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fortified churches
mostly in Les Landes

defending against the French, or against the English

beta release

Lencouacq church, west facade

index :

fortified churches in Les Landes
resin enriches the département, while impoverishing its heritage

some history
why fortified churches were built

fortifying a church
meurtière / arrow slit
bréteche
in detail: église Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis
bell wall / clocher-mur
the motte

fortified churches in detail
 
Saint-Georges-de-Maremne
Lesgor
Beylongue
Sarbazan
Roquefort-des-Landes
Magescq
Montfort-en-Chalosse
Baigts
Lencouacq
Saint-Sever
Rion-des-Landes
charming, smaller churches
Église Saint Vincent, Tarnos
Église Saint-Loubouer, Saint-Loubouer
 
on stone
on decoration
some examples outside Les Landes

bibliography
end notes

 

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The département of Les Landes was a very poor region with a few very rich peasants, riddled by wars, malaria, leprosy and much else. Almost every village has a church, even the very small communities. The church was a refuge in times of strife, and also a meeting place.

Medieval fortifications overlaid on Lesgor church, with sheltering villagers.
Medieval fortifications overlaid on Lesgor church,
including breteche, fighting platform, meurtieres, tower

The nineteenth century and half of the twentieth was a time of wealth in a large part of Les Landes, thanks to the exploitation of pine resin.

In modern times, some places have become richer and over-restored their churches, sticking on a rather tacky spire, while other more down-at-heel communes have left their church nearer its original state to varying degrees. There is a meddlesome enthusiasm for rendering everything accessible is whitewash and plaster. Thus do church decoration and structural elements become lost or buried. It is difficult to find arches clear of such 'enhancement'. Fortunately, these modern vandals always miss something, thus I have found useful examples of naked arches at Taller and Pontonx, and unencumbered exterior walls at Mezos.

Some communes have become rich, some poor over the centuries. Without the money, the history and the natural aesthetic have not been wiped out by crude rendering and gross appendages. Thus this page will start with a representative sample of interesting and illustrative churches from around the département of Les Landes.

Searching the public records has enabled the uncovering of evidence of the destruction, at that time, of the fortifications of several, particularly interesting churches, which is a real loss for Landes' history of art, study of fortification (castellology), and heritage.

resin enriches the département, while impoverishing its heritage

Paradoxically, this prosperity was particularly bad for many Landaise churches. Some communes, at this time, had considerable financial means and were tempted to transform their old church, or destroy it in order to rebuild it, so as to match their new social status. Thus, some churches were destroyed and rebuilt without real necessity, and this destruction was sometimes prevented only by the commune's poverty.

Paradoxically, it is in the communes that remained poor at that time that the fortified churches are often the best preserved.

An extreme of a rich parish 'upgrading' their historic church is Rion-des-Landes.

some history

In many parts of France, particularly in the south-western regions of medieval conflict, there can be found fortified churches. These were made to provide secure shelter for its congregation and local inhabitants, as well as being a religious meeting place. Some of these churches were built as part of the towns defensive wall, even with the tower being also the town's gate tower as at Montégut [see also Bastide towns: Monpazier, pearl of England and Bastide: Beaumont-du-Perigord].

Based to the great part on shifting sands blown in from the Atlantic that covered mainly sedimentary rock, Les Landes had not much suitable stone available for local land owners and lords to castle build. Thus the churches, which were being built to last, developed the dual roles of religious sanctuary and local fortification to defend and protect the local population.

When the very early churches first built, they were built in an era of invasion and attack from aggressors that included marauding pirates, Saracens, heretics and brigands. For instance, in 982, Norman [Norsemen or Viking] invaders were beaten back by the Duke of Gascony's forces, aided by those from Saint Sever. Local lords also employed mercenaries to pillage towns when the lord was not paid. This all gave birth to insecurity.

Other threats soon arose with the Franco-English (or Anglo-French) conflicts, then the wars of Religion, and later the Fronde (a series of civil wars between 1648 to 1653).

Les Landes remained a patchwork of small 'pays', local lands with many being ancient viscountcies, until 1790 when the département of Les Landes was created to become the second largest département of France after Gironde. At first, the département was divided into four districts whose chief towns [chief-lieux] were Mont de Marsan, Dax, Tartas and Saint Sever. Mont de Marsan, Dax and Tartas competed for leadership of the département, with 'certain protagonists' leaning towards dividing the département in two, to separate Dax and Mont de Marsan. In the end, it was Mont de Marsan that became the chief-lieu of Les Landes, its capital and home of the prefecture, while Dax holds the sous-prefecture and the bishopric of Landes.

"In order to stay close to home many communities fortified their villages: some built walls, others used a monastery, mill or, most commonly, the parish church as a centre of defence. A church offered various advantages as a defensive structure. It was, typically, a stout building, and it benefited from protection by canon law: to attack it was an act of sacrilege, although this rarely served as an effective deterrent. A church might also have a bell-tower, which allowed the village to keep a look-out and warn of approaching soldiers. Sometimes churches were fortified with a lord's assistance, sometimes villagers acted independently."
[p.52-53, The hundred years war: a people's history]

why fortified churches were built

The Imperial-style roof and breteche at Poyartin church'Flat-pack' church at ArueIn this poor region with few castle forts, the only refuge in stone was often the church, so the parishioners fortified that according to their means. abelard.org knows of maybe two hundred or more fortified churches in the département of Les Landes, depending how the categorisation is made. There may well have been more, but over the last thousand years human and natural erosions have made some into ruins and others to become unfortified.

Some, but not all, Landaise churches are fortified at least to some degree. Then there are churches that were once fortified, but have been transformed through 'modernisation', like at Rion-des-Landes which was rebuilt in 1866.

Many of the fortified churches have been 'improved' by the addition of a roof to the square, often crenellated tower. Frequently, the roof is further 'modernised' by being made as an Imperial-style roof : a fancy, slate, pointy bath hat, as at Poyartin [left].

There are some churches that are the equivalent of flat-pack constructions, chosen from a catalogue and looking pretty standardised and personality-less, but maybe adorned with a fortified motif or two, like arrow slits, rather like go-faster stripes on cheap cars [right].

abelard.org looks in some detail at fortified churches that exemplify particular characteristics of the fortified church,or other characteristics of note.

fortifying a church

Several defensive systems were used by the inhabitants to obtain a more efficient resistance of their church.

  • Building the church on a high point, whether a mound (a motte) or a hill, gave the defenders of the church a good view on any approaching invaders.
    Also, being on higher ground put any attackers at a disadvantage as they would have fight gravity when ascending the hill as well as the church walls
    Further, a high point with a small surface area would have the same effect as a talus in making ladders and other siege equipment less usable or unusable. (Baigts).


  • Lesgor church from estern end showing the rounded apseA high up military level was added to the building, usually an overhanging walkway that inhibited wall-scaling invaders, while providing defenders a direct view below (Lesgor, right, and Magescq). In the early days, before the 11th century, access to this walkway, and to the higher floors of the tower, was by ladders. During the 11th century and after, often narrow spiral staircases were built to access at least the lower levels. These stairs were called vises, sometimes vyses. (The modern French word for a screw is vis.) These may been as a supplementary, smaller tower next to the main tower. This tower may be hexagonal or octagonal.


  • A rounded east end of the church, the apse [right], ensured there were no dead corners behind which the enemy might hide.
    To the right, is the eastern end of the church at Lesgor showing the rounded apse. (The series of windows just below the roof mark the military walkway.)
    The church at Beylongue, unusually, has both ends rounded.


  • Encircling the church by a protective enclosure made an obstacle for the assailants, rather than areal defence (as at Roquefort; and the cemetery wall at Montfort-en-Chalosse may also have played such a rôle).
    Lesgor church from eastern end showing the rounded apse

  • The talus [right], a sloped portion at the base of a fortified wall, provided an effective defence in several measures.
    Conventional siege equipment was less efficient against a wall with a talus.
    Scaling ladders may be unable to reach the top of the walls and the ladders were more easily broken because the large angle of slope caused bending stresses.
    A siege tower could not approach closer than the base of the talus, with its gang plank often unable to reach across the horizontal span of the talus, making them useless.
    Defenders could drop rocks over the walls, shattering on the talus and spraying stone shrapnel at attackers at the base of the wall.


  • But the most frequent defensive system is the presence of an efficient centre of resistance: the tower.
    Monfort-en-Chalosse Monfort-en-Chalosse eglise at Lesgor
    The tower is frequently built to the west, as at Montfort-en-Chalosse, Saint-Geours-de-Maremne and Lesgor, but sometimes installed at the chevet [eastern end of the church], as at Roquefort and Sarbazan. The tower was militarised by the presence of loopholes, or arrow slits (meurtrières), and often contained a safe room under the eaves. Another defensive feature was the bréteche, from which boiling water and other vile liquids and solids would be poured onto attackers (a bréteche is often found over a doorway).

meurtrières

A meurtrière is the generic name for arrow-slit or loophole. They can be further divided into archières, cannonières and archière-cannonières.

It is difficult to date fortifications created in the 14th century, then reinforced in the 16th and 17th centuries, but they can be dated by the loopholes.

First appearing in the 12th century, meurtrières were transformed from simple slots into crossed arrow slits, archière cruciforme or arbalètière in the 14th century, when crossbows became a common weapon. Then, when gunpowder-powered firearms became widespread in the XVIth century, the slits were carved out to include a round cannon hole at the base. Horizontal slots in the meurtière also provided a wider viewpoint for the defender.

Archières are more sophisticated versions of different shapes, can be used to date the fortifications.

  • An archières à étrier (stirrup) is a arrow-slit where the base of the opening was enlarged to facilitate the shooting downwards, the opening looking a bit like a stirrup.
  • an archières cruciforme or arbalètière is an arrow-slit that designed for use with crossbows (this became a common weapon by the late 14th century,)
  • a cannonière was designed for using with cannon having a shelf on the interior that widens out, enabling the weapon to be swept from side to side to give a wide range of firing.
    a archières pour couleuvrine being a sub-type for use with a hand-held mortar.
    A meutrière à musquet has a round hole at the base of the slit to allow a musket to be fired.

A cannonière, interior view.

a cannonière,
interior view

cannonières or meutrières à musquet
cannonières or meutrières à musquet
Crude meutriere, possibly for cross-bow

A meurtière, interior view.

[Above] Although from the outside meutrières look long and narrow, on the inside the side walls spread in a wide angle. This allows both several defenders to access the same arrow slot and enables these defenders have as wide an angle of view as possible. Crude meutriere

safe room

Imitated in in current times, this room of last resort was constructed under the eaves, close to the military walkway on high. Safe rooms are often marked by openings in the church wall close under the roof's eaves. See, for example, Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis. Many of the safe rooms that were on a floor above the main body of a church were destroyed, along with the defenders' fighting platform around the top of the church (and and under the eaves if there was a roof at that time), when churches were 'improved', modernised, with vaulted ceilings in the nave. From Lesgor to Arujanx, many are the churches that have lost almost evidence of safe rooms, except the window openings high up under the eaves.

bréteche

Eglise at Bascons

Eglise at Bascons

A bréteche is a small, rectangular, structure that juts out from the fortified building, overhanging an entrance way, so defenders can throw down, or let fall, projectiles onto approaching assailants. On military fortifications, a breteche could be a room cantilevered over the defensive walls below. As well as arrows, sometimes more prosaic projectiles included stones, pieces of wood, white-hot sand, or burning materials: containers filled with pitch, sulphur and saltpetre, molten lead, or boiling water and liquid lime when the fortification has a well or cistern. (The use of boiling oil, a valuable product and therefore expensive, requiring much time and firewood to be boiled, was extremely rare, even though it is often mentioned in popular culture.) The deposits from latrines and rotting food waste might also be thrown down.

Bréteches would not generally be used as latrines, one might receive an arrow up a delicate and unprotected part of the body! Also, a latrine would not be placed above a doorway. Note that it is plausibly said that latrines only had/have two projecting supports, while bretèches had three or four exterior supports. (A third, central support would rather impede waste disposal while using an aerial latrine.)

Eglise at Bascons Eglise at Bascons
Left, above, right: Breteche above the west door at Bascons church.
Unusually, the churches at Bascons and Maillières have two breteches. At Bascons, there is a bretèche at the east and west ends of the church, while Maillières church has a breteche at opposite sides of the tower.

Above: Breteche at Maillières, with neighbouring window space that may also have been fitted with a bretèche.
Note the platform at the interior, there is another such at Lesgor.

There are vestiges of bréteches visible on various other churches, such as Lesgor, Bascons, Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis; while, as can be seen in the old engraving below, there used to be a bretèche at Saint Sever.
One of the best preserved bréteches seen is that at Maillières. Another is at Lesperon. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, for safety reasons, there is no access to the tower and the interior. However, abelard.org was given access to the interior of the bretèche at Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis (see just below).

In detail : église Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis

First built in the 12th century, this very small fortified church has the impressive remains of stone supports for a bréteche protruding over an entrance way, now filled in except for a small window.

A general view of the fortified church at Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis
A general view of the fortified church at Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis

Defenders using a breteche.


Defenders using a breteche.
Note: The openings for the bretèche would have been protected by a stone or, perhaps, wood housing.
Here, such housing has been excluded for reasons of clarity.
Eglise, Saint-Laurent-en-Parentis

A close view of the tower, showing the protruding supports to the bretèche,
and also how the doorway the breteche defended has become a window.

Etymology of bretèche
There are several conjectures as to the origin of the word bréteche. One fairly plausible suggestion is that the word is a corruption of "British", this fortification said to have been imported by British invaders, in the rather the way an early brand of vacuum cleaner, Hoover, was/is a common name for such a machine, the fridge which comes from the brand Fridgidaire. See this end note for more details.


bell wall / clocher-mur

In the early Middle Ages, in the 1100s (or twelfth century), churches were commonly built with a dedicated bell wall, that substituted for a bell tower or belfry from reasons of expense, dearth of stone for building, or local tradition, or a combination thereof.

A bell wall is an architectural element, a vertical, flat wall at the top or front of a building, usually churches, built to to accommodate bells. On a church, the bell wall is placed as the west facade.

This type of belfry can be seen throughout France, especially on churches regarded as of little hierarchical importance. Some regions, especially in the southwest, have made bell walls a characteristic, often pleasing, architectural feature. The bell wall is widespread in the Iberian Peninsula and South America, and more rare in Italy.

  Bell wall without bells, Nerbis
Bell wall without bells, Nerbis
Buanes church
Above: Buanes church
This church has two bells, accessed by an iron ladder way and platform.
 
  Eglise at BasconsAbove, Bascons church
This church has four bells, rather than the more common two or three bells.
Bell wall for six bells at Saint-Quitterie, Aire-sur-l'Adour
Bell wall for six bells at Saint-Quitterie,
Aire-sur-l'Adour
 

Because the bell wall was introduced early on, it is useful in helping to date a church. See, in particular, the church of  Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Arjuzanx [etymology] where the main body of the 12th century church was fortified during the wars of religion (15th or 16th centuries) by adding buttresses, the fortified bell-tower and later an adjoining tower.

The Church of St. John the Baptist at Arjuzanx
The Church of St. John the Baptist at Arjuzanx

Inside the porch-tower at Arjuzanx, with its arrow slits and the probable remains of a breteche, is the badly damaged vestiges of the original west door, that was built into the bell wall when that was built. Note its archivaults have been brutally damaged, almost destroyed, most likely by Republican revolutionaries who, according to local sources, also destroyed the high altarpiece.

st door of Arjuzanx church enclosed within the full-height porch
West door of Arjuzanx church enclosed within the full-height porch

The church at Arjuzanx is an imposing building, within whose interior is a hidden jewel of mural painting and decoration.


Nerbis eglise
Nerbis church with bell-wall. This lithograph shows the church and convent, as well as the fortified cemetery wall, now virtually disappeared.
From La Guienne historique et monumentale, volume 2, by Alex. Ducourneau, published in Bordeaux, 1844


the motte

In the long past, many village churches in Les Landes were built on higher points, including the artificial heights of a major heaping of mud, rocks, and stones called a motte.

Examples of churches built on or near the protection of a motte include those at Baigts, Lencouacq, Estibeaux, and Nerbis.

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fortified churches in detail

Of the 150 or so fortified churches in the département of Les Landes, a proportion clearly exhibit one or more defensive attribute, or are notable in other manners.

Monfort-en-Chalosse

Saint-Georges-de-Maremne :

The west porch-tower is very massive and flanked by a polygonal stair tower.
The tower is built to a height that defies scaling its walls.

eglise at Lesgor

Lesgor :

One of the best preserved fortified churches in Les Landes, despite its more recent roof, that includes a belfry on the tower portion.

There is a marked line, a change in stone, that divides the first, primitive church, and the later addition. This is particularly visible on the apse (to the east) and the 12-metre tower (to the west). At first this added level would have had no roof, being a open-air defensive platform and walkway. Later, the roof was added to protect defenders from arrows and the weather
At the end of the Wars of Religion, in the 15th century, a slot window on the south side was enlarged into a Gothic window, while the three large buttresses at the eastern end were added in the 17th century.

There is the remains of a large bretèche defending the main door, which can be reached from the defensive platform around the nave. There are also a variety of meurtières below the roof.

The wall surrounding the cemetery was once higher, the first defence against attackers.

Note also the primitive, flat, full height buttressing that supports the building against outward pressures.

Double-apsed church at Beylongue

Beylongue :

This area was occupied by the Romans, including a camp a bit further north-east from the site of this church. The church itself, constructed between 1075 and 1125, was built on the site of an iron-age necropolis.

This very early, small church was built at a high point that surveyed the surrounding country before the widespread planting of pine trees from the mid-nineteenth century. It has two apses aiding observation and defence, that at the west being added later to the donjon tower.
The is also a defensive walkway below the nave roof
[It is believed that this village's name is a corruption of vue longue, long view.]

Fortified church at Roquefort
image: landesenvrac-blogspot-com

Sarbazan :

Constructed with a short nave and flat chevet, the church of  Saint-Pierre apparently dates back to the eleventh century. It was probably built, in part, of recycled stone.

In the twelfth century, the church was enlarged to the south by a bay on which a semi-circular apsidiole was grafted.

It was fortified in the fourteenth century by the addition of a high defensive tower pierced with cross-shaped loopholes. Beside the tower is a safe room.

Fortified church at Roquefort

Roquefort-des-Landes :

During the Gothic period of the 13th century, when the local population expanded, the 12th century apse was pierced by six windows and raised, with enormous buttresses added to support it. A fortified tower was grafted onto the north apse. The defences are completed by a surrounding wall reinforced by towers, built at the end of the16th century, during the Wars of Religion. (To note, in the south facade is a small low opening with an indented lintel, now blocked, that was the lepers' entrance.) Replacing an older, more modest doorway, the main, Flamboyant doorway, built in the 15th century, is decorated by carved pinnacles, vegetative crosses and statues.
[Church viewed from south-west.]

Fortified church at Magescq Magescq :

A walkway crowns the nave and a crenellated safe room prolongs it to the east on the vault of the Roman choir. The tower, adorned with an imperial-style roof, like at Montfort, is much later.

Fortified church atMontfort-en-Chalosse

Montfort-en-Chalosse :

the original 12th century church was built on a small hill, a little south and apart from a bastide town. The church was enlarged in the 14th century when the square tower was added to the nave. This church still retains the high wall enclosing both the church and cemetery, a wall which was often been lowered after the wars of religion ended, as at Lesgor.

Baigts :

Built on a mound or motte as a defensive measure. Note the motte has been much domesticated over the centuries.
The tower, with its 1.2 m thick walls and meutrières, was originally the keep of a former castle that once stood here.
The upper part of the bell tower was rebuilt in 1910.

Lencouacq church, west facade
Church at Baigts, looking up at the west facade from further down the motte.
Note how the motte has been 'tamed' by walls, plantings and flower pots.
There is a further rise from the road below

Lencouacq church, west facade
View looking westwards along the church, illustrating how the church is high up above the village houses.

Lencouacq :

Previously, the commune of Lencouacq was much more affluent, affording the construction of a wide west front with many architectural motifs, and a large domed squared apse at the east.

This is a church built on a motte (an earth mound) so attackers are at disadvantage by having to approach uphill.

Lencouacq church, west facade
Lencouacq church, west facade
Lencouacq church, apse viewed from the north
Lencouacq church, apse viewed from the north

Saint-Sever:

This church is unusual. It started with just a central aisle in the nave, with its apse. To this was added, by the end of the XIth century, the six minor apses, or apselets (absidiole). The presence of seven parallel and stepped (échelonnées) 'apselets' form a very complex chevet (eastern end) in the Benedictine style are witness to a sort of revolution in the concept of the edifice during its construction.

To the three classic apses of the initial plan have been appended four others. But the central apse, the highest and widest, was almost entirely rebuilt in the XVIIth century, while several of the minor apses have been reworked, covered in rendering, so there is only one minor apse that still has its original Romanesque coloured decoration.

There are 150 capitals on columns, of which 77 are identified as Gallo-Roman and Romanesque. The polychrome capitals decorated with lions date from the eleventh century. The Corinthian capitals have figurative decorations and story-telling capitals. They had the function of teaching Christian culture.

Saint-Sever-sur-Adour Abbey west facade
Saint-Sever-sur-Adour Abbey in 2015
Saint-Sever-sur-Adour Abbey1684 engraving
west facade Saint-Sever-sur-Adour Abbey facade in 1684, engraved by Rouargue in 1845
Note that the breteche on the right side of the tower now no longer exists.
Saint-Sever-sur-Adour Abbey1684 engraving, enlargement
Enlargement of the main happening in the engraving above, which probably shows the presentation of the relics of Saint Sever,
evangeliser of Gascony beheaded by the Vandals in the early sixth century. These relics are now kept in the central apse.
Right: Floor plan of Saint-Sever abbey church

Smiling lions on a column's capital
Above: Smiling lions on a column's capital
Floor plan of Saint-Sever abbey church

Rion-des-Landes :

Extensively rebuilt in Gothic style, while conserving the Romanesque, richly decorated, west porch and facade. This town is now less rich than in the heyday of the forestry industries.

In the 11th century, a Romanesque church was built. In the 16th century, the church was rebuilt and heavily fortified, apparently "the most beautiful of its type in Landes". The cemetery outside the church had 5-metre high walls, a metre thick and crenellated all round. The church included a quadrangular tower with three floors that defended the entrance door beneath the tower. The walls of the church, over a metre thick, were in dressed stone. The stairs to the room above the nave vault and to the tower walls built en colimaçon - in a circular helix (coming from the Norman word, calimachon, meaning snail).

Over the vault was as much floor space as that of the church

In 1864, when the Rionnais had become rich, the church was pretty well destroyed - it was decided to build a new church to accommodate the then rapidly increasing population.

Rion-des-Landes church
Rion-des-Landes church, from south-west
12th century doorway [portail] with six Sarrancolin marble columns.
12th century doorway [portail] with six Sarrancolin marble columns.

charming, smaller churches

Église Saint Vincent, Tarnos :
Built in the 12th century, this church, whose interior glows like a jewel, has been disfigured by too numerous restorations in the 19th century. Thus, the tower-donjon and the bell tower beside it are now slathered in immaculate white rendering, as is almost all of the rest of the building.

Tarnos church
Above: Saint Vincent Church, Tarnos, from the north-east

Right: The interior of Saint Vincent Church
The interior of Saint Vincent Church, Tarnos

Église Saint-Loubouer, Saint-Loubouer
Here is a church that was repeatedly sacked, practically razed to the ground twice, then rebuilt during various wars of religion.

Saint Loubouer church, viewed from the east
Saint Loubouer church, viewed from the east

The church of Saint-Loubouer, in the village of the same name, was founded by its namesake, along with a Benedictine monastery next door. All went well until, in the Xth century, Queen Jeanne d'Albert, Queen of Navarre and holder of great swathes of land in Bearn and Les Landes, converted to Martin Luther's Protestantism, then termed Huguenotism. In her fervour, Jean Albret laid waste to much of Les landes, destroying Catholic churches, killing priests and monks, as well as those slow to convert. Saint-Loubouer was one such church that was almost razed to the ground, leaving just the tower and the end of the apse, the monks fleeing to Saint-Sever. Much of the stone was then taken by locals to rebuild and repair their homes.

In due course, when things had quietened, the church was rebuilt using some of the original stones recovered from pilfering locals. Instead of the elegant columns with carved capitals, stones were stacked into stolid square-sectioned pillars. Some of the original carved capitals were added to the top of these new pillars, while the rest now line the exterior wall, made of dressed molasse block

Saint-Loubouyer church, interior view
Saint-Loubouer church, interior view showing the hotchpotch of several episodes of rebuilding after various religious attacks

on stone

The reason why churches were so often fortified is that they were built of stone, solid stone. In Les Landes, a department created from millennia of sand drifting inland from the Atlantic ocean, creating a sandy landscape of dunes, marshes, often silting rivers and large ponds, known locally as étangs. Thus stone was and is not easily available in large quantities, while much is sedimentary rock, crumbly and relatively soft.

Out in these unspoilt, untamed lands, often floors are tiled with simple patterns of two or three colours.

Altar at Church, Mont de Marsan

Many altar pieces have insets of what are imitation marbles painted on wood in two or three colours. These are fairly peasant handcrafts, done in a spirit of simple piety, within the capacity of what has often been a poor, countryside département.

 

Sample of molasse rocks amongst pine needles.molasse

During the Mid-Miocene epoch, between 11 and 16 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean invaded the Aquitanian Basin, including Bas-Armagnac. The sea laid down continental deposits that are now grouped under the general term of “Fawn-coloured Sands”. These continental deposits include molasse - sandstones, shales, or even gravel [see to right] - that were laid down as shore or foreland layers containing fossils of many terrestrial species. Bas-Armagnac soil is composed of clay-silicate layers, covered by ochre sands and a fine clay now used for making ceramics. From these deposits are produced elegant brandies with delicate bouquets, particularly with nuances of prune.

 

 

 

 

 

galuche (or galoche)

There is another rock that was found in some parts of Les Landes - galuche (or galoche), a dark lumpy rock that contains large quantities of iron ore. This gives the rock a dark red hue. Because of the iron content, galuche was often quarried and smelted as part of one of Less Landes' former industries. The stone has now been worked out and the forges are now silent, although some towns still hold a memento of this industrial period in their names : Pontenx-Les-Forges, the Les Forges Restaurant at Castets. Another reminder is the use of this brown-red stone for building. Houses and churches have dark stone included in their walls, and sometimes with churches, they are built entirely in galuche.

Now galuche is easily eroded by rain, so most frequently galuche buildings are hidden in a drab overcoat of concrete, known as crepi in French, or a heavy lime plaster (chaume). Fortunately, in one town - Mezos, as part of restoring their heritage, the local worthies had the protective disguise removed to reveal a unusual but magnificent church.

church at Mezos
Mezos church

Right: Close-up of part of the galuche (and mortar) wall at Mezos church

Close-up of part of the galuche (and mortar) wall at Mezos church

on decoration

Before the advent of the suppression of manifestations of joy its many forms: Calvinism, Puritanism, Protestantism or, in France, the Hugenuots and the French Revolutionaries - walls were brightly, heavily decorated with coloured designs and patterns, as well as mural pictures.

As a quick method of hiding these signs of fun and happiness, many gallons of whitewash were used the turn walls pristine, pure white. This happened widely in churches, as well as, less often, in buildings for living. Now, in the twenty-first century, archeological restorations are finding both fragments and extensive areas of wall decoration. Other churches have been fortunate enough in France not to have been desecrated in this fashion. Below is a small selection from decorated churches in Les Landes.

Decorated wall, Arjuzanx (with metal angel)
Arjuzanx
: decorated wall (with metal angel)

Decorated altar wall, Pissos
Saint Sever: Side chapel of chancel.
(Note: the wall painting in the body of the abbatical church has been mostly removed
.

Decorated altar wall, Pissos
Pissos: Decorated altar wall


Levignacq: part of the 19th century painted ceiling

wood panel of the Assumption and !john the Baptist preaching
Arjuzanx: towards west door with imposing painting.
This wall painting is badly damaged, particularly the surrounding part painted directly onto the wall.
The central painting on canvas dates from the 17th to 18th century. It is a copy of Reubens' Descent of Jesus from the cross. The canvas is about 33 by 5m, and is surrounded by a mural painted directly on the wall of desert and a clouded sky.
The canvas was rescued from its place as part of the original high altarpiece (retable) when that was destroyed in 1793 by Republican revolutionaries, according to local sources.

wood panel of the Assumption and !john the Baptist preaching
Reubens' Descent of Jesus from the cross

Decorated wall, Arjuzanx (with metal angel)
Levignacq: part of medieval painted interior

some examples outside Les Landes

Beaumont-du-Périgord (Beaufort)
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees.

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bibliography

Fortress-Churches of Languedoc. Architecture, Religion and Conflict in the High Middle Ages
by Sheila Bonde

Fortress-Churches of Languedoc by Sheila Bonde

Cambridge University Press, hbk, 1994
ISBN-10: 0521450845
ISBN-13: 978-0521450843

amazon.com
amazon.co.uk

pbk, 2008
ISBN-10: 0521052025
ISBN-13: 978-0521052023

$35.99 [amazon.com]
£23.99 [amazon.co.uk]


Eglises, chateaux et fortifications des Landes meridionales du moyen âge à nos jours
by Raoul Deloffre
Churches, castles and fortifications of southern Landes

Atlantica, 2000, pbk
ISBN-10: 2843942101
ISBN-13: 978-2843942105

amazon.com
£20.74 [amazon.co.uk]

Churches, castles and fortifications of southern Landes from the Middle Ages to the present
In French, the author has a particular interest in the geology of the region and the origin of the stone used in each building.

Patrimoine Landais... Villages et Visages des Landes au début du XXe siècle
by Serge Pacaud
Villages et Visages des Landes au début du XXe siècle

Edition Communicaton-Presse-Edition [CPE], pbk, 2004
ISBN-10: 2845032943
ISBN-13: 978-2845032941

amazon.com
amazon.co.uk

Landais Heritage... Villages and faces of Landes in the beginning of the twentieth century
Short histories of each village and of interesting local characters, together with population statistics from the 19th century. Illustrated with many old photographs and postcards.

The hundred years war: a people's history by David Green

Fortress-Churches of Languedoc by Sheila Bonde

Yale University Press

pbk, 2015
ISBN-10: 0300216106
ISBN-13: 978-0300216103

$25.00 pbk [amazon.com]
£14.99 [amazon.co.uk]

 

hbk, 2014
ISBN-10: 0300134517
ISBN-13: 978-0300134513

$40.00 [amazon.com]
£22.00 [amazon.co.uk]


12,000 landais morts pour la France en 1914-1918 by Genealogique des Landes
12,000 landais morts pour la France en 1914-1918

Atlantica

hbk, 2005
ISBN-10: 2843947200
ISBN-13: 978-2843947209

£26.86 £14.99 [amazon.co.uk]
amazon.com

12,000 dead amounts to about 4% of the population of Les Landes at that time.
The great majority of the war dead were aged between 20 and 40 years old and, of course, predominately male, that is about 18% of the male population (see demography chart below). Life expectancy just before the war was roughly 55 years for women and about 49 years for men.

Population of France, 1913
Note: the missing population at about 43 or so years is the result of the German war against France in 1870.


Dictionnaire Toponymique des Communes : Landes et Bas-Adour by Bénédicte Boyrie-Fénié et al.

Dictionnaire Toponymique des Communes : Landes et Bas-Adour

 Editions Cairn

hbk, 2005
ISBN-10: 2350680118
ISBN-13: 978-2350680118

amazon.co.uk
amazon.com

 

end notes

  1. motte
    A motte is flat-topped mound of earth, by the Middle Ages often man-made, on which was built a wooden or stone defensive structure, a tower or keep.
    [French: Old French mote: mound. This word is also the origin of moat, a defensive water-filled ditch surrounding a castle, including its motte (!).]
    Wooden keeps were designed with a bretasche, a square building that overhung from the upper floors of the building.

  2. talus
    French; Old French talu: slope; Latin - talutium: gold-bearing slope or talus; Vulgar Latin - talutum: slope, side.
    Also, Latin for the ankle bone.

  3. hierarchical
    The Catholic Church is organised with a three-tier hierarchy: Pope, Bishop, Priests. A church building only under the supervision of a local priest is/was given less priority for funds and other resources. 

  4. bréteche
    There are several spellings of this word, whose origin is generally obscure. Etymological origins suggested are bretesche = fortress in wood, where breit eiche means great oak; A bretèche, also called bretessé or bretesche or bretasche (Old French, from the low Latin brittisca «British [fortification] » , then «parapet» during the Xe siècle). Although the hypothesis cannot be ascribed to any source, it is supposed that this type of fortification was imported from Great Britain.

  5. La Fronde (1648-1653) / the Fronde
    A series of relatively minor disputes by different sectors of French society and the absolute monarchy during the regency of Anne of Austria and the Ministry of Cardinal Mazarin (Louis XIV, born in 1638, was still a child). Although they were united against monarchical absolutism and Mazarin fiscal policy, various disputing actors of these disorders maintained their irreconcilable motivations and aspirations. Officers of the Court, including parliamentarians, protested against increased powers of stewards and the king's Council; aristocrats will no longer accept being excluded from positions of power in favour of mere low-born clerks; the bourgeoisie and even the people, experiencing poor harvests, were exasperated by the increase in taxes engendered by the war against Spain.

    In modern France, government rebels, and smaller groupings against current government policy or actions, are called Frondistes.

  6. The concept of the flat chevet is characteristic of buildings obeying requirements of the Cistercian order, which renounced curves on the outside of the church. Also, churches of modest size include a flat chevet because the construction of buildings with a single nave and a flat chevet is cheaper.

  7. donjon
    The donjon is the highest tower of a castle, serving as an observation point, a firing post, and as the last refuge if the rest of the fortification is about to be taken by the enemy. The donjon also serves as the residence of the castle’s lord [seigneur].

  8. chateau
    Castle. In French, the word chateau can be a very irritating word, because it can mean both what is usually thought of as a castle - a stone fortress with crenellations and so on, and what the French so often mean - a great and grand mansion, with nothing defensive at all.

  9. sarrancolin
    Sarrancolin is a multicoloured marble extracted in the village of Sarrancolin, in the Hautes-Pyrénées department. The quarries were exploited extensively under the reign of Louis XIV, and from 1692 they were considered "royal quarries". The Sarrancolin marbles generally feature a light background patterned by reddish veins and grey/green intrusions. This marble is also known as Fantastico, Opera Fantastica, Opera Fantastico, Opera Fantastique, Rosaire.

  10. Arjuzanx : etymology
    Originally, Aas Juzan, which comes from the Latin "arx" or citadel, and was described as a fortified mound above a marshy valley, ou «juzan» [Gasc.] below, where flows the local river, the Bez.

    The church " sanstus Johannes de As Suzan ", is shown on the map of the churches of the diocese of Dax in the XIIth century (Liber rubeus).

  11. Full entry in the national inventory of Historic Monuments describing this painting, the central portion shown below.
    Arjuzanx: wood panel with the Assumption and John the Baptist preaching (XVIIIth century)
  1. Rion : etymology
    The origin of Rion's name remains mysterious. Written sources only go back to the eleventh century. Here follows a list of names for Rion, with the dates or periods of each naming:

    Arrione - XI-XII c. [Sanctus Martinus de Arrione]
    Rion - 1255
    Arrion - 1278 [Affar, feit of Arrast & of Arrion]
    Ryon - 1299, Ryons -1305
    Pion - on seventeenth century map
    Arrion - 1638, Arion - 1647, Arrion - 1651
    Pion - early eighteenth century
    Rion - 1714
    Arrion - 1733

    In general, older texts provide the most reliable suggestions. According, ARRION is certainly the name that was used earliest, a name pronounced in Gascon [arrioun '].
    The meaning of the name seems relatively well-to-do, given its composition : Arrius -and the suffix -one, "the domain of Arrius". A Gallo-Roman dignitary or military awarded for his merits by being given this domain, a common practice throughout the Roman Empire.

  2. Central panel/painting of a triptych by Peter Paul Reubens that shows the Visitation, the Descent from the Cross, and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
    Antwerp, 1612–1614.

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