Narbonne: Power and the People

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!

9 Responses to Narbonne: Power and the People

  1. Guy Savage says:

    Off topic: for your love of architecture, have you seen Deception? Not Bette Davis at her best but the interiors ROCK!

  2. Man of Roma says:

    I didn’t know you were there. So your amour pour la France …

    Of course you were there, you were in Rome too but you love France more. I mostly agree.

    (sorry I got heated over at my blog. I don’t drink coffee anymore and only sip Earl Grey red tea from South Africa, which calms me).

    In any case, this tirade being like smoking the ceremonial Calumet, I lived in Gallia Narbonensis lol for 8 months at 26, perhaps, since I had won a scholarship for studying ‘European Institutions’ at Nice University, with the likely output of being hired in Bruxelles and live there in a cosmopolitan milieu in case I was rated high.

    I was one of the best but wasn’t even considered or evaluated because I was Gramscian, wrote a thesis – among many others – on Gramsci so they marked me with a Scarlet letter … that communists I weren’t much loved is an understatement. They were right.

    As far as I know after Carthage and Hannibal were defeated, Gallia Narbonensis (today’s Linguadoca + Provence, no need to tell) became important for the Romans as a trait-d’union with Spain (thru Via Domitia, as you say).

    This province was the most loved by the Romans and got easily integrated into the fabric of the Roman Empire because of the Greek coastal towns and all. The Italians continued to love Gallia Narbonensis across the centuries and we have the vexata quaestio whether Dante Alighieri wrote that beautiful narrative poem, il Fiore: 232 sonnets en provençal.

    An English study in PDF on the topic (from where I stole the latin above):

    But in any case the area flourished and especially its wine was a great commercial success. It all started, no need to tell, when Greek Massalia (Marseilles) asked Rome for help against the Celti-Liguri (basically my ancestors, father’s side).

    J. Caesar’s adoptive son, Octavius, later Caesar Augustus, decided this province had to become ‘senatorial’, eg no legions were kept there permanently since the area was trusted as the most ‘Roman’ of the whole empire (eg set of provinces of the Empire).
    Weird how when my father went to France – Paris, for ex – everyone thought he was from Marseilles.

    You say the area in the centuries became poorer. Well, it followed the destiny of the entire Mediterranean region: German Charlemagne in the North started the (very rough, to say the truth) beginning of North France; Muslim expansion in the Med made commerce more difficult, although a big blow to the Med (and to Languedoc tho in favor of Langue oil: Paris, basically) was given by Cristoforo Colombo, who discovered America, and whom Italian Americans considering their Saint (as you have said somewhere in my blog) should understand they had to leave tjeir fatherland BECAUSE of him.

    Lutetia Parisiorum is 1700 younger than Rome. One can see it. South France is as old as Rome (at least the Greeks went there very early).

    The Ligurian Celts were pirates, very tough (the women had children standing up) but, psychologically, they were very closed up (as they are still now, almost as closed-up as the Chinese).

    Dante, who loved Provenza, hated the Liguri and Genova: one of his most famous rants of his Commedia is against this town and his inhabitants, called by him ‘uomini diversi’ in a derogatory way.

    Ahi Genovesi, uomini diversi
    D’ogni costume, e pien d’ ogni magagna,
    Perche non siete voi nel mondo spersi ?
    [Inferno, XXXIII, at the end]

    Ah, Genoese, a people strange to every
    Contraint of custom, full of all corruption (full of every flaw is more literal)
    Why have you not be driven from the world? (why aren’t you scattered – or lost – in the world?)

    [actually New England’s Longfellow is better than Mandelbaum imo]


  3. Lichanos says:

    “…so they marked me with a Scarlet letter…”

    ‘C’ for communiste?

    “…although a big blow to the Med (and to Languedoc tho in favor of Langue oil: Paris, basically) was given by Cristoforo Colombo…”

    Why did the development of the New World force a decline on the Mediterranean regions? I understand why it would affect trade with the Levant, but beyond that..?

    “…they had to leave tjeir fatherland BECAUSE of him…”

    Either way, he led them to the Promised Land, that’s the view, I guess. Nobody is interested in historical irony anyway.

  4. Man of Roma says:

    Well, ah ah ah, exactly, ‘C’ comme communiste, mon ami et bloguer américain.

    J’aurais été un burocrat dans l’administration de Bruxelles, ou bien à Strasbourg, une ville tout à fait charmante.

    J’aurais peut-être épousé une fille du Royaume-Uni, petite, jolie (et très intelligente) qui avait en passant vécu son enfance à Rome. Ou bien une Walkyrie from Austria, a blue-eyed blonde whose body was bigger than mine and could ski like angel.

    Mais, thinking about it now, il a été mieux comme ça (une autre universe, ok, but I guess everyone likes the choices he / she has done) since what is Bruxelles, though not deprived of beauty, compared to Rome …

    … et la vie des outdoors cafes in Narbonne – that you describe so well – is expanded, here in Rome, and exalted way beyond Fellini (who was a provincial from Romagna – same place Mussolini was from btw: I know a person from there who is a copy of the Duce – and didn’t know Rome that well, Fellini) way beyond Fellini I was saying since la-dolce-vita-outdoors thing was born here, from here did reverberate, and the source of that vibration is more alive than ever.

    Ok. The usual roman-ego-trip tirade, rhapsody – you name it.

    Asta la vista baby.


    • Lichanos says:

      …thinking about it now, il a été mieux comme ça…

      I avoid counterfactuals!

      …la-dolce-vita-outdoors thing was born here…

      I seem to recall that in the film La Dolce Vita, the main character’s father was a blockhead-unrepentant fascist who was nostalgic for Il Duce.

  5. Man of Roma says:

    I might repost this. We will see, it is past midnight, gotta hit the sack.

  6. Man of Roma says:

    Why did the development of the New World force a decline on the Mediterranean regions? …

    “…they had to leave their fatherland BECAUSE of him…”
    Either way, he led them to the Promised Land, that’s the view, I guess. Nobody is interested in historical irony anyway.

    Tomorrow, Lichanos.

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