Monday, March 17, 2014

Au XIIème Siècle

The rocky hill in the middle of Oloron-Sainte-Marie, at the point of land where two rivers meet after emerging from their narrow valleys of Aspe and Ossau that cut deep into the Pyrénées, forms a natural fortification with a good view of the land for miles around. And it's been used as such for centuries, weathering the wars between the local precursors of the Basques and the soldiers of the Roman Empire, and later between the Visigoths and the Franks; through the conflicts between the rulers of Vasconia (the Visigoths and the Franks, united against a common enemy) and the armies of the Caliphate advancing from the south. Vasconia became Gascony towards the 9th century, as the Romance languages took over the older Basque dialects, and the region splintered into semi-independent fiefs ruled by dukes and vicomtes for hundreds of years, both before and after being incorporated into the larger Duchy of Aquitaine.

The ninth Vicomte de Béarn, Centulle V le Jeune, rebuilt the old fortified town at the top of the hill in the last few decades of the 11th century, and ordered the construction of the church at its center, the Église Sainte-Croix. There are three churches in Oloron-Sainte-Marie: Sainte-Croix, built on the hill by Centulle V; Sainte-Marie, built on the riverbank below by his son Gaston IV on his return from the Crusades in 1102; and Notre-Dame, built much later (1869-1893) on the other side of the river, in the market quarter. I had arrived early in the neighborhood for a massage appointment, and wandered around for half an hour looking at the outside; the church was open later, and I stopped by again to peek inside.

There were very few lights, but music was playing, a nice recording of chants and early music. I didn't walk up towards the altar but if I had, and had looked up, I would have seen a vaulted dome patterned like a mosque; the Moorish influence isn't far away here, even after all of the religious and territorial wars. The floor is covered with old grave markers, scuffed from the feet of the pilgrims on the Compostela trail who file past after getting a drink from the fountain outside.

It wasn't just the Franks and the Visigoths and the Romans and the Caliphate who had an interest in this region; with Henry II's marriage to Elanor of Aquitaine the Norman rule expanded south to include Aquitaine and its fractious Gascon duchies, which frankly didn't appear to care much, being caught up in their own battles. This Angevin dynasty led to the House of Plantagenet, and by the time of Edward I (1239–1307) there were stronger ties between the English kings and the local lords, along with political connections stretching into Spain. With his marriage to a Castilian princess he became the go-between between the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon and the House of Anjou, where Charles I of France ruled over the Kingdom of Sicily (including most of southern Italy), which he had been given by Pope Clement IV, who was splitting off from the Holy Roman Empire that at the time was ruled by the German Swabian dynasty from the north, instead of a southern Italian or French seat of power.

You know, I've spent the entire morning looking up this information on both French and English websites, and I am amazed at all of the things I don't know. And how complicated all of this historical-political maneuvering was. I could spend the rest of my life just untangling the threads woven through this one small corner of the continent and I would still not have figured it all out. I probably have half of the facts wrong here, too.

Anyway, apparently the brother of the King of Aragon set himself up as the ruler of Sicily, which pissed off the lords of Anjou, and things were hotting up for a large-scale war that would likely involve most of the region from Spain over to Italy and up into France and Germany, not forgetting England, so Edward I focused on trying to calm things down. He had already spent several years in Gascony, working on stabilizing this region, and in 1287 he met with the King of Aragon in the plaza behind the Sainte-Croix church, where they signed a treaty saying that Aragon would not invade Anjou as long as they got control over Sicily, as there had been a war going on for several years as to who would rule in that area, with the Spanish, the French, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy all putting in their claims and the native Sicilians supporting whoever seemed likely to do them the least damage at the time. There's a plaque commemorating the event by the old stone archway leading into the new community center.

Many of the oldest houses at the top of the hill are in the half-timbered style I enjoyed walking by in Tours, unlike the ones at the bottom of the hill built out of the stones dug up from the surrounding fields and riverbanks. The house where the massage therapist has rented a small room is one of the oldest, with a stone-paved entryway and a carved wooden staircase up to the third floor.

I could stay here for the rest of my life just walking down narrow streets, immersed in history, finding hidden doorways and stories, and writing about them on this blog. Or I could get off the couch and go do laundry now, and then go through the several hundred other pictures I have taken, and outline the stories behind them, to try to get caught up here before I'm swamped with work this week - not to mention all the things I have to do for school. And it's a gorgeous sunny day, which is tempting me to abandon laundry and blogging and schoolwork entirely to head up the looping road into the hills, where I can look back across the valley to the church on the hill, and think about how many years people have been living here, and how short my time is. And how grateful I am to have the opportunity to be here, surrounded by the ghosts of kings.

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