Sunday, September 20, 2015

Eastern presence in pre-crusade southern France 11th century

La cathédrale Saint-Front, Périgueux source
Southern Franbce has, long before the start of the Crusades at the end of the 11th Century, been a gateway to the Orient. As Joan Evans describes in "Life in Medieval France" (Phaidon Press Ltd London, 1969, p 4-5: 

"In all the territory once belonging to Provincia Narbonensis, including Toulouse and a part of Guyenne, Roman influence is strong, but there is also a second influence, the influence of the East. The Mediterranean brought the whole coast from Nice to Perpignan and the country behind it into close connexion with half-Eastern Spain and even with Africa and the commercial cities of Asia Minor; the sea might be stormy, but it was safer than the highways of France. As early as the time of Charlemagne the coast towns had relations with the Bagdad of Haroun-el-Raschid, with Byzantium, Egypt, and Syria, and imported purple stuffs, spices, Indian pearls, Egyptian papyrus, and even monkeys and elephants.

Benjamin of Tudela, writing in 1160, describes Montpellier as a very good city for commerce to which Christians and Mohammedans come from all quarters to trade, so that its streets are thronged with Arabs of North Africa, merchants of Syria, Lombardy, Rome, Genoa, Pisa, and England.

Even when Southern France found herself in conflict with an Eastern people, as she did in 1018 when a Crusade was undertaken against the Moors, conquest only preceded assimilation. The leaders of the army gained great riches, and stayed to lead an Oriental life in Moorish palaces. A Jewish merchant has left a story of waiting upon one of these French leaders in his palace at Barbastro, and finding him in Eastern garments seated upon a divan, surrounded by evidences of his riches, while a tearful Arab girl played the lute and sang songs in a language that he could not understand.

Thus the Eastern element was important in the development of the life of the south-western cities in particular. Indeed, the foundation of Montpellier itself is traditionally ascribed to fugitives from the Saracen city of Maguelone, destroyed by Charles Martel in 737. From its considerable Arabic and Jewish population may be derived the tradition of medical knowledge, which in the twelfth century made Montpellier second only to Salerno as a University of Medicine. Another sign of Eastern influence is the Oriental character of the architecture of P~igord, as Eastern as that of St. Marks at Venice. Saint Front de Périgueux, built after 1120, shows the classical single nave, without divisions or side chapels, surmounted by a characteristically Eastern series of cupolas."

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