The Causses are a group of limestone plateaux (700 – 1,200 metres above sea level) in the Massif Central of France. They are bordered to the north-west by the Limousin and the Périgord uplands, and to the east by L’Aubrac and the Cévennes. Causse is an Occitan word meaning “limestone plateau”.
The Causse de Larzac are famous because of Roquefort cheese and because of the various Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller fortifications in the area. On Friday, 13th October 1307 the leaders of the Knights Templar were arrested in Paris on the orders of Philip IV (please see Avignon above). The King of France owed a lot of money to the Templars and wanted access to their treasury in Paris. In 1312, the Templars were officially dissolved and in 1314 their leaders were burnt at the stake on an island in the River Seine.
In the last few years it has been discovered in the Vatican libraries that Pope Clement V believed the Templars were innocent of the crimes levelled against them by Philip IV.
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Knights Templar, the Order of Solomon’s Temple, or simply as Templars, were among the wealthiest and most powerful of the Western Christian military orders and were prominent in Christian finance.
In 1119, the French knight Hugues de Payens had approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Warmund, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and proposed creating a monastic order for the protection of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. King Baldwin and Patriarch Warmund agreed to the request and the king granted the Templars a headquarters in a wing of the royal palace on the Temple Mount in the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Temple Mount had a mystique because it was above what was believed to be the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. The Crusaders therefore referred to the Al Aqsa Mosque as Solomon’s Temple, and from this location the new order took the name of Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or “Templar” knights. The order, with about nine knights including Godfrey de Saint-Omer and André de Montbard, had few financial resources and relied on donations to survive. Their emblem was of two knights riding on a single horse, emphasising the order’s poverty.
Officially endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church around 1129, the order became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, innovating financial techniques that were an early form of banking, and building fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land.
The Templars’ existence was tied closely to the Crusades; when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust and King Philip IV of France took advantage of the situation.
The Templar estates were taken over by the Knights Hospitallers or to give them their full title The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. They were also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) or Order of Malta and were a Roman Catholic lay religious order of military, chivalrous and noble nature. They were founded as the Knights Hospitaller around 1099 in Jerusalem by Gerard Thom. The Hospitallers are the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order and still have ‘embassies’ in cities such as Bratislava in Slovakia.
The village of La Couvertoirade on the Larzac plateau was once owned by The Templars. All the houses and buildings are extremely well built with sturdy walls and enormously heavy rooves made from stone. The whole place has an atmosphere of permanence and solidity. The Chateau was built by The Templars in the 12th and early 13th Centuries and the fortified church was added by The Hospitallers in the 14th Century. Despite this mighty architecture, the village stills ranks as one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages. With all this strength on show, the delicate, round gravestones dating from the time of The Templars come as a pleasant surprise.
Many doors in the village are adorned with a cardabelle, a dried plant that opens and closes according to the humidity, allowing local forecasters to predict the weather. Most houses have an outside staircase, lined with flowers in pots, leading to the first-storey living area. The sheep and other animals would inhabit the room underneath. Sheep were well looked after in these parts, where water might otherwise be in short supply, as artificial ponds called Lavognes can be found dotted around the landscape, including one just outside the walls of La Couvertoirade.
The Templars were well represented in the Causse de Larzac. At Ste-Eulalie-de-Cernon the Knights built their commandery, the headquarters of the surrounding administrative district. The village of around 270 people still has most of the original gates, walls, and towers. The old square with its fountain and cafe tables is peaceful and gives the visitor the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere.
A few miles from the Commandery of Ste-Eulalie-de-Cernon stands Le Viala-du-Pas-de-Jaux and its 27-metre high tower, designed to protect all the inhabitants of Viala and their animals in case of attack. When I visited Viala, most of the citizens of the town seemed to be enjoying a dance with their local band on the ground floor of the tower. No one was manning the cash till, so I left my entrance fee and walked up four flights of stairs through the various storeys, accompanied by the gradually fading accordion music, to the roof. The views were over the village of Viala and the surrounding farms were impressive, given the landscape is mainly flat hereabouts. All the major sights such as the cities of Montpellier and Beziers were indicated on a diagram and their distance from Viala given in kilometres.
Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is also located in the Causse du Larzac and is famous for its blue-veined cheese, which has been appreciated for hundreds of years going back to Charlemagne. A visitor centre at the Roquefort Societe shows the process of making Roquefort and visitors can also visit the Combalou caves in which the cheeses are aged before they are ready to be sold. The mould that gives Roquefort its distinctive character is a fungus Penicillium roqueforti, found in the caves. Traditionally, bread was left in the caves for six to eight weeks until it was consumed by the mould and then the bread was dried to produce a powder which was added to the cheese curd. Nowadays, a laboratory produces the mould allowing for a greater consistency in the veining of each cheese.
Roquefort also has an appellation d’origine which means under French law there are strict boundaries defining the area of production of the ewe’s milk used for Roquefort and also the caves used for maturing the cheese. The cheese’s official status was confirmed by decree on 22nd October 1979.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker