Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

A Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Happy Easter


We are fortunate in having found yet another medieval sculpture of the patron of secular Easter celebrations, Saint Saliento Lepus.

Saint Saliendo Lepus

Saint Saliendo Lepus

According to our research, Saint Saliendo Lepus was a 3rd century noble Roman rabbit who incurred the wrath of the Emperor Diocletian by hiding colored eggs in the forum. Enraged, Diocletian had him turned over to Plautian, prefect of the praetorium, who tortured him in an effort to force him to stop this practice, but when Saliento persisted, he was beheaded and served in a stew with lentils and onions. Though the legend is an ancient one, it is no more than that.

Romanesque Vegetables – Amuse Bouche #37 (Dennis Aubrey)


Somethings you can see and then forget. Others you see and can’t forget. And a few, once seen, can never be unseen.

Today’s example of this comes from our Via Lucis contributor Albert Pinto. He is usually featured as a guest writer or translator, and has even served as our guide in Aix-en-Provence, but this week he outdid himself. He sent us this photograph and asked us to compare it with a certain celebrated masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture.

Celeriac root, photo by Albert Pinto

Celeriac root, photo by Albert Pinto

Stare at that photo for a moment and move on to the next photo, of the trumeau at the Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie in Souillac with its writhing, intertwined beasts.

Trumeau and tympanum, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Trumeau and tympanum, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some people see the face of Jesus in a cheese pizza or a piece of naan bread, but this really tops them all. And now that I have seen this comparison, and imagined Albert and his wife Monique in their kitchen in Aix-en-Provence, looking at this root and exclaiming together “Wow! Doesn’t this look like the trumeau at Souillac,” it is impossible to look at this picture of the studious Albert in the same way ever again.

Albert Pinto

Albert Pinto

What a delightful contribution to our week.

The Precarious Madonna – Amuse Bouche #36 (Dennis Aubrey)


We have often remarked how revered are the vierges romanes and especially the vierges noires in rural France. Notre Dame de Vassivière in the Puy-de-Dôme is no exception, in fact she has two homes. Since 1547, the statue has spent the winters in the Église Saint André de Besse in the town of Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise. Each summer on July 2, the feast of the visitation, she is carried up to her remote summer home at the isolated Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, a journey of about five miles due west. The statue is carried on a litter by the faithful in a festival called the Montée and returned on September 21st, the feast of Saint Matthew, in the Dévalade. Her return to Besse is accompanied by fireworks and gunfire.

View from the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by

View from the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by

The current version of Notre Dame de Vassivière is a copy of the original, burned in the Revolution in 1804. Five years later, Napoleon re-established the veneration of the statue and the copy was made. In 1881, the crowning of the vierge was celebrated by 30,000 worshippers.

PJ and I were anxious to photograph Notre Dame de Vassivière and when we visited in September of 2008, the chapel was almost empty. The Dévalade was scheduled for three days later, but we could not stay. She was on her spot high on the wall of the chapel. We took the pictures and then ventured to ask the gardienne if it were possible to take the statue down for photography. She thought for a moment and then agreed – PJ and I were absolutely delighted. We were delighted for only a moment, however. The woman came out with a rickety ladder and handed it to us. We were to take the priceless artifact down ourselves!

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Now the ladder was not only rickety, but it had only about five steps. I would have to climb all the way to the topmost step and stretch my full length just to reach the vierge. Then I would have to lift her off her shelf with just my arms and bring her down! The sculpture was only 30″ high but it was solid wood and weighed at least 40 pounds.

PJ and I looked at each other, swallowed and made our only possible semblance of a plan – she would hold the ladder while I climbed, and as I descended, she would help secure the madonna. Gulp! And so we did. Climbing the ladder was an adventure. I am a very large man and the ladder was probably rated for someone half my weight when it was new. Now, it was a miracle that it was holding at all. PJ said she felt “abject fear” as I began moving the statue from its shelf. It became clear that the crown was not really secured and we would have to be extremely steady not have the gold crown come tumbling to the ground. I was in a state of fear and PJ was busy with her own calculations; if all went wrong, should try to save me, the vierge, or the crown?

Somehow we made it down without a disaster and placed the vierge on the altar for our photo session. The photographs were worth the effort, we figured, even though we would have to get the statue back up later.

Dennis photographing Notre Dame de Vassivière,  Photo by PJ McKey

Dennis photographing Notre Dame de Vassivière, Photo by PJ McKey

We did manage to return Notre Dame to her lofty perch on the wall of the chapel, gave a small prayer of grateful thanks for our own personal deliverance, and returned to Issoire for an aperitif! We earned it on that particular day.

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière,  Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

The Saint and the Simpleton (Dennis Aubrey)


There are so many wonderful stories and legends associated with the churches we photograph in France, but none is more pleasing than that of Saint Menulphe and his friend, the Simpleton of Mailly-sur-Rose, a town in the Allier.

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Menulphe was the son of an Irish king and very devout. He traveled to England, Brittany and France and was recognized for his sanctity. When the Pope heard of this and asked him to come to Rome, Menulphe walked the route in poverty, a mendicant with no possessions. On his return, he stopped in Mailly-sur-Rose, exhausted with his journey. During that time, Menulphe took pity on an innocent named Blaise who was the scapegoat for local children. One day he intervened as the young urchins threw stones at Blaise. He chided the boys and took the young man under his protection. Blaise was described as a simpleton, one who could barely speak, and never left Menulphe’s side. He couldn’t pronounce his protector’s name and “Menulfe” became “Menoux”.

When Menoux died, Blaise thought that the holy man was asleep. He spent his days and nights at the grave, conversing with his friend. One day visitors to the cemetery saw that the coffin had been dug up and that there was a hole in the side. They discovered Blaise laying on his stomach, with his head in the hole, talking to someone. The local people were scandalized but the curé said, “Poor Blaise, he is a better and more faithful friend than we are. Perhaps he is the least crazy of all.”

The Curé placed Menoux’s remains in a sandstone sarcophagus and had an opening cut into one side. Blaise spent the rest of his life conversing with his friend, and miraculously, the troubles of his mind faded to the point that he was able to serve mass. At the time of his death, Blaise had the reputation of being a simple, faithful man, as sensible as anyone.

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Thereafter, in memory of the miraculous healing of Blaise, parents led the bredins, the simple-minded, before the tomb of Menoux and placed their heads carefully into the sarcophagus – the débredinoire – hoping for the same healing that Blaise experienced. Eventually the site received such a number of pilgrims that the Benedictines built an abbey on the site under the direction of the Abbess Adalgasie and placed the sarcophagus with Menoux’s relics in the choir. They also changed the name of the village from Mailly-sur-Rose to Saint Menoux. The fairs held by the abbesses attracted vendors and buyers which led to the expansion of the village.

The church gives an idea of the importance of this abbey and the monastics who resided there. It was built in the classic Cluny style in the early part of the twelfth century. The nave has three tall, narrow bays with ogive arches covered with groin vaults.

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are, as usual, visually stunning. We see the long, uninterrupted flow to the ambulatory in the distance.

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle, however, has a unique feature. Just to the west of the transept arch is a rather clumsily executed structure that contains a stairway leading to a defensive tower on the exterior. Poking up through the roof, that tower looks almost like a minaret.

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The raised apse is perhaps the finest element of the church. The choir has two elegant high bays topped with clerestory windows while the chancel features a seven bay hemicycle with an arcade of windows leading to the oven vault.

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The débredinoire of Saint Menoux is found centered behind the altar in the chancel. These reliquaries have been placed between the pillars of the central hemicycle arch and the tomb can be seen just behind.

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The oldest part of the church, built in the eleventh century, is the narthex on the west end of the church. This antechamber has beautiful arcades supporting a short barrel vault. Some of the pillars are topped with capitals, but it is clear that the restoration was not complete. Fragments of some of the original statuary are rather casually displayed in the arcades.

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the abbey is gone – only the church remains after the destruction of the French Revolution. The town of Saint Menoux is quiet and peaceful for its 1,009 residents. The church is not well tended; there are rat droppings and cobwebs throughout. Dust cakes the benches and the chairs, but pilgrims still frequent the Église Saint Menoux in order to use the débredinoire for relief from feeble-mindedness or headaches.

Lest we think that credulous in the Middle Ages were alone in these workings, look at this passage in “The Invisible Architecture” by George Prat (2000).

“For more than forty years I made fun of the débredinoire which I considered an example of public credulity … My surprise was great to see that the débredinoire works and is not a gimmick. The débredinoire is placed at the geometric center of the apse …. and is located at the junction point of the telluric current and four streams of water. … When one realizes that this is a machine from another age and can be activated by an ‘acupuncture point’ located nearby, we are amazed at the electrical energy released … The débredinoire is actually an instrument of care-giving; when used correctly, the equivalent a high intensity shock is given to the user. This is certainly very effective in the case of some nervous breakdowns.” People will always find a reason to believe if the need is great enough.

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our daughter Sarah suffers from debilitating migraines and PJ placed her own head in the sarcophagus in hopes of helping. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try! But you must be careful not to touch the tomb while inserting your head. You run the risk of absorbing the feeble-mindedness and headaches of all who preceded you!

If you are interested in seeing some other churches in this region, follow this link.

Location: 46.585211° 3.156842°