National Geographic : 1953 Feb
Vezelay, Hill of the Pilgrims 229 A Quiet French Town Lives Tranquilly in the Shadow of the Church Where Medieval Christians Once Watched for Miracles BY MELVIN HALL T HE little French town of Vezelay, clinging to the brow of an isolated gran ite escarpment, looks down with quiet serenity upon a favored land, the beautiful, rolling countryside of the former Duchy of Burgundy. At the town's highest point stands an immense 12th-century edifice, the historic Basilique de la Sainte Marie Madeleine (St. Mary Magdalene), once one of the most important shrines in the Christian world. Tiled roofs gleaming, the houses and shops of medieval Vezelay huddle beneath the church. Far below, the River Cure winds like a silver ribbon through a narrow, verdant valley dotted with grazing cattle. Gentle hills, their crests darkly wooded, undulate to the horizon in all directions. Slopes and dales are cloaked with a patchwork of aged vineyards, orchards, and fields hedged with blackthorn and haw thorn (pages 230-31). I have traveled over much of the earth, but few places I have visited can equal the charm of Vezelay. Although I am an Ameri can, I have owned a home there for 20 years, returning time and again to breathe deep of the peace which envelops the Burgundian hills. Crumbling Walls Encircle the Town France may boast more celebrated hilltop villages, such as Carcassonne,* but Vezelay is fully as rich in romance and antiquity. It lies on the western side of the former duchy, 140 road miles southeast of Paris (map, page 234). Medieval ramparts still girdle the town, though there are gaps where the walls have crumbled or have been used in past genera tions to build houses. Today these walls are inviolate. Indeed, the entire village is classified by the French Government as a Monument Historique, and no demolition or new construction may be undertaken without approval of the Beaux Arts in Paris. My own home was originally an outer bas tion of the fortifications, which were rebuilt in the 14th century as a defense against English invaders. The venerable gentilhommiere, or country house, stands in a corner of a walled garden (page 236). I often call the attention of visitors to the garden gate, a "recent" structural modi fication. Carved on its keystone is the re- building date, 1776-quite appropriate for an American owner. My thick-walled, vine-covered stone house is called La Grangeotte, the name of a long vanished hamlet which once adjoined the old garden. I like to think of Vezelay as symbolic of the timeless and enduring in a fretful, fevered world. Only the unending round of the sea sons in the tranquil countryside speaks of change. Colors Beautify the Pastoral Scene With the coming of spring, white blooms powder hedgerows and fruit trees. Wheat and rye push up tender green shoots. Tall poppies, cultivated for a salad oil obtained from the seeds, lift pale purple blossoms. In summer these shades yield to a deep green broken by flaxen patches of ripening grain. Autumn tints the hedgerows and vineyards with scarlet and russet, and trees flaunt their gaudy leaves before the long winter sleep. In the beauty and peace of this rural scene there is nothing to suggest Vezelay's bustling, glorious past. For decades the town's Benedictine abbey existed as a virtually independent theocratic island in a tumultuous sea of feudalism. Its power was such that it recognized neither duke nor seigneur as its master; it acknowledged only the authority of the Holy See in Rome. In the 12th century as many as 800 monks lived within the walled compound. The abbey's sometimes despotic rule frequently brought it into conflict with the 15,000 burghers residing in Vezelav's fortified en closure and in the adjoining villages. Jealous lords also challenged its authority with vary ing degrees of success. Yet, despite the troubled times, the abbey was one of the most important pilgrimage objectives in the Christian world, ranking close behind Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain, burial place of St. James the Greater. At that time the abbey's power and prestige stemmed from a general belief that the remains of Mary Magdalene were enshrined at Vezelay. Just how these relics were obtained from St. Maximin in Provence, a reputed burial place of the saint, is not clear. A young monk * See "France's Past Lives in Languedoc," by Wal ter Meayers Edwards, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, July, 1951.