Dwight Peck's personal website

Ten wintry days in the South of France

Montpellier, Arles, the Camargue, and lots of et cetera

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

The Cathedral in Béziers

That's not the cathedral; that's just the Magic Glass 2. We've come up near the end of the day from our coastal drive southwest of Montpellier to visit famous Béziers, site of one of the worst atrocities of the Middle Ages but apparently nicely recovered now.

We've mainly come to visit the Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers -- Béziers Cathedral for short -- but have fetched up in the middle of an enormous below-zero fun fair at the top of the city. That's the Benny Hill 5 fun house on the right.

How many people here could ever have heard of the Benny Hill Show, the last TV broadcast of which, at the end of its 34-year scantily-clad run, occurred in 1989?

The Bouncing Harnesses, with only one kid braving the cold. Béziers is one of the oldest cities in France, dating from the early 6th century BC amongst the Ionian Greek colonies established along the coast, of which Marseille, as Massilia, is the oldest. Earlier Neolithic and Celtic remains have been found in the area, and later, the Romans, establishing protection along their Via Domitia military and trade road between their provinces of Provence and Hispania, gave it colony status for their retired legionaries in 35 BC; they called it Colonia Julia Baeterrae Septimanorum, and residents of Béziers are apparently still called Biterrois.

By the 10th century, Béziers was the centre of a viscountship of its own, but through the 11th and 12th centuries it passed into the complicated holdings of the Trencavel family, along with Carcassonne, Albi, Nîmes, Agde, and all the lands and resources along the coast, which continued until the Trencavel dynasty had to turn it all over to the King of France in 1226.

Desperate upside-down hilarity. From the mid-12th century onward, the popularity of the allegedly dualistic and anti-clerical Cathar "heresy" had been growing in the Rhineland, northern France, and particularly here in the Languedoc region, under the protection of the powerful Counts of Toulouse, the Trencavels, and other sympathetic noble families.

A succession of popes tried sending a flood of preachers throughout the affected areas to woo the "heretics" back onto the path of orthodox righteousness. In the early 13th century, however, the assertive Pope Innocent III had got into the habit of 'preaching the cross', offering indulgences (and mercenary pay) to warriors willing to go on a Holy Crusade against various enemies, including the Muslims in Spain and the Holy Land (though his Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople instead, in 1204).

When in 1207 one of the Pope's legates, Pierre de Castelnau, an accomplished heresy fighter, tattled on Raymond, the Count of Toulouse, for supporting the Cathars and showing insufficient deference to the Pope's legates, Count Raymond was excommunicated and his lands placed under the Church's interdiction, and -- surprise -- in January 1208 the prickly heretic-fighter was assassinated by persons unknown.

When Count Raymond was blamed and proved unconvincingly contrite, in 1209 the Pope 'preached the cross' against the Cathars and invited the secular arm, i.e., the French king Philip II Augustus, to carry out what came to be called the 'Albigensian Crusade' (1209-1229) after one of the Cathar centres, the city of Albi.

We're still looking for the cathedral! King Philip, though perenially reluctant to get involved, contributed an army of 10,000 Crusaders under the papal commander Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, to re-establish right-thinking religion and, whilst they were at it, destroy the local nobility and, eventually, tobring the whole region under the control of the Kingdom of France, with its land-hungry crusading lords from the north and their loot-hungry warriors.

And guess where they started their Crusade. Here.

At last, the Cathedral of Saint Nazaire. The Crusaders attacked Béziers in July 1209 -- they gave the mainstream Catholics an opportunity to send out the heretics or to leave the city safely before the warriors came in after them, but the Catholics chose to stay with their Cathar friends and neighbors and sink or swim together.

The Crusaders got in through the front gates and began taking the population firmly in hand -- to make an example, presumably. When one of them asked Abbot Arnaud-Amaury how they could distinguish between the godless heretics and the righteous Christians, he is famously said to have replied, "Kill them all, God will recognize his own".

So the Holy Warriors set about massacring everyone in the city -- the Abbot himself reported to the Pope that they'd killed almost 20,000 people -- looting everything valuable, and destroying the rest. Including burning down the cathedral, which collapsed on much of the population who'd sought sanctuary within.

So that's why we're now looking at a cathedral that was thoroughly rebuilt beginning in 1215.

The presbytery and altar. That wasn't the end of things, of course. Especially under Simon de Montfort, the vicious 5th Earl of Leicester, Crusader armies and the Dominican monks of the Inquisition pursued the Cathars all over the region, burnt 'heretics' and carried off the loot in many cities, including Carcassonne, and besieged several of the nearly impregnable Cathar castles (we visited Peyrepertuse a few years ago), until military operations ceased by treaty in 1229 and the Inquisitors were left to do their dirty work amongst the last pockets of unacceptable ideas.

The organ above the front doors of the vaulted nave, 32 metres up

A last stand was made at the Cathar fortress of Montségur, and after a year's siege, the last organized resisters were burnt up in a huge pile in March 1244. (Amongst many accounts, good short ones in English are J. Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (1978), M. Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade (1997), and for a convincing revisionist argument, M. G. Pegg, A most holy war: the Albigensian Crusade and the battle for Christendom (2008).)

Medieval choir carvings are often hilarious, but these sober pieties are all of the Virgin Mary under her different manifestations in the region.

Porphyry columns

Vaulted ceiling above the apse

The organ again, over the front doors and a rose window with a diameter of 10m

Except for the presumably later stained glass windows, the cathedral, unsurprisingly, was built as a fortification as well.

We're on a little balcony, taking a well-deserved pause in our toilsome journey up the belltower's classic spiral staircase.

With a long way still to go

From the belltower. The cathedral stands atop a bluff over the river Orb . . .

. . . and the farthest bridge in this photo is actually an aqueduct carrying the Canal du Midi across the river Orb on its way to its terminus on the river Hérault in Agde.

A crowded panoramic view out over the city of 70,000 or so. The restoration of the city, as of the cathedral, began soon after the Crusader Massacre of 1209 and continued well into the 15th century; most of the historic centre seems charming to us, but others have described modern-day Béziers as a down-at-the-heels 'rust belt' relic with high unemployment, dodgy neighborhoods, and rude graffiti. We didn't really notice anything like that, but we weren't there for very long.

The Pont Vieux just below the cathedral

Looking north (I think)

If I can just squeeze along here and get some shots from the other side of this thing.

Looking east at the Musée des Beaux Arts - Hôtel Fabrégat in the Place de la Révolution below us (there's also another branch in the Hôtel Fayet, somewhere else)

It's very cold up here.

Late afternoon cityscapes


Ears popping from the loss of altitude

The esplanade in front of the church doors overhangs the river and gives great views to the west.

The front of the fortified cathedral, with its huge rose window. The cathedral was the seat of the Diocese of Béziers until the Revolution, and was then merged into the Diocese of Montpellier in the reorganization of 1801.

Our perch on the belltower doesn't look so high up with the zoom lens on.

The Saints Nazarius and Celsus, or at least their bones etc. (though miraculously they were still bleeding), were discovered by Saint Ambrose, the famous Bishop of Milano in the late 4th century. We're told that Nazarius was the son of Saint Perpetua in Rome and studied under St Peter himself and then proselytized in northern Italy and then in Gaul, where he took young Celius under his wing and together they preached further in the Alps, Geneva, northern Germany, Genoa, and finally Milan, where their luck ran out and they were beheaded, alas.

Kristin's spotted something.

The very neat cloister

Very neat indeed. And no graffiti. Another sad event in the life of Béziers, after the Massacre of 1209, occurred during local protests against Louis Napoleon's seizure of power in France in 1851, when soldiers fired on the demonstrators, then rounded up the survivors and shipped them all to Guyana. Can you imagine.

Our belltower zoomed

The so-called Bishop's Garden

Uh-oh, it's time to get a move on.

Fortified towers of the cathedral

Jean Moulin was born in Béziers, by the way, and there is a birthplace museum somewhere here in town. We're very interested in the French Resistance but have already missed it in any case.

Back to the Monza whirlabout and the underground carpark, and home to Teyran

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 14 February 2015.

South France, December 2014

SW France, June 2009

SW France, November 2008