Bourges, the City of Vercingetorix

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Bourges, the City of Vercingetorix
Bourges (Cher), St Stephan’s cathedral Why a rooster is the symbol of France A two and a half hour drive south of Paris, the city of Bourges’s narrow streets, majestic 12th century cathedral and over 400 timber framed houses dating back to 1487, remain one of France’s best kept secrets today.  The city’s archaeological digs prove that the region was important as far back as the first Iron Age, but the magnitude of Bourges dates from 700 to 100 BC when some 300 Celtic clans ruled what we call present day France.  The very way in which Europe is broken up into countries and their regions can essentially be traced back to that same Gallic Empire. Called “La Gaule”, the Empire was so civilized and prosperous that the “Gaulois” were both feared and respected even by Rome.  But then again, from 509 BC to 27 AD the Roman Empire was really little more than a Republic and hardly what we could call an actual Empire.  The north of Italy was a part of La Gaule, so the famous Roman historian Tite-Levi and the Roman poet Virgil were actually both born “Gaulois”!  Unfortunately for the Celts, people like Julius Caesar didn’t receive a salary and the expensive games put on in Rome’s Colosseum came out of their own pockets.  Finding it necessary to repay his debts and polish up his political reputation, Caesar set out in 58 BC to conquer the prosperous Celts. Avaricum (Bourges), capital of the central region of the Celtic Empire Starting out in Lyon, he worked his way up across the Berry, Burgundy and Champagne regions until he reached what is today Belgium.  The two typically French emblems, “fleur de lys” and the rooster, are both thought to be handed down from Gaelic times. Fleur de Lys coat of arms, emblem used in the past by French nobility La “fleur de lys”, later to become a symbol of French nobility, was probably the tip of a spear used commonly by the Celts.  As for the French rooster, the word “Gallus” meaning both “Gaelic” and “rooster “, when Caesar arrived, the animal was already a favourite symbol among the Celtic tribes in the north.  It is still a national emblem in both France and Belgium today. Blame it on Julius Caesar For many centuries the Roman and Gaelic Empires had lived in peace, but after several years of Roman attacks and hundreds of thousands of casualties, in 52 BC, a wide-ranged uprising among the Celtic people developed.  It was led by a general and rebel called Vercingetorix, a name as famous for French historians as Joan of Arc is to French history.  The La Gaelic Empire included thousands of small farms.  To prevent Caesar from taking advantage of the local harvests, Vercingetorix opted for a “scorched earth” policy and set fire to 20 of La Gaule’s major cities.  Surrounded by swamps and a rampart 25 meters wide and 10 meters deep, the population of Avaricum (Bourges) was convinced that with just 10,000 soldiers they could secure their capital against the Roman legions.  Pleading with their rebel general, they convinced him to spare Bourges. Thanks to his diaries, we know that when the Roman legions got there, Caesar described Bourges as one of the strongest and the most beautiful cities in the entire Gaelic Empire and the city did, in fact, hold out for over a month against a blockade by some 35,000 Roman soldiers.   It was only when 40,000 of the city’s inhabitants finally perished that it fell to the Romans.  Vercingétorix was taken prisoner soon after, when he lost a final battle at Alésia, and Rome established dominance in La Gaule for the next 500 years. The Last Judgement, 12th century St Stephan’s Cathedral Like all of the cathedrals in France built before the separation of Church and State in 1789, Bourges’s main church, St Etienne (St Stephan’s) cathedral, belongs, not to the Catholic Church, but to the French government.  Figuring on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, it was built in one continuous effort beginning in 1195 and is considered to be one of the most luminous cathedrals in all of France.   Esoteric in many ways, full of mysterious sculpted symbols that leave even researchers and historians perplexed, the cathedral remains virtually unchanged since its conception.  One of five sculpted entrances, “The Last Judgement”, dates back to 1240 and St Stephan’s recently “scrubbed” 12th century stained glass windows are, to say the least, simply remarkable.  The foundations of the cathedral were those of a Christian temple dating back to the 3rd century, but archaeologists agree that the site was probably “sacred” even before Roman times. Like the Seine River in Paris, flooding from local rivers was common in Bourges during the Middle Ages and the same swamps that protected both cities from invaders also periodically covered much of the land inside the cities’ walls.  Flood water unearthed caskets in the cemetery next to the cathedral, leaving them to float and allowing wandering animals to lay prey to the bodies. In 700 AD, the Carolingian kings became sufficiently fed up with the situation and created an artificial river in Bourges in order to drain the unsanitary parts of the city.  Today flatboats glide silently through the water, offering tours of the 333 acres of former swamp land with their myriad of individual flower and vegetable gardens still cultivated by the local population. Overall view of the swamps and gardens in central Bourges Discovering French Peasant life When the French speak about living in “province”, they mean they live in “the country” as opposed to “the city”.  But at the time of “l’ancien regime” (former system) a period stretching from the Renaissance until France became “a republic” after the Revolution in 1789, the country was still under rule of a king and France was split up into large territories called “provinces”.   The way a region was…
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