Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Bull-baiting at Arles

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Arles is a town of departed greatness. It contains memorials of the civilisation of imperial Rome—a civilisation, if less complete, yet far more splendid and magnificent than our own. It was the seat of a mediæval kingdom, ruled over by a line of fifteen independent sovereigns, reaching from the time of Charles the Bald to the end of the twelfth century. It was the see of an archbishopric almost too ancient to be called mediæval. The Archbishop of Arles, St. Virgilius, consecrated Austin, the first missionary of Latin Christianity who landed on our shores. The old basilica, in which the consecration took place, still remains in a state of astonishingly good preservation, in the environs of the city. King Réné of Naples, le bon roi as he was fondly called by the people of Arles and Tarascon, was a great patron of Arlesian progress in the fifteenth century. He established two large fairs, and raised a fort in aid of the defensive measures against the pirates from the Mediterranean. To revert for a moment to more remote times, the vast amphitheatre of which we are about to speak was, in all probability, founded by the father of the Emperor Tiberius, and Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, gave a series of splendid games within its walls about the middle of the fourth century. Constantine himself was warmly attached to Arles. Along the left bank of the wide and rushing Rhone, where the present city stands, he built an extensive palace, of which the sole remnant that now strikes the eye is a stout bastion, chiefly built of brick, and bearing the name of the Wine-press Tower (Tour de la Trouille). Some few hundred yards down the stream, from the point where this bastion stands, was once a superb bridge, which led the Aurelian Way across the river—that truly Roman line of road which long maintained uninterrupted communication between the metropolis of the empire and Cadiz. The bridge has long been swept away, and its place is now supplied by a planked crossing, supported on a dozen heavy barges, of a build peculiar to this region of the Rhone, strongly moored at both ends. Constantine also built a new town on the right bank, where the straggling faubourg of Trinquetaille now stands; hence the old Latin name of “duplex Arelas,” “Arles the double,” from its skirting the river on either side. In the fourth century, and long afterwards, the city bore the high-sounding title of “metropolis of all the Gallias.”

But Arles is now sadly degraded from the regal and vice-regal state of other days. She ranks simply as capital of an arrondissement in the department of Bouches du Rhone, and Tarascon takes, municipally, precedence of the older city. Still there is an air of busy life about the narrow, quaint, and most intricate streets. If Arles had been constructed with the express purpose of deluding the stranger, a more effectual labyrinth could hardly have been produced. A gift of “locality” far beyond the common would be required, in order to make one's way from the station to the Place du Forum, without inquiries, any time during the first week of sojourn. The Place du Forum, in the centre of the town, contains the two principal hotels, the only ones indeed to which an Englishman would be well advised to go. For a town which still numbers more than 20,000 people, this square is certainly somewhat limited. But it is a pleasant-looking place notwithstanding, and two Corinthian pillars, with part of their pediment let into a wall at the upper end, give an air of quaint antiquity to the whole.

On one Sunday morning in July, 1863, we were awakened shortly after six o'clock by a busy hum in the little “Forum,” which was completely commanded from the balcony in front of our bed-room window. Finding the hum of voices increase, rather than diminish, as one quarter of an hour succeeded another in that dreamy state of indecision in which one debates with the utmost refinements of casuistry the question, “Shall I get up now, or not?” we at length resolved on action, so far as was involved in going to the window and looking through the Venetian blinds. What was our astonishment to see the “forum” half full of serious, businesslike tillers of the soil, some evidently substantial farmers, and the rest of the crowd principally labouring men, bargaining about wages and conditions. Every now and then a little group, consisting of a farmer, followed by a labourer with his wife and son, would step across to the Hôtel du Forum or the almost contiguous Hôtel du Nord, and, calling for pen and ink, would complete an arrangement exactly as it may be seen done in the commercial-room of the “George” or the “White Hart” on an English market-day. It was easy enough to make out that Sunday was the chief market-day in Arles, which, by the way, is praiseworthily given to improved systems of tillage, and has an agricultural society on foot, as well as a “Consultative Chamber of Manufactures.” Still, the crowd seemed to be so decidedly larger than one would have encountered in a similar town on a similar day at home, that we resolved on a heroic abandonment of repose, and soon afterwards started from the hotel on a voyage of discovery.

It was not long before we became aware that there is a very fair gathering in the “Forum” on every Sunday all the year round, but that this crowd was fuller than ordinary on account of the “grande course des taureaux” which was to take place in the afternoon. Going on a little further, and reaching the breezy quays along the Rhone, one of the very few places in this or any other town in France where the affixing of handbills is not strictly “defended,” we were greeted by a large yellow placard containing the whole programme of the intended bull-baiting. “Bull-fight” we cannot call it, as the reader will allow, if he is good-natured enough to peruse the description given a little below. Occasionally, when a stray group of Spanish matadors and taureadors happen to visit the town, a special treat of actual bull-killing is afforded; but on ordinary occasions, and with only the amateur performers of the country, the bulls are simply, though very pertinaciously and effectively, baited; that is, bothered out of the few senses which they originally possess. The placard was headed by a spirited illustration of a man on horseback, with a species of lance in rest, and galloping with much bravado after a retreating bull. Below, vast capitals conveyed the announcement that a “Grande Course Extraordinaire” would take place “aux Arènes,” the name given here and at Nismes to the amphitheatre. Several of the seven bulls which made up the manége, or stud, were to fire off pistols on their entry into the arena: a promise which was fulfilled by some simple contrivance to meet the fore-legs as the bull advanced, the result affording thorough satisfaction to the audience. One of the animals was to be received at the outer end of the flanked passage leading into the arena by a net, into which he was to plunge “comme un lapin se prend dans la bourse en sortant du terrier.” Another was to wear a cockade mounted on his horn; and a twenty-franc piece was to reward that skilful youth who might pluck the cockade from the horn within ten feet (trois mètres) of the barricades.

Our determination was at once taken to be present at the “grande course,” the proper study of mankind being man, even man the bull-aggravator. It was unnecessary to visit the “Rue Wauxhall,” where the placard informed us that tickets might be obtained, as we learnt that an office for the purpose was always erected at the amphitheatre itself. Thither, accordingly, we repaired at about half-past four, when the great heats succeeding noontide were beginning to relax their violence. Half a franc gave us the unlimited right of wandering over every part of the astounding ruin. Hopeless indeed is the task of conveying by words any adequate notion of this, or the closely similar building at Nismes. The amphitheatre at Arles is a vast oval construction, 460 feet in length of the greater axis, by 338 of the lesser. The gigantic walls running round the entire circumference are more than 60 feet in height. And the width of this mass of masonry is so great as to allow of ample corridors, two storeys high, opening out upon the interior in two beautiful tiers of arches, sixty to each tier. The grand effect of the original design, so far from being damaged as the French guide-books affirm, has been rather heightened than otherwise by the three lofty square towers rising at intervals from the summit of the arcades. These remain out of four built here by the Saracens in the eighth century, when the amphitheatre was used as a fortress, as it subsequently was, in all likelihood, by Charles Martel, who dislodged the invaders.

The view of the Rhone valley, and of the Camargue, or vast delta reaching away below the city towards the Mediterranean, is fine in the extreme. The interior of the building exceeds, if possible, the impressive effect of a first sight of the outer shell. The inner oval, or arena proper, is not so charmingly proportioned as that at Nismes; but, on the other hand, the arches are more graceful, and large parts of the podium, or parapet skirting the barricades, as well as of the chambers for the animals and the condemned, are in a more perfect condition. The rows of seats above the upper tier of arcades remain at Nismes, but are lost here. In the original design, the rows appear to have numbered forty-four in all; and it is conjectured, with great probability, by local connoisseurs, that 40,000 spectators could be accommodated.

On entering, we mounted the stone staircase leading to the upper gallery, and began a promenade round the wonderfully preserved building. Between 5000 and 6000 people were already assembled, showing, however, the appearance of quite a thin house, owing to the vast extent of the theatre.

Great skill was shown in securing patches of shade afforded by the towers, or other portions of the masonry; and the sea of moving heads was prettily diversified by light parasols of every colour under the sun. In the arena itself about two hundred men and boys were walking leisurely about, waiting with apparent coolness the entry of the bull. A timber staging, affording a rough kind of retreat in case of too hot pursuit, ran round the sides of the oval; and a narrow passage, some twenty yards long, strongly planked on each side, led from the salle d’attente of the unlucky bulls to the presence of their tormentors. Suddenly a single drum set up a tattoo. In another moment—bang, bang, bang, from the pistols announced in the programme,—and a bull came plunging down the passage into the arena. At the first touch of the drumstick, our friends in the arena began to cluster in a very partially dignified manner upon the narrow steps of the staging, so narrow that men and boys had to cling to one another in order to preserve the necessary balance. The bulls were all of southern breed, jet black, with small haunches, and horns generally bent backwards over the shoulder. The first fellow that enters looks about him, puzzled and almost terrified, until some nimble youngster, stepping from the staging, rolls a kind of basket-barrel at him, and follows suit by waving a handkerchief in his face. Two or three comrades assist the first brave by pulling the bull’s tail, or hallooing at him from a short distance. The bull makes a dig at the basket, and very likely succeeds in burying his horns in it, when he becomes the prey of half a hundred persecutors, who fearlessly pull his tail and ears or poke his sides, until he can again withdraw his horns, and cause a general retreat to the palings. Whenever he pursues A for a few yards, B is at hand to make a nimble diversion in A’s favour, so that it is but rarely the bull has a chance of running his game fairly to earth at the staging. If he succeeds in doing this, he is instantly scared by a score of booted legs thrust out in the direction of his head, and despairingly seeks the open, only to go through a series of precisely similar troubles. Young Alphonses and Leons in white trousers and straw-hats, the cynosure of ladies’ eyes, skip athletically before the bull, who occasionally succeeds in jerking a hat from the hand that is tauntingly brandishing it at him, when he transfixes it or paws it in the dust. Should he show poor fight, two men enter the arena with long poles headed by a sharp trident of this design, and by sundry pokes, which draw the blood each time, rouse him to a sense of his duty towards the public. At length, when he is supposed to have had enough, the drum gives another tattoo, and a decoy bull enters the arena, running straight up to his enraged, begrimed, and perhaps blood-stained kinsman. And it is hard not to be touched by seeing how, even in the wildest paroxysms of passion, the unlucky bull will stick by the decoy, and follow him willingly back to the stable, giving perhaps a few parting pokes or runs as he quits the detested arena. Hour after hour this sport, such as it is, continues. The net-scene, so elaborately explained in the programme by the simile of the rabbit, created a little variety. With pistols fired off on each side of him, and bewildering shouts in front, the bull ran at full speed into a strong corded net cleverly spread at the outer end of the planked corridor. His struggles soon broke away the fastenings, and off he galloped or stumbled into the middle of the oval, knotting and tightening the net round his horns and legs more hopelessly every moment. At length a few of the really cool lads and men, with some genuine dexterity and daring, got him down and unravelled the coil, cleverly managing to get away to the staging at the moment of the bull’s release. A young fellow who, we were informed, had been uniformly successful in winning the twenty-franc piece during many preceding courses, plucked the cockade from the horn within the prescribed distance of the barricades almost before the animal had had time to make a half-dozen of his desperate charges about the arena. Long intervals occurred between the heats, when hop, skip, and jump, wrestling, and French boxing—in which the hand is extended widely, instead of being clenched—prevailed on all sides, with interludes of whistling and cat-calling, and much sale of wine, bière, and absinth.

Meanwhile, up and down the long reach of the ancient galleries, there was going on an exhibition of another and altogether a higher kind. For in them the stately and beautiful Arlesian women, in their charming costume, were pacing to and fro by twos and threes, not like ordinary inhabitants of a country town, but more as if they were members of some unimagined Woman’s University, and this were their Show-Sunday. The style of costume prevails in the neighbourhood of Arles, both above and below the city—below as far as Salons, and above to Tarascon. But the beauty, grace, and dignity of form and feature, appear, by some unaccountable arrangement of nature, to have been confined—at least in the lavish measure here bestowed—to Arles itself. The guide-books and topographers simply announce that the town is “famed for the beauty of its women.” And in the eyes of a visitor who explores Arles on a week-day, even that bare announcement may appear to exceed the reality. It is on Sundays and fête-days that they issue forth decked in head-dresses and kerchiefs of the best, and move about like queenly shapes of some beautiful pageant beyond the limits of the real and the tangible. It may be certainly affirmed, that nine out of every ten women who threaded the galleries on that afternoon were beautiful. The hair and eyes were uniformly dark, but there was the utmost variety in the types of beauty. Their walk and bearing bespoke the purest blood: there was grace and dignity in every step: and the modesty of their demeanour struck us most forcibly. One would as soon have thought of insulting a well-bred Englishwoman, as of addressing a familiar remark to the humblest of these Arlesians. The details of their dress were varied with great skill,—the main features being preserved, and the most perfect taste in colour displayed. The fold around the head was always black, showing every variety of texture; and the collar over the kerchief was made to project in a tasteful way from necks where Nature had certainly employed more than her “prentice-han’.” We heard it stated that the upper-classes have very generally discarded the dress of their country, and that the spirit of innovation is spreading. Doubtless the “old order” must give place at Arles no less than over the rest of the world; but evil befal each new Paris mode that succeeds in extinguishing but one Arlesian kerchief.

Our description will perhaps be regarded as a little enthusiastic. The impression of a Sunday at Arles is hardly likely to remain far below the degree of enthusiasm, more especially of a Sunday passed amidst the galleries of Les Arènes. No doubt the majestic ruin added to the effect of that fair and picturesque assembly. Over all rose, silent and solemn, the grand upper tier of arcades, and the towers of the Saracens that have looked down on far other scenes, and returned the echoes of other voices.

H. M.