2000 years of spirituality
The history of the site at Boussargues and of its castle and chapel, starts with the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in the 1st Century. The Romans customarily rewarded veterans of their army with substantial landholdings in conquered areas. This practice helped reinforce the Roman presence and had as a second aim to bring agricultural lands until then wild, into exploitation through the cultivation of vines and olive trees and also the establishment of political and administrative structures derived from Rome and Italy. Thus the Romans diffused a common identity around all the Mediterranean region.
Boussargues, set in the province of Narbonne (Narbonensis), very probably had its origin in one of these numerous landholdings given to veterans and as in many cases evolved to become one of the well known medieval lordships of southern France. The setting and quality of the soil made it an ideal place for viticulture and the presence of springs and hills encouraged the establishment of villas which with the fall of the Roman Empire and growing insecurity, evolved into feudal castles between the 12th and 15th centuries. Traces of this ancient past are still present in the walls and have been revealed by works of restoration. The quality of some parts then discovered bears witness to the refined skill used in ancient buildings. Work on the land regularly brings up items which indicate intensive agricultural activity, above all in viticulture in ancient times.
The Boussargues site with its roots in the origins of civilization, has come to us since ancient times and the Middle Ages as an intact domain which makes it exceptional.
The cultural dimension of the site also includes exceptional continuity through the ages. In addition to economic, administrative and political structures, the Romans also had the habit of implanting their religion in conquered countries. This was the case at Boussargues because of the presence of springs. Symbols of life rising from a somber and mysterious underworld, the springs assumed for them a particular importance especially in the hot and often dry regions of southern Gaul, and became the object of a real cult. Thus at Boussargues against the hill, at the very point where the water emerges, numerous little edifices dedicated to a multitude of nymphs and divinities were built and richly decorated. The spring was even channeled and several ponds constructed. Numerous traces of this are still visible today. These places of religious cults were very valued by local populations who came to invoke godly powers favoring harvests and thus ensuring their lifestyle.
With the arrival of Christianity there was absolutely no change in these practices. The conversion of the Empire decided by the Roman emperors firstly affected towns close to lines of communication. The countryside such as Boussargues was left on one side and it was only toward the 8th and 9th centuries that they were brought into line. However, this did not take account of the resistance of local populations disinclined to abandon their traditions since these were so connected to their activities and their survival. But the all powerful Church of the Middle Ages already well established, could not tolerate pagan practices. Faced with the resistance of the countryside it developed a veritable strategy directed not only at the elimination but towards the transformation, Christianization and thus integration of these ancestral practices with Christian customs.
The small Roman cult structures were destroyed and replaced by a chapel. It became a question of compromise. The spring kept its religious significance, only the buildings changed. The chapel built on the summit of a hill on solid ground offered at the same time from its elevated situation, a real symbol of domination and triumph. In order to render the transition easier it was dedicated to one of the first Christian martyrs, St. Symphorien who lived during Roman times. Thus it was henceforth to him and not to various pagan deities that the religious fervor and the prayers of the peasants were directed.
The present chapel dates from the 12th century. It is registered as an historic monument and was the subject of a remarkable restoration at the end of the 20th Century. It was constructed by replacing an older edifice probably of the Carolingian period, of which one finds traces at the level of the base of the different from those used in the 12th century. It is also very likely that this first Carolingian chapel was even erected on the spot of one of the Roman cult structures.
On the southern façade one will see above the entrance door fragments of a frieze forming a triangular pediment. These relate to pieces of decoration from Roman cult structures that have now disappeared. The same related to the frieze which at a height runs round the interior of the chapel. The style, the materials used and the disparate elements of which it is composed, do not leave any doubt as to its Roman origin and its re-use. In fact a frieze conceived in medieval times would have been of a differing form and above all, uniform in the entirety of its installation. The little pillars of the window above the main entrance door also derive from decorations from Roman cult buildings. It is fluted on one side.
One can imagine that ambitions at the moment of construction went far beyond possible finances. Nothing was too beautiful to mark the triumph of Christianity but let us not forget that this was a rural environment. It is the lack of funds which also explains in part the re-use of Roman pieces. Achieving a frieze would have been too costly. On the other hand, the way in which the surface of the dressed stones are worked allows one to think that the interior of the building would have received a plaster covering which would have often been the case at that time and with a decoration of frescoes. The presence of very numerous graffiti some dating from the years following the completion of the works are proof that plastering was never applied. In effect they are superimposed directly on to the preparatory word on the stones and on the marks of workmen intended to permit the identification and payment of the stonecutters. These graffiti are of immense historical value. They make use recall that numerous generations have preceded us in these places. They reveal their pains as well as their hopes. They give life to the chapel.
The discerning visitor will find in looking closely at the Beast of the Apocalypse represented by the typical form of a dragon of the 12th century, fears linked to the years about 1000 and which long accompanied men in the Middle Ages. At other points there are veritable drawings resembling 14th century illuminated designs. From all periods the initials of Christ and the Virgin cover the walls. Outside, pilgrim's crosses remind us that we are on the route to St. James of Compostela. Nearer our times, the Star of David and some names show that during the war Jews found refuge here.
You may consider the location of all these witnesses to the past as too simple. Their exploration is worthwhile and resembles a true treasure hunt, so take the time to consider the history displayed to you over centuries by this superb chapel hidden in the middle of the woods and above all look at it with respect since it is the mirror or our civilization.
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