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Provence: A Little Background

About 50 miles south of Valence there stands a monument marking the half way point between the north pole and the equator. Here the landscape begins to change and soon one finds oneself entering the mysterious and hauntingly beautiful region known as Provence. Lying between the Rhone valley and the Mediterranean on the west, and the Alps on the east, it has been called the gateway to southern Europe. Lawrence Durelle, travelling south from the cities of the north, said as he arrived at the edges of Provence that he felt he was "crawling out of winter into nascent spring." Madox Ford was so enchanted with Provence that he called it "Eden! the only paradise on earth (other than the reading room in the British Museum)". Jean Giono, a provençal writer, recognizing the infinite variety of the region said, "Provence has a thousand faces, a thousand aspects, a thousand characters, and it is false to describe it as a single and indivisible phenomenon." A young American woman we know and are even related to by blood, marriage (what’s the difference?) or spiritual affinity said to us on arriving in Provence after a semester up north: "I can’t believe this is France! It is so colorful, so diverse , so beautiful. I have known nothing but grays and dull colors of the north for too long. This is fabulous!" We think that, next to our native New England, it’s the best place in the world to be. But, since we ain’t famous writers, you don’t have to take our word for it. Either go yourself or just use our Provencal products. Better yet, both!

Ancient History: There is evidence of primitive man in Provence–and it ain’t just the tourists on the Riviera. Caves containing the remains of Cro-Magnon man decorated with sea shells, necklaces, and other ornaments have been found in Grimaldi. Other skeletal remains suggest that early man crossed the Mediterranean from Africa and settled in Provence. There are examples of cave paintings and rock carvings throughout the region, again suggesting the existence of early humans in Provence. The people who inhabited the area prior to the late 7th century BC are known as the Ligurians. They are the early inhabitants of Italy as well, and academics have a lot of fun arguing where they came from. Some say Greece, while others contend they came from Jutland (the peninsula where you’ll find modern Denmark.). Certainly a people of diverse origins, they continued to be a strong influence even after the Greeks arrived in the 6th century BC on the shores of Provence. Early traders from Phocaea in Asia Minor, established a town called Massalia, which is modern day Marseille. It grew quickly became and has stayed an important commercial center in the Mediterranean basin. Hannibal marched through Provence with his infamous elephants around 218 BC, after trying to form allegiances with Ligurian and other tribes, as he made his way to and through the Italian Peninsula in order to counter the rise of Rome. He was eventually driven back to Carthage, but not for lack of trying. The Romans came to the aid of the people of Massalia several times when hostile Ligurians became a problem, both in 181 BC and 154 BC. Soon after this, the Romans began to occupy the area, calling it the provincia in southern France–which is how the region came to be called Provence. During the civil war in Rome, Massalia sided with the losing side and was promptly invaded by the victorious army of Julius Caesar, proving that one should not mess with Julie…unless, of course, you have Shakespeare on your side. Caesar’s conquering of Provence in 49 BC was the beginning of a very long presence of Rome in this area, nearly 600 years. The golden age of Roman Provence lasted for nearly 300 years and produced the most outstanding series of Roman monuments outside of Italy.

History from early Christianity to present: Provence holds very dear the saints of the region, the most famous being Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and the two sisters of the Virgin Mary, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobea. Ledgend holds that Mary Magdalene left the Holy Land immediately after the crucification and sailed to Provence with her brother and the other Marys. After introducing the Christian teaching to the people of Avignon and Aix, Mary Magdalene moved inland, retreating to a cave at Sainte-Baume where she spent her remaining 30 years in peace and quiet while "the boys" fought over who remembered the story right and what it all meant. By the 4th century AD, it appears that the aristocracy had converted to the new religion. Many small churches were built by the end of the 4th century, and Christianity spread more rapidly as the Roman Empire fell into decline. By the 6th century, the Franks overran the region entirely. Marseille remained a strong trading center, a liaison between the Levant and Europe. A devastating plague spread throughout Provence at the end of the 6th century, leaving the population greatly diminished and entire parishes wiped out. The Dark ages ensued, roughly from the 7th century to the turn of 1st millenium. While the rest of France was experiencing what is called the Carolingian Renaissance, Provence just sort of muddled along. The romance languages were developing in this period; the most important and still extant is langue d’oc, or Occitan, commonly known as Provencal. The crusades (from 11th century to the 13th ) pulled Provence kicking and screaming out of the dark ages. Although there were several attacks on the region by the Saracens in the 10th and 11th centuries, a feudal society began to evolve and rural populations began more permanently settled. The late 10th century saw a flowering of monasteries.

The great noble families of Provence came to power at this time and power struggles ensued which continued for generations. Marseille retained its independence, continuing to be a major center of trade on the northern Mediterranean shore. Again in the 12th and 13th centuries, many new monasteries were built. The crusades, while not necessarily successful, were great for business (i.e., trade). New monastic orders developed, of which the most famous is the Order of the Knights Templar. The monasteries of Sénaque, Silvacane, and Le Thoronet, considered to be masterpieces of monastic architecture, were founded at this time by the Cistercians who had moved down the Rhone and settled in Provence. The population of Provence was growing by the 14th century. Towns were expanding beyond their walls. The church, now very strong in this region, found itself in a new position. Avignon became the "second Rome," with the papal residence moving to this city on the Rhone. Seven popes ruled in succession from 1309 to 1376. This period is known as the "golden age of Avignon." For about a hundred years there were several disputes of leadership. Finally Provence became part of France in the 16th century. The Renaissance came late to Provence in the arts and intellectual life lagged behind as well. Under the rule of the Bourbons, the ruling elite tried to impose absolute rule on Provence. Matters were difficult for many, many years. Marseille, always a strategic port, resisted. By the end of the 17th century trade to the New World as well as the Levant had grown tremendously. Actually, all over Provence, there was an economic upswing. Grasse saw the development of a famous perfume industry. Toulon became a naval base. Avignon enjoyed good trade. Today, Provence is a major destination for folks who want to enjoy the spectacular countryside that inspired the impressionists, the food that inspired half of PBS programming, and the fragrances that inspired us here at Baudelaire.