People in France (and many other countries, too) are often described these days as being in a high state of anxiety about their physical security in the face of terrorism, crime, and escalating conflict. But try imagining a time when threats were so immediate that everything about your little town was built to ward off the danger. Today’s destination – La Sauvetat, a fortified village in the deep heart of France – transports you back to such a time in the long, violent history of the country.
The villagers of La Sauvetat apparently came into their fears early, even before the town had a name. This is in one of the agricultural breadbaskets of France, only 12 miles (20 km) south of Clermont-Ferrand and almost in the shadows of the Plateau de Gergovie, where Julius Caesar was defeated by Vercingetorix.
In Gallo-Roman times, there was already a major north-south road running through this area – a “Via Roma”, a route followed by pilgrims headed to Rome. People began to cluster in this village for self-protection, just as they did around the walls of some of the ancient chateaux that can also be found all over this part of France. By the time “La Sauvetat” first appears as a name in history in the late 11th century, this village, built on a rocky spur overlooking the west side of the road, was likely part of a larger network of defensive sites, almost certainly in liaison with the nearby Chateau at Monton.
But La Sauvetat came into its own in the late 13th century, when the knights of the order of Hospitaliers made the town the seat of one of their commanderies. Like the other great Catholic military order (the Templars), the Hospitaliers started with a charitable mission – protection of the Christian pilgrims who sought help from the hospital in Jerusalem during the Crusades.
Over time, though, this role evolved into an increasingly military mission – first providing armed escorts to groups of pilgrims in the Holy Land, then growing into the ownership of 7 great forts in the area around Jerusalem, finally into a full-blown army with influence that spread across Europe. In short, these priestly knights evolved into a tough, even brutal band of high-end warriors.
So when we say that La Sauvetat became a command center for the Hospitaliers in the 13th century, we’re saying the town became a military post, a fortified village meant to withstand the serious threats that were already building in the region.
The most important elements of the fortified town are still present today – a towering dungeon that dominates the skyline, two lines of stone ramparts, a reinforced church building, and everywhere you turn, thick walls and archways designed to be easily defended.
Most of these building projects anticipated the terrible Hundred Years’ War, the long series of conflicts that gashed the western half of France from 1337 to 1453. Pitting Plantagenets against Valois, English against French, the big battles in these wars didn’t kill many outside of the noble knights who fought in them – but the constant raiding and pillaging of villages left many parts of France looking like the proverbial “scorched earth”, and every aspect of life was disrupted for its victims.
And the Hundred Years’ War was not the only threat that hung over the inhabitants of La Sauvetat. Armed bands of outlaws roamed this area in the 14th century, and the 16th century “Wars of Religion” effectively meant that France lived in a perpetual state of civil war as Catholics fought their Protestant neighbors across the country.
Towns like La Sauvetat became essential refuges for the people living around them. Imagine working in the fields and hearing the distant, urgent ringing of church bells that signaled a fresh invasion on the way. Imagine the mad scramble to safety, the push to get inside the city walls in time. And imagine the stress and anxiety you might feel in the face of a more or less permanent threat stretching across all the decades of your life.
It’s easy to recreate some of these feelings walking through the streets of La Sauvetat today. It’s not a very large village – no more than 600 residents – so it’s also easy to see in a visit of a couple of hours. The rich attractions of the southern Auvergne are close by – the ski stations at Besse, the “most beautiful villages” of Montpeyroux and Blesle, the hiking trails and lakes of the volcanoes in the Chaine des Puys. But if you go, take a minute to stand in the sunlight, close your eyes, and listen for the ringing of distant church bells, and imagine a world not much less anxious than our own.
Have you visited a place in France where you felt particularly close to the past? Or where the connection between past and present seemed particularly vivid to you? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
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