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History of Saint-Christol

From Prehistory to the Romans and the Middle Ages Nothing leads us to believe that the St Christol area was lived in during the Neolithic ages. Flint shards have been dug out and attributed to sheperds rather than to a sedentary population. The only traces found in the Saint-Christol area and dating from the iron age (approximately 1000 years BC) include fragments of an Etruscan amphora found at Vaquefolle and of a Greek amphora from the Marseilles colony.

 
We have to wait till the beginning of the early Roman Empire (IIIRD century BC) and till the high Empire (two centuries later) to find three small farms :  

One is located at the east of the present village, in the Camau area. Remnants show a small Gallo-Roman villa (yellow bricks, amphora fragments, goblets and a stone with epitath). These would indicate a family of low-rank notables.

The other is on the west side, close to the Lauriole farmhouse and extends towards the present La Bruyère woods where an agricultural settlement has been discovered. The number of remains is larger than in Camau. The pattern of the settlement is similar though: large, with bricks and remnants of pottery; secondary buildings enclose La Bruyère. Later on, the property became an annex to the “Hospitaliers” domain.

A third one in the South, near the Mas Blanc, with an agricultural settlement closer to Vérargues and Lunel-Viel than the village of Saint-Christol. It will also become part of the Hospitaliers.

About that time, a communication network already existed around Saint-Christol. Close to the Litarges Woods, the path called Camin de la Mouneda is most likely part of an old Roman way. It seemed to have connected the city of Submidrium (Sommières) to Ambrussum (Lunel). The “Voie domitienne” or Roman way, 3 kilometres away, led to Italy and Spain and crossed over the Vidourle via the Ambrussum Bridge to reach the Sextantio site (Castelnau-le-lez).

Agricultural activity in Saint-Christol and the Lunel Plains continued during the high Middle-Ages (IVTH to XIITH century). There was hardly any destruction due to barbarian invasions. We even find examples of technical advances such as turbine-powered mills on the further Rhône river bank.

XIITH century, the Knights of Saint-John of Jerusalem

From the XIITH century onwards, the influence of the seigniories upon agriculture became more prevalent. Saint-Christol was not subjected to any seignior or feudal lord however. This was most likely due to monastic ruling. Seigniors would offer land to the church for the salvation of their soul but preferred to offer land of little value. Such was the case in Saint-Christol at the time.

The knights of Saint-John of Jerusalem, a monastic order, were established in the centre of the village as early as 1149. Original texts mention a church and a Saint-Christophe house. A number of remnants located around the Signade Square and the Château Street were dug out by the CNRS in 2000. These include a tomb, fragments of grey pottery (XIITH and XIIITH century), a grain silo that served as refuse collector and a wall, all dating from that period.

We know from historical sources that in 1181 the knights owned a domain called “Maison de l’Hôpital”. It included woods (Bois de l’Hôpital) the Font-du-Loup spring and several other rural properties.

There is no medical connotation attached to the word “Hôpital”. It actually meant a house or journey halt offering rest or food supplies to soldiers and merchants seeking their good fortune – in particular to pilgrim groups on their way to Saint-Jack of Compostela or Saint Giles. Rome and the two latter were the main pilgrimage centres in the occidental world. Coins bearing the lily and the cross as well as a gold ingot and masonry remains were found at that very place.

 

" La Maison de l’Hôpital " enjoyed prosperity and was very influential thanks to various gifts and acquisitions. At the beginning of the XIIIth century however, the French kings brought about the end or the Languedoc independence. Pope Innocent III deeming the catholic dogma threatened by the cathar heresy called on a crusade against the Albigenses.

 

In fact, this war served as a pretext to annex a rich and prosperous province. In 1209, the northern barons headed by Simon de Montfort swept over the South bringing ruin and death in their wake. Saint-Christol avoided such a painful fate after its seignior swore allegiance to King Louis the VIITH as the city of Avignon was captured.

XVITH century : the Malta Order

Upon the request of Pope Clement the sixth, Charles the VTH offered the Island of Malta to the Grand Master of the Knights of Saint-John of Jerusalem in 1530.

 

Under the name of the “Chevaliers de Malte”, the order occupied the island till 1798, date at which Bonaparte attacked it.

Commanders in Saint-Christol and area made some striking journeys to the Island of Malta.Jean de la Valette for example fought Turkish attacks victoriously and Malta’s capital bears his name in memoriam.

 

XVITH and XVIITH centuries, Religion wars

In 1571, the Huguenots whose religion was spreading out wrecked the church and Saint-Christol chateau. The “Guerres de Religion” or religious wars took over France and Protestant whorshippers slaughtered during the Saint-Barthelemy in August 1572.  

In 1621, the Duke of Rohan then heading the Protestant faithfuls gathered his men scattered between Montpellier and the Cévennes mountains and had them destroy and plunder all the châteaux or Catholic villages in the vicinity.One of them was Saint-Christol.In 1622, forty Protestants from the city of Sommières joined the Rohan army and helped level the church and château to the ground.

Louis the XIVTH when revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and suppressing freedom of religion by imposing Catholic religion used it as pretext for unifying the country.Some Saint-Christol Protestant families converted to Catholicism.A hundred years later, terror struck again bringing forth violence and dragonades. The Protestant Camisard war opened on 24 June 1702 by killing the du Chaila Abbot at the Montvert Bridge.

 

Some Camisards crossed the Vidourle River over at the “Passage de la Roque” and invaded Saturargues then Saint-Seriès killing 59 and 11 souls.Saint-Christol was miraculously spared as the Camisards fearing strong armed resistance gave it up.

XVIIITH century, French Revolution and the Bailli of Suffren

Pierre-André Suffren had belonged since he was 8 years old to the monastic order of the Knights of Malta. For his skills as navigator and strategist, he was appointed Commandeur of Saint-Christol (and of Jalès) and later received the title of bailiff.The bailiff of Suffren served the Knights of Malta, and also in the French Royal Marine during the American War (1779). Above all he won several victories over the Royal Navy off the coast of India. Napoleon said about him: "Why didn’t that man live on? I would have made him our Nelson and things would have been different."

 

In 1789, the French Revolution took place. In 1793, the French Nation dissolved (in 1793) the Order of the Knights of Malta, seizing its property as well as that of the Church - in Saint-Christol as anywhere else. The Nation appointed its own commissioner; organized its own police and its courts.

Towards 1798, Jacques Dominique Cassini published a map of France of which an extract concerning Saint-Christol is shown below. Cassini carried on his grand-father’s work, named Jacques, who had begun the triangulation of the entire territory of France as early as 1733.

 

XIXTH CENTURY, the « Fabrique » movement or the attachment of the population to its religious freedom.

The revolutionary turmoil did not turn upside down the religious convictions of Saint-Christol inhabitants as is shown by the creation of « La Fabrique », a defence association of Church and clergy which was going to play an essential role till the beginning of XXTH century.

Faced with an increasing number of parishioners, the mayor of Saint-Christol together with the « Fabrique » decided to erect a cross on Christ Square in 1826, then to build a new church in 1867. The selected place was that of the ancient cemetery ( the present town-hall and primary school).

A dispute about part of the selected property took place. As thebuilding of the church was highly wished for by the population of Saint-Christol, one decided to change its site and to build it on the south-east side of the village where it is now located. The blessing of the new church took place in 1872 in presence of the bishop of Montpellier.

 

In 1906, one announced the visit of a tax official whose task was to prepare the application of the law concerning separation between Church and State, voted in December 1905. He was appointed by the Government to carry out the inventory of the furniture of the church. Wounded in their religious faith, the inhabitants of Saint-Christol resisted fiercely and locked themselves in.

The police of Lunel took up their position: 18 blows of battering ram were given against the door which resisted. The captain ordered to take on the door with an axe in order to open a large breach allowing the tax agent to enter the church. Father Gavanon read an energetic protest but it did not prevent the seizure of the church possessions by the tax authorities and it also marked the end of the “Fabrique” era.

 

 

XXTH century, industrial development and wine war

The end of the XIXTH and the beginning of the XXTH centuries are characterized by the industrial revolution and its technological progress.The railway line between Montpellier and Alès opened and the Saint-Christol station in 1882.Transport of persons and goods became easier.

Wine-growing was developing.Wine production was increasing steadily and reached 25 millions hectolitres for a population of 20 millions inhabitants. The Languedoc vineyards were leading the world production. Saint-Christol used to trade with the Paris region, the Centre and the Lyon region.

But a series of disasters descended upon the wine growing activity and brought its future into question. In 1837, the “pyrale” caterpillar had been a serious danger. In 1850, « oïdium » had affected a large part of the vineyards but it was stopped by the use of sulphur.  

 

Towards 1880, an insect, the « phylloxera vastatrix », destroyed every vine and ruined wine growers. After the almost complete destruction of the vineyards, there was a shortage of wine which encouraged fraud and adulterated products. For example, one made two wines with the same grapes: water and sugar were added to the marc and one let it ferment, obtaining what is called “Piquette” or inferior wine.

Owing to adulterated wines, and to massive import of Algerians wines, extreme poverty spread through the Languedoc. Wine growers were on the verge of famine. The South could find no solution to its problems. Poverty increased and led to a vigorous movement of protest. Marcellin Albert, a wine grower from the Aude district took the lead in the « révolte des gueux » (beggars’ revolt).

From spring 1907 onwards, gatherings multiplied. One counted 80 000 demonstrators at Narbonne, then 120 000 at Béziers, 220 000 at Carcassone, 300 000 at Nîmes and lastly 600 000 at Montpellier on the 9th of June.On 19 June, Ernest Ferroul, mayor of Narbonne and instigator of the insurrection, was thrown into prison. Clémenceau’s riffles spat fire. There were 6 souls killed and dozens of wounded. The Languedoc was destroyed, wine growing in mourning.  

The 17TH infantry regiment made up of many natives of the area was sent to Béziers in order to put down the revolt. But the soldiers fraternized with the demonstrators and mutinied to avoid firing on the crowd.It was a difficult situation for politicians.

On the 23TH of June, in Paris, Marcellin Albert met Clémenceau who turned over the situation to his own advantage. He gave him a safe-conduct and 100 francs for a train ticket. Naïvety or betrayal ? The fact remains that Marcellin Albert was discredited and was nearly lynched a few days later.

Clémenceau

 

At the end of June, Jean Jaurès analyzed this revolt:  « One could first pay no attention, it was in the South…One believes it’s the country of vain words ». Clémenceau introduced laws to calm people and satisfy some of the wine growers’ demands.Wine prices went up a little.

But one had to look after the vine, neglected for several months. Wine growers went back to work forced by the circumstances.And the revolt passed away.

Meanwhile, technical progress went on. At Saint-Christol, one dismantled petrol lanterns and one put up the first public electric lighting in 1910. One began work on drinking water conveyance. A communal well was drilled at Prédaïau in 1913. The spring of La Font d’Aube supplied the fountains of Saint-Christol from 1914 on.

 

The First World War

On 3 August 1914, the declaration of war took place. The order of general mobilization was posted everywhere.

At Saint-Christol, the available money from communal aid was converted into vouchers for bread, meat and vegetables and given to needy persons. A soup kitchen was organized. One appealed to owners to lend money to the commune in order to give immediate aid to the poorest.

 

Men being gone to war, women worked in the vineyards. 39 young men of Saint-Christol died on the battle fields during the 1914-1918 War.

After the end of the war, normal life took over progressively. The railway station speeded up again. There were ceaseless comings and goings of travellers, wine merchants and goods from Saint-Christol and surrounding villages. There wasregular transportation of full barrels (of 650 litres)and empty barrels returning while entire trains loaded with sludge arrived from Marseille in order to fertilize the vines.

Saint-Christol appointed a rural policeman, Monsieur Grailhes, in 1920.The Church appointed a verger, Monsieur Elzière, dressed in red and wearing a cane. He used to maintain order in the church during the office and collect the hiring price for chairs.

In 1920, a child was born in Saint-Christol primary school. The teacher’s son was called Raymond Castans. A few years later, he became a journalist, writer, biographer, dramatic author, andfilm scriptwriter.

Raymond Castans

He used to see Marcel Pagnol, Fernandel, Raimu, Sacha Guitry, Fernand Raynaud, Georges Brassens, and many others celebrities of the time. Later on, he became administrator of “Paris Match”, General Director of “RTL” and published every Sunday an always pertinent and witty chronicle in “Midi Libre”. Raymond Castans was also sponsor of the public library of Saint-Christol which bears his name.

But let’s come back to the beginning of the XXTH century, when work for water conveyance started again. One decided to put up a windmill to pump water but the system did not work because of …lack of wind.One decided then to electrify the mill but it did not function any better. At last, one took it off in 1919. In 1924, wells (Font d’Aube, Chemin du Moulin) were drilled in order to increase water pressure towards the village fountains. But the soil of village streets was rutted by excessive water.This led to the first gutter, in 1927. A communal washhouse was built on the road to Vérargues in 1930.Sanitization of the main Saint-Christol streets took place between 1933 and 1938. 

 

 

The Second World War

War broke out in September 1939. Saint-Christol was in the zone said to be “free” but just as elsewhere life became difficult. Food was short and a ticket system was established: J1 to J3 for children and teenagers for instance. Adult bread allowances were limited to 300 g. a day.

If possible, one grew vegetables in one’s garden, one bred hens, rabbits, pigs. Others killed their dogs becausethey couldn’t be fed anymore. Horses were held standing up with a strap fastened to the ceiling as they would not be able to stand if they lied down.

A German company settled in the Hospital woods. They were soldiers having come to recover after taking a part in the terrible battles in the Soviet Union.

Somehouses in the village were occupied by enemy troops, Austrians, saying they were against Hitler, and Germans. They liked to drink, and exchanged their white bread which inhabitants of Saint-Christol lacked against wine.

At Liberation, German troops surged back towards the North under the bombs of the allied planes. Some of them stole horses to make their flight easier. An inhabitant of Saint-Christol was killed in trying to recover a horse. He joined the grave of two other young men of Saint-Christol, killed on the field of honour during the 1939-1945 War.

 

 

The post-war years, the economic development

Life and economic activity were resuming slowly; the co-operative wine cellar created in 1941 spared the wine grower problems in making, preserving and marketing their wines.

Under the influence of Léon Nourrit, the « Compagnie du Bas-Rhône » created a water-pipe system allowing vineyards to be irrigated.The economical situation of Saint-Christol and its inhabitants improved in spite of the 1956 winter during which vines and olive trees two centuries old froze to death.

The church building, interrupted in 1872, was resumed in 1952. The church tower was built and adorned with two beautiful bells called “Elisabeth” and “Thérèse”.

At Saint-Christol, the festival spirit was already prevalent. One abandoned cart circles intended to contain the ardour of bulls and one built a real arena.It opened for the votive festival of 1960.

 

Mechanization brought considerable improvement but also some changes in the way of life. One replaced horses by tractors. Motor cars, trucks and buses dealt a severe blow to the railway line.

The rail service Montpellier-Alès was given up, Saint-Christol station closed down. The last passenger train went through Saint-Christol on the 17th January of 1970. The traffic stayed open to goods for some time but the tracks were at last taken out in 1980.

 

New inhabitants arrival and modernization of the village

As in all towns and villages of the region, Saint-Christol had to integrate its new inhabitants. First, from 1936 onwards, Spaniards who fled from the dictatorship and civil war.

Next, repatriated persons from Algeria who arrived in large numbers in the region from 1962 onwards. Lastly “northerners” attracted by the sun and by the favourable reputation of Montpellier and its region. Considered at first as an invasion, this rush of population has helped the economic development of the Languedoc-Roussillon region and added to its diversity.

 

Sanitization of Saint-Christol carried on: running water was put in every house in 1952, mains drainage and a water-purification station were operational in 1974. Two sisters, Maria and Lea Quet bequeathed their plot of land to the village in order to build the multi-purpose Hall which opened in 1981.

Concerning southern wine-growing, it adapted to new market conditions. From 1970 years onwards, modern ways of life led to changes in the behaviour of customers who wished to « drink less but drink better».Understanding this, wine growers planted better vine, asked wine experts for help, changed marketing and advertising methods.

 

From now on, the Languedoc-Roussillon which owns the largest vineyards in the world offers good quality wine at moderate prices and can compete with the big wine growing traditional regions.

XXIST century : Saint-Christol today

Today, Saint-Christol is among the most pleasant villages of the region. Enjoying an ideal location between Montpellier and Nîmes, between the Cevennes and the Mediterranean Sea, the village is appreciated for its charm, its character and calm.

Situated in the middle of the Languedoc, the “Saint-Christolains”, natives or adopted, are true to the regional anthem, « Coupo Santo » which is sung at any great occasion. A poem has even been written by an anonymous inhabitant of the village.

Thanks to its soil and the competence of its wine growers, Saint-Christol wines are well-known among the « Côteaux du Languedoc » wines. A specific label “Soil of Saint-Christol” already exists.

Traditions are well established particularly « la bouvine » (games with bulls from the Camargue) and very present in the village life. The Saint-Christol festival which takes place every year at the end of July is a success renewed every year.

Thanks to its inhabitants, its elected representatives, its parish, its wine growers, its tradesmen and shopkeepers, its clubs, Saint-Christol has been able to reconcile tradition, modernity and quality of life.

 

 

 

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