Friday, June 20, 2008

Old times, forgotten places

I've often been amused by the fact that few folk around Pont-en-Royans, not even so-called old-timers, have a realistic grasp of the sheer depth of local history. They often reason as if our villages of Le Royans came into existence around the time of the grandparents of the oldest individuals whom they can recall: that's to say, roughly towards the end of the 19th century. Before that period, in the minds of these old-timers, everything was blurry, and no traces remain today.

In the commune of Châtelus, on the opposite side of the Bourne, it has often been said that there may have been a small Roman stronghold at the foot of Mount Barret. A local resident once showed me big cubic blocks of limestone that had been lying in the fields since time immemorial. When I suggested that a vast mound alongside his property might cover traces of the alleged Roman construction, he replied: "No, I don't think so. When my ancestors settled down here, a century or so ago, they would have surely noticed any such vestiges... and I don't recall any family stories of this kind." He seemed to be telling me that his pioneering ancestors, back at the time they decided to start farming at Châtelus, had never been obliged to get into conflict with Roman soldiers.

Here at Gamone, visitors often ask me if I know the origins of a twenty-meter tunnel in the hillside just behind my house. They expect me to explain, say, that the former proprietor Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957] was probably looking for water. Consequently, when I tell them that I imagine that winegrowers may have started to dig this vault to hide their precious tools and produce during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, when Protestant marauders devastated the great vineyards of Choranche, my visitors look at me in amazement, as if I had just started to rave on about invaders from the planet Mars.

The following document proves nevertheless, if need be, that our Dauphiné villages have been around for a long, long time:

This extraordinary map, drawn by Jean de Beins [1577-1651], dates from 1631. Click the image to access the French website, Gallica, that displays the entire map. The big river that flows down through Romans is, of course, the Isère. The Bourne tributary, which flows down below Gamone, is seen in the lower right-hand corner of this fragment of the map. Not surprisingly, Choranche was not significant enough to be indicated.

An old map of this kind is doubly fascinating. It indicates not only what has remained over the centuries, but what is no longer there. In my article entitled Neighbors who dwell in castles [display], I mentioned the lovely castle of La Sône, on the road from Pont-en-Royans to St-Marcellin. In the 17th-century map, between the villages of Pont-en-Royans, St-André-en-Royans and "La Saune", there's a vast forest, which appears to extend northwards up until the Dauphin's castle at Beauvoir. Today, I drive through vestiges of this phantom forest whenever I go to the Leclerc supermarket in Chatte, but it's sadly no more than a skeleton.

In the Royans region, the most surprising name in this old map is La Batye, south of the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans. It designates the celebrated castle of the Bérenger family, lords of Sassenage.

Today, the magnificent castle has disappeared, and no more than a mound remains.

The view to the north encompasses the giant mass of the Cournouze [in the upper center of the above photo], with the pointed Mount Barret to the left.

A handful of stones from the ancient castle lay scattered in the grass.

I feel like saying to this venerable witness of glorious centuries: "Tell me please, Old Stone, all that you have seen!" But we all know that old stones don't talk. They prefer to keep their secrets for themselves... and maybe for their ancient human companions, now dead.

It would have been nice to find that 20th-century folk, having stolen all the Sassenage stones [to build their own modern dwellings], might have erected a reminder of the medieval glory of the Bérenger family. On the contrary, in 1944, local folk preferred to erect a stupid Catholic statue, in concrete, evoking the silly story of Mary and her alleged sexless procreation of a child. Once upon a time, the lords of Sassenage were real, all too real. Their memory has been replaced mindlessly and shamefully, at the very site of their great home, by the evocation of a myth.

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