How do you write a brief the history of a mountain range that stretches approximately 450km from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean? A range that has been so much to so many?
For some, like the 13th century Cathars who dared to set up a Christian religion outside of Catholicism, it was a temporary safe haven. For others, like the World War Two servicemen who crossed it to reach the relative safety of neutral Spain, it was a very real barrier to overcome. Spaniards during Franco’s rule regarded it as a metaphor for their isolation: “Europe ends at the Pyrenees”. For monarchs, rulers and politicians throughout the ages it was a natural solid wall, cutting across their carefully laid plans for empires and dominance. For palaeontologists it has been the place of some of the most exciting pre-historic discoveries in Europe.
For many it has simply been home. It is a mountain range which encompasses languages such as French, Spanish, Basque, Occitan, Aragonese and Catalan. Each valley has its own patois; impenetrable to strangers (and strangers can be from the next village down).
So, where to begin with the history of such a diverse, complex, intriguing area? We begin where all history begins. With a creation myth.
The creation of the Pyrenees
The gods gave Hercules, the son of Zeus, 12 labours to carry out as a penance for killing his six sons in a fit of madness caused by the goddess Hera. The Latin epic poet Silius Italicus writes how Hercules was given hospitality by the Gaulish king Bebryx, as he tried to complete one of his tasks (stealing the cattle of Geryon).
Typically, Hercules gets drunk and violates the strict code of hospitality, raping Bebryx’s daughter, Pyrene. Poor Pyrene becomes pregnant and gives birth to a serpent. Ashamed and scared of her father’s anger, she runs away to the woods, where she begins pouring her heart out to the trees. Unfortunately, the wild beasts hear her and attack her, ripping her to pieces.
Meanwhile, Hercules has successfully stolen Geryon’s cattle. He is returning through Bebryx’s kingdom and comes across Pyrene’s mutilated remains. Hercules, hating his darker side, reacts strongly, full of grief and remorse. As he lays her to rest, he cries out for the surrounding land to join with him and preserve her name and, as the poet writes; "struck by Herculean voice the mountaintops shudder at the ridges; he keeps crying out with a sorrowful noise "Pyrene!" and all the rock-cliffs and wild-beast haunts echo back "Pyrene"! The mountains hold on to the wept-over name through the ages”.
For an alternative view, please read our geology section.
On the 22 July 1971, at 16.30, Professor Henry de Lumley and his team discovered the skull of a man in his twenties in a cavity in Corbieres, near Tautavel, in the Pyrénées-Orientales foothills. He had just found the oldest man in Europe; homo erectus from 450,000 years ago.
In total, de Lumley’s team found over 80 fragments. The first skull was that of a young man weighing about 44 to 55kg and standing at about 1.65m. There were mandibles of a woman in her fifties and of another man, around 25 years old.
What did De Lumley’s team learn about these people? It appears that they were not yet using fire and they may have been cannibals or scavengers, rather than hunters.
De Lumley is currently President of the European Centre for Prehistoric Research at Tautavel, where there is an informative museum which is open to the public, as well as serving as a place of education and learning.
Fast forward to the Late Paleolithic (27,000 to 10,000 BC) and there is plenty of prehistoric evidence in the Pyrenees, in the form of cave paintings left by hunter gatherers. The most well-known and spectacular paintings can be found in the Grottes de Niaux.
Niaux has a series of stunning paintings, depicting creatures such as bison, a horse, a horned goat, and many more. These paintings can still be clearly seen in their original ochre and brown/black colours. They are spread over several caves, in caverns which by themselves would be impressive. This is one of the few places in the world where the general public can see cave-paintings in their original setting.
The Pyrenees are also home to many dolmens, either stone burial chambers or shelters for shepherds, dating from 5000BC. Trekkers and hikers still come across them, often in splendid isolation.
As Yves Coppens, palaeontologist and professor at the College of France, the man who co-discovered Lucy in Ethiopia, says “Les Pyrènèes sont une zone particulièrement riche en la matière car elles disposent d’illustrations d’à peu près toutes les époques” . (The Pyrenees are a particularly rich area in this material because they have pictures of almost every age).
Practical information on pre-historic Pyrenean sites
The Museum of Prehistory at Tautavel and its more than 1500 sq. metres of galleries invites you to learn all about Tautavel man: his tools, the animals he hunted, his environment and where he lived. Throughout the year, visitors can discover the museum, the cave and learning workshops. An educational department is available for teachers.
Musée de Préhistoire
Tel. 04 68 29 07 76
Practical information for visiting them: www.ariege.com/niaux/
Please visit our further information page for suggested magazines and books.
From the Bronze Age to the Visigoths: A time of flux 2000BC to 700AD
It is generally accepted that before the Bronze Age, fortified villages began to appear in the Pyrenees. From this time until the effective expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the thirteenth century, the history of the Pyrenees is characterised by one word: invasion.
The first to invade were the Celtic, Urnfield people. Around 1000BC they settled in Catalonia and later mingled with southern Iberians. They became the Celtiberians. These people practised the Hallstatt culture, which was the dominant culture in Central Europe from the 8th to 6th centuries BC.
Long before this happened though, it seems that the enigmatic Vascones had already settled in what is now known as the Basque country. Their legacy remains with us today in the form of the Basque language and culture and they are as mysterious and unknown as ever.
Historians are certain that by 550BC the Greeks were trading in the Pyrenees region, using a post at the present day Roses, on the Spanish Catalan coast. Catalonia then changed hands and the Carthaginians held control over it. It was from here that the famous Carthaginian war-leader, Hannibal, crossed the Pyrenees with his elephants on his way to Rome in 214BC.
With the Carthaginian defeat in the second Punic War, 201BC, it was time for the Pyrenees to change hands again – the Romans moved in.
The Celtiberians put up strong resistance but were defeated. The Vascones were never conquered. There is some belief that these spirited people were among the few to negotiate successfullyownership of their lands with the Romans. The Pyrenees and the lands either side of it, Gaul and Iberia (respectively modern France and Spain), became a key part of the Roman Empire. The Pyrenean foothills were subsequently populated with Roman roads, villas, garrison towns and bridges. As is typical, the Roman legacy still remains and most of the Pyrenees’ modern highways follow Roman routes.
For the next few centuries, the crumbling Roman Empire began to lose its grip in the Pyrenees as both the Franks and Suevi (or Swabians) raided the area, eventually over-running it in 262 and 276AD. The Alans and Vandals took their turn over the next couple of centuries but life in the remote Pyrenean villages went on. Until the big boys arrived in town – the Visigoths.
The Visigoths were the force to be reckoned with in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. They defeated the Romans in 378AD and then went on famously to sack Rome in 410AD. They had already turned their sights to a land to settle in – Roman Hispania, including the Pyrenees. Over time, they extended their Empire up in to what we now know as southern France and by 500AD had established their capital at Toulouse. The Visigoths then established a second capital at Barcelona in 531AD.
By the end of the 6th century, the Visigoths controlled a large swathe of southern France, extending all the way across the Pyrenees and into the Iberian peninsula, through to modern Portugal. One area remained stubbornly independent – the areas controlled by the ancestors of the Vascones, our modern day Basques.
However, the Visigoths Empire was weakening and soon to be diminished. The Visigothic king, Alaric II, was an Arian Christian, like his fathers before him. Despite being a wise and tolerant ruler, this branch of Christianity had a very uneasy relationship with the Catholic Christians. However, the Frankish Roman Catholic King Clovis I wanted the Visigoth province of Gaul. He found a pretext for war and invaded from his northern European stronghold. Despite help from his father-in-law, Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, the Goths were defeated in battle by the Franks in 507 at the Battle of Vouille, near Poitiers.
The Franks took most of the Visigoth land in Gaul and the vast area of the Pyrenees once again saw a new ruler. The great empire of the Visigoths has left few traces of its occupation in the Pyrenees area – a few belt buckles, a bit of glassware and some bronze artifacts, as well as the many place names ending in 'ens' (eg Boussens, Gratens, Mouzens).
However, the 700s saw a new power sweeping across the Iberian peninsula; the Moors.
The rise and fall of the Moors 711 to the 800s
The Moors, originally from Muslim North Africa, proved remarkably efficient in their conquest of the Iberian peninsula and the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees.
In 711, a mere century after Mohammed left Mecca, Tariq the Berber, Governor of Tangier, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and, with his army of 7,000, defeated King Roderic’s Visigoths. Just over 10 years later, the Berber clans were controlling the Iberian peninsula. They named their new domain “Al Andalus” (the name Andalucia stuck in one region of modern Spain).
Muslim rule was remarkably liberal for the age, with Jews, Muslims and Christians living tolerantly side by side and remote communities allowed a degree of autonomy as long as they paid a tribute.
With small raiding parties crossing the Pyrenees and gaining control of Toulouse and Septamania in the 720s, it looked like Al Andalus would extend even further in to Western Europe. However, this extension abruptly ended at Poitiers in 732 at the hands of Charles Martel, a Frank and part of the Merovingian dynasty.
The Moors had to content themselves with using the towns they hung on to as raiding bases, as Martel drove them out of Aquitaine. His son Pepin continued to push the Moors back but it was Martel’s famous grandson, Charlemagne, (768-814) who pushed the Moors back over the Pyrenees. However, Charlemagne foolishly attacked Pamplona, angering its Basque residents. As his army retreated back across the mountains, the Pamplonans took their revenge and devastated part of his army.
Charlemagne continued to have success in other areas of the Pyrenees though, notably the Mediterranean. He took Girona in 785 and his son claimed Barcelona in 801. All of these successes over the centuries meant that by the time the united Christian Kings of Leon, Castile, Aragon and Navarra won the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, Moorish influence in the Iberian peninsula had already been severely weakened.
One of the effects of all these battles was that castles were built all along the Pyrenees, so that territory was secure. With the rising popularity of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Pyrenees was part of the treacherous journey to reach this holy place. Monasteries flourished, protected by the castles and offering hospitality to the devout travelers.
The many battles and changes of rulers can be seen in some of the Pyrenees’ religious buildings; it’s not uncommon to find old church window’s with faded carvings of the crescent moon on their lintels. Always a practical people, the Pyreneans would happily recycle stone from the Moorish mosques, and use it in their own religious buildings.
Charlemagne and his heirs 800s to 1100s
Charlemagne, or Charles the Great or Charles I, was the founder of the Carolingian Empire. He ruled from 768 until his death in 814. By 800 there was no Emperor of Rome anymore, due to several coincidences. Charlemagne took advantage of the situation and travelled to Rome and got the Pope to crown him “Holy Roman Emperor”.
The lands that he had won and conquered now covered most of western Europe, including Italy, and after his coronation they became known as the Holy Roman Empire. It had been four centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire and now Charlemagne was Europe’s new Emperor. He is often called the Father of Europe for uniting Europe for the first time since the Romans.
The revival of this old title was the discernable start of the power of the Pope in Europe and one of its side effects was the papacy, which until then had been no more than a regular bishopric, later claiming that it was the power which could (or could not) crown emperors. This claim would have a massive impact on European history for centuries.
Charlemagne made Toulouse a power base and from here he asserted his Empire’s authority on the Pyrenees. He also used it as a spring-board to attack the Moors on the other side of the mountain range. Despite various uprisings and rebellions, by 812 he had managed to expand the Carolingian rule all around the Pyrenees.
For dwellers in the High Pyrenees, the most romanticized and remembered battle of Charlemagne’s was The Battle of Roncevaux Pass. This battle, in 778 saw the Basques defeat Roland, commander of the rear guard of Charlemagne's army. Tradition has that it was fought at the high Pyrenean mountain pass of Roncevaux on the border between France and Spain.
Subsequently, the battle was seized by the oral tradition and turned in to a conflict between the Moors and Christians, even though both sides were Christian. The Song of Roland, an 11th century poem and the oldest surviving major work in French literature, tells the tale, as does the Italian Orlando Furioso.
The legacy of Roland is to be found on both sides of the Pyrenees. First, the naturally occurring “window” between France and Spain, is called the Breche de Roland, because legend has it was created by Roland in an attempt to destroy his sword, Durendal, after his defeat.
There are also the "Salto de Roldán", two rock towers, one of 1123m and the other of 1124m, in the Pyrenees in Aragon, Spanish Pyrenees. It is a natural gateway to the Sierra de Guara National Park.
It is said that when “el portentoso Roldán” (Roland the Marvellous) was withdrawing to France, he became surrounded on the Amman Rocks. To shake off his pursuers, Roland spurred his horse to jump the abyss between the two towers, to reach safety.
Despite minor set-backs, such as being beaten by the Basques and losing Roland, Charlemagne’s reign was phenomenal not only because of his military conquests and his ability to hold on to lands he won, but because of the advances in science, literature, the arts, politics and education, to name but a few areas. This period is often called the Carolingian Renaissance for the richness of knowledge and thinking that came from it. An uneducated man in his early life, he pursued education with zeal and ensured all of his children, legitimate and illegitimate, male and female, had a well-rounded and excellent education.
In 813, Charlemagne called his only remaining legitimate son, Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, to him. With his own hands he crowned his son, thus securing the title of Emperor on him and then sent him back to Aquitaine, while he went hunting before returning to Aachen.
On January 28 814, aged 72 and in the 47th year of his reign, the Father of Europe died. He is buried in Aachen Cathedral.
While during his life Charlemagne adopted centralist policies, upon his death he separated his kingdom out among his heirs. This saw the Languedoc region of the eastern Pyrenees fall to the Kingdom of the Western Franks, which is pretty much what we know as modern France.
He was succeeded by Louis. Louis’ entire empire lasted only another generation as it was divided between his sons on his death.
Finally, in 879, Louis the Stammerer died without any heirs. This saw a new era in the history of the Pyrenees: the rise of the counts.
The most notable of these for Pyrenean history is the Raymond family, or “dynasty of St-Gilles”. They had ruled Toulouse since 840 and by the late 900s were, in action if not in name, independent rulers. They began to increase their range, extending it beyond Toulouse to neighbouring territories such as Albi and Carcassonne.
The most famous of these Toulouse counts, Raymond IV (1041 or 1042–1105) ruled a realm that extended from Toulouse to the Rhone.
Although his rise coincided with that of another ruler, Guifre el Pelos (Wilfred the Hairy), on the other side of the Pyrenees. While Raymond extended his empire so did Wilfred. His reach crossed the Pyrenees and he was granted land in the eastern Pyrenees, bordering the Mediterranean, the area now called Roussillon. This land would not be united to the rest of what is now France until 1600s. The Catalan influence in the language and culture of this part of France is still felt to this day, making it a fascinating region to visit.
During these post-Charlemagne centuries, life became increasingly agrarian as feudalism spread. There was a subsistence economy, where the nobility took as much as they could from the meagre surplus in exchange for military protection.
Religion was mainly a private affair. With priests who barely understood Latin and of questionable moral values, the common people relied on a mixture of traditional beliefs and magic combined with Christianity. The local lords built churches and monasteries and put their friends and families in charge of them, providing them with a comfortable income on the back of the poor. As the towns disappeared, the learned culture of the previous centuries became one that only monks practiced, locked away in their mountain monasteries.
And then things changed. Again.
Watch Robert Llewellyn's short video on the Cathars, recorded on a MountainBug snow-shoeing holiday
1100s: a new rule and the Cathar period
Introduction to the Cathars
The Cathar period has been researched, written about and speculated about extensively. This article on the Cathars is merely an introduction to a unique and interesting people and the effects they had on the land they lived in.
The Cathar period still holds a fascination today with its central plot being a group of people who, through their quiet convictions and beliefs, challenged the existing Roman Catholic church so much, the Pope felt the need to persecute them to near extinction.
The Cathars have left their traces on the land. The region of Langue D’Oc is haunted by the remains of their castles, forts and scenes of their bloody repression.
The Cathars have left their mark on the culture of the region. Despite their language, Occitane, being repressed, it is still a living language. Despite their people being annihilated, remains of their culture still linger, and oh!, the myths, the legends surrounding them are fascinating. Did they really protect and then hide the holy grail? Are they really linked to Mary Magdalene who hid her child with Jesus in their lands?
The reason we offer a guided walking holiday in this region of the Pyrenees is because the Cathar story, combined with its Mediterranean Pyrenean setting, is beguiling and interesting to this day.
The Cathar beliefs
So who were they, what did they believe and how and why were they so brutally repressed?
First, it must be noted that the contemporary sources for what the Cathars believed come mainly from one source: the Catholic Church. Perhaps accuracy and objectivity wasn’t at the forefront of their minds but more justification for their actions.
So, the Cathars believed that there was a struggle occurring between the “good” spirit world and the “evil” material world. They rationalised that the soul was trapped in the material prison of the human body and it was only on death would it be released to heaven.
Cathars sought to become as “perfect” as possible before death. This meant self-denial and abstinence amongst their leaders – the Perfects.
Cathar beliefs and actions directly contradicted the powerful Catholic Church.
For example, Cathars believed that the world was going to end when the last pure soul had been released from its prison – a process that could see the soul go through different vessels, including animals’ bodies, over centuries. There was no Last Judgment for Cathars.
If there was no last judgment, there was no need for the sacraments the Catholic Church demanded people make to be judged favourably. Sacraments which were a fantastic money earner for the Church.
If the human body was of the material, evil, world, then there is no way that Jesus Christ was God as God could not have lived in such an impure form.
Furthermore, the self-denying Cathar leaders were a startling contrast to the rich, indulgent, corrupt Catholic leaders that were prevalent at the time; this is one of the reasons why Catharism gained such a great following. People were tired of the diseased Catholic Church and were happy to be given an alternative.
There was no way the Catholic Church could tolerate such a religious sect in its territory.The persecution of the Cathars
By the 1140s the Cathar movement had gained a strong-hold in the region of Langue D’Oc, taking the shape of a formal church with priests (Perfects) and followers across all social classes. This wide-spread attraction, with members of the nobility, trade, and lower classes practicing Catharism, led to it becoming so intrinsically linked with the entire Langue D’Oc region. It is why when the Cathars were destroyed, many believe Langue D’Oc was destroyed.
By 1200 the Catholic Church could no longer ignore them. Pope Innocent III began trying to oppress them, finally resorting to a military campaign, called the Albigensian Crusade, begun in 1209.
This crusade was waged by the Catholic Church and the Northern French nobility against the Counts of Toulouse, who had tolerated the “heretical” religion. It was a brutal campaign of terror, where mutilation, brutality and massacre were common-place. The relentless attacks, punctuated with sieges at Cathar forts like Mont Segur, left Languedoc weak, and finally the Cathars and the region that had supported them fell and became part of the French crown.
The Cathar legacy
An immediate legacy, was the introduction of the Inquisition. Formed by the Catholic church to convert the hearts and minds of remaining Cathars and their supporters, it began by “investigating” people’s and towns’ religious leanings, using torture to extract confessions and assuming guilt first. It is widely believed the region’s brutality at the hands of the Inquisition has contributed to its mistrust to this day of “foreign” authority.
The Cathars also left behind their forts, such as Montsegur, and castles that they hid in, such as Queribus. On our guided walking holiday in Cathar Country, we visit some of these sights while discussing the other Cathar legacy: its myths.
To experience Cathar history first hand, why not join us for a Cathar country walking holiday?