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.

What is now the Petit Rhone, reaching the sea at Les Saintes Maries, was then the main stream, which has long ago turned away, and now discharges its greatest body of water into the Mediterranean at Saint Louis. It has left behind it, not only the dead or stagnant Rhones, its neglected beds, but also, as already noticed, its old bars, and these are very distinctly marked at Aigues Mortes. The first chain gives us the primitive beach, which began at the lagoon of Maugio, traversed the entire Camargue, and can be traced to Fos. It is formed of an almost uninterrupted succession of sandhills crowned with a tolerably rich vegetation; on it grow the white poplar, the aleppo and the umbrella pines. To the south of this lay the prehistoric sea; the ground is horizontal, and although subjected to culture shows sufficient evidence that it was at one time sea-bed, covered with more recent alluvium. Here is the great lagoon of Loyran, which, before many years are passed, will be completely drained, and its bed turned up by the plough.

Still advancing seaward, we reach a second littoral chain, not so distinctly marked as the first, but nevertheless distinguishable by its low line of sandy dunes, on which a scanty growth of tamarisks and coarse grass is sustained. Then we come to a succession of lagoons, once united into one, and after them the third bar, presenting exactly the same features - a low range of sand and pebbles, and beyond it once more lagoons, cut off from the waves of the Mediterranean by a fourth and last chain, the most recent, that belongs to the historic epoch.

But that is not all: the wash of the sea, its current settling west, and carrying with it the mud of the Rhone is gradually, but surely building up a fifth bar or bank, which will in time close the gulf from the point of Espignette to the bathing-place of Palavas, when the Gulf of Aigues Mortes will be converted into a second Etang de Berre.

Aigues Mortes is surrounded by its mediaeval fortifications just as they were left by Philip the Bold, son of S. Louis. The plan of the town is almost quadrilateral, it has six gates and fifteen towers. Only one angle of the parallelogram is cut off, where stands the stately circular tower of Constance. The streets are laid out in the most precise manner, cutting each other at right angles; there are four churches, of which the principal is Notre Dame des Sablons. The others were all formerly attached to monasteries or convents.

The plan of the fortification is precisely that adopted by the Crusaders wherever they built defences, in Syria, in Cyprus, in Palestine. The walls are crenellated, usually without machicolations, pierced with long slots, and with square holes through which beams were thrust, supporting wooden balconies which commanded the bases of the walls, and enabled the besieged to protect themselves against the efforts made by the assailants to sap the bases of the ramparts, or to escalade the walls. Towers, round and square at intervals, strengthened the walls, and formed points of vantage and of assembly for the besieged. Precisely similar fortifications were raised about the same period at Tortosa, Antioch, Ascalon, Caesarea, &c.; but all these have been destroyed, only Aigues Mortes remains, an unique and perfect example of the systematic fortification adopted by the Crusaders everywhere.

The reader, probably, has not given a thought to the original purpose of a battlement, so common on towers and churches and castles. I therefore venture to show what it was originally. It was a wall broken through with doorways into the wooden gallery that overhung, and through which the assailants could be kept from approaching too near to the base of the walls. But, after a time, these wooden galleries were found to be inconvenient. Means were taken by the besiegers to set them on fire. Consequently they were abandoned, and their places were taken by projecting galleries of stone, supported, not on wooden beams, but on stone corbels, and it is this second stage in fortification which is called machicolation. The battlements were retained, but were no longer roofed over. Consequently it is possible to tell approximately the epoch of a Mediaeval fortification, by a look at the battlements, whether they stand back flush with the walls, and have the beam-holes, or whether they stand forward, bracketed out from the walls.

Aigues Mortes is a dead town. About a third of the area within the walls is devoted to gardens, or is waste. The population, which in the thirteenth century numbered 15,000 souls, has shrunk to a little over 3,000, a number at which it remains stationary. It does a little sleepy trade in salt, and sees the barges for Beaucaire pass its walls, and perhaps supplies the boatmen with wine and bread. The neighbourhood is desolate. The soil is so full of salt that it is impatient of tillage, and produces only such herbs as love the sea border. But its lagoons are alive with wild fowl, rose-coloured flamingoes, white gulls, and green metallic-throated ducks.

And now for Maguelonne. I said that Aigues Mortes was a dead town, but Maguelonne was the ghost of one. The best way to reach this latter very singular spot is to take the train from Montpellier to Villeneuve de Maguelonne, and walk thence to the border of the Etang. There one is pretty sure to find fishermen - they catch little else than eels - who will row one across to the narrow strip of land that intervenes between the lagoon and the sea. The littoral chain here is not of sand and gravel only, for a mass of volcanic tufa rises to the surface, and originally formed an islet in the sea, then, when the process began of forming a littoral belt with a lagoon behind it, the sands clung to this islet and spread out from it to left and right.

On this volcanic islet stood first a Greek and then a Roman city, but of its history nothing is known till the sixth century, when it was attacked from the sea by Wamba, King of the Visigoths. It had been an episcopal city for a century before. After the Visigoths came the Saracens, who gave the place their name, and the harbour of Maguelonne was called Port Sarasin. In 737, Charles Martel, in order to clear the pirates completely out of their stronghold, destroyed the city to its last foundation, with the sole exception of the old church of S. Peter. The bishop took up his abode on the mainland at Villeneuve, and the seat of the bishopric was moved to Castelnau near Montpellier. For three centuries the islet was abandoned and left a heap of ruins. But it was restored in the eleventh century. The walls were again set up, and flanked with towers, and a causeway consisting of a chain of wooden bridges was carried across the lagoon to Villeneuve. The entrance to the port was closed lest it should invite Saracen pirates, and another opened under the walls of the town which could be rendered impassable by a chain at the first sign of danger. The newly-built town speedily showed vigour, became populous, and the harbour was filled with the merchandise of the Mediterranean. Two popes visited the city, Gelasius II. in 1118, and Alexander III. in 1162. In addition to the Cathedral of S. Peter, other churches were raised, dedicated to S. Augustine and S. Pancras. A castle with keep was erected.

For several centuries Maguelonne was a sort of ecclesiastical republic, in which the bishop exercised the office of president. It became very rich and luxurious. The bishop, not too scrupulous, forged imitation Saracen coins, and was called to order for doing this by Clement IV. in 1266. It seemed to the sovereign pontiff a scandal, not that the bishop should forge the coins, but that he should forge them with the name of Mahomet on them as "Prophet of God." In 1331 statutes for the monastery on Maguelonne were drawn up, which proved that the discipline kept therein left much to be desired; and a monastic treatise on cooking that came thence shows that the monks and canons were consummate epicures.

Maguelonne was ruined first by Charles Martel. It was again, and finally ruined, by Louis XIII. The castle, the walls, the towers, the monastic buildings - everything was levelled to the dust, with the sole exception of the cathedral church. The stones of the dismantled buildings encumbered the ground till 1708, when they were all carried off for the construction of the new canal which runs along the coast through the chain of lagoons from Cette to Aigues Mortes.

"A church and its archives," says the historian of Maguelonne, "that is all that the revolution of fate has respected of one of the principal monastic centres in the south. A church in which service is no longer said, and archives that are incomplete. Even the very cemetery of Maguelonne has vanished, as though Death had feared to encounter himself in this desert, where naught remained save the skeleton of a cathedral. Yet what dust is here! Phoenician, Greek, Celtic, Roman, Christian, Mahomedan, French: A few tombs escaped the observation of the stone collectors of 1708, and even fewer inscriptions, excepting such as are found within the church, that is all! What a realization is this of the sentence on all things human, Pulvis es." [1]

[Footnote 1: Germain: "Maguelonne et ses Eveques," 1859.]

The islet of Maguelonne is but one knot in the long thread of cordon littoral that reaches from Cette to Aigues Mortes, and it can be reached on foot by land from Palavas, but the simplest and shortest route is by boat in half an hour over the shallow mere, nowhere over three feet six inches deep. The boats of the fishermen are all flat-bottomed, and the men have to row gingerly, lest their oars strike the bottom, or else they punt along. One can see as one crosses, the points of rest of the old causeway. The church, like that of Les Trois Maries, is feudal castle as much as cathedral, calculated, on occasion, to give refuge within to the inhabitants of the town, whilst the garrison stood on the flat roof and showered arrows, stones, molten sulphur and pitch upon the besiegers. The whole of this coast was liable to the descent of Moorish and Saracen pirates, consequently the same type of church prevails all along it. The western tower is ruinous, but the remainder of the church is in tolerable condition. It is cruciform, with an apse, as but very narrow windows, high up and few. The roof is slabbed with stone, so as to form a terrace on which the besieged could walk, and whence they could launch their weapons through the slots and between the battlements. At the south-west end of the church is a curious entrance door of the twelfth century, with a relieving arch of coloured marbles over it, and the apostles Peter and Paul rudely sculptured as supporters of the arch. They occupy a crouching position, and are sculptured on triangular blocks. In the tympanum is the Saviour seated in glory. But what in addition to its quaintness of design gives peculiar interest to this doorway is the inscription it bears: -


  Let those who will come thirsting to the gate of Life. 
  On entering these doors compose your manners. 
  Entering here pray, and ever bewail your crimes. 
  All sin is washed away in the spring of tears. 
  Bernard de Trevies made this, A.D. 1178.

Now Bernard of the Three-Ways is a man who did something else - he was a novelist and a poet. A Canon of Maguelonne, gentle and pure of heart, he wrote the story of 'Pierre de Provence et la belle Maguelone,' a charming monument of the old Languedoc tongue worthy to range alongside with 'Aucassin et Nicolette.' It has been translated into most European languages, Greek not excepted, and has become a favourite chapbook tale. It is still read in all cottages of France, sold at all fairs, but sadly mutilated at each re-edition, and in its chapbook form reduced to a few pages, which is but a wretched fragment of a very delightful whole. No idea of its beauty can be obtained without reference to the old editions, where it occupies a goodly volume.

The story of Pierre de Provence is not one of extraordinary originality, but its charm lies in its general tone, healthy, pure, gentle, full of the freshness of chivalry in its first institution, and of religion in its simplicity. We probably have not got the poetic romance quite in its original form as it left the hands of Bernard, for Petrarch, whilst a student at Montpellier, was struck with it, and added some polishing touches, and it is the version thus improved by his master-hand that is believed to have come down to us. I shrink from still further condensing a story spoiled already by condensation, and yet do not like altogether to pass it over without giving the reader some idea of it.

The story tells of a Peter, son of the Count of Melgueil, who, hearing that the King of Naples had a daughter of surpassing loveliness, determined to ride and see her. He had himself accoutred in armour, with silver keys on his helm, and on his shield; and when he reached Naples jousted in tournament before the fair princess, whose name was Maguelone, and loved her well, and she him. But, alas! the king had promised to give her to the Prince of Carpona in marriage, and as she felt she could not live without her Pierre, and Peter was quite sure he could not live without her, they eloped together. When the sun waxed burning hot she became very weary, and he led her beneath a tree, and she laid her head on his knee and fell asleep. Then he saw how she had in her bosom a little silken bag, and he lightly drew it forth and peered within to see what it contained. Then, lo! he found three rings that he had sent her by her nurse. Afraid of waking her, by replacing the bag, he laid it beside him on a stone, when down swooped a raven and carried it off. Peter at once folded his mantle, put it under the head of the sleeping girl, and ran after the bird, which flew to the sea and perched on a rock above it. Peter threw a stone at the raven and made it drop the bag into the water. Then he got a boat, moored hard by, jumped into the boat and went after the floating bag with the rings. But wind and waves rose and brushed him out to sea, and carried him across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, where the Sultan made him his page. In the meantime the fair Maguelone awoke in the green wood, and finding herself alone, ran about calling "Pierre! Pierre!" but received no answer. She spent the night in the forest, and then took the road to Rome, and encountering a female pilgrim, exchanged clothes with her. Maguelone pursued her journey, prayed in S. Peter's Church at Rome, unnoticed by her uncle, who, with great state, passed by her kneeling there, and threw her alms. Then she went on to Genoa, where she took boat to Aigues Mortes. Hearing at this place that there was a little island off the coast suitable for a hermitage, thither she went, and with her jewels she had brought from Naples built a little church and a hospital, in which she ministered to sick people. The Countess of Melgueil, hearing of the holy woman, came to visit her, and won by her sympathy, with many tears told her how she had lost her dear son Peter, who had gone to Naples, and had not been heard of since.

One day, a fisherman caught a tunny, and brought it as a present to the count. When the tunny was opened, in its stomach was found a little bag that contained three rings. Now, no sooner did the countess see these than she knew they were her own, which she had given to Pierre, and she hasted to tell the anchorite on the isle of the wondrous discovery, and to show her the rings. It need hardly be told that Maguelone also recognised them.

Now the Sultan of Alexandria had become so attached to Peter, that he treated him as his own son, and finally, at Peter's entreaty, allowed him to return to Provence, having first extracted from him a promise to come back to him. Peter carried with him a great treasure in fourteen barrels, but to hide their contents he filled up the tops with salt. Then he engaged with a captain of a trader to convey him across to Provence. Now one day the vessel stayed for water at a little isle, called Sagona, and Peter went on shore, and the sun being hot, lay down on the grass and fell asleep. A wind sprang up. The sails were spread. The captain called Peter. The men ran everywhere searching for him, could not find him, and at length were reluctantly obliged to sail without him. On reaching Provence the captain was unwilling to retain the goods of the lost man, and so gave them to the holy woman who ministered to the sick in the hospital she had built on a tiny islet off the coast. One day when Maguelone was short of salt she went to fetch some from the barrels given her by the ship's captain, and to her amazement found under the salt an incalculable treasure. With this she set to work to rebuild the church and her hospital.

In the meantime, Peter awoke, and found himself deserted. For some time he remained in the island, but from want of food and discouragement fell ill, and would have died had not some fishermen, chancing to come there, taken him into their boat. They consulted what to do with the sick man, and one said that they had best take him to Maguelone. On hearing the name Peter asked what they meant. They told him that this was the name given to a church and hospital richly built and tended to by a holy woman, on the coast of Provence. Peter then entreated them to carry him to the place that bore so fair a name. So he was conveyed, sick and feeble, into the hostel; but he was so changed with sickness that Maguelone did not recognise him, and as she wore a veil he could not see her face.

Now Maguelone, whenever she went by his bed heard him sigh, so she stood still one day, spoke gently to him, and asked what was his trouble. Then he told her all his story, and how sad his heart was for his dear Maguelone, whom he had lost, and might never see again. She now knew him, and with effort constrained her voice to bid him pray to God, with whom all things are possible. And when she heard him raise his voice in prayer with many sobs, she could not contain herself, but ran off to the church, and kneeling before the altar gave way also to tears, but tears of joy mingled with psalms of thanksgiving. Then she arose, and brought forth her royal robes, and cast aside those of an anchorite, and bade that Pierre should be given a bath and be clothed in princely garb. After which he was introduced into her presence. Of the joy of the recognition, of the restoration of the lost son to his parents, of the happy wedding, no need that I should tell. The church and hostel of Maguelone remained ever after as testimony to the virtues and piety of La Belle Maguelone, its foundress.

Such is the merest and baldest sketch of this graceful tale, told by the very man who cut the inscription I copied from the door of the church, in which he served as canon. When Vernon Lee says of Provencal poetry that adultery - rank adultery was what it lauded, we must not forget that there is another side to be considered - and that the Provencal poets turned their pens as well to drawing pure and artless love.

The land and the old church are now the property of a private gentleman, a M. Fabre, who has a great love for the place. I remember the church, when I was a child, full of hay and faggots. It is now restored to sacred uses, but Mass is only said therein once in the year. The proprietor has built a farmhouse near it, and has moved his children's bodies to the old cathedral, and purposes to be laid there himself, when his hour strikes - surrounded by waters: the sea on one side, the great mere of Maguelonne on the other.