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PROVENCE - Chapter 1

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Provence is a historic province in southeastern France along the Mediterranean Sea. AIX-EN-PROVENCE was its capital. The area is now divided into the départements of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Hautes-Alpes, Var, and Vaucluse. Wheat, wine grapes, olives, and rice are grown there, and sheep are raised.

Pre-historic Times

Since the land bridge from Europe to Africa, over what is now the Straits of Gibraltar, survived until relatively recent times, it is no surprise that traces of inhabitants have been found in this area dating as far back as 30,000 BC. Skeletons adorned with shell and fishbone necklaces and bracelets have been uncovered in the coastal Rochers Rouges outside Menton, indicating a hunting, fishing, gathering culture. DolmenHowever, the first impact that man had on the landscape was in Neolithic (New Stone Age) times, evidenced by the building of long barrow burial mounds, known as dolmen. These were actually a series of upright stones supporting a capstone, forming a chamber in which to lay the dead, and then covered with earth. Due to the terrain of southern Provence, too rough and too warm to support the great mammals, the staple meats of early inhabitants were ibex, red deer and rabbits; this explains the notable absence of cave paintings depicting the hunt, which were immortalized by cave-artists in western France.

Quite suddenly, a precocious Neolithic revolution in south-west Provence replaced hunting with a pastoral culture, which coincided with the first domestication of wild animals in western Europe. This new culture has been at the root of Provençal life ever since, although industrialism tried to supplant it for a brief time. In the Vallée des Merveilles above Tende, there are tens of thousands of rock carvings, thought to be evidence of Bronze Age shepherds who came each summer to these inhospitable highland valleys. All of these semi-nomadic shepherds, along with traders in skins and salt, wore into the landscape the first recognizable tracks which would become the waymarks for Roman engineers arriving much later to construct their stone-slabbed highways.


Early semi-nomadic shepherds, perhaps driven to the stony plateaux around Bonnieux and Gordes by other farmers who had settled on the richer, lower ground, built the first free-standing stone buildings, known as bories. These bee-hive-shaped huts were constructed from the flat slabs of limestone (lauzes) which littered the fields. With walls up to 1.5m (4.5 ft.) at the base, a roof was constructed using a technique known as false corbel vaulting, with each lauze overhanging the one below slightly, and tilted at an angle to drain off rainwater. The temperature inside the bories remained relatively constant through the seasons, and the buildings were popular from the Iron Age through the 18th century, both as dwellings and as tool sheds or animal pens. Today, there are still about 3,000 of these structures scattered throughout the Lubéron hills and the Vaucluse Plateau.

Celtic and Ligurian Cultures

Before the arrival of Greeks and Romans, Provence was inhabited by Celtic tribes north of the Durance, and by Ligurians to the south. The Celts were a Germanic tribe, while the Ligurians had come from the northwestern parts of Italy. Ligurians built the first oppida, defensive positions of drystone walls at vantage points. Traces of these heaps of stones may still be seen on some hilltops; the one at Chastelard-de-Lardiers in the Lure Mountains was also a major religious sanctuary. Examples of the strangely beautiful Celto-Ligurian art can be found in many of the area's museums.

Greek & Roman Civilization

Traders from the Eastern Mediterranean had been sailing the waters along the Provençal coast from at least 1000 BC, but it was not until 600 BC that Phoenician navigators founded a OlivesGreek colony called Massalia (now MARSEILLE). In trading with the natives, it was the Greeks who introduced the grape vine and the olive to the area. During the next several hundred years, establishing trading posts to both the east and west along the coast, the Greeks peacefully penetrated the Rhône valley. Massalia's expanding commercial power clashed with Carthaginian and Etruscan interests, and the town sided with Rome during the ensuing Punic Wars. When Rome acquired provinces in Spain, Massalia assisted by keeping open the land route and subscribing a fleet which hastened the Carthaginian defeat at sea.

Antibes and Nice, both outposts of Massalia, came under attack by pirates in 181 BC, but Rome came to the rescue. In 125 BC, Rome once again defended Massalia against invading Celts. Largely as a result of Massalia's increasing reliance on Rome's military prowess, and to protect their lucrative trade route with Spain, the Romans established Transalpine Gaul, the first Roman province in France, by 121 BC. Garrisons were installed in towns between the Alps and the Pyrénées, and the huge Provincia Romana -- of which today's Provence is only a fragment -- was created.

It was around this time that the strategic highways were built, of which traces can still be visited today. The Via Aurelia (or Aurelian Way) was the main artery connecting Rome with Spain, following the Italian coast to Nice and Fréjus, then proceeding inland through Le Luc, Aix, Salon and Nîmes (essentially the same route that the RN7 takes now). Following the Herculean route that Hannibal had taken during his invasions,Via Domitia descended the mountains by way of Embrun, Sisteron and Apt to join Via Aurelia, while Via Agrippa led north from Arles to Avignon, Orange and St Paul-Tros-Châteaux. In all, the Romans built thirteen thousand miles of roads in Gaul, a small part of the two hundred thousand miles they built throughout the Empire.

During the seven years of rule under Julius Caesar, Marseille's power declined and Arles gained supremacy. Provence prospered during Roman rule, particularly during the reign of Augustus. Natives could become Roman citizens, and Roman law was tolerant of alien religions, as long as Rome's absolute authority was not questioned.

Frankish Rule

The decline of the Western Roman Empire was heralded by invasions from the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Ostragoths. After c.536, the Franks controlled the area. Subjected to frequent invasions by Moors in the 8th century, the area was defended by the Frankish king CHARLES MARTEL, who defeated the Arabs at Poitiers in 732. The 8th century was one of the most tragic in Provençal history. Saracen raids were continuous, not only from the sea but also from their settlements near Hyères and St Tropez.

From 855 until 863 the area was part of the First Kingdom of Provence, and from 879 until 933 it became part of the Kingdom of Arles. In 1032, Provence was absorbed by the Holy Roman Empire.

Middle Ages

A local dynasty ruled until 1113, when the House of Barcelona gained control and brought about the highest period of Provençal literature and culture. The ANGEVIN dynasty of Naples ruled most of the area after 1246; the popes took up residence at AVIGNON in 1309, remaining until 1376. During the Angevin period the Estates, or assembly, provided some local autonomy. In 1481, Provence was willed to the French crown.


After the Romans had withdrawn across the Alps, two main languages evolved in France: the langue d'Oïl in the north, and the langue d'Oc in the south, derived from the words used for 'yes' ('oïl' eventually became 'oui'). Oc was spoken throughout an area now referred to as Occitania, which encompassed Gascony, Rousillon/Catalonia, Provence and Savoy. The regional name Languedoc is a reminder of these Occitan origins. This was a language embraced by the troubadours, the minstrels of the southern French courts, and so it became the language of romance and courtliness. However, the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts decreed in 1539 that the northern form of French should be adopted nationwide for administration and commerce. From that point on, Oc -- now known by the more romantic name, Provençal -- was used only in villages and by peasant folk, and was regarded as unsophisticated.

Pockets of the language survived nonetheless, and in the late 17th and early 18th century, interest in the dialect was revived as southern France took an interest in its cultural heritage. Frédéric Mistral (b. 1830 in Maillane, north of Arles) was foremost among a group of writers called the Félibrige, who sought to re-establish the language. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904, Mistral composed his great works Mirèio and Calendau in Provençal, and compiled a dictionary and reference book from collected examples of the language, a book which is still used today.

According to the Ethnologue, edited by Barbara F. Grimes (13th Edition, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.), there are currently about 250,000 fluent speakers of Provençal in France -- mostly over the age of 50, and 800,000 with some knowledge of the language (1990 P. Blanchet), primarily in southeastern France, in Provence, south of Dauphiné, the region of Nîmes, and in Languedoc. There are a number of dialects of Provençal: Transalpin, Niçard (Niçois), Maritime Provençal (Marseillais, Toulonnais, Varois), Gavot (Alpin, Valeien, Gapian, Forcalquieren), Rhodanien (Nimois), and Dauphinois (Dromois), though no variety is universally accepted as the standard literary form. Across the border in Italy, roughly 100,000 people of all ages speak the Transalpin dialect. It should be noted that Provençal and Languedocien (Occitan) are distinctly separate languages. Even within the dialects of Provençal, Niçard and Northern Gavot (Valeien and Gapian) are more difficult for other dialect speakers to understand. Through increased contact in the army and in school, most speakers are actively bilingual in French. The regional French has a lot of Provençal influences, and the pride of the citizenry has helped to increase the status of Provençal as a literary language. In recent years, a strong demand has even surfaced to teach the language in school and to provide books in Provençal.
(see also: Provençal Poetry Database, compiled by Professor Akehurst at the University of Minnesota)

Recommended Reading:


Alphonse Daudet "Letters From My Windmill" ; M.F.K. Fisher "Two Towns In Provence" ; Marcel Pagnol "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des Sources" ; Laurence Wylie "A Village In the Vaucluse".

Bibliography: 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v9.0.1. A Year In Provence, Peter Mayle, 1991, Vintage Books, division of Random House, Inc., New York. The Road from the Past - Traveling Through History In France, Ina Caro, 1994, Doubleday, division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., New York. The Riches of France (A Shopping and Touring Guide to the French Provinces), Maribeth Clemente, 1997, St. Martin's Griffin, New York. Fodor's 97 France, Fodor's Travel Publications, New York. Provence & Côte d'Azur Visitor's Guide, Richard Sale, 1996, Hunter Publishing Inc., Edison, NJ. Edible France - A Traveler's Guide, Glynn Christian, Jenni Muir, 1997, Interlink Publishing Group Inc., Brooklyn, NY.

Chapter 1:

Provençal History & Language

Chapter 2:

Provence Geography & Climate

Chapter 3:

Cities and Regions of Provence

Chapter 4:

Traces of Roman Civilization

Chapter 5:

Shopping, Cuisine, Provence Links

Nostradamus bust

Physician, Astrologer, Prophet
~ and son of PROVENCE ~

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