When History Is Silent
Whether you’re in Paris or driving through a small town in the deep heart of France, you may wonder about the big gap in the history that's still visible. There are spectacular Roman ruins, then a jump forward to medieval buildings everywhere, but almost no evidence that anything happened in between; you know there were people living there in the 3rd and 5th and 8th centuries, but it’s as if they never built anything.
Today’s post is about someone who lived in that era. (Historians these days are reluctant to use the old term “Dark Ages” because it sounds pejorative and civilization was in a high state of evolution during the period – but as far as the blanks spots in the historical record go, it’s still a fair characterization, I think.)
A Roman Soldier in a Small Town
Let’s talk about what was going on in the Auvergne, for example. The year is 287 A.D. – during the reign of Diocletian, a full 26 years before his successor, the Emperor Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of Rome. In the deep heart of France, the Romans were in charge, and their ancient gods were the object of the official state religion.
Cut to the Roman town of Vienne, a small city on a bend of the Rhone River just south of Lyon. If you’re interested in Roman history, it’s still one of the most interesting places to visit in France; there’s a vast excavation underway to reveal the empire’s warehouses and rich villas. (Vienne is also worth visiting if you love French cooking – La Pyramide, a Michelin 2-star restaurant run by Chef Patrick Henriroux,
is one of the birthplaces of nouvelle cuisine. Fernand Point presided over the kitchen there from 1925 to 1955, and Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, and Alain Chapel all started their careers working there for Chef Pont. Check out my article about Vienne in France Today magazine if you want to know more.)
In 287 A.D., though, Vienne was an incredibly busy port city along the Rhone. There were some Christians in the region, and they were more or less tolerated – one of France’s very first bishops was appointed here in 79 A.D. -- but the old Roman religions were dominant.
A young soldier named Julien served in the Roman army here. He had converted to Christianity, something that didn’t in itself disqualify him, right up until the day when it did. Even before the emperor Diocletian launched his infamous, bloody persecution of Christians, he was ambivalent about their place in his empire. His predecessors had vacillated, first passing laws requiring Christians to observe the old traditions of making sacrifices to Roman gods, then issuing edicts encouraging tolerance for those who did not follow the Roman religion. On becoming Emperor in 284 A.D., Diocletian started pushing the pendulum in the other direction, first banning Christians from serving in his armies, then generalizing the edict into a full-blown program of persecution.
Fleeing from Vienne Into the Deep Heart of France
Julien’s commander was a Legionnaire named Ferréol. He was Christian, too, although apparently “discreet” about it. In any case, he felt close enough to Julien to give him a warning when new actions to kick Christians out of the army were announced in Vienne. Julien, “who did not want to expose himself to un-useful persecution”, headed west into the deepest part of la France profonde – the region southeast of Clermont-Ferrand, to the little town of Brioude. Ferréol stayed in Vienne, where he was put on trial and executed.
In Brioude, Julien apparently took on the role of evangelist for his faith. This is a town far from any urban center (even today, it’s over an hour by high-speed autoroute from both Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy en Velay), so it’s perhaps not surprising that he survived there for 13 more years before he was discovered by a Roman patrol. They captured him in Brioude in 304 A.D., cut off his head, and hauled it back to Vienne to prove they had accomplished their mission.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
As is so often the case in human history, the actions of the Roman army did not stop the new religion from spreading, but provoked exactly the opposite response: the villagers of Brioude were so moved by Julien’s martyrdom that, according to the historian Sidoine Appolinaire, they “tore down their pagan statues and threw them in a lake”
Julien’s head, taken to Vienne by the Romans, was put into the same tomb as his old commander Ferréol, and that spot became a sacred site for Christians. And back in Brioude, his body (according to the legend) was carried away for burial by two old men, Arcons and Elpize, who found their youth miraculously restored by the experience.
In short, within a hundred years of Julien’s death, his reputation had spread and a first Christian church was built on the site of his tomb in Brioude. Stories of miracle cures multiplied around his relics, and the legendary historian Gregoire de Tours made personal pilgrimages to Brioude and wrote encouraging others to do the same. When Avitus, the Emperor of the Visigoths, died in Toulouse in 456 A.D., his body was brought here to be buried next to Julien’s.
The next Visigoth emperor built a new church on the spot, and over the centuries the later kings of France made a point to stop here as they followed the Way of Saint James to Le Puy and on to Compostella. (And Julien’s reputation spread on the winds; by 1800 there were as many as 800 churches in France bearing his name! It’s also the name of one of the very fine Bordeaux wines in the Medoc region.)
Take a Walk Through the Greatest Romanesque Church in the Auvergne
Jump forward to sometime around 1060 A.D. – that time when we do start to see again the historical record and physical evidence of what was happening in the medieval world. It’s when the great basilica we see in Brioude today was begun. Over the next 200 years, this church evolved into the largest, and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful églises in central France.
I could (did) spend hours walking through this basilica. You know already that I love the simple aesthetics of Romanesque architecture, and they are present everywhere here: the thick walls, graceful rounded arches, and intricate tiling of the chevet are the hallmarks of the style. The carvings at the top of the columns all tell rich stories (I especially like the band of medieval soldiers looking as if they had discovered something amazing or terrifying). But St. Julien’s is unique among the great Romanesque churches in the deep heart of France for several reasons:
- They’ve managed to retain or restore a lot of the wall paintings that have disappeared in most other churches this old. If you happen to go on a day when it’s open, the Chapel of St. Michel is one of the most spectacular painted rooms you can see anywhere in the medieval world. (And even if it’s not open when you go, you can see and appreciate some of the rich paintings of Jesus and his apostles, of the damned on their way to Hell, and the battle between Vice and Virtue from the main gallery below.)
- Its sheer size is impressive – even if you’ve seen the big churches in Clermont-Ferrand and Issoire, this is still the biggest Romanesque church in central France, and the height of the vault and the massive nave will set you thinking about how it was possible to build something like this a thousand years ago.
- Given the long history of churches on this site – from Roman times through the era when Visigoths ruled this part of France to the period of medieval monks – the archeologists have been busy here. Their efforts have been rewarded; they’ve found a Gallo-Roman baptistry older than any other in the Auvergne, as well as lots of evidence about medieval burial customs and life in the monastery.
- And, amid all this extraordinary medieval art…you’ll find a bright splash of the 20th century! A Korean priest, Father Kim En Joong, has created brilliant stained-glass windows to replace some of the originals that were considered beyond repair. They’re a beautiful reminder that this is still a living church 1,700 years after the events behind its foundation!
The Other Attractions of Brioude
I’ve written a little about this town before. It’s situated near the headwaters of the Loire and Allier rivers, and there’s a remarkable little museum, “The House of Salmon”, dedicated to the history of fishing in this region.
There are also several medieval houses worth seeing as you walk through town, and another museum focused on the lace-work that constituted a major industry here for a long time. The Maison du Mandarin is a fine little medieval house that’s been reworked as an art gallery, with exhibitions most of the year.
Brioude also has the variety of festivals and public markets you’d expect in such an appealing small town – click here to find out what’s coming up in the area. (Right now, until July 25, there’s a bi-annual “Festival of Watercolors” underway.) If all this history interests you, you might try to go in late August – the 28th is Saint Julien’s “feast day”, and from August 23rd through the 27th there are parades, folk music, traditional foods and “spectacles” to celebrate the event.
But even if you can’t go right away, find a time to go to Brioude. The basilica is truly one of the most extraordinary buildings in this wild region of France, and the natural beauty of the Haute Loire will draw you in if you prefer getting outdoors. Don’t believe me? The Michelin Green Guide, notoriously stingy in its praise, announced in March this year that it is upgrading its rating of St. Julien’s to THREE stars – in Michelin language, not just “worth a detour” if you’re in the area”, but absolutely “worth a voyage” – a special trip to see it”!
What are your favorite attractions “off the beaten path” in France? Are you going somewhere in France for your summer vacation? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below, and I’d be grateful too if you’d take a moment to click on your preferred social-media button to share this post with others.