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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Pilgrim's Journey: Clermont-Ferrand, France

On what was probably a crisp November morning in 1095AD, the sizeable Medieval town of Clermont played the stage for an event that would give birth to a phenomenon in European medieval history that would continue for at least the next two centuries and leave an indelible mark on the development of Western civilization forever after.  The incident in question came at the close of what otherwise had been a relatively unimportant Church council that had convened in Clermont by order of the Pope, Urban II.  The last decades of the 11th Century had seen several such councils, mostly dealing with the doctrinal and administrative affairs arising from the Church’s recent victory over the Holy Roman emperors in the Investiture Crisis and the Cluniac Reforms.  Pope Urban himself was very much a product of these movements – his mentor had been Hildebrand himself, known to history as St Pope Gregory VII who strove with Emperor Henry IV of Germany his entire papacy to elevate Church affairs above the authority of secular powers.  Before he was elevated to the Papacy (when he was still known by his birthname, Odo of Chatillon), he had been intimately connected to the Cluniac revival streaming out of Southern and Central France, even serving as the prior for the abbey at Cluny for a time.  Although he briefly had to deal with an anti-pope, Clement, installed by the ever-troublesome Henry IV early on in his papacy, Urban was soon able to turn his attentions to affairs taking place in Christendom beyond Europe.  The Byzantine Empire, still reeling from its disastrous defeat at Manzikert in 1071, had begun to send out diplomatic feelers towards Rome at the direction of Emperor Alexios Komnenos.  While there were still considerable doctrinal and cultural issues between the Western and Eastern Churches of the time, it seemed the immediate threat of the Seljuk Turks might produce some sort of reconciliation between the two.  Urban enthusiastically embraced the possibility and, at the Council of Piacenza earlier in 1095, had given promises of aid to the Byzantine ambassadors in attendance.

            However, Urban’s vision went far beyond merely helping the Byzantines recover their recent losses – he ultimately envisioned the liberation of the birthplace of Christianity lost nearly four centuries prior to Islam at the hands of knights from the West.  While the idea was certainly a radical one for the time, it was not wholly new – Urban’s saintly predecessor Gregory had issued spiritual indulgences for knights fighting the Moors in Spain and had also wished to send warriors eastward to win back Jerusalem.  It was also novel in that it provided the knightly class of the West – a class often excluded from spiritual salvation in the rather anti-martial Cluniac vision – with a fitting and even noble role in the Kingdom of God.  With the Investiture Crisis in the past and the German Emperor relatively tamed, Urban probably felt that this was the time to make this dream a reality.  At the closing of the Council in Clermont, great throngs had gathered to seek the papal blessing – laymen of all walks of life and station were there among the clerics and other religious in a large field according to some sources.  There, Pope Urban preached to them all what would become the First Crusade.  Although Urban’s words were recorded by many different chroniclers from the time, the version of his address in Fulcher of Chartres (who is widely believed to have been personally present unlike the others):

"They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it."

With these fiery words to all of the West – noblemen and commoners, knights and monks, clerics and laymen – the Crusading phenomenon came into being amid shouts of “God wills it!” from the crowd.  The rest is, as they say, history.

            The actual city that hosted this pivotal event in history is certainly fitting in many ways.  Clermont-Ferrand is located in the Auvergne Region of South-Central France – a region dominated by what the French call the Massif Central, a large chain of low-lying mountains similar to the American Appalachians.  Clermont itself is nestled among dormant volcanic peaks that surround its skyline.
One of the many impressive dormant volcanos around Clermont - these would have most certainly served as a fitting back drop for Pope Urban's speech in 1095.
The volcanic nature of its environs is omnipresent – dark, igneous stone can be seen in all its architecture and hot springs have been used for thermal baths since Antiquity.  Clermont sits atop a rich and far-reaching historical legacy as well.  Roman sources place the Gallic settlement of Nemossos on the site, considered by many to be the ancient capital of the Arverni tribe that gave Julius Caesar so much grief during his famed conquest of Gaul in the last century before Christ.  The last Arverni chieftain, Vercingetorix, is something of a local hero and his visage can be found in multiple locations throughout the city today.
Alleged homegrown hero Vercingetorix as remembered by 19th Century Romanticism on the Place de Jaude.  Interestingly, this statue was made by Frédéric Bartholdi who is far more famous for crafting the Statue of Liberty.
After the Roman conquest, a new city was founded and named Augustonamentum after the reigning emperor at the time, Octavian Augustus.  The name Clermont didn’t appear until the 9th Century, named for a Carolingian fort called Clarus Mons.  The Church was very active within Clermont and served as a focal point for many saints and bishops of the early Church in France – the council of 1095 was actually the second Church council to be held there, the first being in the 6th Century.
Remnants of walls and foundations originally laid down sometime around the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The oldest church in the city still present is the Notre Dame du Port, located on the edge of the old city center near what many believe to have been a gate (hence the “du Port”).  Built in the heavy Romanesque style popular in regions heavily affected by the constant warfare and Viking incursions of the 7th-9th Centuries, the church has a distinct fortress look to it.
Inside, the Spartan look is enhanced even more by the unadorned and whitewashed walls.  Sadly, this highlights another rather tragic feature of not only this church, but many within France today – the vandalism and damage suffered during more modern upheavals.  Many of the artwork both inside and out was heavily defaced primarily in the aftermath of the ferociously anti-Catholic French Revolution.
This damage is especially obvious in the defaced 10th-11th Century sculptures that sit above this church’s main doors.
However, some art did survive and the capitals of the pillars are all original to the structure, sporting intricate carvings depicting various scenes from Scripture and local mythology.
One of the surviving pillar capitals depicting warriors kitted out very much in the style of the 11th-12th Centuries.  Note the pointed conical helms, kite shields, and the mail coif covering the face of the figure to left. (Apologies for the image quality!)
Below, the crypt gives one a glimpse of the earliest architecture that can be seen, with a crude vault possibly dating as far back as the 6th Century.  Enshrined within is a small statue of the Virgin and Child that has been associated with the local Christian community since the 12th Century.  Although there are no survivng references to the Crusades, this was most likely the principle religious building at the time of Urban’s council in 1095.
Virgin's crypt and possibly the oldest portion of Notre Dame du Port.
Notre Dame du Port was soon eclipsed, however, by the impressive Notre Dame de l’Assomption Cathedral.  Straddling the main hill and covering the site of the old Roman forum, the Cathedral was begun around 1248 and, like many grand medieval cathedrals, was slowly added to over the next several centuries.  Built in the characteristic High Gothic style, its massive stained glass windows, delicate stonework, and soaring buttresses stand in marked contrast to its elder sister church’s thick walls and heavy pillars.  Another unique feature is the solid black color of the entire structure, as it was built almost entirely with the dark volcanic stone characteristic of the local area.

Again, the evidence of vandalism is strong here too – entire stained glass windows are missing and replaced with plain glass and much of the original medieval artwork inside is scrubbed away.  Thankfully, there are still a few specimens that can be seen, to include one that appears to show a crusader in mounted combat and a 14th Century depiction of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian that possibly portrays a bow modeled after the English longbows that were causing so much grief in France at the time.  Again, sadly, there are no references to Pope Urban or the Crusades within or without. 


Longbow?  Perhaps ...

In fact, there seems to be very little today of the Crusades in the city that witnessed the birth of the crusading phenomenon as a whole.  The only ones I could find were small medallions in the street depicting Pope Urban alongside others depicting other local greats, Vercigetorix and Blaise Pascal, and a school named for Godfrey of Boullion.
A lonely and little noticed memorial to a great man and an even greater event.
Perhaps the Crusades were never a major focus of remembrance here or, like so many other places in the modern West, the memory of its involvement in the Crusading era was deemed too problematic for preservation.  Either way, visiting Clermont – while certainly a worthwhile experience in itself – can be slightly disappointing for one seeking Crusading artifacts and references.  Perhaps it’s best to simply imagine what it was like to have been among the throng that November day, surrounded by the ancient forested volcanic cones of the Massif Central, and hearing those words that set all of Christendom aflame.

To be continued … on to Tuscany!
Rand L. Brown II is a Founding member of Real Crusades History.  He is currently on his way to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and will be sharing the experience with RCH members and fans as he goes along.

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