Travels in Burgundy: Vézelay to Cluny October 2 2013

Vézelay countryside
Vézelay countryside

The novelist Persia Wooley offers very sound advice when she suggests that a historical novelist should, whenever possible, visit the places she is writing about. Not only is there a good chance that this will provide additional material and inspiration, but also actually experiencing the terrain (one thing that time has probably not changed that much) can save the writer from a number of unfortunate mistakes that anyone who knows the area would pick up on immediately!

Hence my drive from Vézelay to Cluny through the endless hills and valleys of the Morvan convinced me that there was no way a 12th century traveler in his right mind would have taken this route (so chapter 2 of Holy the Sword goes right into the “circular file!”). The region, though now a beautiful national park, was as recently as the last century a well-known hideout for resistance fighters against the Germans and today one can find crosses in the most remote places marking the sites of executions. Dense forests still cover much of the land that would have surely been infested with outlaws and various other desperadoes in Rohan’s day. It took us a good 2.5 hours by car to travel from Vézelay via Chateau Chinon to Autun  – a distance of about 60 miles, winding up and down through the lush countryside, and I don’t mind admitting that I felt a bit carsick by the time we arrived and definitely happy to be out of there! Rohan will have to find another route home!

 

Bernard of Clairvaux in the Basilica of Mary Magdalene
Bernard of Clairvaux in the Basilica of Mary Magdalene

Holy the Sword begins in Vézelay in 1146 when a young 15-year-old named Rohan de Brancion hears the great Bernard of Clairvaux preaching his famous sermon calling on Christians to take up their swords against the Saracens and drive them out of the Holy Land. This was the beginning of what became known as the Second Crusade (though I use the term “crusade” and “crusader” in my book, these are in fact anachronisms that only came into use in English in the 18th century, but because they are so familiar I stuck with them).

Rohan is inspired by what he hears, though no doubt Bernard’s bloodthirsty exhortations might cause a modern audience to wince and wonder how this guy ever became a saint (even today, Bernard’s mystical writings are read with respect and allowances made for his excesses which, in fairness, it must be said he later regretted). My quotes in Chapter I from Bernard’s sermon in Vézelay on Easter Sunday, March 31st 1146 are his actual words e.g. “cursed be he would does not stain his sword with blood” (i.e., Saracen blood). In any event after encountering Bernard, Rohan decides that he too is going to take up the sword and the cross and get himself to the Holy Land. The only problem is he is the illegitimate

Cross marking where Bernard gave his famous sermon inciting the 2nd Crusade
Cross marking where Bernard gave his famous sermon inciting the 2nd Crusade

son of a notorious robber baron and therefore not knightly material. Of course, being a bad guy was no disqualification for this Holy quest: in fact, one of the reasons the Church was all for the crusades was that it got rid of a lot of troublemakers who were terrorizing Europe and destroying “the Truce of God”. What better way to get rid of them than pack them off to the Holy Land? And for those who had serious crimes to expiate, going on crusade was a good way to get right with God again, and avoid some of those nasty things that happened to bad guys in purgatory – a good deal all around.

Rohan of course is too young to have much on his conscience (that is to come). The problem was his base birth and, even more importantly, his lack of land and money. However, he is both an optimist and an idealist and so is undeterred by the discouraging words of his two older (and legitimate) half-brothers. He is further inspired a day or so later by the sight of the retinue of the King of France on its way to Cluny, and particularly by the young man dressed in gold who carries the King’s standard riding at their head – visions of himself similarly attired bearing the legendary “Lance of Christ” into battle and driving the Saracens before him dance in his head: an impossible dream perhaps, but one that fires his imagination and determination. Still, we can’t have him snuffed out in the “first reel” on the road home from Vézelay so tomorrow we’ll be exploring alternative routes!

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