From the heights of Aubrac to the “garrigues” (scrublands) of the Languedoc
This very old road leaves the « Via Podiensis » of Compostelle (way of Puy-en-Velay) at the town of Aubrac to reach the gorges du Tarn at Sainte-Enimie via Nasbinals, La Canourgue and the Causse de Sauveterre. From there crossing the Causse Méjean, the Chemin de St Guilhem arrives at Meyrueis, then the Mont Aigoual (summit 1567m), before plunging towards Le Vigan. Further on, it reaches the Cirque de Navacelles and then climbs to the Larzac to arrive at Saint Guilhem-le-Désert by the Val du Verdus and Notre-Dame-de-Lieu-Plaisant.
The variant route branches off on the Aubrac at the Rode Cross and further on, after La Canourgue, towards Les Vignes then continues its path along the river, left bank, to Le Rozier to climb after onto the Causse Méjean and rejoin the principal route at Meyrueis.
The origin of the chemin de Saint Guilhem™
Originally, this was a sheep migration track, from the time when the herds were not yet domesticated. It was later known as “grande draille d’Aubrac” (great track of Aubrac) which joined the back lands of Montpellier with the volcanic plateau of Aubrac. Each season shepherds drove their flocks from the dry scrublands to the fresh green pastures of Aubrac.
From the middle ages, travellers took this path : witness to this, the foundation in 1002 of the hospice of Notre Dame de Bonahuc (today the ruins of Notre Dame du Bonheur), near Mont Aigoual, where six augustin canons insured the safety of travellers against dangers and storms.
Since the 11th century, the trail assured communication between the coastal planes and the great markets of Le Vigan and Meyrueis (that live on in our times).
The stormy life of William of Orange, white knight of the emperor Charlemagne (who inspired the minstrels to create a famous, storytelling, song), ended here at the Abbey of Gellone, after a retreat devoted to the spiritual. He was canonised under the name of Saint Guilhem. Since a relic of the holy cross has been conserved at Gellone, a constant flow of pilgrims have visited this place, coming from the north and from the Via Podiensis of Compostelle to rejoin after, in the south, the trail of Arles which took them towards Rome to the east, or towards Santiago de Compostela to the west.
The uncertainties of the 15th century (epidemics – hundred years war) and the Religious wars (16th century) slowed down the flow of pilgrims. The Camin Romieu was still frequented by merchants until the end of the 17th century and abandoned in favour of new, royal roads made suitable for vehicles by the king’s administration at the time of the war of the camisards (1685-1710).
Until 1960, migrating herds still used the trail as far as the Aubrac
In our times, only the south part (from the scrublands to mount Aigoual and Meyrueis) is still used by some of the migrating herds.
The actual route of Chemin de St Guilhem is situated almost entirely within the perimeter of the land that is inscribed in the world heritage under the title of mediterranean agro-pastoralism.
Tell me a story…
William of Gellone (called Guilhem in occitan) is a historical figure who has also become the main character of a famous chanson de geste.
William of Orange : a literary character
William was throughout the Middle Ages one of the biggest « star » of the epic poetry. Minstrels sang his « geste », that is to say his heroic deeds.
It is the story of a saint, who became a monk only at the end of his life, after a long military career. The « Cycle of William » celebrates the exploits of the hero in many battles and many single combats. Blows are raining, blood spurts, brains squirts, eyes spring up from the orbits ! The enemy is slaughtered with a savage delight.
The « Cycle of William » is comprised of several distinct songs, written by different poets : first, these poems were independent from each other ; they were collected together only between the 12th and the 14th century to become a « cycle ». The epic cycle gathers and puts in order different episodes from the life of the hero (sometimes transitions or changes were necessary to ensure the overall coherence between the different songs) : the cycle appears as a long novel in which each song or poem is a sort of chapter.
So, a full « biography » of William is told by the manuscripts, from his youth to the end of his life, which is characterized by its holiness. Unlike Roland – the hero who died at Ronceveaux blowing his horn –, William, according to the poets, lived a long life, full of turns of events and twists. As his historical embodiment, the literary character experiences war and holiness, uses cunning and brutal force, knows humiliation and triumph, submission and rebellion.
The cycle begins with the love affairs of the young hero and ends with his edifying old age, after telling about his military life. William is indeed a knight who, because of the absence of a strong royal authority, has strived to defend the south of France against the Saracens, the hereditary enemies.
The literary William has a real historical prototype : William of Gellone, even if other historical figures have given some characteristic to the epic hero. Born into a family of high nobility, William of Gellone (c. 755-812), Count of Toulouse, was not only the contemporary of Charlemagne, but also probably his own cousin. He retreats from the world in 806 and dies in 812 in holiness.
The model for the epic William is William Count of Toulouse, who retreated from the world in 806 (so before the reign of Louis the Pious) in the Abbey of Aniane before establishing a subsidiary at Gellone (a place which is now called Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert) where he lived until his death in 812.
A war leader
He participated, probably as his father, in the Spanish expedition in 778 and could have played a role in a « historical » version of The Song of Roland. It is unknown if he made a name for himself in this war but there is no doubt that he played a leading role some years later near the Spanish border. There he fought less Saracens than Basques (or Vascones) who were a source of problems for the Franks.
Appointed Count of Toulouse, William succeeded almost immediately in imposing his authority on the rebellious people, which he subjugate, according to his chronicler, « through force or deception » : these methods are also two main characteristics of the epic hero.
However, after this first triumph, he suffered a hard setback. In 793, the Saracens launched a raid : they wasted the area of Narbonne and threatened Carcassonne. Leading troops that were apparently far too few, William fought them. As his best fellows defected, he had to retreat, after having subjected the Saracens to losses that detered them to continue the raid. This was therefore a glorious defeat, which didn’t hurt William’s reputation. Moreover, he took a brilliant revenge later : in 801 he managed to take Barcelone after a long siege, and so he made Catalonia enter the Carolingian Empire.
At the end of his hectic life, in 804, William made a donation to a little church, at Gellone, which was dependent on the Abbey of Aniane. This was the foundation deed of the monastery, which became fully independent from Aniane only three centuries later. Located near each other (only a few kilometres) along the river Hérault, Aniane and Gellone became the repositories of the memory of the hero.
The Abbey of Aniane itself was not ancient in the time of William : indeed it was founded in 782 by the Visigoth Witiza, the future Saint Benedict of Aniane. Close advisor to King Louis the Pious, Benedict was the main disseminator of the Benedictine Rule in the Frank empire, and he probably played a key role in convincing the Count of Toulouse to abandon the world. William therefore withdrew in 806 to his new Abbey of Gellone, which he organized and enriched. Charlemagne even gave him a piece from the Holy Cross which can still be seen in the abbey. William died there in 812.
Two centuries later (end 10th – early 11th century), the monks of the Abbey of Gellone began to honour their founder’s memory : this results in William’s canonization in 1066. Then pilgrims flowed to the abbey in order to venerate the relics of the saint burried there.
In the 12th century, Gellone changed its name to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.
The 13th century convent seal of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert reminds William’s dual career : the valorous warrior of Charlemagne, and the monk renouncing the world. (Photo credit : from Colby-Hall 1999-2001)
William in Provence ?
What can explain the fact that the epic story takes place in Provence, whereas the historical William of Gellone didn’t fight there ? Maybe out of confusion with another William – William I of Provence, also called the Liberator – who, in the 10th century, raised an army to fight the Saracens in Provence… but it was nor at Orange neither at Nîmes (the cities mentioned in the epic poems), which in reality have never been threatened ! So William of Gellone became William of Orange only in the epic legend.
William in 3 words
How can we describe the epic hero in three words ? His nose, his arms, his laughter.
William has a « short nose » – an ugly face due to the Saracen giant Corsolt. Indeed, during a single combat, the giant cuts his nose tip before William succeeds in killing him. This mutilation will be a title of glory for William, reminding of a glorious fight.
In the oldest poems, William has only a « hooked nose ». It is only later that the « hooked nose » (french : « nez courbe ») becomes a short nose (french : « nez court »), because of a distortion of pronunciation.
The sword is a real companion for the epic hero : Excalibur for King Arthur, Durendal for Roland… William’s sword is called Joyeuse (« Joyous ») : it is a present from Charlemagne, who himself fought with it in the Song of Roland.
However, a sword is not always necessary to kill opponents : nicknamed Fierebrace (« With-strong-arms »), William is a champion to beat the face of his enemies, able to stun his adversaries with a single punch.
It is scary to hear William laughing… His thundery laughter is a warning : far from being comical, it is a show of strength and the sign of an impending wrath.
Bibliography : Alain Corbellari, Guillaume d’Orange, ou la naissance du héros médiéval, Paris, 2011 ; Dominique Boutet ed., Le cycle de Guillaume d’Orange : anthologie, Paris, 1966 ; Alice Colby-Hall, « Nouvelles remarques sur le sceau conventuel de Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert au XIIIe siècle », Études Héraultaises, vol. 30/32 (1999/2001) p. 27-30 ; J. Nougaret, « De Guillaume d’Orange à Saint Guilhem de Gellone : essai sur une iconographie à définir », 2004-2005, Études héraultaises, 35, p. 69-84.