The Walls of Avignon

By Thomas Oakey


Intimately associated with the history of the palace of the Popes of Avignon is that of the unparalleled circuit of walls and towers which defended the city from the scourge of organized robber bands during the fourteenth century. The earliest quadrilateral fortifications embraced a relatively small area consisting of the Rocher des Doms and the parishes of St. Agricol, St. Didier, and St. Pierre; these walls, demolished and rebuilt on a more extensive scale in the twelfth century, embraced an area easily traceable on the modern map, from the Porte du Rhone, round the Rues du Limas, Joseph Vernet, des Lices, Philonarde, Campane, Trois Colombes, to the Rocher.

It was these fortifications that the Cardinal St. Angelo forced the citizens to raze in 1227. Until the acquisition of Avignon by Clement VI., the city was an open one and only defended by a double fosse. The origin of the papal walls has already been traced, and their subsequent fate may now be briefly given. The assaults of the Rhone proved more destructive than human artillery. The walls and towers having been hastily raised, towers fell by reason of bad foundation, and the upkeep of the fortifications was a continual drain on papal and communal finances.

In 1362 an irresistible flood of waters overthrew the Fortes St. Michel and Limbert, and large breaches were often made by these recurring inundations. Moreover, the expansion of the city of old and the need of access to the suburbs involved frequent displacement and opening of new gates. In 1482 the whole system of the defensive works was modified to meet the new situation caused by the introduction of gunpowder. The gates most exposed to attack were further defended by outworks, that of St. Lazare having been fortified during the rule of Giuliano della Rovere by the addition of a powerful bastide, with three round towers, a drawbridge, a new fosse which communicated with the great fosse before the main walls. Other modifications took place during the Huguenot wars.

Notwithstanding many repairs during the intervening centuries, the fortifications had, under the second Empire, suffered sad degradation, and at length Viollet-le-Duc was entrusted with their restoration. The famous architect set to work on their southern side and had completed about one- third of the restoration when the disastrous issue of the Franco-Prussian war arrested all further progress until the Third Republic feebly resumed the task. The walls along the Rhone, especially useful in time of flood, were backed with stone, their battlements and machicoulis renewed. The visitor, however, will need no reminder that the present passive aspect of the ramparts conveys but a faint impression of their former state, when a broad and deep fosse, seven feet by twelve, washed their bases, above which they raised their once impregnable curtains full thirty feet.

Two of the old gates have been demolished--the Porte de Limbert in 1896, and the Porte de l'Oulle in 1900--the former, many times repaired, was the only existing example of the external aspect of a medieval gate, the latter had been rebuilt in 1786 in the Doric style. A new gate, the Porte Petrarque, now the Porte de la Republique, was erected by Viollet-le-Duc when the walls were pierced for the new street; the Porte St. Dominique is also new. These noble mural defenses, three miles in circuit, twice narrowly escaped demolition--at the construction of the railway, when they were saved by a vigorous protest of Prosper Merimee, and in 1902, when, on the pretext that they blocked the development of the city, the municipality decided to demolish the unrestored portions. Luckily the intervention of a public-spirited Prefect of Vaucluse proved successful, and they were again rescued from the housewrecker's pick. No visitor to Avignon should omit to walk or drive round the famous ramparts.

Their stones have been subjected to careful scrutiny by antiquarians and the masons' marks (tacherons)--about 4,500--carefully examined and reduced to about four hundred and fifty types. Opinions differ as to the meaning of these curious signs, but there is little doubt that M. Maire's suggestion is the correct one--the workmen were paid by the piece, and each had his own private mark which he cut on the stones he laid and thus enabled the foreman to check his work.

We begin at the Porte du Rhone, and skirt the older part of the walls on the northwest with their different style of corbels and machicoulis. M. Maire has no hesitation in assigning this portion to the time of Clement VI., by reason of the coarser nature of the masons' marks. Turning southwards, we pass the Porte St. Dominique, and reach the Porte St. Roch (formerly the Porte du Chamfleury, and only opened at plague times) and the Porte de la Republique. We soon note the unrestored portions, the site of the old Porte Limbert, and turn northward to the Porte St. Lazare.

Before we reach this gate we may fitly make a digression, and in pious memory of a great Englishman, fare along the Avenue du Cimetiere to the grave of John Stuart Mill, who with his wife lies buried within the cemetery under an elder-tree on the right and toward the end of Avenue 2. A plain stone slab bears the well-known inscription to Mrs. Mill's memory --the noblest and most eloquent epitaph ever composed by man for woman. It is pleasant to remember that Mill has left golden opinions of his gentleness and generosity behind him at Avignon. His house, a charming little hermitage approached by an avenue of plane trees not far from the cemetery, was sold in 1905, and a few relics were bought and still are cherished by the rare friends the somewhat self-centered philosopher made in the city. The present owner has preserved the library and study, where the "Essay on Liberty" was written, much as it was in Mill's days.

To the peasants who met the tall, bent, spare figure, musing and botanizing along the country lanes and fields, he was known as "Monsieur Emile." Before he left the city on his periodical visits to England, Mill was wont to leave 300 francs with M. Rey, pastor of the Protestant Church in Avignon: two hundred for expenses of public worship; one hundred for the poor, always charging M. Rey to write to England if any further need arose.

Mill, a great Englishman of European fame, to the amazement of his French friends, was followed to his last resting-place by no more than five mourners. As we write news comes that the civic authorities have decided to recall to posterity the association of the great thinker with Avignon by giving the name of Stuart Mill to a new boulevard, and that a bust has been unveiled to his memory near the pleasant city he loved so well. Mill was much gratified that his pamphlet on "The Subjection of Women" converted Mistral to the movement for their enfranchisement, and their legal equality with men.

[28] From "The Story of Avignon." Published by E.P. Dutton & Co.