Saturday, December 23, 2006

When is a castle not a castle?

One would imagine that medieval history is a sufficiently serious domain of research to exclude the survival of spurious legends, particularly when it’s relatively easy to demonstrate their falsity. In the nearby medieval village of Pont-en-Royans, on the contrary, a legend concerning the existence of one or more local castles still persists, in spite of clear historical evidence (not to mention topographical realities) demonstrating that this legend is false.

I believe that the origin of this legend is the following drawing by Diodore Rouhault [1819-1874]:

This drawing is titled Pont-en-Royans, le château [the castle], and it certainly seems to depict the ruins of a castle on top of a peak, with a second construction on a lower neighboring hilltop. What’s more, the Napoleonic cadastre of Choranche dated 1832 [which can be examined in my French-language website at] indicates that the nearby mountain on which these ruins are located—a border zone between the communes of Pont-en-Royans and Choranche—was named Les trois châteaux [the three castles].

Today, fragments of ruins can still be found up there, but they are far less conspicuous than when Rouhault did his drawing, in the 19th century. Tourists who wander up there are surprised by the idea that medieval castles might have once existed up on the crags of rock above Pont-en-Royans.

The explanation for this diehard legend about one or more castles at Pont-en-Royans is simple, but few people seem to know it, or even want to hear it (for reasons I can’t understand). At no point in the medieval history of the village was there ever a full-fledged castle up above Pont-en-Royans. The construction whose ruins we see up there was a fortress comprising a watch-tower enabling soldiers to look out over the vast plains beneath Pont-en-Royans. And what did they see from their watch tower? First and foremost, they saw three splendid medieval castles named La Bâtie, Rochechinard and Flandaines (which no longer exist today). In other words, the place where the watch tower existed was known as Three Castles, not because there were three medieval castles up there (a topographical impossibility), but because you could see three castles from that lookout. In fact, the wealthy proprietor of the first of these neighboring castles, the Lord of Sassenage, paid the soldiers up in the watch tower so that they might take action (along with their numerous companions) if ever they caught sight of an approaching enemy.

I find it amusing that a place should be named, not for what actually exists there, but for what you can see from that spot, and that this naming quirk should confuse people for centuries on end.

There’s another more subtle reason behind the legend that a castle once existed at Pont-en-Royans. In French translations of medieval Latin documents, we find that Pont-en-Royans is designated as a château (castle). Consequently, many people have imagined, over the centuries, that this word was surely a reference to the castle(s) on the hill above the village. In fact, the word simply designated a walled village. So, medieval people who wrote about the local “castle” were simply referring to the walled village of Pont-en-Royans.

There are so many problems in the modern world that it’s almost relieving to turn one’s attention to medieval problems of this kind. Some observers would consider, of course, that I am bringing up questions of the same Byzantine kind as the sex of angels, or the number of these winged beasts that can be assembled on the tip of a pin. OK, maybe I’m getting carried away by the past. But what do I reply to summer tourists in the village, with their guide books open, who ask me: “Can you tell us where the medieval castles are located?”

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