TARASCON

Daudet has left on record the feelings of embarrassment that overcame
him whenever he had to pass the little town of Tarascon. From the moment
when the great white towers of the Château René burst upon his view
until it was left behind he confesses to feeling ill at ease. He had
made the name of the sleepy Provençal town almost as famous in the
nineteenth century as it had been in the fifteenth, and yet its natives
were ungrateful and in no way pleased with the new celebrity that had
been thrust upon them.

Tartarin and Tarascon were, however, both pseudonyms; but with the
almost comic seriousness that is characteristic of the Provençal, the
inhabitants of the little town felt convinced that the author was
holding them up to ridicule. The real scene of the cap-shooting parties
that Daudet had in view, when he penned the delightful exploits of the
famous Tartarin, lies about fifteen miles on the other side of the
Rhone. “Tarascon,” with its fine sonorous rolling sound, appealed to the
ear of the author, who little thought that his choice of it as a part
title for his work would draw down upon his head the execrations of a
town. And they put their resentment into deeds too, for the book was
banned and never could be bought in the place. Time works wonders: the
resentment is now forgotten, and the adventures of the famous hero are
pushed under the nose of every passing stranger who puts foot into
Tarascon.

Tarascon is a junction on the Paris-Lyons and Mediterranean system, and
its station is a busy hive of bustling noisy humanity whenever a train
arrives or departs. Few of the many thousands of passengers who pass
through the junction make any stay in the town, although it is well
worthy of a visit. The two “monuments,” as they are called, of the town
are the Château René and the Church of St. Martha. These alone are more
than worth the time taken to examine them, and the town itself is
picturesque enough to warrant an inspection by the casual passer-by and
a more prolonged stay by the lover of out-of-the-way corners.

A wide boulevard, the Avenue de la République (nearly

[Illustration: GATEWAY. TARASCON.]

every little town in Provence has its “Avenue de la République”),
planted with four rows of great plane trees, leads from the station to
the centre of this town of some nine or ten thousand inhabitants. Small
and large cafés, with little and big forecourts framed in front of them
by shrubs growing out of old wine casks which are painted a vivid green
colour, are the most distinguishing features of this boulevard.

It is not difficult to discover the “Château” from any part of the town,
for its great walls tower far above the loftiest buildings. It is one of
the best preserved fortresses of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century
in Provence, and the walls reflect as brilliantly as ever the dazzling
sunlight. Despite their age, they remain fresh and unstained by dirt, an
eloquent tribute to the purity of the Provençal atmosphere. Built upon
rocks that rise abruptly from the waters of the Rhone, it was in days
gone by surrounded entirely by the river, a bridge of three arches
giving access from the landward side across the moat. The moat is now
dry, for the ends of it, which were formerly connected with the river,
are closed, one by the construction of the abattoirs and the other by a
great stone wall which has been built across, to keep the waters out. A
more imposing mediæval castle could hardly be imagined, nor one more
typical of the fourteenth century.

King René, the merry monarch of the land of the Troubadours, had rather
an eventful life. He inherited through his father, Duke Louis II. of
Anjou, the title of King of Naples, and from 1434 onwards was involved

[Illustration: A. BAR. IN. TARASCON.]

in a complication of troubles and wars in endeavouring to gain that
kingdom, as well as those of Sicily and Jerusalem. When luck went
against him and he was imprisoned by Philip of Burgundy, who was the
supporter of the claims of Count Vandemont, he provisionally made over
to his wife, the Duchess Isabella, all his rights, and she became Regent
of Naples, Sicily, Anjou, Provence, etc. René managed at last to ransom
himself from his prison, and made a final attempt to possess himself of
Naples. The Duke Alphonse of Aragon was, however, too strong for him,
and he was reluctantly forced to retire to Provence. His daughter,
Margaret, married Henry VI. of England, and was as unfortunate as her
father in her royal career. Poor old René was the possessor of many
empty titles. He was Duke of Lorraine, King of Naples, King of Sicily
and of Jerusalem, but with them all he never had much power, nor was
possessed of riches commensurate with his high rank. Shakespeare in
_Henry VI._, makes Gloster say of him:

“Unto the poor King Regnier, whose large style
Agrees not with the leanness of his purse,”

and further makes York refer to:

“The type of King of Naples of both the Sicils and Jerusalem.
Yet not so wealthy as an English yeoman.”

Of all the kingdoms to which he claimed the title, none

[Illustration: KING RENE, CASTLE. TARASCON]

were actually in his possession except the fair country of Provence. He
was a good-natured, easy-going old monarch; gay, and in spite of all the
troubles that overtook him, light-hearted. His daughter’s marriage with
the King of England was unfortunate for all parties concerned, and
instead of René benefiting by the splendid alliance, the poor old King
had frequently to dip his hand deep into his purse to ransom his unlucky
daughter. The court of this old Bohemian was conducted on free and easy
lines; wandering minstrels and errant knights finding hearty welcome
from the King, whose fame was naturally spread far and wide by those
gentry. It was only in the last years of René’s reign that he was able
to reside much at his castles of Aix, Tarascon and Les Baux–a short
period of calm after a stormy life.

He practised the arts of poetry, painting and music, and the surest
passport any knight or troubadour could have to his good will and
patronage was to be proficient in either of these accomplishments. A
good listener might also come in for a share of his smiles, for he was
notoriously fond of singing and reciting his own ballads and verses, or
superintending some pageant or display. His poetic works were published
in four volumes during the last century, but they have never attained
any great celebrity.

Of all his castles, Tarascon is the only one standing in anything like
its original condition. As one looks up at the great round towers that
swell out at the two corners of the main building (on the landward
side), one realises what a sense of security its inmates must have
indulged in, when besieged; and how impotent the attacking party must
have felt. The riverward towers are square, as are the two smaller
towers on the north-east side. There is a girdle of slightly projecting
stone-work upon one of the towers, about three-quarters of the way up,
that conveys very vividly to the eye its great circumference.

Just past the south corner of this vast fortress, the Château de
Montmorency rises on the other side of the river. In the clear air its
outlines are sharp and well defined, and this distant toylike building
helps to accentuate the size of the Château, near at hand. The outer
windows on the great wall are grilled over with strong iron bars, for
the Château is now a prison. These windows have dripstones over them,
the carved ends of which are the only ornamentation on the great bare
face of the building. For the rest, the corbels that support the
machicolated battlements give a play of light and shade that, though
simple, has a very rich effect, when contrasted with the great plain
spaces below. The battlements, with their embrasures and oylets, form a
crown of great dignity to the whole building, and it is in such fine
condition (doubtless carefully restored) that one has no difficulty in
picturing the rich spectacle that must have been presented by a
cavalcade of brightly habited knights and ladies with their attendants
issuing forth on a sunny morning to fly their falcons or to attend some
fête at a neighbouring castle. No finer background for their gorgeous
costumes could be conceived than these plain creamy walls, which the
rounded towers at each corner save from monotony.

From the river the Castle does not present so bold an appearance, owing
to the absence of rounded towers. At a little distance, when its size is
not so apparent, it looks almost Greek in its restraint and refinement;
the row of brackets supporting the overhanging battlements suggesting a
series of dentils under an irregular entablature.

The inside of the Castle is well worth examination, but the prison
authorities are a little particular whom they admit, and the visitor has
to be conducted through the great building by a jailer, who, armed with
great bunches of mediæval keys, unbolts ancient doors on creaking
hinges, and bolts them just as carefully after. The internal
arrangements of a fourteenth-to-fifteenth-century castle are simple, if
massive, and hardly any alteration has been necessary to convert it into
a prison. Very little has been changed since the good old King’s time.
The Chapel has only had a movable wooden partition placed down the
centre of it, to separate the prisoners who have been condemned from
those awaiting trial, when they attend “the service.” The cells for
solitary confinement, with their elaborate blacksmith-wrought
fastenings, would defy the ingenuity of any “Jack Sheppard” seeking to
escape.

[Illustration: KING RENE’S CASTLE]

There is not much carving or sculptured work in the Castle. It has been
sparingly used, except in the porch of the Chapel, which is in fine
ogival style with delicately carved archivolts. The principal chamber of
the King is a noble apartment, in which the ceiling is, or rather was, a
feature. It is heavily timbered, and although the panels have been
removed to enrich some museum or private collection, sufficient remains
to give an idea of the importance of this apartment. The embrasures of
the windows are of the depth of the wall–that is, about twelve
feet–and they form small chambers, around which are great stone slabs,
that were used as seats.

Opening off the Royal Apartment is the Salle du Garde. From this room a
door formerly opened into a passage that communicated with galleries
extending all over the building. On the other side of the circular
staircase, that leads up to the King’s apartment, there is a sexagonal
chamber with a timbered panelled roof. This was occupied by the
ladies-in-waiting on the Queen, whose apartment, immediately above it,
had a fine vaulted roof. In such wonderful preservation are these
apartments of five hundred years ago that they want but tapestries and
furniture to be as habitable as ever they were. One can easily, in
imagination, fill these chambers with the laughing maids of honour,
bending over their tambours and tapestry work, or poring over some book
with its delicately painted pages in which the romances of the
Troubadours were set forth–one reading aloud for the benefit of the
others some long narration of days gone by: perchance the very popular
story, rhymed in true Troubadour fashion, about the inmates of the
Castle of Beaucaire, that from the windows of the King’s and the Ladies’
apartment could be seen so distinctly in the sunlight.

This story of Aucassin and Nicolète has been translated

[Illustration: AN OLD GARDEN. TARASCON.]

from the Provençal language into English by Andrew Lang. It relates how
the Count of Valence was at war with the Count of Beaucaire, and was
always outside the walls of his castle, to the great annoyance of
everybody. The Count of Beaucaire was old and frail, and possessed of
only one son, his hope and pride. This youth, Aucassin by name, was
deeply in love with a dark-eyed maid, a slave girl, Nicolète, that a
captain in the town of Beaucaire had purchased from the Saracens in
Carthage, and had adopted. The old Count, furious at the thought of his
only son making such a _mésalliance_ as to marry a Saracen slave girl,
ordered the young man to go out and fight against the enemy of their
house and to lead the retainers of the family of Beaucaire on to
victory. At the same time the Count prevailed upon Nicolète’s owner to
have her put in seclusion, out of reach of Master Aucassin.

Whilst the youth is wringing his hands in despair, the city is besieged
by the Count Valence, and the old Count of Beaucaire upbraids his son
for his inactivity. Then Aucassin urges his suit to his father; but the
old man will not give way, and only consents to allow the lovers an
interview if Aucassin proves his mettle in the battle that is raging
around them. The bold youth arms himself and rides out of the castle,
and in an absent-minded mood goes right into the arms of the enemy. When
he does realise his position and comes to himself he does doughty deeds,
in his turn taking Count Valence captive, and, returning with him to the
besieged castle, demands that his father should keep his engagement and
grant him the promised interview with his lady-love. The old man
refuses, and Aucassin is so overcome with rage that he releases his
prisoner–an act for which his father puts him in close confinement.

Time passes, Nicolète escapes from her prison and goes amissing. Count
Beaucaire, thinking that all danger to his son is now over, releases him
from prison. One day Aucassin comes across Nicolète in a wood where she
has been hiding, and together they go in a boat and make their escape
down the river, only to be washed out to sea and captured by pirates.
Their troubles are increased by their being separated. Aucassin is
ransomed by his father, and Nicolète is sold to the Saracens. You would
think that this was the end of her tale. No; she escapes disguised and
finds her way back to fair Provence, where she makes a living by singing
ballads up and down the country, eventually arriving at Beaucaire, where
Aucassin is now Count in his father’s stead. Of course he discovers his
long-lost lady-love, and the story ends, as all good stories should,
with the hero and heroine living happily ever after.

From the extensive roof of the Château a great panorama lies before the
spectator. The Rhone for many a mile away to the south glistens in the
sunlight until it is lost to view near the rising ground upon which with
good glasses the Arena at Arles can be discerned. To the north the two
lofty towers of Château Renard rise up, whilst in the far, faint
distance the snow-capped peak of Mont Ventoux floats in the haze.

Provence is well supplied with lofty points of vantage, from which
extensive prospects are before the spectator, and enable him to
understand somewhat why Provence was chosen as a home for chivalry and a
garden for romance. Castles rise up on nearly every point of vantage.
Great cypress-trees shelter the low-lying fields. Farmhouses nestle in
the protection of rising ground, upon which they would not, like the
great stern castles and watch-towers, be able to retain a foothold when
the mistral sweeps the heights. For the elements are at their strongest
in Provence. The sun shines brightly and burns fiercely, the winds blow
violently and chillingly, and the rains fall in terrible earnest in
“this land of plenty.”

Greek, Roman, and Gaul have all fought for existence on nearly every
foot of its great plains and scattered heights, and travellers from
distant lands have often fallen a prey to the dangers that such a
country could so easily harbour.

All around are castles that have stood many a siege when occupied by
warriors whose history was one long

[Illustration: S^{T}. MARTHA’S. TARASCON.]

record of fights against Saracens and infidels abroad, and feudal chiefs
at home.

High up on the walls of the Castle of Tarascon one can see evidences of
the ordinances of later times. The end of the eighteenth century has
left its mark here as on most of the strongholds and buildings in
Provence.

The only other important building in Tarascon is the Church of St.
Martha; but it is the most significant that the little town possesses,
for it perpetuates the legend which gives the town its name.

The story of St. Martha and her victory over the devastating terror of
the country-side, “The Tarasc,” is but a variation of the familiar St.
George and the Dragon legend which embodies the pietistic faith in the
overthrow of evil by good. This legend of St. Martha, along with that of
the “Stes. Maries,” belongs exclusively to Provence, and it permeates
the whole religious tradition of the delta of the Rhone. The story or
legend runs that, after the crucifixion of Christ, the holy women who
had remained faithful to their Lord, Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of
James, Mary Salome, Martha with Sara, their black servant and Lazarus,
were put in a boat by the Jews and sent out to sea. After an adventurous
voyage of nearly two months, they landed on the extreme west point of
the Camargue in a little village that was inhabited by some poor Phocean
fisherfolk. The legends vary as to the subsequent routes taken by the
illustrious voyagers, but they seem all to agree that Martha found her
way to Tarascon; Mary Magdalen to St. Baume, not far from Marseilles,
where her bones are believed to be under the Chapel of the Grotto; St.
Lazarus accompanied her to Marseilles, where the legend connecting him
with that city is still held in esteem by the pious.

Early in the fifteenth century, King René, who had an excellent taste
for romantic legends, had a vision in which the holy women of “Stes.
Maries” appeared to him and revealed the spot where their mortal remains
were lying neglected. The sentimental King sought them and had them
placed in the church, which he rebuilt on the spot where they first
landed, and altered the name of the church from “Our Lady of the Sea” to
“Les Maries.” Up to this time the little church of the tenth century, at
this spot, went by the name of “St. Mary of the Boats,” or “St. Mary of
the Sea.”

This name was probably but the Christian of an older Pagan name, given
to the church or temple that stood on

[Illustration: THE POSTERN, LES BAUX]

its site, a name likely enough derived from the fame of the Syrian
prophetess Martha, who accompanied Marius on his expedition into Gaul, a
hundred years before the Christian era. And presumably there existed an
earlier temple still upon this lonely swamp, a temple to some deity or
goddess whose protective care the earliest Phoceans sought to procure by
votive offerings. However this may be, René decided that the “Stes.
Maries” were Mary, the mother of James, Mary Salome, and Sara, the black
servant, who had remained in the little seaside village converting the
inhabitants to the Christian faith.

Thus the great patron of romantic story inaugurated a legend that has
persevered until to-day, for pilgrims from all parts still pay visits to
“Les Maries” by the sea, to receive benefits and healing from the relics
of the two Maries which are exhibited annually, whilst the remains of
the black servant, Sara, strangely enough exact and receive homage of
the gipsies from Bohemia.

St. Martha, who went first, on leaving her fellow-voyagers, to Aix,
received there a deputation from a neighbouring place, Tarascon, which
unfolded to her their sad plight. A great monster was ravaging their
country-side, and their only hope was to get some one endowed with
miraculous power to come to their assistance. The good Saint immediately
set out for the terror-stricken town, where she received a great ovation
from the assembled inhabitants. Without delay, armed with nothing but a
small wooden cross, she sought the monster in the woods near by, and on
finding it, held up the sacred emblem in front of it. The monster’s
bellowings ceased at once, for the terror lay dead at her feet, its
great jaws red with the blood of its last victim. St. Martha returned to
the village and exhibited to the grateful populace the monster tied to
her girdle.

King René, fond, as is well known, of pageants, processions, and fêtes,
was the founder of the annual festival of the “Tarasque,” which was
celebrated until quite recently in the month of June. A great pantomime
monster was carried round the streets by sixteen men concealed in its
body. It was led by a village beauty dressed in imitation of the Saint.
The head of the creature had jaws that were movable, and they could be
worked so as to grip any venturesome person who came close enough. When
too hotly assailed by the townsfolk, fireworks were discharged from the
eyes and different parts of the great canvas body. The old traditional
“Tarasque” of great magnificence, which cost nearly £1,000, was,
however, destroyed at the time of the Revolution by the Arlesiens, and
was replaced shortly afterwards by the less imposing contrivance of
to-day. The procession or fête was of a semi-religious character, and
this, together with the rough practical jokes and horse-play that the
people indulged in, led to its being prohibited by the Government in
1904.

[Illustration: The TARASC]

The Church of St. Martha, as might be expected, is full of references
both in stone and canvas to the Lady. The Church itself is, like the
south porch, in the Romanesque Gothic style. Here are paintings by Vien,
the eighteenth-century painter who was the master of David. His
pictures are in a classic style which he lived to see more popular than
it was when he introduced it first, after his long residence in Rome.
They make no great appeal to the tastes of this century, for the severe
and academical style of them is apt to leave the spectator cold and
unsympathetic. The subjects are all relative to the religious legends of
Provence: “The Visit of Christ to St. Martha,” “The Raising of Lazarus,”
“The Embarkation of St. Martha,” “The Landing of Martha at Marseilles,”
“St. Martha preaching the Gospel at Tarascon,” and “The Death of St.
Martha.”

The pictures by Parrocel are not so interesting either from the point of
view of the artist or the seeker after legendary lore.

One of Mignard’s two canvases represents St. Martha attending on our
Saviour. It is significant of the high repute in which the religious
legends of Provence were held, and the wealth of the Church at the
period, that such popular painters of the eighteenth century could be
commissioned to execute pictures recording them.

There is a small picture by Vanloo, “The Death of St. Francis d’Assisi,”
in one of the side-chapels; a very beautiful rendering of a religious
subject that is worth,

[Illustration: A STREET IN TARASCON.]

from an artist’s standpoint, miles of the larger canvases that cover the
main walls. An old altar-piece in another of the shallow side-chapels is
a fine piece of sixteenth-century decorative painting.

Enclosed in a cheap-looking painted cupboard that stands in the sacristy
is the reliquary that holds a “veritable” portion of St. Martha’s skull.
This reliquary is not ancient, but is a reproduction of an original that
was presented to the Church by Louis XI. in 1478, and which, in the
unhappy starvation times of the great Revolution, was sent to the
Genoese merchants by the revolutionaries in exchange for wheat to the
value of £4,000. It was a great loss to the Church in more ways than
one, for in the head of the bust were placed the frontal bones of the
patron Saint of Tarascon. This bust was of solid gold, and round it were
beautiful little enamels which pictured the life of St. Martha; an
exquisite statue of King Louis XI. represented him kneeling in adoration
at the base of the bust. The reproduction is in gilt, and contains a
portion of the base of the Saint’s skull tied with a piece of pink
ribbon. The tomb in the crypt had of course to be opened to obtain
these. Beautiful as the reproduction is, and veritable as is the relic
it contains, it is doubtful if the pious Tarasconaises are reconciled
to the loss of the most precious ornaments that the town possessed.

Down in the dark, damp crypt of the Church, lit only by the entrance,
lies a tomb of real dignity and beauty. This crypt is a part of the
older church of the twelfth century, and is without any particular grace
or beauty, acting as a foil to the monument it enshrines.

This representation in marble of the entombment of St. Martha is of real
merit. The recumbent figure of the Saint lies in a peaceful repose that
is nobly expressed. A figure of Christ supports the head, and one of St.
Fronto the feet. The anachronism of associating St. Fronto, who was a
Bishop of Périgueux in the fourth century, with an event that presumably
took place in the first, does not seem to have troubled the author of
this tomb. But in a land of Romance one should close one’s eyes to such
unromantic things as dates, and accept without question the stories
woven by a clergy that seem to have been largely endowed by the same
spirit that inspired the Troubadours of their sunny land.