Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Saissac and the Mysterious Treasure Hoard


The first of the Cathar strongholds Phil and I visited was Bram, a town along the Canal de Midi. Built in concentric rings around a late medieval church, there is no sign of the castle that once stood there, so we didn’t stay longer than it took to find batteries for my camera.

Bram is the sight of one of the most gruesome incidents of the Albigensian Crusade. After capturing Bram, Simon de Montfort sent the hundred survivors to the castle of Cahours. Sounds like an act of mercy? Not for de Montfort. The defenders of Cahours looked out their gates to a horrific sight: a staggering line of soldiers, minus noses, lips and eyes, guided by one survivor to whom de Montfort had left the use of one eye.

As for Bram itself, de Montfort’s army levelled the place. The charming town there today grew up after the Cathar crusade.

From Bram we drove the 30 kilometres into the Montaignes Noire (Black Mountains) to the next Cathar castle we planned to visit. During the drive I filled Phil in about Simon de Montfort.

After Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian Crusade, Simon de Montfort was given charge of the crusading army. He was the father of the Simon de Montfort who gave the King Henry III of England so much trouble a generation later.

De Montfort started in the north and worked south across Languedoc with a ruthlessness that earned him a reputation for butchery. He took the city of Beziers and slaughtered the entire city’s population. To be fair, the massacre was not entirely de Montfort’s decision. He asked the papal legate what to do with the prisoners and was told, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

From there he moved on to Carcassonne, the seat of the Trencaval family, who held the Languedoc as vassals of Count Raymond of Toulouse. Carcassonne quickly fell under the pressures of starvation, thirst and the August heat. By the time the crusading army reached Saissac, de Montfort’s fearsome reputation had become a weapon in itself.

The village of Saissac
Coming up from the plains, you can see Saissac long before you get there. When you get close it’s a different story. Perched on a v-shaped outcrop projecting a vertical escarpment in the Montaignes Noires (Black Mountains), you actually have to go downhill, through the village of Saissac to get to the castle itself.

Entrance to the castle from the village
Even so, with only one, narrow wall accessible to anyone approaching the castle, and that protected by a deep moat, Saissac should have been impregnable.

But its lord, Bertrand de Saissac, abandoned the castle rather than give his fealty to de Montfort, who by that time had been given all the lands held by the Trencavals. Bertrand then became one of the faydit – Languedoc lords who were condemned by the Church and technically considered heretics and outlaws. He would have been a man on the run. Eventually he joined Raymond Trencaval in his unsuccessful attempt to recapture Carcassonne and the Languedoc. Interestingly, a part of the fief of Saissac was eventually restored to Bertrand and his heirs by King Louis IX.

The other part Saissac – which included the castle -- remained in the hands of the crusaders, who took control of the fortress for the King of France. And this is where the next interesting bit of its history appears.
In 1979 a treasure trove was found by construction workers helping to stabilize the castle walls. Hidden in a clay pot buried in the ground, it consisted of 1954 deniers and 3 obules, dating between 1180 and 1270, with the bulk from the mints of Kings Louis VIII and IX).

The money represents a turning point in the history of European currency. Towards the end of the Carolingian era (9th century) the king lost the exclusive power to mint coins. By the 11th century, local lords were minting their own – and by the 12th century, there were a multiplicity of local mints, all on a small, artisan level. On a political level, this independent state of coinage reflected the independent local sovereignty that was the reality throughout southern France. The King of France might call himself “king”, but the fact was, he had little power beyond central France. And this was particularly true in southern France, where Count Raymond of Toulouse was almost a king in his own right.

For the King of France, the Albigensian Crusade was an opportunity to consolidate his power over southern France, all legitimized by a religious cause.

Once Louis VIII gained control of Languedoc, he forbade the minting of local coinage and made his own coinage the sole legal tender of the realm. The Saissac treasure trove must have been accumulated during that period in history. The majority of the coins are from Louis VIII’s and his successor’s mints, but the handful of locally minted coins shows that a few of them were still in circulation.

How the hoard got there is the subject for much speculation. A denier is the medieval French equivalent of a penny. (In fact, the British system of pennies, shillings and pounds came to England through the Norman conquerors.) Two thousand deniers would have not been a lot of money – enough to buy a cow, or two or three sheep, or a nice set of clothes for a common man’s wedding, or food to keep a family through a winter. So this is obviously the savings of a villager, not the treasure of the Lord of Saissac. 1270 marks a period in which the faydit Languedoc lords made one final attempt to regain their lands. Possibly the villager hid his savings in hopes of keeping it out of the hands of marauding armies. Then something happened to prevent him or her from returning to reclaim the coins.

View out over the plain toward Carcassonne
Today, with the exception of the one building restored as a museum for the treasure trove, most of Saissac is in ruin. It covers three terraces, running downhill to a narrow point looking out on the plain. As a fief of France, the castle was expanded and held against the Protestants during the Wars of Religion during the 16th century, but it eventually fell into ruins after the French Revolution and was the subject of major looting during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Figuring out what was where has challenged modern archaeologists, who are still at work. Structures aren’t always what they seem. Ovens look like dungeons, storerooms like castle halls.  What appear to be defensive structures for pouring out boiling oil along the castle’s edge, for example, are actually medieval latrines. I found myself fascinated by some multi-coloured stones at what would have been floor level -- but have no idea what they once were.

Vicky's mystery stones



  1. Geesh. Montfort sounds a charming fellow - the description of the survivors is chilling. I did find myself wondering how he felt after the papal legate told him to kill everyone, though. Did he feel contempt for the church at that point? Was he sorry to have to follow orders? All the names you mention remind me of Kay's Song for Arbonne. LOL

  2. Guy Gavriel Kay used Catalonia -- which is the Languedoc-Rousillion area -- as the model for at least one of his fantasy worlds.