The Legend of Saint Émilion (part 1)

We’ve been to Saint Emilion on several occasions.  It’s one of the “must-do’s” when friends or family come to visit.  Our friend “the Lizard” is a particular fan of Saint Émilion as she loves an excellent glass of wine or three, so when she blew in to Les Terraces for a 3-night flying visit last month we headed there for lunch.  Squeezing four into the car was a bit of a giggle, but we managed – just.

As I’ve said in other posts a legacy from my mother means that I am an inveterate visitor to historical places.  On the day we last went to Saint Émilion I vowed that I would take the tour of the Church of the Monolith.  Neither Graham, nor Liz nor Mo wished to accompany me, so I went to the Tourism Office and purchased a ticket for one person on the English guided tour.  After lunch at one of the restaurants in the Place du Cloche I left the three of them at the table and joined Audrey, the guide to whom I had been assigned with some 20 others.

We followed her down one of the town’s slightly perilous (particularly in the rain) steep cobbled paths to the original market square.  Audrey produced a ring of enormous keys from her pocket and opened one of 2 large gates and shepherded us all through into a small courtyard in order that we could visit first the Hermitage and then the Trinity Chapel.

The Old Market Square, St. Emilion
The Old Market Square in front of the Monolithic Church, St. Emilion

The tale of Saint Émilion (the man, not the town that was named after him) is colourful and, as for its first four hundred years was only a verbal history, it has undoubtedly been somewhat embellished.  In a nutcase, St. Émilion was born in Brittany in the early 700s and served an Earl of Vannes.  He was apparently in the habit of relieving the Earl’s kitchens of loaves of bread that he passed on to poorer people in the region.  One day his master challenged him as to what was hidden inside his coat.  Émilion replied “sticks”.  Not being believed he was required to reveal what he was holding.  Legend says that Émilion opened his coat and showed that he was indeed holding an armful of sticks.  It is said that they later returned to loaves of bread, and thus Émilion’s name was made.  It would appear that the poor chap was a bit of a reclusive personality and couldn’t take the popularity/notoriety that this miracle brought  him, so he ran away and joined a Benedictine monastery in Saujon.

How long Émilion stayed in Saujon isn’t clear, but seemingly life at the monastery wasn’t quiet enough for his liking either and he travelled south to the region known then as Ascumbas.  The terrain there was limestone, which was riddled with small caves caused by erosion.  Here he established a hermitage.  He had followers here too.  His disciples founded the village that is now called Saint Émilion.  Émilion, however, had nothing to do with the wine for which the town is now renowned.  That distinction falls to Valery, one of his disciples.

Audrey told us that St. Émilion’s fame was actually a bit of cynical engineering by the burghers of the town in the middle ages in the 1200’s.  One of the key routes of the pilgrim’s routes to Santiago de Compostela runs just north of the town.  It was highly trafficked, but none of the pilgrims came through St. Émilion.  They took a decision to build the Church of the Trinity immediately above Émilion’s hermitage and started “advertising” the legend of the Saint.  The tourists started to flock into the village.  They haven’t stopped for the last 900 years!

More on my visit to the Church of the Monolith coming soon.

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