Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe/Chapter III

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SOUTERRAINS

In the year 1866 the Prussian Army of the Elbe broke into Bohemia, when it was found that the inhabitants of a certain district had vanished along with their cattle and goods, leaving behind empty houses and stables. It had been the same during the Thirty Years' War, and again in the Seven Years' War, when the invaders found not a living soul, and contented themselves with destroying the crops and burning the villages and farms. Even the Government officials had disappeared. Whither had they gone? Into the rock labyrinths of Adersbach and Wickelsdorf, each accessible only through a single gap closed by a door. The mountain of what the Germans call Quadersandstein is four miles long by two broad, and was at one time an elevated plateau, but is now torn into gullies, forming a tangled skein of ravines, wherein a visitor without a guide might easily lose himself. The existence of this labyrinth was unknown save to the peasants till the year 1824, when a forest fire revealed it, but for some time it remained unexplored.[1]

As Adersbach and Wickelsdorf lie on the frontier of Bohemia and Silesia, the existence of this region of cliffs and natural refuges had been kept secret by the natives, who looked upon it as a secure hiding- place for themselves and their chattels when the storm of war swept over the Riesen Gebirge. But the fatal fire of 1824 betrayed their secret to the world, and after a little hesitation, thinking to make profit out of it as a show-place, paths were cut through it, and it was advertised in 1847. When, in 1866, the Prussians passed by, they incurred neither the risk nor the trouble of hunting out the refugees from their place of concealment.

The rocks run up to 200 feet, the loftiest being 280 feet. They assume the most fantastic shapes. The passage through the fissures is so narrow that in some places it can be threaded by one man alone at a time, the others following in single file. A rivulet, clear as crystal, traverses the network of gullies, and in one place forms a tiny cascade. One nook is called the Southern Siberia, because in it the snow lies unmelted throughout the summer.

At intervals the rocks fall back and form open spaces, and at one describe an amphitheatre upon a vista of rolling forest.

But if this "petrified forest," as it has been called, served as a refuge for the peasants in troublous times, it has also been employed by brigands as their fastness whence to ravage the country and render the roads perilous. But of their exploits I shall have more to say in the chapter on robber-dens.

Caverns, as well as chasms, have always served this same purpose.

There is something remarkably human and significant in the prophecy of Isaiah relative to the coming of the Judge of all the earth: "They shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty." And in the Book of Revelation: "And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains."

As the first men found their refuges and homes in caves and rock shelters, so the last men, with the instinct implanted in them from the first and never eradicated, will fly to the earth as a hiding-place, just as a frightened child flies to the lap of its mother.

When Ahab persecuted the prophets, Obadiah hid them by fifties in a cave. After the battle of Bethhoron the five kings of the Amorites hid themselves in the cave of Makkedah. When the Midianites oppressed Israel, the latter "made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves and strongholds." From the Philistines "the people did hide themselves in caves and in thickets and in high places, and in pits." Twice did Elijah take refuge in a cave.

What took place in Palestine, took place in every part of the world wherever there are limestone and chalk and volcanic breccia and sandstone. It would seem as though a merciful Providence had not only provided the first shelters for man against the inclemency of the weather, but had also furnished him with places of secure refuge against the violence of his fellow-man. As sure as the rabbit runs to its hole on the sight of the sportsman, so did the oppressed and timorous when the slayer and the marauder appeared.

In the South of France, where caves abound, the unhappy Gauls fled from Cæsar and concealed themselves in them. He bade his lieutenant Crassus wall up the entrances. When the Armenians fled before Corbulo—"fuere qui se speluncis et carissima secum abderent"—he filled the mouths of the caverns with faggots and burned them out.[2]

When Civilis rose in insurrection against Vespasian, he was joined by a young native, Julius Sabinus from Langres, who boasted that, in the great war with the Gauls, his great-grandmother had taken the fancy of Julius Caesar, and that to him he owed his name.

After the death of Nero, the Druids had come forth from the retreats where they had remained concealed since their proscription by Claudius, and proclaimed that "the Roman Empire was at an end, and that the Gallic Empire was come to its birth." Insurgents rose on every side, and Julius Sabinus assumed the title of Caesar. War broke out; confusion, hesitation, and actual desertion extended through the Colonies, and reached the legions. Several towns submitted to the insurgents. Some legions yielding to persuasion, bribery, or discontent, killed their officers and went over to the rebels. The gravity of the situation was perceived in Rome, and Petilius Cerealis was despatched to crush the revolt. The struggle that ensued was fierce but brief, and Civilis was constrained to surrender. Vespasian being disinclined to drive men or matters to an extremity, pardoned him; but no mercy was to be extended to Julius Sabinus. After the ruin of his cause, Sabinus took refuge underground in one of those retreats excavated in the chalk beneath his villa, and two of his freedmen were alone privy to the secret. The further to conceal him, they set fire to his house, and gave out that he had poisoned himself and that his dead body had been consumed in the flames. His young wife, named Eponia, was in frantic despair at the news; but one of the freedmen informed her of the place of his retreat, and advised her to assume the habit and exhibit the desolation of widowhood, so as to confirm the report they had disseminated. "Well did she play her part," says Plutarch, "in this tragedy of woe." She visited her husband in his cave at night, and left him at daybreak, but at last refused to leave him at all. At the end of seven months, hearing talk of the clemency of Vespasian, she set out for Rome taking her husband with her, disguised as a slave, with shaven head and a dress that rendered him unrecognisable. But friends who were in her confidence dissuaded her from prosecuting the journey. The imperial clemency was not a quality to be calculated upon with confidence. They accordingly returned to their subterranean abode. There they lived for nine years, during which, "as a lioness in her den," says Plutarch, "Eponia gave birth to two young whelps, and suckled them at her own breast." At length they were discovered, and Sabinus and his wife were brought before Vespasian.

"Caesar," said Eponia, showing him her children, "I conceived and suckled them in a tomb, that there might be more of us to entreat thy mercy." But the Emperor was not disposed to be clement to one who pretended to inherit the sacred Julian blood, and he ordered Sabinus to be led to the block. Eponia asked that she might die with her husband, saying: "Caesar, do me this grace, for I have lived more happily underground and in darkness than thou hast done in the splendour of thy palace."

Vespasian fulfilled her desire by sending her also to execution; and Plutarch, their contemporary, expressed the general feeling in Rome, when he adds: "In all the long reign of this Emperor there was no deed done so cruel, and so piteous to look upon; and he was afterwards punished for it, for in a brief time all his posterity was cut off."

In 731 the Saracens, masters of the peninsula, poured over the Pyrenees, and entered the Septimania. They had come not to conquer and pillage, but to conquer and occupy. They had brought with them accordingly their wives and children. They took Narbonne, Carcassone and Nimes, besieged Toulouse, and almost totally destroyed Bordeaux. Thrusting up further, they reached Burgundy on one side and Poitou on the other. Autun was sacked, and the church of S. Hilary in Poitiers given to the flames. The Christians, wherever met with, were hewn down with their curved scimitars; they passed on like a swarm of locusts leaving desolation in their wake. Those of the natives who escaped did so by taking advantage of the subterranean refuges either natural or artificial that abounded. And that they did so is shown by the relics of Merovingian times that have been found in them.

The Mussulmans were routed at Poitiers by Charles Martel. Three hundred thousand Saracens, say the old chroniclers, with their usual exaggeration, fell before the swords of the Christians. The rest fled under the walls of Narbonne.

Between 752 and 759 Pepin the Short resolved on the conquest of Septimania, i.e. Lower Languedoc. The Goths there had risen against the Arabs and appealed for his aid. Nimes, Agde, Beziers, Carcassonne opened their gates, but Narbonne resisted for seven years. When it surrendered in 759, the Empire of the Franks for the first time touched the Eastern Pyrenees. Pepin now picked a quarrel with Waifre, Duke of Aquitaine, and crossing the Loire made of the unhappy country a hunting-ground for the Franks. He delivered the land over to a systematic devastation. From the Loire to the Garonne the houses were burnt, and the trees cut down. "The churches, the monasteries, and secular buildings were reduced to ashes. Vineyards and fields were ravaged, and the inhabitants put to the edge of the sword. Only a few strong places escaped the fury of the soldiers.... The city of Cahors fell into the power of the conqueror and was reduced to the same pitiable condition into which it had been brought by the Saracens. The inhabitants of Quercy who survived owed this to the subterranean retreats which they had made and to the caverns in the rocks that had served them as refuges during the incursion of the infidels. The principal caves are situated on the Banks of the Lot at Cami, Luzech, Vers, Bouzier, S. Cirq, La Toulsanie, Larnagol, Calvignac, S. Jean de Laur, Cajarc and Laroque-Toirac, to above Capdenac; on the banks of the Célé, at Roquefort, Espagnac, Brengues, S. Sulpice, Marcillac, Liauzun, Sauliac, Cabrerets; on the banks of the Dordogne at Belcastel, La Cave, Le Bon Sairon, Mayronne, Blansaguet, Montvalent, Gluges, Saint Denis, &c., and between the rivers, Autoire, Gramat, S. Cirq d'Alzou, Rocamadour, S. Martin de Vers, Crass Guillot, to Vers among the high cliffs athwart which runs the Roman aqueduct, which in certain places, behind its high walls, could shelter a great number of the inhabitants. These caverns are still called Gouffios, Gouffieros, or Waiffers, from the name of Duke Waifre.[3] They were closed by a wall, of which there are remains at Canis, at Brengues, and at S. Jean de Laur, on the rock that commands the abyss of Lantoui. This last cavern is the most remarkable of all, as it is at but a little distance from the castle of Cénevières, which was one of the principal strongholds of the Duke of Aquitaine in Quercy."[4]

The wretched country had to suffer next from the expedition of the Northmen, who pushed up every river, destroying, pillaging, and showing no mercy to man or beast. The most redoutable of these pirates was Hastings, who ravaged the banks of the Loire between 843 and 850, sacked Bordeaux and Saintes and menaced Tarbes. In 866 he was again in the Loire, and penetrated as far as Clermont Ferrand. There seemed to be no other means of appeasing him than by granting him the country of Chartres. But this did not content his turbulent spirit, and at the age of nearly seventy he abandoned his county to resume his piracies.

An Icelandic Saga relating the adventures of a Viking, Orvar Odd in Aquitaine, describes how he saw some of the natives taking refuge in an underground retreat, and how he pursued and killed them all.[5]

In the persecution of the Albigenses at the instigation of Pope Innocent III. the unfortunate heretics fled to the caves, but were hunted, or smoked out and massacred by the Papal emissaries. Nevertheless, a good many escaped, and in 1325, when John XXII. was reigning in Avignon, he ordered a fresh battu of heretics. A great number fled to the cave of Lombrive near Ussat in Ariège. It consists of an immense hall, and runs to the length of nearly four miles. In 1328 the papal troops, to save themselves the trouble or risk of penetrating into these recesses after their prey, built up the entrance, and left from four to five hundred Albigenses along with their bishops to perish therein of starvation. Of late years the bones have been collected, removed, and buried. From 1152, the Bordelois, Saintonge, Agenois, Perigord, and the Limousin were nominally under the English crown. But the people did not bear their subjection with patience, and often rose in revolt, and their revolts were put down with ferocity. As to the Barons and Seigneurs of Guyenne, they took which side suited their momentary convenience, and shifted their allegiance as seemed most profitable to them. But the worst season was after the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, when a vast part of France, from the Loire to the Pyrenees was made over to the English. The Hundred Years' War was the consequence, of which more shall be said in the fifth chapter. Froissart describes the condition of the country: "Matters were so woven together there and the lords and knights were so divided, that the strong trampled down the weak, and neither law nor reason was measured out to any man. Towns and castles were intermixed inextricably; some were English, others French, and they attacked one another and ransomed and pillaged one another incessantly."

Under these circumstances it may well be understood that if Nature herself had not of her own accord furnished the miserable, harassed people with refuges, they would themselves have contrived some. As we shall see they did this, as well as make use of the natural provision supplied for their safety.

Of refuges there are two kinds, those patiently and laboriously excavated under the surface of the soil, and those either natural or contrived high up in the face of inaccessible cliffs.

Each shall be dealt with; they are different in character. The town of Saint Macaire on the Garonne is walled about. But the walls did not give to the citizens all the security they desired; the ramparts might be battered down, escaladed, or the gates burst open. Accordingly they excavated, beneath the town, a complete labyrinth of passages, chambers, halls, and store-rooms into which they might either retreat themselves or where they might secure their valuables in the event of the town being sacked.

At Alban in Tarn there are retreats of like nature under the houses, refuges at one time of the persecuted Albigenses, at another of the inhabitants secreting themselves and their goods from the Routiers. At Molières in Lot they are beneath the church, and the approximate date can be fixed when these were excavated, as Molières was founded in 1260.

Bourg-sur-Garonne is likewise honeycombed with such retreats, so is Aubeterre, of which more hereafter. The network of underground galleries and chambers is now closed, because the soft chalk rock has fallen in in several places. At Ingrandes-sur-Vienne there are three groups of these refuges, extending to a considerable distance. At Chateau Robin in the Touraine is a chalk cliff that rises above the road to the height of sixty feet and is crowned by a tumulus. In its face are two sets of caves, one superposed over the other. This upper cave or shelter is the most ancient, and dates from prehistoric times, but has been utilised much later. The lower cave is exposed by the widening of the road which has obliterated the original face of the cliff and the original entrance, having made three openings by cutting into a chamber to which formerly there was but a single entrance. The plan of the excavation was made by M. Antoine and communicated to the "Bulletin de la Société Archéologique de Touraine," in 1858, but I will give a description from the pen of a later visitor.

"The upper rock-shelter has been dug out or enlarged with a pick. The stone is a tender tufa, containing a quantity of little cores of black silex, giving it a spotty appearance. It was quite impossible to cut the stone so as to give a smooth surface.

"The most mysterious portion, however, of the whole is certainly the lower range of vaults, a subject of terror to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who believe them to be the abode of the devil. Some persons have visited them, but very few have explored them. Having calculated on the assistance of a poacher of some repute as a fearless fellow, he pointblank refused to accompany me when I proposed an expedition into the cave. I applied to a man of more resolution, a landowner at Arzay-le-Rideau, who readily volunteered his assistance; but when we arrived on the spot, contented himself with showing me the entrance, but declined to adventure himself within, though he assured me he had visited the interior some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago.

"These excavations have now several openings upon the road; the two principal are accessible enough, if one is suitably dressed, for beyond the entrance one has to crawl on hands and knees, and this is but the initiation of other discomforts.

"The entrances are, so to speak, in the ditch of the road to Azay. The most practicable of them, and that by which M. Antoine and I penetrated, is the easternmost of the three, and is marked A on the plan, and it gives access to a small triangular chamber C; but the entrance is so low that one can only enter on one's knees or in a doubled position. Further on it is loftier. On advancing to the end one leaves on the right a sort of staircase B cut in the rock, but very worn, which formerly ascended spirally to the upper cave, but is now without issue.

"At the bottom of the chamber C a very narrow passage turns at a right angle and gives access to a large hall E that is sustained by a pillar F. This pillar is three feet square and the vaulted chamber may be 15 to 18 feet square and 5 feet high. On the left a great pier G allows of two passages I I which lead to the other openings that gape upon the road, and turning to the right give access to the further depths of the underground retreat. A passage H is, however, the most direct means of communication between the cavern E and the larger hall J to which also access is obtained through the openings I I separated by the pillar S.

"The cavern J, the largest of all, is 25 feet long by 15 feet wide at the one end and 24 feet at the other. It is supported by the pillar K, shaped to suit the widening of the hall. At the bottom of this chamber is a staircase L descending from the floor and without any breastwork to protect it, and therefore dangerous, as it goes down 6 feet, and is but about a foot and a half wide. This staircase is 12 feet long, and the passage M that is a continuation of it is hardly more than 4 feet high at the entrance, and is nearly 20 feet long, so that one has to creep along it, bent double, assisted by one's hands.

"In this position it is absolutely impossible for one to turn round, so narrow is the passage. At this point a difficulty that is not anticipated arrests many a visitor. Water rises through the stones that form the floor and contributes to reduce the height of the gallery. If one elects to continue, there is no choice but to take a bath that reaches to one's middle. At a distance of nearly 7 feet comes a right angle, and the passage goes on for 6 feet, then turns to the left by an obtuse angle and pursues its course for 12 feet, then again turns to the right by another obtuse angle, and for 15 feet more one is still half under water, till N is reached, after which the level of the floor rises, as does also the ceiling; one is able to stand erect alongside of another person. In face of one, the wall is cut perpendicularly and seems abruptly to close the passage. However, at a few inches above the soil is a little opening D, formed like the mouth of an oven, and giving indications of a space beyond. In diameter it is about 1 foot 6 inches; by crawling through this hole, an achievement difficult to accomplish, as one cannot even use the elbows to work one's way forward, the explorer descends into a semicircular hall P whose vault is arched and is supported by two oval pillars, 7 feet high. The hall is 24 feet deep and 18 feet wide at the entrance, and is rounded at the further extremity. The soil in this chamber is encumbered with stones and rubbish thrown in from an opening at R, which seems to communicate with other subterranean excavations." Nothing was found in these chambers and passages that could give an approximate date, but in the upper "abris" was some Gaulish pottery. The water that had half filled the lower passage is due to the river having been dammed up for a mill, and so having raised the level considerably. Originally the passage was certainly dry.

Although this souterrain réfuge is curious, yet it does not present some of the peculiarities noticeable in others—that is to say, elaborate preparations for defence, by contriving pitfalls for the enemy and means of assailing him in flank and rear.

The usual artifice for protection was this. The entrance from without led by a gallery or vestibule to an inner doorway that opened into the actual refuge. The passage to this interior doorway was made to descend at a rapid incline, and as it descended it became lower, so that an enemy entering would probably advance at a run, and doubled, and would pitch head foremost into a well, from 20 to 30 feet deep, bottle- shaped, sunk in the floor immediately before the closed and barred door, and which was gaping to receive him. Such a well-mouth would usually have a plank crossing it, but in time of danger this plank would be removed. To make doubly sure of precipitating the assailant into it, a side-chamber was contrived with slots commanding the doorway, through which slots pikes, spears and swords could be thrust.

Beside these contrivances there were also lateral recesses in which the defenders might lurk in ambush, to rush forth to hew at the enemy, or at least to extinguish his torch. Almost invariably these hypogees have two exits or entrances, so that those within could escape by one should the enemy force the other, or endeavour to smoke them out. Moreover, to keep up a circulation of air, and to obviate the contingency of being smoked out, these underground retreats are almost invariably supplied with ventilating shafts. The marks made by the implements employed in hewing the rock are always distinctly recognisable. Moreover within, sunk in the floor, are silos for the storage of grain, the soil often somewhat higher about their orifices than elsewhere, and sometimes provided with covers. Niches for lamps may be seen, also cupboards for provisions, in which have been found collections of acorns, walnuts, hazel-nuts and chestnuts carbonized by age.

A typical souterrain réfuge is that of the Château de Fayrolle, not far from Riberac on the Dordogne.

It was accidentally discovered when the proprietor was levelling for terraces and gardens. A glance at the plan will save a description.

A refuge at S. Gauderic has been explored. The region is one of lacustrine deposits called the Sandstone of Carcassonne; it is friable, argilaceous marl. The opening into the hypogee is in the middle of a field, and there are no indications around of the deposition of the material extracted in the formation of the retreat, so as to betray its presence. The visitor descends by a dozen steps into a long corridor, sinuous, and inclining downwards, about 1 foot 8 inches wide, and 4 feet 6 inches high. The passage exhibits rebates in several places, into which door-frames had been fitted, as well as square holes into which the beams were run that fastened the doors. It leads past several side-chambers into which the defenders might retire, so as to burst forth suddenly and unexpectedly on the foe, smite him and extinguish any torch he bore. The corridor leads to a rectangular hall 22 feet long and 7 feet high, vaulted and ventilated by three circular airholes, 6 inches in diameter. There are numerous silos in the floor, and fragments of coarse grey pottery turned on the wheel have been found there.[6]

M. L. Druyn, in his La Guyenne Militaire, Bordeaux, 1865, gives the following account of a refuge he explored. "Ascending the valley that separates the castle of Roquefort from the church of Lugasson, after having passed the village of Fauroux, one reaches, on the left side of the road, a splendid quarry of hard stone, but a few paces further on, upon the same side, the stone becomes soft. Here on the right, in a little coppice beside the road, is found a place of refuge of which I give the plan as accurately as it was possible for me to take it where one had to crawl on hands and knees, and sometimes wriggle forward lying on one's stomach, over earth that was damp and rubble fallen from above, and in corridors completely filled by one human body.

"The entrance is at A on a level with the soil outside against the rock, but this cannot have been the original place of admission. It is a round hole and very narrow. The real entrance was at K, where one can distinguish a circular opening like the orifice of a silo, but which is now in the open and is choked with stones; or else at the end of the gallery H B. The chamber Y containing silos for preservation of grain must have been the furthest extremity. It is 6 feet 3 inches high, and the floor is higher above the mouth of the silos than elsewhere. The cavern is hewn out of the rock. All the chambers are circular. They are vaulted for the most part in the form of low cupolas. The domes of some are so low that one cannot stand upright in them. The corridors are still lower than the chambers, and one can only get along them by creeping. The extremities of the corridors and the entrances to the chambers had doors originally. One can see the notches for the reception of the closing beams. I saw no trace of hinges. The passages are all arched over in semicircle."

Lacoste, speaking of the Saracen invasion and devastation of Quercy, says that "in Lower Quercy, where caverns are not common as they are in Upper Quercy, the inhabitants dug souterrains with a labour that only love of life could prompt. Three of vast extent have been discovered at Fontanes, Mondoumerc, and Olmie. That of Mondoumerc is cut in the tufa, and is about 20 feet deep. It consists of an infinity of cells, or small chambers, united by a corridor. But the vastest and most remarkable for its extent and the labour devoted on it, is that of Olmie. The chambers are scooped out of a very hard sandstone. In some of them are little wells or reservoirs that were filled with water as a precaution against thirst, if refugees were obliged to remain long in this asylum. The passages, with their turns, constitute a veritable labyrinth whence it would be hard to find one's way out without the assistance of a guide."

The entrance to these hiding-places was either under a ledger stone in a church, or through a cellar, or half-way down a well, or in a thicket.

It must be remembered that it was the duty of every feudal seigneur to provide for the safety of his vassels, and the security of their goods. Consequently a great number of such souterrains are under castles or in the grounds of a feudal lord. The rock on which his towers stood was often drilled through and through with galleries, chambers, and store places, for this purpose. On the alarm being given of the approach of an army marching through the land, of a raid by a marauding neighbour, or the hovering of a band of brigands over the spot, within a few hours all this underground world was filled with ploughs, looms, bedding, garments, household stuff of every description, and rang with the bleating of sheep, the lowing of oxen, the neighing of horses, and the whimpering of women and children. At Vendôme, the rock on which stands the castle is riddled with passages and halls, access to which is obtained not from the castle, but from the town. At Lavardin by Montoire it is the same. At Paulin in Tarn is a noble castle standing on a rock 300 feet high, and in this rock are storerooms, halls, a kitchen, a winding staircase. At Montvalon- Tauriac, in the same department, under the castle are refuges and granaries. At Murat in Cantal is the castle of Anterroche, and the rocks about it are traversed with galleries leading to chambers containing silos. At Salles-la-Source in Aveyron, in a cleft of the plateau, is the castle of the Count of Armagnac, and here also there is the same provision. At S. Sulpice in Tarn are the remains of a castle built in 1247, with its chapel over crypts and galleries carved out of the living stone. At Contigne, in Maine-et-Loire, is the manor of Gâtines, underneath which are souterrains that extend for a mile, with store-chambers and chapels, hewn out of the tufa. I might mention a hundred more. But all these pertain to a period before the feudal system had sunk into one of oppression, and when the vassals had confidence in their seigneur. In process of time the conditions altered, and then they contrived their own private hiding-places from their lords and masters.

The stories everywhere prevalent where there are castles, that there are under them passages connecting them with a church, a river, or another castle, are probably due to the fact of there having been these subterranean retreats intended for the use of the vassals. But when these latter ceased to look to their lords to protect them, and cast about instead to shelter themselves from their lords, the original purport of these souterrains was forgotten and misinterpreted.

One has but to look through the brief notices of towns and villages in Joanne's Departmental Geographies to see what a number of these refuges are already known to exist in France. And he records, be it remembered, only the most interesting. There are thousands more that have either not yet been discovered or remain unexplored. Some are revealed by accident; a peasant is ploughing, when his oxen are suddenly engulfed, and he finds that they have broken through the roof of one of these hiding-places. A gentleman is building his chateau, when in sinking his foundations he finds the rock like a petrified sponge—but not like a sponge in this, that the galleries are artificial. A paysan lets himself down his well to clean it out, as the water is foul. He finds that in the side of the shaft is the opening of a passage; he enters, follows it, and finds a labyrinth of galleries.

As an instance of the abundance of the souterrains in France, I will take the department of Vienne and give in a note below a list of the communes where they are known to be, from De Longuemar, Géographie du dep. de la Vienne, Poitiers, 1882, and also from several editions of Joanne's Geography.[7]

Victor Hugo, in his Quatrevingt Treise, speaking of the war in La Vendée, says: "It is difficult to picture to oneself what these Breton forests really were. They were towns. Nothing could be more secret, more silent, and more savage. There were wells round and small, masked by coverings of stones or by branches. The interiors at first vertical, then carried horizontally, spread out underground like tunnels, and ended in dark chambers." These excavations, he states, had been there from time immemorial. He continues: "One of the wildest glades of the wood at Misdon, perforated by galleries and cells, out of which came and went a mysterious society, was called 'The Great City.' The gloomy Breton forests were servants and accomplices of rebellion. The subsoil of every forest was a sort of sponge, pierced and traversed in all directions by a secret highway of mines, cells and galleries. Each of these blind cells could shelter five or six men. Usually the cover, made of moss and branches, was so artistically fashioned that, although impossible on the outside to distinguish it from the surrounding turf, it was very easy to open and close from the inside. In several of these forests and woods there were not only subterranean villages grouped about the burrow of the chief, but also actual hamlets of low huts hidden under the trees. These underground belligerents were kept perfectly informed of what was going on. Nothing could be more rapid, nothing more mysterious, than their means of communication. Sometimes they raised the cover of their hiding-places and listened to hear if there was fighting in the distance." He mentions the ability of the ambushed men to spring up, as it were, under the feet of the armies sent against them. And to show the numbers of the concealed forces, he continues: "There are in existence lists which enable one to understand the powerful organisation of that vast peasant rebellion. In Isle-et- Villaine, in the forest of Pertre, not a human trace was to be found, yet there were collected 6000 men under Focard. In the forest of Meullac, in Morhiban, not a soul was to be seen, yet it held 8000 men. These deceptive copses were filled with fighters, lurking in an underground labyrinth."

On March 26, 1807, Napoleon demanded a fresh conscription of 80,000 men. This was the third levy that had been called for since the Prussian War began. The three conscriptions supplied no less than 240,000 men in seven months, and the call for the third produced consternation throughout France. The number of young men who reached the age of eighteen annually in half a year, more than the entire annual generation, had been swept off to lay their bones in the East of Europe. Great numbers of young fellows fled to the woods, caves, and secret refuges, and concealed themselves; and the gendarmes were employed in hunting them out, but not often with success unless aided by a traitor. Again in 1812, when Napoleon meditated an invasion of Russia, fresh calls were made on the male population. Every male capable of bearing arms was forced to assume them, and again, as in 1807, the young men disappeared as rabbits underground. It is quite possible that the peasants, who have found these refuges so convenient in the past, should know more about them and where they are situated than they pretend, thinking that at some future time, another revolution or another German invasion, the knowledge may prove serviceable.

And now let us turn to Picardy, perhaps the one of the ancient provinces of France most undermined. On the night of February 13, 1834, after heavy rains, a portion of the wall of the apse of the parish church of Gapennes, half-way between Aussy-le-Château and S. Ricquier, collapsed, and in the morning the inhabitants of the commune were stupefied to see the desolation of the holy place. Not only was a large breach gaping in the sanctuary, but all the walls of the chancel were fissured, and the pavement of the nave was upheaved in places and in others rent.

At first it was supposed that this was the result of an earthquake, but after a while the true cause was discovered. The church had been erected over a vast network of subterranean passages and chambers, and the roofs of some of these had given way. This led to an exploration, and the plan of this subterranean refuge—for such it had been—was traced as far as possible.

But Gapennes is not the only place where such retreats exist throughout the province. Something like a hundred have been found, and more are every now and then coming to light. Indeed, it may safely be said that there is scarcely a village between Arras and Amiens and between Roye and the sea, betwixt the courses of the Somme and Authie, that was not provided with these underground refuges. The character of all is very much the same. They consist of passages communicating with square or circular chambers that served as stores. They have been described at length by M. Bouthers in Mémoires de la Société d'Archéologie du département de la Somme, Amiens, 1834, t. i.

To what date, or period rather, do they belong?

Some doubtless are of extreme antiquity, but the majority are comparatively modern. It is a significant fact that the entrance to perhaps the majority is in the sacristy of the parish church, and in that at Gapennes care was taken not to undermine the tower of the church. M. de Carpentin, who explored and reported on the excavation at Gapennes, remarks on the care taken to so distribute the chalk brought up from these passages and vaults that no heaps were anywhere visible.

"The motive that can have induced the undertaking of such an extensive work can only have been that necessity drove the inhabitants to create for themselves a refuge in time of war." In it he found two pieces of common pottery, a lock and a hinge of iron, some straw and leather soles of women's shoes. He adds: "At the entrance of several of the chambers the stone is worked to receive doors, and here portions of decayed wood were found. And many of the chambers had their walls blackened by smoke as of lamps."

At Naours in Somme, the underground galleries have been explored thoroughly; there are several circular chambers for stores, and corn has been found in them, also fourteen gold coins of Charles VI or Louis XIV. In all there are 201 galleries and 300 chambers and the labyrinth extends to the distance of 6000 feet. At Santerre, which possesses three of these refuges, that portion of its territory was called Territorium Sanctæ Libertatis.

The north-east of France, Picardy and Artois, were always exposed to attack from pirates by sea, Northmen and Saxon, and from invaders over the border. But none of these can have exceeded in barbarity that of 1635 to 1641, when Spanish armies—the first under John de Werth and Piccolomini, 40,000 in number, and made up of Germans, Hungarians, Croats as well as Spaniards—poured over the provinces committing the most frightful atrocities. And precisely to this period some of the refuges may be referred.

A MS. account of this invasion, by a priest of Hiermont, named Claude Goddé, leaves this in no manner of doubt. He says: "The Spaniards committed great outrages in Picardy, as they did later in 1658. These wars compelled the inhabitants of Hiermont in 1647 to construct the quarry which we now see. This quarry or cavern, which is a great masterpiece, was first undertaken by five or six of the inhabitants "— he gave their names. "They first of all dug out the entrance in 1647, but owing to its having given way several times, had to be repaired, and was not completed till 1648. The other inhabitants, seeing its great utility, wanted also to have their chambers, but they were not admitted unless they contributed to the cost of the undertaking, and to this they willingly agreed. This quarry was of great service to the inhabitants in the Wars of Louis XIV. against England, Holland, and the Empire during the years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711, which were the days of Marlborough. It was accordingly made by the inhabitants of Hiermont, to hide themselves, their cattle, their grain and their furniture, to preserve them from pillage by the soldiers, whether of the enemy or French. Each family had its own chamber."

In a procès of 1638, one of those interrogated, a nun named Martha Tondu, stated that at Reneval and the neighbouring villages "the peasants are on the look out, and if alarmed, retire and conceal their cattle in ditches and quarries, without abandoning their houses or neglecting their agricultural work."

Some, accordingly, of these subterranean refuges are of comparatively late date; but this does not apply to all. At every period of danger, instinctively the peasants would take advantage of the nature of the chalk to form in it suitable hiding-places, and although some of the finds in these labyrinths are of recent date, others go back to the Gallo-Roman period. In the Arras and Cambrai Chronicle of Balderic (1051), we are told that in the fifth century in those parts a persecution of the Christians occurred, on the invasion of the barbarians, and that the priests celebrated the Divine Mysteries in secret hiding-places. "Many," he adds, "were suffocated in caves and in subterranean passages."

There is, in fact, evidence both from archaeology and from history that these refuges were taken advantage of, and doubtless extended from a remote antiquity down to the eighteenth century.

It was not against the foreign foe only that the peasants excavated their underground retreats. Froissart paints the chivalry of his time in the brightest colours, and only here and there by a few touches lets us see what dark shadows set them off. Who paid for the gay accoutrements of the knights? Who were the real victims of the incessant wars? From whom came the ransom of King John and of the nobles taken at Creçy and Poitiers? From the peasant. The prisoners allowed to return on parole came to their territories to collect the sums demanded for their release, and the peasant had to find them. He had his cattle, his plough and tumbril. They were taken from him; no more corn was left him than enough to sow his field. He knew how he would be exploited, and he hid his precious grain that was to make bread for his wife and children. The seigneur endeavoured to extort from him the secret as to where it was concealed. He exposed the man's bare feet before the fire; he loaded him with chains. But the peasant bore fire and iron rather than reveal the hiding-place. Here is Michelet's account of the seigneur in the first half of the fifteenth century. "The seigneur only revisited his lands at the head of his soldiery to extort money by violence. He came down on them as a storm of hail. All hid at his approach. Throughout his lands alarm resounded —it was a sauve-qui-peut. The seigneur is no longer a true seigneur; he is a rude captain, a barbarian, hardly even a Christian. Écorcheur is the true name for such, ruining what was already ruined, snatching the shirt off the back of him who had one; if he had but his skin, of that he was flayed. It would be a mistake to suppose that it was only the captains of the écorcheurs—the bastards, the seigneurs without a seigneurie, who showed themselves so ferocious. The grandees, the princes in these hideous wars, had acquired a strange taste for blood. What can one say when one sees Jean de Ligny, of the house of Luxembourg, exercise his nephew, the Count of Saint-Pol, a child of fifteen, in massacring those who fled? They treated their kinsfolk in the same manner as their enemies. For safety—better be a foe than a relation. The Count d'Harcourt kept his father prisoner all his life. The Countess of Foix poisoned her sister; the Sire de Gial his wife. The Duke of Brittany made his brother die of starvation, and that publicly; passers-by heard with a shudder the lamentable voice pleading piteously for a little bread. One evening, the 10th of January, the Count Adolphus of Gueldres dragged his old father out of bed, drew him on foot, unshod, through the snow for five leagues to cast him finally into a moat. It was the same in all the great families of the period—in those of the Low Countries, in those of Bar, Verdun, Armagnac, &c. The English had gone, but France was exterminating herself. The terrible miseries of the time find expression, feeble as yet, in the 'Complaint of the poor Commoner; and of the poor Labourers.' It comprises a mixture of lamentations and threats; the starving wretches warn the Church, the King, the Burgesses, the Merchants, the Seigneurs above all, that 'fire is drawing nigh to their hostels.' They appeal to the king for help. But what could Charles VII. do? How impose respect and obedience on so many daring men? Where could he find the means to repress these flayers of the country, these terrible little kings of castles? They were his own captains. It was with their aid that he made war against the English."[8]

Thus, the subterranean refuges that had served at one time as hiding- places against Saracens, Normans, English, became places of retreat for the wretched people against their own masters. They no longer carried their goods into the souterrains under the castles, but into refuges contrived by themselves in the depths of forests, known only to themselves; hidden, above all, from their seigneurs.

The peasantry might have said then, what was said long after by Voltaire: "Il faut être dans ce monde enclume ou marteau; j'étais né enclume." Voltaire, however, speedily became a hammer, and after 1789 the Tiers État also became a hammer, and the Noblesse the anvil.

In Iceland there were underground retreats, as we learn from the same Saga that tells us of those in Aquitaine. Orvar Odd found a king's daughter concealed in one. So, also, a very large one in Ireland is spoken of in the Landnama Bok. In England we have, both in Essex and in Kent, subterranean passages and chambers very similar to those described in Picardy and in Aquitaine. These also are excavated in the chalk. They are the so-called Dene Holes, of which there are many in Darenth Wood and near Chislehurst, and they have given occasion to a lively controversy. Some have supposed them to be retreats of the Druids, some that they were places of refuge during the invasions of the Saxons first, and then of the Danes, and others again contend that they were merely quarries for the excavation of chalk to burn into lime.

Here is an account of the Dene Hole at Chislehurst by Mr. W. J. Nichols.[9] "At the foot of the hill is a gap, which is the present entrance to the caves. A guide meets us here, who, unlocking a door, and switching on the electric light, introduces the visitor to a gallery or tunnel, about 150 feet long, 10 feet to 12 feet high, and with a width of 12 feet to 15 feet, narrowing to about 7 feet at the roof. This, and the galleries so far explored, have been cut through the chalk bed, at a depth of about 6 feet below the Thanet sand which covers it. At the end of the gallery, extending both right and left, are passages of like character. These again open into others so numerous that the visitor is fairly bewildered, and loses all idea of the direction in which he is travelling. The effect of the coloured electric lamps on the old chalk walling is remarkably beautiful. Proceeding on our way we get beyond the range of the electric lamps. Here candles or hand-lamps are lighted; and we pass, in Cimmerian gloom, through a succession of galleries of various dimensions, some of which, being only 4 feet wide and 5 feet high, are possibly of earlier construction than those already described. There is one gallery of the last-mentioned height and width 63 feet long, with several sharp turns which formerly terminated in a chamber about 12 feet high and 10 feet wide, and a like length, and near it is a seat cut into an angle of the walling. At no great distance from this chamber and near a Dene-hole shaft is a short gallery, at the end of which is a shaft originally level with the flooring, but now bricked round and further protected by an iron cover. On removing the cover and lowering a lamp, a well of excellent workmanship is discovered. Owing to the quantity of material thrown down from time to time by explorers, its present depth is no more than 43 feet. Further progress is made, and presently we notice a streak of daylight some distance ahead; here we find that we have reached the foot of a shaft 85 feet deep, which, though now partly covered in, had its mouth in what is at the present time the garden of a modern villa."

There are numerous other Dene Holes or Danes' Pits at East Tilbury, Crayford, and Little Thurrock. As to the theory that they were places of Druidical worship, we may dismiss it as not deserving serious consideration.

At East Tilbury the entrance to the Danes' pit is from above, by narrow passages that widen and communicate with several apartments, all of regular forms. One of these pits consists of a shaft descending to chambers arranged like a sixfoiled flower. The shaft is 3 feet in diameter and 85 feet deep. This may be likened to one at Doué-la- Fontaine (Maine et Loire), where a descent is made under a private house into an area from which radiate on all sides chambers, some of which contain tombs.

That these Dene Holes were used as hiding-places when the sails of the Danish Vikings appeared on the horizon is probable enough, but originally they were chalk quarries—some very ancient—for British coins have been found in them. The existence of old lime-kilns near the Chislehurst caves places their origin beyond a doubt. Chalk was largely exported in early times from the Thames to Zealand, whence it was passed through the Low Countries and used in dressing the fields. Altars to Nethalennia, the patroness of the chalk quarries, have been found in the sand on the coast of Zealand; some bear votive inscriptions from dealers in British chalk, and Pliny, writing of the finer quality of chalk (argentaria) employed by silversmiths, obtained from pits sunk like wells, with narrow mouths, to the depth of a hundred feet, whence they branch out like the adits of mines, adds, "Hoc maxime Britannia utitur."[10]

In Cornwall, moreover, there are what are locally called fogous. These are either excavated in the rock with passages leading to the sea or to houses, or else they are built of stone slabs standing erect, parallel and covered with other slabs leading to chambers similarly constructed, and all buried under turf or sand. Of the former description there is a very interesting example at Porthcothan in S. Ervan; of the latter the most remarkable is at Trelowaren. The former may have been excavated by smugglers. An interesting account of the excavation of two caves at Archerfield, in Haddingtonshire, is given in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for 1909. Both caves are natural, but one had been walled up in front, with a doorway and window and with oven; both had paved hearths in the centre, and there was evidence that they had been tenanted some time after the Roman occupation of Britain, as among the fragments of pottery found was some Samian ware. It would appear that both had been inhabited simultaneously, but not consecutively, for a lengthy period, and no doubt can exist that they were mere rock refuges. In a note to the article we read: "On the coast of Island Magee (Ireland) there is a cave, south of the Gobbins, which has been frequently used as a place of refuge. So late as 1798 it was inhabited by outlaws, who constructed a kind of fortification at the entrance, the remains of which still exist."[11]

A cave in the Isle of Egg, one of the Hebrides, has a very narrow entrance, through which one can creep only upon hands and knees, but it rises steeply within and soon becomes lofty, and runs into the bowels of the rock for 225 feet. The stony, pebbly bottom of this cavern was for long strewn with the bones of men, women and children, the relics of the ancient inhabitants of, the island, two hundred in number, of whose destruction the following account is given. "The Macdonalds, of the Isle of Egg, a people dependent on Clanranald, had done some injury to the Lord of Macleod. The tradition of the isle says that it was by a personal attack on the chieftain, in which his back was broken; but that of the two other isles bears that the injury was offered by two or three of the Macleods, who, landing upon Egg and behaving insolently towards the islanders, were bound hand and foot, and turned adrift in a boat, which the winds safely conducted to Skye. To avenge the offence given, Macleod sailed with such a body of men as rendered resistance hopeless. The natives, fearing his vengeance, concealed themselves in the cavern; and, after strict search, the Macleods went on board their galleys after doing what mischief they could, concluding the inhabitants had left the isle. But next morning they espied from their vessels a man upon the island, and immediately landing again, they traced his retreat by means of a light snow on the ground to the cavern. Macleod then summoned the subterranean garrison, and demanded that the inhabitants who had offended him should be delivered up. This was peremptorily refused. The chieftain thereupon caused his people to divert the course of a rill of water, which, falling over the mouth of the cave, would have prevented his purposed vengeance. He then kindled at the entrance of the cavern a large fire, and maintained it until all within were destroyed by suffocation."[12]

A no less horrible deed was committed during the campaign of Essex against the Irish rebels in 1575. This shall be given in the words of Froude.[13]

"On the coast of Antrim, not far from the Giant's Causeway, lies the singular island of Rathlin. It is formed of basaltic rock, encircled with precipices, and is accessible only at a single spot. It contains an area of about 4000 acres, of which a thousand are sheltered and capable of cultivation, the rest being heather and rock. The approach is at all times dangerous; the tide sets fiercely through the strait which divides the island from the mainland, and when the wind is from the west, the Atlantic swell renders it impossible to land. The situation and the difficulty of access had thus long marked Rathlin as a place of refuge for Scotch or Irish fugitives, and besides its natural strength it was respected as a sanctuary, having been the abode at one time of Saint Columba. A mass of broken masonry on a cliff overhanging the sea is a remnant of the castle, in which Robert Bruce watched the leap of the legendary spider. To this island, when Essex entered Antrim, Macconnell and the other Scots had sent their wives and children, their aged, and their sick, for safety. On his way through Carrickfergus, when returning from Dublin, the Earl ascertained that they had not yet been brought back to their homes. The officer in command of the English garrison was John Norris, Lord Norris's second son. Three small frigates were in the harbour. The sea was smooth; there was a light and favourable air from the east; and Essex directed Norris to take a company of soldiers with him, cross over, and kill whatever he could find. The run up the Antrim coast was rapidly and quietly accomplished. Before an alarm could be given the English had landed, close to the ruins of the church that bears Saint Columba's name. Bruce's castle was then standing, and was occupied by a detachment of Scots, who were in charge of the women. But Norris had brought cannon with him. The weak defences were speedily destroyed, and after a fierce assault, in which several of the garrison were killed, the chief who was in command offered to surrender if he and his people were allowed to return to Scotland. The conditions were rejected; the Scots yielded at discretion, and every living creature in the place, except the chief and his family, who were probably reserved for ransom, were immediately put to the sword. Two hundred were killed in the castle. It was then discovered that several hundred more, chiefly mothers and their little ones, were hidden in the caves about the shore. There was no remorse—not even the faintest perception that the occasion called for it. They were hunted out as if they had been seals or otters, and all destroyed. Surleyboy and the other chiefs, Essex coolly wrote, 'stood upon the mainland of Glynnes and saw the taking of the island, and was likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself, and saying that he had there lost all that ever he had.' According to Essex's own account, six hundred were thus massacred. He described the incident as one of the exploits with which he was most satisfied; and Queen Elizabeth in answer to his letters bade him tell John Norris, 'the executioner of his well-designed enterprise, that she would not be unmindful of his services.'" The neighbourhood of Gortyna in Crete has a mountain labyrinth, and during the revolt of the Cretans against the Turks in 1822-28, the Christian inhabitants of the adjacent villages, for months together, lived in these caves, sallying forth by day to till their farms or gather in their crops, when it was safe so to do. None could approach within range of the muskets pointed from the loopholes at the entrance without being immediately shot down; nor could either fire or smoke suffocate or dislodge the inmates, as the caves have many openings.

Less happy were the Christian refugees in the cave of Melidoni. In 1822, when Hussein Bey marched against the neighbouring village, the inhabitants, to the number of three hundred, fled to the cave, taking their valuables with them. Hussein ordered a quantity of combustibles to be piled at the entrance and set on fire. The poor wretches within were all smothered. The Turks waited a few days, and then entered and rifled the bodies. A week later, three natives of the village crept into the cavern to see what had become of their relatives. It is said that they were so overcome by the horror of what they witnessed, that two of them died within a few days. Years after, the Archbishop of Crete blessed the cavern, and the bones of the victims of Turkish barbarity were collected and buried in the outer hall, which has in its centre a lofty stalagmite reaching to the summit, and the walls on all sides are draped with stalactites.

We must not pass over without a word the treatment of the Arabs in Algeria by the French troops, when General Lamorcière suffocated the unfortunate refugees in the caves whither they had fled, in the same way as Caesar's general had suffocated the Gauls.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. It had indeed been mentioned by Dr. Kausch in his Nachrichten über Böhmen, 1794; but he lamented its inaccessibility.
  2. Tacit., "Annals," xvi. 23.
  3. Lacoste's derivation is absurd; Gouffieros comes from Gouffre, a chasm.
  4. Lacoste, Histoire de Quercy, Cahors, 1883, i. pp. 267-8.
  5. Fornmanna Sögwr, Copenhagen, 1829, ii. p. 229.
  6. Révue de l'Art Chretienne, Paris, 1868, p. 498 et seq.
  7. Natural grottoes that may have served as refuges are not included. Availles, Bellefonds, Béthines, Béruges, Bonnes, Bussières, Château Gamier, Champniers, Curzay, Civeaux, Gouex, Ingrandes, S. Julien Lars, Jazneuil, Leugny- sur-Creuse, Loudun, Lautiers, Lusignan, Marnay, Mairé-le-Gautier, S. Martin-Lars, S. Martin-la-Rivière, Maslou Montmorillon, Mazerolles, Mondion, Maulay, Montreuil-Bonnin, Naintré, Prinçai, Romagne, S. Remy- sur-Creuse, Saulgé, Nouvaille, Persac, S. Savin, Sossais, Thuré, Usson, Varennes, Le Vigean, Vénièrs, Vellèches, Verrières, Venneuil-sur-Biard. Several of these are under churches, others under castles. At some of these places are three or more distinct souterrains.
  8. Mist, de France, v. p. 184 et seq.
  9. Nichols (W. J.), "The Chislehurst Caves," Journal of the Archaeological Association, Dec. 1903.
  10. Roach Smith, Collectanea Antiqua, vi. p. 243, "British Archæological Assoc. Journal," N.S., ix.-x. (1903 and 1904).
  11. Cree (J. R.), "Excavation of Two Caves," in "Proceedings of the Soc. of Arch. of Scotland," Edin., 1909, vol. xliii.
  12. Lockhart's "Life of Sir Walter Scott," Edin., 1844, p.285.
  13. "Hist. of England," 1870, x. p. 527 et seq.