Yesterday morning I cycled up to Roussillon for the weekly market and to sit on the wall enjoying the view and the vivid colours of the Ochre cliffs that define the village.
When I arrived it was lovely & quiet and I popped into the Boulangerie to buy breakfast, where I ended up chatting to a couple of ladies about a large group of students, walking around the village apparently carrying out a survey, wondering what they may be asking. It wasn’t long before I was approached to answer the questions that they had on their sheets.
On the whole they were general questions about Roussillon, its industry and local symbols, but one question in particular made me smile – Do you know the legend of Roussillon? …… apparently I was the first person they had spoken to that day who had even heard of it!
Of course science tells us that the bright colours of the Ochres were formed millions of years ago, starting when Provence was covered by the sea & shifting as it emerged as a mass of land.
However Legend tells a much more romantic tale of an illicit love affair that ended in a tragedy that shifted the colours in the cliffs to the vivid red, orange & gold that we know today and that are so different to the surrounding soils.
The story was set many centuries ago when the Chateau in the village was home to Lord Raymond of Avignon and his wife Lady Sermonde. Such a Chateau would undoubtedly have had quite a reputation and saw young men and women coming from miles around to work there and establish themselves as part of the ‘household’. One of these young men was Guillaume de Cabestan, (son of the Lord of Cabestan in the High Alps) who arrived to work as a page, whilst also learning ‘knightly ways’ as an apprentice to one of Lord Raymond’s Knights.
So far so good, but Legends are never simple tales!
As was probably typical of the time, Lord Raymond was a passionate hunter & would spend lengthy periods away from home, apparently happier spending time with his fellow huntsmen and horses than with his wife back in Roussillon.
Over time the almost inevitable happened and Lady Sermonde & Guillaume de Cabestan fell in love. Guillaume continued working as a Page at the Chateau, but his feelings for his lover started to work their way into his songs, raising the suspicions of other servants, who ultimately reported their concerns to their Lord and master.
Contrary to what you may think, or realistically expect of the time, Lord Raymond didn’t confront Guillaume immediately, but instead took him away on a hunting trip finding a suitable opportunity to turn the conversation to the Page’s relationship with his wife. Guillaume was clearly very astute and admitted to being in love – not with Lord Raymond’s wife, but actually her sister Agnès.
Lord Raymond felt he needed more than Guillaume’s word for this so he extended the trip to visit Tarascon to talk to Agnès about the affair. In fairness to Agnès, she quickly realised what was happening and being loyal to her sister played along with Guillaume’s side of the story.
As with all good legends though the story doesn’t end there and takes a dramatic turn when they return to the Chateau.
Lady Sermonde was far from happy with Lord Raymond having challenged Guillaume over their relationship, but was equally as angry with Guillaume for not acknowledging their affair and demanded that he write a song about their love.
We all know that logic tends to go out of the window when you’re in love, so rather than thinking through the possible fallout of such a song, Guillaume wrote the song his lover had asked for.
When Lord Raymond heard it he took his revenge. Once again Guillaume accompanied him on a hunting trip, but this time Lord Raymond stabbed him in the back, cut off his head and then finally cut out his heart, taking it back to the Chateau for the cook to serve it to his wife in a spicy sauce.
By all accounts the meal was excellent and thoroughly enjoyed by Lady Sermonde, until her husband told her the ingredients of the dish!
Understandably horrified that she had eaten her lover’s heart she announced that he had given her such a meal that she ‘never wanted to taste anything again’
Before he could stop her Lady Sermonde ran from the Chateau and threw herself off the cliffs below, her heart utterly broken by what had happened.
As she fell to her death her blood covered the cliffs staining them the colours we see today with a spring bursting into life where she fell.
It goes without saying that it is a truly tragic story of an illicit medieval love affair, which needs to be told. All too often these wonderful stories disappear with time and from the students reaction they were surprised to find someone who had even heard of it.
I can’t imagine a time when the souvenirs in the village reflect this sad tale and I’m not sure promoting the Ochres as being the colour they are due to blood would be a great marketing ploy, but it’s a story worth telling & I’ve never looked at the colours in the same way since I first heard it.
I do hope that perhaps next time you visit the village you may take a moment to think of ancient storytelling and this desperate tale of medieval love just to keep the Legend alive ……
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