Visiting Mediaeval France Today

Article excerpt

DESPITE the global marketplace, satellite television, European integration, and countless other inducements to homogeneity, there is a section of France, the southwest, that steadfastly resists that trend. It retains its mediaeval air in a plenitude of Romanesque churches, castles, town walls, domestic buildings, and fortifications, despite being riven by a succession of wars that damaged or destroyed the originals of those structures centuries ago.

Although other sections of France and, indeed, parts of England and Italy, retain monuments of past ages, they do so in the midst of a commitment to modernity. The southwest has resisted rapid modernisation: it remains essentially a rural area and is marked, above all, by its intense Frenchness. This is la France profonde, deep France, where tourism is only a developing industry. Guidebooks differ on a geographical definition, but the area may be defined in practical terms, on the strength of its common culture and customs, defying departmental and regional boundaries, as ranging from just east of Bordeaux, beyond Toulouse and the Garonne river to Albi in the east; and the Garonne and Tarn rivers in the south, the Dordogne in the north, with the Lot flowing between them. Anglo-American guidebooks often refer to the entire area as the Dordogne. Except for the Dordogne, the other rivers and their adjacent villages are not well known to English speakers. To the French, the heart of the southwest is what was onc e, before the Revolution, and is again called Perigord.

Other sources refer to the whole area casually as the Languedoc; although dialects of langue d'oc are spoken widely in the south and Toulouse has a centre for the study of the language, the Languedoc as a region extends as far east as the Rhone river and the border with Provence. The topography, customs, history, and architecture, however, are different from Perigord.

Residents of the southwest go about their lives according to ancient family and town customs, in rhythm with their ancestors. Younger, more prosperous women dress with a minimal sense of fashion and would not look out of place in other parts of France. They are French, after all. But the generality of the population is not embarrassed by wearing traditional, merely functional, clothing, appropriate to their trades. In the towns and villages most men who are not professionals wear well-worn woollen coats and the blue trousers that are a trademark in rural areas. The short, stocky forms suggestive of peasant roots are beginning to share the streets with younger people who appear to be leaner and taller.

Despite attempts to increase foreign tourism beyond the core attractions of the paleolithic cave drawings and a few celebrated stone villages, residents of Deep France tend to be monolingual, which of course only intensifies the spirit and attraction of la France profonde, an essentially agricultural region, peasant and traditional in character, with a durable and longstanding local culture. Consequently, there are no theme parks or outdoor folk museums with exhibitions of old trades re-enacted by costumed interpreters. Residents still ply those trades for their livelihoods. They make wine, foie gras, confit, and raise tobacco and walnuts in order to exist, not to entertain. There are no sentimental folk items for sale, such as the santans and cuckoo clocks sold in numberless shops in Provence and the Black Forest, respectively.

There are also no world-class art museums here, although Albi has a museum devoted exclusively to the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Montauban has one devoted to native son Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Much of the rich bounty of Romanesque buildings suffered the depredations of war and, though there are exceptions, most buildings were left derelict or were reconstructed in the nineteenth century or later. Few remain intact from the Middle Ages. Taken together, the surviving buildings create at once an appealing air of unity in stone villages and a touch of the harsh greyness that comes across in the novels in Francois Mauriac. …