CHAPTER XVI. AIGUES MORTES AND MAGUELONNE.
A dead town - The Rhones-morts - Bars - S. Louis and the Crusades - How S. Louis acquired Aigues Mortes - His canal - The four littoral chains and lagoons - The fortifications - Unique for their date - Original use of battlements - Deserted state of the town - Maguelonne - How reached - History of Maguelonne - Cathedral - The Bishops forge Saracen coins - Second destruction of the place - Inscription on door - Bernard de Treviis - His Romance of Pierre de Provence - Provencal poetry not always immoral - Present state of Maguelonne.
Aigues Mortes is a dead town, and differs from Maguelonne, to be presently described, in this, that it is a dead town, whereas Maguelonne is only the ghost of a dead town. It is a great curiosity, for it is a dead mediaeval town surrounded by its walls, and dominated by its keep. But first about its name, which signifies Dead Waters. If the reader will remember what has been already said about the structure of the delta of the Rhone, he will recall the fact that the river is constantly engaged in changing its mouths. When it has formed for itself a new mouth, it deserts its former course, which it leaves as a stagnating canal. This occasions the delta to be striped with what are locally termed Rhones-morts, whereas a flowing branch is called a Rhone-vif.
Moreover the stagnant masses of water left by floods are called Aigues Mortes - Dead Waters; and it is precisely on such that the little fortified town I am now writing about, stands. I know of no point on the littoral of the Rhone that offers so excellent an opportunity of observing the processes of that river than at Aigues Mortes. The river has, indeed, long ago deserted the branch that once discharged itself here, and it has left four lines behind it, making successive stages of advance, four bars, with their several backwaters, now converted into ponds or meres. The Canal of Beaucaire now passes by Aigues Mortes, and reaches the Mediterranean nearly three miles below the town.
It was from Aigues Mortes that S. Louis sailed on his Crusades in 1248 and 1270; and it has a little puzzled many people to account for his having chosen such a wretched place as this for the assembly of his Crusaders and for embarkation. But he could not help himself.
As soon as Louis had, in 1244, made his vow to assume the cross, his first care was to obtain on the shores of the Mediterranean a territory and a port sufficient for the concentration of the troops that were to from his expedition. But he encountered great difficulty. The king was not suzerain over the southern provinces of France, and possessed as his own not a single town on the coast. The port of Narbonne was choked with sand, and belonged to the viscounts of that town. The port of Maguelonne was under the sovereignty of the bishop. The lagoons and their openings into the sea of Montpellier were under the King of Aragon. The ports of Agde and S. Gilles were subject to the counts of Toulouse, and independent Provence was not to be attached to the crown till three centuries later. The marshy district of Aigues Mortes was alone available; it was under the abbey of Psalmodi, planted amidst the swamps on a little sandy elevation. Louis IX. entered into negotiations with the abbot, and in exchange for certain royal domains near Sommiere, he was enabled to acquire the town of Aigues Mortes and all the zone of lagoons between it and the sea.
At that time there existed but a single fortification - the tower of Matafera - erected about five centuries before as a place of refuge from the Saracens. S. Louis restored this tower, or rather rebuilt it, in the form in which it remains to this day. Then he constructed a quay, and scooped out a canal through the lagoons to the sea. This is the old canal, now full of sand, and up this vessels were able to proceed through two lagoons to the tower of Matafera, which acquired later the name of Tour de Constance. But the old canal had an ephemeral existence; every inundation of the lagoons of the Rhone altered their depths, and disturbed the canal. A century or two later another canal was cut between the old one and that now in use, that also was destined in time to be choked up; but the old discharging and lading place of the vessels can still be distinguished by the heaps of ballast thrown out, consisting of stones from Genoa and Corsica. It is quite a mistake to suppose that Aigues Mortes was on the sea in the thirteenth century. The Crusaders embarked in the canal cut by S. Louis, and sailed through the lagoons before they reached the open Mediterranean.
The most ancient maps show us Aigues Mortes bathed by one of those branches of the Rhone, now deserted, which go by the name of Rhones-morts. At a time before history - at all events the history of Gaul begins, the Rhone had its principal mouth in the great Etang de Maugio; but it choked up its mouth there, and advanced eastward in several stages, leaving in its rear, as the river thus shifted its quarters, a series of dwindling and then dead channels.