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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY - pArt 3
AVALLON – THE HEALING SANCTUARY
Hugues de Poitiers
The ‘official’ history of Vézelay is recorded in a Chronicle written between 1140 – 1160 AD. This confirms that the first Abbey was founded by Girart de Roussillon in the original location of ‘Vézelay in the valley of the River Cure, on or near what is now St. Père-sous-Vézelay’. Girart and his wife Berthe founded two monasteries, one in Pothières near Chatillon-sur-Seine, and one at Vézelay. The monastery at Vézelay was for women. This is confirmed in a Charter signed by Girart and dated 850 BCE, as recorded by Hugues de Poitiers:
“In similar fashion we have founded …. another monastery, as a dwelling for handmaidens of God living under the strict rule and institutes of the blessed St. Benedict, in the place or land called Vézelay, in the county of Avallon, in the kingdom of Burgundy….” (ix)
But there was something strange about this monastery for nuns, right from the start. It was endowed generously, and had built-in protection provided by the pope himself. The nuns were also able to elect their own Abbess. All these privileges were embedded in the Charter. It should have thrived as a community – but it didn’t. In an excellent essay by E.L.Cox some more interesting facts are revealed:
“Not a single document has survived to indicate who the original sisters were or how many of them there were, nor is there any documentation at all that bears witness to the activities of a functioning community. There is no mention of any Abbess of Vézelay, which has led to speculation that perhaps there never was one other than Countess Berthe or her daughter Eva who are thought to have associated themselves with the community at some point.” (x)
How mysterious in the first place to found a community of women – which would have been a rarity as a first consideration at that time. But then, how extraordinary to have no records of its existence at all. After Berthe and Girart died, there is no further reference to the monastery by the Cure except,
“…on 19 September 877 Pope John VIII, then on his way to France for the Council of Troyes, gave his approval for the conversion of the abbey into a house for men.” (xi)
So, for whatever reason, it failed as a female community and was replaced by a monastery for men. Later it was moved to the top of the Vézelay hill – the reason always given being greater safety from the attentions of ‘barbarians’. By this time, the ‘barbarians’ were Norse invaders who came up the River Seine to Paris – and were ‘given’ Burgundy to pillage as compensation, if they left Paris alone. Consequently, they destroyed the abbey of Saint-Rémy-de-Vareilles near Sens, and burned the abbey of Saint-Germain-d’Auxerre before moving on to seize Flavigny some sixty kilometres to the east of Vézelay. These threats caused a new, fortified abbey to be constructed at the top of the hill – which heralded the start of the dramatic rise of Vézelay as a pilgrimage centre on the way to Compostella – Vézelay as a shrine to Mary Magdalene - and Vézelay as the celebrated home of the Crusades to the Holy Land.
So, what can we make of all that in terms of the story of Arthur in France? We left him at Les Fontaines Salées, about to disappear into the tunnel of the Dark Ages. With the story of Girart de Roussillon we rejoin the story of Les Fontaines Salées 400 years later. At both ends of the ‘tunnel’, in legend and in fact, we find a community of women. In the 5th century we left the healing guardians of Diana’s sanctuary. In the 9thC the first thing we discover is a Christian nunnery. Is it possible that throughout the Dark Ages the community survived?
Could the women have maintained their religious authority and the confidence of the people throughout the Dark Ages? Could they have been an enduring problem for the ‘new religion’? Did the Catholic Church simply replicate the behaviour of the Romans with the Druids, and disband the women, remove them from their sacred shrine, and cover the evidence with layers of new belief, miracles and hierarchies? Was a plausible story woven for posterity to explain why the community failed?
The blame, as ever, falls on the ‘barbarians’. Someone once said that all pagan shrines – the buildings – the altars – the wooded glades – the icons – the temples - the effigies – could be destroyed. For ever. But the one thing that can’t be destroyed are the sacred streams and wells. They can be filled in – buried – as were Les Fontaines Salées, but they will always find a way of reappearing. Water will continue in its cycle despite man’s best efforts. Is it possible that the tomb of Arthur Riothamus is also waiting to be rediscovered in Burgundy?
© Marilyn Floyde 2007
2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.