Roaming the Ramparts of Aigues Mortes

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Towers and Ramparts of Aigues Mortes, Tours et remparts d’Aigues-Mortes, Aigues Mortes, France

The most impressive feature of the little city of Aigues Mortes is its admirable walls.  These may not be on as grand a scale as those of the much-lauded Carcassonne – but I’ve not been there, so I’m in no position to compare them.  They’re certainly dinkier than the walls of Dubrovnik, as well as being considerably easier and less frightening to walk.  Even on a hot day the route is not daunting, because you get plenty of stop-off points in the towers that punctuate the route.

Entry into the Ramparts of Aigues Mortes, France

There isn’t a great deal to see when you look inwards, apart from the tiny little city streets set out in their neat little grid system, but the route does go past the salt-marshes, which makes for a nice view when you look outwards.

The towers hold small exhibition spaces.  These could be used better.  The history of the town is interesting, and quite unique, so they could do more to really bring it alive.  They’re obviously trying, though, so I shouldn’t complain.  There were information boards (in French) and they did attempt to tell some stories from Aigues Mortes’ history, but there wasn’t much in the way of artefacts – which to me makes any display immediately more engaging.  So the trowel, shown below, might have been a dull object to some visitors, but to me it was interesting because it shows the work that went into building these ramparts – it’s a tangible connection with the past.

Protestants and Aigues Mortes

And the fact is, the history of the ramparts is in many ways the history of Aigues Mortes.  The city was created by King Louis IX – as discussed in my post on the town – who wanted to set up a French port on the Mediterranean, in the days when the other viable port options along the coast were owned by foreign powers.  The walls were necessary to help protect the city from enemies, as was proved in 1286, when the city was attacked by the Aragonese.

The towers that punctuate the walls were later used to hold Protestant prisoners, during the frequent bouts of persecution that flared up until well into the 18th century.  Aigues Mortes was a protected Protestant residence from 1576, and in 1598 Henry IV signed the Treaty of Nantes, which bought an end to the religious wars in France.  Protestants were allowed to have certain civic rights and the liberty to worship as they wished.  This was a ‘fundamental and irrevocable law’.  However, Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV, revoked the Treaty of Nantes and he wasn’t beyond using violence to get people to convert to Catholicism.

Basically, people were given a simple choice: convert or leave.  Louis XIV’s new Edict of Fontainebleau removed all the rights of the Protestants, and within weeks of the new edict, 2000 churches were burned, and villages were massacred.  Many left.  Many converted.  Those who would do neither were imprisoned, sentenced to death or sent to the galleys.

Abraham Mazel

One famous incident concerned Abraham Mazel.  He was the leader of the Camisards – a group of Huguenots of the Cévennes region in the south of France.  They were basically agricultural workers and artisans who simply wanted to keep practising their religion and were determined to resist the new edict.  Under the leadership of teachers, known as ‘prophets’, the peasants of Cévennes held out against the Catholics.  The prophets were exiled or executed, after which  the congregation fell under the leadership of less educated, more mystical leaders – like Abraham Mazel, a woolcomber.  He compared the Catholic church to the Beast of the Apocalypse and had appropriately dark, prophetic dreams which he used to support the cause.

In 1702, François Langlade, the Abbé of Chayla, arrested and tortured a group of seven Protestants whom he accused of attempting to flee France.  The Camisards, led by Mazel, peacefully asked for the release of the prisoners – but naturally the request was refused, and, unwisely, the Camisards retaliated by killing their enemies – including Langlade.

This was a turning point in relations, and the nastiness on both sides was stepped up.  The army attacked the Camisards, and they attacked back.  Massacre was paid back in massacre, and terrible atrocities were carried out by other groups who just took advantage of the instability and took revenge on old enemies.  Peace only came after 1710, when the Protestant minister Antoine Court arrived in Cévennes and reestablished a small Protestant community that was largely left in peace.

But what of Mazel?  Well, he was arrested in January 1705 and placed in the Constance Tower in Aigues Mortes.  No doubt some unpleasant fate awaited him, but he didn’t wait to find out.  In July of that year, he and sixteen other men escaped by dislodging stones in the six metre thick wall.

Somehow, Mazel made his way to Geneva, a Protestant haven that had taken in many Huguenots, but he then travelled to Lausanne, where he received a pension as an officer of the ‘Camisard Regiment’.  By November he got into trouble by getting involved with Savoyard partisans and had to flee to England.  There he joined a group of ‘Cevennes prophets’.  He return to rabble-rousing in France in 1709 and got himself shot in 1710.

Marie Durand

In the meantime there were Protestants still imprisoned in Aigues Mortes.  From 1715, only women were held there.  Around 38 women shared the small space and lived in terrible conditions.  Some recanted, others were pardoned.  Marie Durand was the most famous prisoner of this period.

The Durand family was fiercely Protestant.  Her father organised secret assemblies for services – and it was at one of these meetings that her mother was arrested.  She later died in prison.  Her brother Pierre Durand was a famous preacher and was killed in Montpellier in 1732.  The reasons for her arrest probably lie in part in her brother’s activities, the fact that her father was imprisoned, and because she married a man in a Protestant ceremony.  Her husband, Mathieu Serres, went to the same prison as his father-in-law, and the eighteen year old Marie served 38 years in the tower, being finally pardoned in 1768.  Upon her release, she returned to her childhood home, living on a pension of 200 livres given her by the Walloon Church of Amsterdam.  She shared the money with a neighbour who had returned from the galleys at the age of 73.  Marie died in 1776.

It is said that the word ‘Resister’ which is scratched into the walls of the Constance Tower was written by Marie Durand – whether this is true or not, she became a formidable symbol of resistance with her plucky survival and her refusal to give up her faith.

So In Summary

Getting to walk round a city is always quite fun, and the views that you get from Aigues Mortes are attractive.  If you’re going to visit the town, and you’re physically able to scramble up and down stairs, I’d recommend the ramparts as a charming way to see the lay of the land.  The exhibitions highlight some aspects of this little city’s interesting history.  It would be nice if they added some extra bits of information for the non-French speaking audience, and even nicer if they could add more artefacts, but as it is, the experience works fine.

Further Information

There is a fee for walking the walls, but all information is available via their website – and in English too!:

How To Get There

Aigues Mortes is not a large place – there are signs in town that will guide you, but one easy way of knowing where to go is by looking out for the Constance Tower, with its distinctive little extra turret, and the entrance is by that.  For how to get to Aigues Mortes, please click through to this post.

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