarter, came out and hung just over the dark silhouette. It was hard to come away, - to incommode one's self for anything so vulgar as a railway-train; I would gladly have spent the evening in revolving round the walls of Carcassonne. But I had in a measure engaged to proceed to Narborme, and there was a certain magic that name which gave me strength, - Narbonne, the richest city in Roman Gaul.