Medieval Mirepoix – You Can’t Keep A Good City Down

The medieval city of Mirepoix sits on the banks of the river Aude about halfway between Carcassonne and Foix. In the early 13th century many of the merchants and artisans of Mirepoix had converted to the Cathar religion, regarded as heretical by the Catholic church.

In 1206 rumours of a war against the Cathars brought together, in Mirepoix, around 600 people – lords, ladies, tradesmen, farmers – to discuss what they should do in the event of a war. They were right to do so for in 1209 the Pope declared a holy war against the Cathars – the Albigensian Crusade – a war that lasted twenty years. Simon de Montfort led the Pope’s army with his second in command Guy de Lévis. Carcassonne fell to them and they headed for Foix via Mirepoix.

It was a walk in the park for de Monfort. Mirepoix was neither garrisoned nor possessed of defences. A few were killed but it was a relatively bloodless occupation. De Monfort gave the town to his second in command together with all the surrounding region. Ultimately this proved no bad thing. Guy de Lévis, originally from Normandy, seems to have been a relatively cultured and rational man. He did not oppress the people of Mirepoix rather he helped them; he added the town’s name to his own – Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix and built the Church of St Maurice. The town prospered until disaster struck in June 1289.

It had been cold wet and snowy that year. The rivers were running high some of which flowed into a dam at Puivert some thirty kilometres away. The dam broke and in three days the town of Mirepoix was destroyed completely except some few ruins of the old feudal château.

John, the grandson of Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix was now the Seigneur and he gave the people of Mirepoix enough land to rebuild their city but this time on slightly higher ground on the other side of the river l’Hers. The new city was rebuilt as a Bastide – that is built on a grid system around a central market place. This was slightly unusual since such towns were normally built around the church.

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The big market square was surrounded by shops, half timbered and galleried and a new church of St Maurice was built by John and his wife Constance of Foix. It became a cathedral in 1317.

Under the watchful eye of their seigneur, the people of Mirepoix and their city prospered. All went well until the late 14th century.

Enter the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock,eldest son of Edward III. During the Hundred Years war he sacked, looted and pillaged towns and cities in the region including Mirepoix, half of which he burned down

But you cannot keep a good city down. Nothing daunted the citizens built again and a new Mirepoix emerged from the ashes. This time they built surrounding walls and stone ramparts together with four stout gateways – the remains of one, La Porte d’Aval, can still be seen.

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La Porte d’Aval

The townspeople constructed more half timbered houses with colonnades wide enough for horses and carts to pass under thus keeping their occupants dry whilst shopping. The finest example of these houses is the Maison du Consuls with its array of fantastic carvings.

The cathedral was destroyed in the fire and so began major reconstruction and enlargement that did not finish until 1865. Models depicting the different stages of reconstruction are on display within the cathedral.

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Today Mirepoix is a bustling small city, popular with tourists. In particular the tradition of the market continues every Monday when the square is filled with colourful stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables, clothes, bric a brac – you name it Mirepoix market sells it…probably!

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Getting in to Hot Waters

There are a number of hot mineral springs around the area where I live. When in need of a bit of additional bien-etre (well-being) they are great places to relax and chill out. The two I have frequented are located at Ax-les-Thermes and Rennes les Bains.
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Bains de Couloubret – Ax les Thermes

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Rennes les Bains (new baths)

 

People have used the natural springs throughout the centuries but I suppose it is the Romans (who pinched the idea from the Greeks) who really established their use for both medicinal and relaxation purposes.

The Romans loved their baths. It was often the Roman military presence (for example during the conquest of Gaul) that prompted the development of spas, making use of the thermal and mineral springs. Spas served not only for the treatment and recuperation of wounded soldiers but also as leisure centres for healthy soldiers. Spa treatments included bathing the injured parts of the body with the water, total immersion and drinking very large quantities of the sulphurous stuff. The waters were apparently good for rheumatics, skin diseases and other unspecified ailments.

The spa town of Ax les Thermes has a number of springs the most well-known serving Les Bains de Couloubret – a spa complex built on the site of ancient Roman baths. In the middle ages the springs were further developed to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades who were afflicted with leprosy.

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Spring at Ax les Thermes

The waters at Rennes les Bains were another Roman discovery and led to the development of an important spa for the soldiers serving in Gallia Narbonensis (part of the Aude region of SW France.). The spa was built on two levels with four basins and two pools – one rectangular that had a black and white mosaic floor.

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The Old Roman Baths at Rennes les Bains

Over time the Roman attitude towards baths and bathing changed making them more a place for leisure and relaxation and, whisper it quietly, a places for some rather naughty practices.

With the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire the church considered bathing  to be disreputable and eventually it was officially banned. Thus some people avoided bathing completely and sometimes for years.

This aversion began to change especially in southern europe where the Moors held sway. Public baths were rebuilt and opened again. The great unwashed flocked there sometimes for medicinal purposes but more often for leisure.

However, the renaissance was short-lived and in the 16th century many of the baths were closed as it was thought they gave rise to all sorts of horrible diseases. Only the rich continued the practice and, avoiding public baths, they took to the natural warm mineral waters.

Taking the waters as a cure became the new approach and spread primarily from Italy where doctors found previously lost treatises about the medicinal properties of the mineral waters. A new bathing culture developed which spread rapidly across Europe.

By the turn of the 17th century many spas were rediscovered particularly in France. These were of two kinds – hot springs for bathing and drinking and cold ones that were for drinking cures only. This was a serious activity focussed on medicinal treatments with purging, drinking, dieting and bathing in the mornings. The afternoons were dedicated to some indoor leisure activities and late afternoons entailed a quiet walk along promenades. Then it was early to bed.

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The fashion for taking the cure led to the growth of the spa towns across Europe. Hotels and guest houses sprang up; theatres, casinos and dance halls provided entertainment. The resorts became a rendezvous for the affluent and social elite. Of all of them probably Baden Baden in Germany was the best known – a place to see and be seen.

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Baden Baden Spa, 1910

 

 

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Aix les Bains, France (Attribution: Mathis Brancquart)

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Roman Baths, Bath, UK

Recently the value of the mineral spa waters has been more widely recognised particularly for the treatment of rheumatism and skin problems. However many of the spas are now dedicated towards leisure and relaxation – bien-etre as it is called here in France. I have sweated in the steam baths, bubbled in the whirlpools and been pummelled by water jets in the warm pool and felt all the better for it.

Le Jardin Ephemere

I’m back after a three month sabbatical from social media partly owing to preparation for a house sale and eventual move. It hasn’t all been clearing out, painting and scrubbing though. Last week I took time out with some friends to visit the Jardin Ephemere.

The JE is created each year in the little village of Lieurac by an association of artists and gardeners. As its name suggests, the garden lasts for just a few days and provides a feast for all the senses.

On arriving you are greeted by borders of mass planted cosmos interspersed with tall sunflowers and scrambling morning glory.

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The trail leads you into a garden, enclosed by a riot of colourful annuals. Within this enclosure are colour-co-ordinated beds bursting with yet more annuals

 

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From this slightly formal area the path leads you along a wooded trail by the river. Patterns of pebbles, flower heads and grasses are laid out in the river itself.

Created from mainly natural materials a number of sculptures – some abstract, some naturalistic and others rather whimsical – greet you on the route.

At the end of the riverside path you are led towards what I can only describe as the gourd garden. The plants (a form of ornamental squash) ramble up, over and along a steel framework. Gourds of weird and wonderful shapes, sizes and colours dangle from this – some giving rise to ribald comments and laughter.

The path gradually becomes steeper and sterner as it rises through woodland and up an escarpment. Fortunately earth steps have been cut into the hillside as well as thoughtfully provided resting places where you can admire the woodland art.

At the top of the escarpment is what I describe as lilliput village sculpted on to the rocks from clay.

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There’s time for a breather and to take in the stunning views across the valley before heading downhill all the way with a welcome drink at the cafe-bar to end off.

Introduce Yourself: Introducing Guest Author Sheila Williams

Did another author interview. Hope you’re not getting tired of them they are such fun to do. My thanks to Yecheilyah for giving me the space.

The PBS Blog

Today, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Sheila Williams. Sheila, welcome to the PBS blog!


What is your name and where are you from?

My name is Sheila Williams. I am English, born in Yorkshire in the North of England (known as God’s own county to those who were born there!) Until five years ago my feet were firmly planted in English soil. Then, I had one of those ‘where did that idea come from’ moments and moved across the channel to the south-west of France – a region known as Occitanie (previously the Languedoc). I now live in a small village near the Pyrenees mountains with my dog Zouzou, otherwise known as the Ayatollah for his insistence on regularity – regular walkies, regular mealtimes, regular cuddles and regular snoozes on the sofa.

Awwue lol. I bet he’s adorable. Any siblings?

I am the youngest of three. My…

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Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Sunday Interview – Getting to Know author Sheila Williams

Here’s the result of an interview I did with the very generous Sally Cronin who is a marvel at supporting indie authors. Thank you Sally.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

My guest today is author Sheila Williams who lives in France, but in the past has enjoyed several careers, including that of sheep farmer (more about that later!). Sheila shares a mortifying experience in a restaurant, her fashion sense, the contents of her handbag and a tussle with a persistent romeo ram (of the sheep variety!)

First the official word from the author.

About Sheila Williams

Sheila Williams, author, slipped into this world on Guy Fawkes night, under cover of fireworks and bonfires. Outraged to find other nurslings in the nest, she attempted to return to her own world but found the portal closed.

Adopting a ‘make the best of it’ attitude she endured a period of indoctrination to equip her for her place in society. This included learning a language that no-one ever speaks and making complex calculations of no perceivable value.

Freeing herself as soon as possible from…

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The Dragon of Loschy Woods

Whilst fossicking around in Medieval history, myths and legend as part of research for my current work in progress I found this story of a brave knight and his dog to share with you.

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It happened long ago that a giant fire and brimstone belching dragon lived in a dark wood near Stonegrave, just outside York.  Said dragon had a nasty habit of dining on the local peasantry. Those who saw it and lived to tell the tale relate that its teeth were long and sharp ‘like the tines of a pitchfork’ and from it’s gaping jaws dripped a foul poison…hardly surprising with all that smoking.

 

Many knights, plumped up with derring-do, ventured forth to kill it but the monster chewed them up, bones and everything. Not yet satisfied it went onto to mash up their armour and gobble the poor horses ‘saddle and all’.

Enter a Brave Knight

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There came a knight, one Sir Peter Loschy, a warrior of renown who determined to battle with the beast and put an end to the fiery feasts the dragon made of innocent peasants and valiant knights alike. He vowed he would kill the dragon or die trying and given the dragon’s track record no-one was taking bets on the survival option.

However, Sir Peter seemed to have a bit more cunning than most. He had a suit of armour made that was covered with sharp blades. Donning the suit in preparation for the battle, his young squire asked him how he was feeling.

Sharp’ he quipped and winked at the young man.

He mounted his trusty steed weighed down by his armour, sword and shield and rode towards Loschy Wood where the dragon hung out. I expect comely maidens in pointy hats waved their handkerchiefs at him as he passed by but the bards only ever mention damsels in distress.

To the Dragon’s Den

Sir Peter rode into the wood; the further he penetrated the denser and darker it became. He had for a companion his trusty hound Leo. In the deepest part of the wood Sir Peter halted. There was a-crashing and a-bashing as trees fell and a hoarse smoky voice shouted to him.

don’t trouble yourself to come further, I’m coming to you’.

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And sure enough the dragon emerged through the flattened trees. Quick as a flash it coiled its long tail around the valiant knight and squeezed and crushed, crushed and squeezed intending to make mincemeat of Sir Peter.

However, the dragon reckoned not on the nasty spiky sharp blades that covered the knight’s armour. The blades cut into the dragon and the more it tightened its grip the more it was flayed by the blades and the greater its pain. The dragon gave a cry as only dragons can, a sort of ‘OOOOOOOOWWWAAAAAAAARGH’ as history records. 

The beast released our brave hero and really miffed, not to say enraged, it was determined to have steak haché, extra well-done for its supper.  

Yet brave Sir Peter, albeit a bit short of wind by now, swiftly drew his sword and landed a dozen fearsome cuts on his opponent. But our dragon had a secret weapon. He rolled on the earth and voila, by magic his wounds healed.

Fight to the Death

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For three hours knight and dragon fought and still the dragon survived the onslaught. However, one heavy cut lopped off the dragon’s tail and quick as a flash, his faithful hound Leo picked it up and running all the way to Nunnington Church dumped it there where it could not be joined to the dragon’s body again.

And that was the way of it. Our knight lopped of a limb and Leo ran off with it until finally only the dragon’s head was left and the dragon, unsurprisingly, was dead.

Sir Peter, patted and stroked his dog.

Well done, lad’ he said as Leo licked his face.

Oh No!

But wait! On Leo’s tongue was some of the poison from the dragon’s body. So venomous was it that Sir Peter dropped down, stone dead. Poor Leo was so sorry. He would not leave his master. He lay by the body and died of doggy grief.

Sir Peter was buried in Nunnington church and a stone effigy shows Leo at his feet. Whether Leo was buried with him is unclear.

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There are, as in all these Medieval tales a few snags that the analytical among you will no doubt spot but hey, let’s not spoil a good story.

P.S. the part of Leo was played by Zouzou

  

Happy Christmas/Bonne Fete

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My good intention to blog regularly has crashed down into the nether regions but I thought if I did a quick catch-up I might be saved from hellfire.

I published my first novel The Weave in November.

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The transition from writing to publishing has created a whole new ball game. In effect as an independently published author I am running a new business – promoting, marketing, creating copy, promotional offers and so on. It requires some business skills that I had folded away in a drawer and forgotten about and other skills, completely new to me.  It’s a new mind set – from introversion – spending the past eighteen months quietly researching and writing – to extraversion – active on social media, supporting other authors and so on. This is going to take some getting used to.

I am fortunate however. I have no-one to worry about other than myself. It really doesn’t matter that the washing pile reaches the height of an African anthill. House work? Bah, humbug. Not a priority. A quick swish and whish keeps the worst at bay.

Shopping – supermarket dash; cooking – there’s always cheese and biscuits.

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Seriously though I do wonder at and admire those with far more responsibilities who still manage to turn out book after book.

My only current commitment is Zouzou, a golden, hairy stray who seems to think I run a B&B exclusively for him. You do realise I’m talking about a dog don’t you? However he gets me out walking which gives me time to think, plan and plot.

Rashly I agreed to help with the Christmas decorations around the village which ate up the better part of a week but worth it for the effects.

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One of many!

However with icy winds and teeming rain for the most of the week…well let’s just say it was a challenge, not helped by Zou’s predilection for chewing the garlands I made.

Another week slipped by sorting out my health insurance, council tax payments and gather all the evidence for my application for citizenship. I will have lived in France for the requisite five years this coming February and in view of the Brexit “uncertainties” I want to safeguard my residency status.

Between all this I’m on the first draft of my second novel; set in the seventh century, in Northern England during a time of great change and conflict. It’s also a time when few contemporary accounts were written thus allowing me to let my imagination off the leash.

So perseverance is the watchword or sheer Yorkshire bloody-mindedness if you prefer, as I career towards the end of the year.

Thank you to those who have followed this somewhat erratic blog and to those who have helped me with tweets, retweets and other free publicity. An extra big thank you plus a hug to those who have parted with hard-won cash to buy a copy of The Weave (paperback out in the New Year).

I wish you all happy holidays and the very best for the New Year.

Keep reading!