Deserted French Village

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A dilapidated church and some crumbling ruins in the process of restoration are all that is left of the village of Saint-Amans, set in the woods between Caylus and Saint-Antonin. A few mounds of stone hint at the former dwellings of long-gone inhabitants.

The place is now called Saint-Amans le Vieux (the old). Formerly, it was also known as Saint-Amans de Promilhargues. Perched on a cliff overlooking the valley of the River Bonnette, the view is magnificent.

The population of Saint-Amans le Vieux upped sticks and moved in 1892 to Saint-Amans le Neuf (the new). The ‘new’ village is a couple of kilometres away, closer to the road network. This week, our walking group chose a walk that takes in both villages.

A community had existed at Saint-Amans le Vieux since at least the first part of the 16th century, when the church was constructed, and probably long before. It was built on the foundations of a church formerly run by the Templars and then by the Chevaliers de Saint Jean of Lacapelle-Livron, one of the most important commanderies in the region. The cross incorporated into the stone above the church doorway is said to have been salvaged from the debris of the old Templar church.

In the light of some comments received since I wrote this (see below), I have done some more research. I haven’t been able to find very much about this village and I recognise that you have to treat a good deal of what you read on the Internet with caution. However, from a French site that is dedicated to Templar history, I found the following (my translation and paraphrasing):

Since the tithes were often insufficient to assure the maintenance of a church and the salary of its priest, the bishop had the power to entrust the church and its tithes to the keeping of a religious order established in the area, on condition that a kind of ‘minimum service’ was maintained. The Church of Saint-Amans [and another one in the area] were given to the Templars in 1271 and attached to this Commandery [Lacapelle-Livron].

The old presbytery, Mairie and schoolhouse are still there, being restored by the present owners. It’s not entirely clear why the people abandoned their village and moved to a new one. Although rural depopulation was starting in the late 19th century, it did not really gather momentum around here until after the First World War. It is clear, however, that scratching a living from this unforgiving land was far from easy. Around the old village, you can see enclosures bounded by stone walls. These were formerly fields, which have now reverted to woodland.

Further on, down the hill, is an abandoned farm, restored by a local association. In addition to the house and barn, there is also the original bread oven. It’s difficult to imagine living in such remote solitude. People were tougher then.

Dolmen appropriated by the Christian faith

One of the curiosities that we saw during the walk is this dolmen with an iron cross on top. 19th-century Christians perhaps sought to exorcise the ghosts of their Neolithic forebears by appropriating their burial place. They certainly didn’t see this as desecrating an ancient monument. This is an interesting example of one culture overlaying another. Or maybe they simply thought the dolmen would make a good base for one of the many wayside crosses that sit beside the ancient pathways.

I find it fascinating to imagine how people must have lived when this village was abandoned – not much more than a century ago. How things have changed over that period. At the end of the 19th century, more than 50% of people in France lived off the land; at the end of the 20th this figure had dropped to 4.3%. That says it all. 

Primitive wayside cross

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  1. And I meant to add, sorry, that in the 18th and 19th century the Church became very worried at the continuing superstition surrounding the dolmens and menhirs- the peasants would decorate them with flowers to protect themselves from illness etc (true in the UK too), as you suggest. Many were knocked down and it was commonplace that those that weren’t were appropriated by adding crosses and, often, associating them with Saint Martin to demythologise them, so that in some places (eastern Lot for example) Pierre Martine has become almost a generic term for dolmen


    • Thank you for both of your informative and helpful comments. I did wonder myself whether it was really a Maltese cross, but it was described like that in at least two guidebooks I consulted, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t believe everything you read. It seems to be generally agreed, though, that it was taken from the former Templar church which stood on the same site. I will do some more research on it.

      I was also interested in your remarks about dolmens. I had heard that many were destroyed, in which case it is fortunate that so many have remained in this area. The Causse de Limogne, not far from us, is particularly rich in them. I have never seen a cross added on top before, but this might have been more common in other areas.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble of commenting.


      • The causse de Iimogne is indeed an area rich in megaliths- there’s a cross on top of a menhir there at Saillac. I can think of a few more but not in that area. The top three depts for megaliths in France are Ariège, Aveyron and Lot in that order. The latter has at least 600 of which around 200+ are on the causse de Limogne. Of course sometimes the cross will be situated on a place where a megalith used to be, or sometimes alongside as near Gréalou. The man to look out for is archaeologist Dr Jean Clottes who has surveyed and written widely on megaliths and cave painting all over France


        • What an interesting ‘conversation’ this is turning into! I didn’t know Ariège was the top dept for megaliths – I had read that it was Aveyron. I also didn’t know about the cross on a menhir at Saillac – not terribly far from us, so I must go to investigate. You clearly know a lot about these matters. Thank you for the reference to Dr Clottes, which I shall follow up. In return, have you read ‘The Mind in the Cave’ by David Lewis-Williams, an expert on ancient parietal art? It proposes explanations for the origins of cave painting, using many examples from France as well as elsewhere. Whether or not you agree with his thesis, it’s a fascinating subject.


      • Yes, seems to be some vying for top position between Aveyron and Ariège. Can’t remember where I read that Ariège won out. I think it was in some proceedings from l’Association Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest or in that wonderfully erudite magazine Quercy Recherche, now sadly defunct, or indeed Dr Clottes. I was surprised it wasn’t Brittany where you can see crosses and megaliths aplenty. I haven’t read The Mind in the Cave- thank you for that. I shall look it up. There are some very good ones like the Anne and Gale Sieveking one and of course Geoffrey Grigson or the wonderful Glyn Daniel, The Hungry Archaeologist in France, or Francis Hitching’s Earth Magic ( a bit more wacky but interesting, pointing out that the word man or men meaning stone in a megalithic sense is common to countries as diverse as England and India not to be confused with a more modern one of similar title by Stephen someone)- all of them old and a bit outdated in many respects now, but useful for all that. As you say a fascinating subject. I wish I knew more. I merely dabble!


  2. I don’t think that IS a Maltese cross. A Maltese cross has eight points created by a V shape to the top of each arm, said to symbolise, variously, the 8 languages of the Knights’ Templar, the Beatitudes, the obligations of the KT and much else besides. The Knights Hospitallers used a cross that widened at the four ends but omitted the v-shape giving the 8 points. From the photo it looks like a bog standard cross. That’s not to say it couldn’t have come from a Templar establishment, just that it isn’t Maltese. Maybe the fact that it doesn’t seem to be flat counts as creating the eight points but it isn’t like any Maltese cross I’ve ever seen and there are lots of them around the French countryside, particularly the Gramat causse in the Lot.


  3. A lovely piece, as ever, Vanessa. I really enjoy the way you weave the history of a place in with your personal experience. Encore!


    • Thanks, Deborah. I am fascinated by the history of the area we live in and take every opportunity to find out about it. If only the stones could talk…


  4. With ever-rising petrol prices, I think we may soon say an increase in the number of people trying to live off the land. I’ve certainly noticed the cost of groceries going up in recent months. Our (second) polytunnel is ordered and on its way to help us grow more of our own food. I just hope this one won’t blow away like our first tunnel did!


    • Better luck with your second polytunnel. We, too, have noticed the rising prices: not just groceries but things like taxes foncières have gone up a lot in the past year, while our income has not kept pace. Some belt-tightening to come, I think.


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