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A place of pilgrimage

The sanctuary of Chamalières is mentioned in the Guide to the pilgrim Way of Saint James, a Latin manuscript dating from around 1139. However, Chamalières also had its own pilgrimage…

In the beginning there were the relics of Saint Giles and a Holy Nail

After being gifted (around 927) to the church of Le Puy, bishop Gotescalc, the first French pilgrim on the Way of Saint James, gave the land at Chamalières to the Saint-Chaffre du Monastier abbey. At this time, Chamalières was a simple chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Around 943, Damas de Beaumont, the abbot of Saint Chaffre, brought the relic of Saint Giles from Saint-Gilles du Gard and a Holy Nail from the Cross, and officially founded the priory of Saint-Gilles de Chamalières, which he placed under the Rule of Saint Benedict.

The Saint Giles relic is of questionable authenticity. Besides the fact that there are numerous relics attributed to Saint Giles in other places, according to some texts Chamalières had a whole body, most of the body, or even part of an arm. Whatever the facts, Chamalières rapidly became an important place of pilgrimage.

Welcoming and enthusing the pilgrim

In 1097 the priory had 27 monks. However, they did not all live in Chamalères, like Pierre, for example, who, at the end of the 12th Century, was also the priest at Chalencon. Around 1160, in his very basic description of the monastery, Pierre de Beaumont described the housing of the period which was organised like a castrum (fortified camp), with the monastic buildings situated within the first enclosure, and the town, which was made up of 84 houses of which 13 were inhabited, found within a second enclosure. The same Prior described the estate’s resources: its 104 gardens spread throughout the village, and the vineyard which provided a setier of wine (about 25 litres).

The presence of the relics helped build the site’s reputation. The monks of Chamalières knew how to promote a destination to attract a large number of pilgrims. Processions regularly took place. They were an ideal opportunity to showcase the relics, particularly within the church. This is echoed by its unusual architecture which allows pilgrims to go around the choir while genuflecting at the altars of the four chapels which fan out from the apse.

Explaining and protecting our heritage

Today, the relics are no longer found on this site. The Holy Nail is kept in the museum of religious art in the cathedral cloister in Le Puy-en-Velay, and the relic of Saint Giles has disappeared.

This medieval garden and its interpretation trail brings to life the rich cultural heritage which the monks of Chamalières have left to us.

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Building a priory


From the numerous floods which have been witnessed through the centuries, some have been particularly memorable, particularly those of 1559, 1651, 1795, 1866, 1878, 1907, 1951, and more recently, on the 21 September 1980.
At 5.20 in the afternoon a terrible noise was heard; this was the Chamalières-sur-Loire bridge crashing against the central pillars of the railway viaduct. The water was so high that it was like a dam had burst upstream. The flood devastated the houses and camp sites. Mud was everywhere, including inside the town hall, at that time located within the priory complex.

The flood carried off tree trunks, cars, caravans and all kinds of objects. The mill at Combres had to be evacuated by helicopter. This catastrophe led to 7 deaths being recorded in the department and more than 2 000 cases of damage. Afterwards, interiors of houses had to be cleaned and dried out – a difficult job which was carried out by a large number of volunteers in an atmosphere of true solidarity.
Today, there are warning systems in place to protect the population if there is a flood, but there is no guarantee that the garden and the church will not be flooded again.

Finding and extracting the stone

The volcanic tuff came from Artias, the Costaros quarry provided the grey trachyte, and the yellow, or multicoloured sandstone was from Retournac. They can all be seen in the church walls. The builders expertly mixed together all the materials to create a beautiful colour scheme.
Granite from the slopes of the Loire valley and grey phonolite from mount Gerbizon were used as foundation stones, bases of which were unearthed during the 2018 archeological digs.
Extracting the stone was made simpler because of its fissures. The slabs of trachyte from Costaros and the Artias tuff were easily dug out with a pick axe using the corners to lift up the blocks.

Transporting the stone and construction

It was not easy to link paths to the building site. Pack mules, and the use of ‘bards’ (wooden gurneys used to carry heavy items) created narrow paths between the quarries and the building site.

In the forest of Gerbizon, lumberjacks felled and squared off by hand the trees which would be then delivered to the expert carpenters with their chisels and adzes.

To discover the wide variety of stone used by the builders, use the stone identification table by the old cloister pond, which will help you easily identify the stones used for the church walls.

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Devastating floods

The torrential autumn rains which fall over the upper Loire basin are part of the épisodes Cévenols (flash flooding in the Cevennes). These can lead to devastating floods which cause considerable damage and sometimes even loss of life.

A historic flood

The arches of the monastery complex appear to have withstood the terrible flood of 1481, which devastated houses and property.
The destruction was such that, throughout the Kingdom of France, King Louis XI had to subsidise the restoration efforts.
Chamalières and its priory did not escape the destruction. The water engulfed the buildings and destroyed the smallholdings, including official documents establishing tenants’ rights over their land.
However, the priory was on high enough ground to escape this natural phenomenon, even though it was a flood which had never been seen before in the history of the monastery.
With all its fury, the Loire was only able to sweep away a single bridge, one linking the priory and the Lord of Artias, used in particular for the celebratory dinner given by the monks each year.

Memorable floods

The volcanic tuff came from Artias, the Costaros quarry provided the grey trachyte, and the yellow, or multicoloured sandstone was from Retournac. They can all be seen in the church walls. The builders expertly mixed together all the materials to create a beautiful colour scheme.
Granite from the slopes of the Loire valley and grey phonolite from mount Gerbizon were used as foundation stones, bases of which were unearthed during the 2018 archeological digs.
Extracting the stone was made simpler because of its fissures. The slabs of trachyte from Costaros and the Artias tuff were easily dug out with a pick axe using the corners to lift up the blocks.

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The cloister was a garden

The garden is a reminder that the monks grew plants and fruits.

The cloister was enclosed to the west by a rampart and to the north by the Loire. It is in the form of a square opening onto the celestial vault. This symbolises the passage from body to soul, from the material to the immaterial, from earthly to celestial life. The paths form a cross according to the four cardinal points. A pond is situated at the centre, foundations of which were found during the archaeological digs in 2018. Linking the sky and underground, the pond appears as a third branch of the cross. It also forms a three dimensional cross, mirroring the plan of the church (nave, transept, bell tower and crypt).

The cloister was not just a garden; it was a mystical garden, a garden par excellence. The plants provided a good example to the monks : attracted to the light, promising fruits, and, at the arrival of winter, waiting patiently underground for resurrection.

The garden was a place of meditation, reading and discussion. Vegetables were also grown (hortulus), fruits (pomarius - the orchard) and medicinal plants.

The medicinal garden was called the ‘herbularius’, and medicinal plants played an important role in treating the monks. Patients could walk among the paths inhaling the comforting fragrances which would help them recover their health….

This medieval garden was completed in 2018, and gives visitors a perfect opportunity to discover a wide variety of plants, and a glimpse into what used to be grown in the cloister in medieval times.

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The life of the monks in Chamalieres

A life of daily prayer

Monks arrived at the monastery with their trousseau consisting of a tunic, stockings, cowl, and a large piece of cloth in heavy wool. In winter they added a warm cloak.
A large part of their life took place within the church, either with the services which took place every 3 hours from 2 o’clock in the morning, or for private masses booked by rich donors. The services were chanted. Each hour of the day or the night had its own psalms, music, and alternating chanting and responses.
This demonstrates how church was continuously filled with music, an essential part of the daily life of the monk. The thirty echea (sounding vases) which are situated in the vault of the choir bear witness to this, and give the building its exceptional acoustics.

Monks and nuns followed their Rules

The monks followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, but, because Chamalières was a priory and not an abbey, they were not expected to follow them to the letter.
No one had breakfast in those days. Only manual workers would eat before going out to fell trees or harvest the fields. The monks themselves waited patiently for mealtime at the sixth hour (that is, 6 hours after sunrise).
Meals were taken communally in the refectory. Organising this appears to have been difficult at Chamalières. In 1163, the Prior, Pierre de Beaumont, was so concerned that the brothers did not always have enough to eat that he made a personal donation from the family estate in order to guarantee sufficient provisions. In exchange, every year, the day after the feast of Saint Giles, the monks would hold a mass for the donor’s parents.
The monks’ diet was based on bread, peas, cheese and wine, together with salmon from the Loire, and a little honey on feast days.

When the Loire was rich in salmon

The consumption of fish was high because of the number of days of abstinence each year.
Salmon returned to Chamalières to spawn after an exhausting 900km journey from Saint-Nazaire.
During the 14th Century, the locks and fisheries meant that the Prior, working together with neighbouring Lords, could ensure there was fishing for the ‘King of the Atlantic’.

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The rise of the priory

When the first monks arrived at Chamalières they found a local population in-situ. The land was already cultivated. However, the monks gradually put into place a farming system and a service economy to develop their priory.
The Benedictine monks devoted themselves daily to the contemplative life, to prayer and chanting, which implies that it was the local peasants who had to look after the land which provided their sustenance.

From rural priory to powerful estate owners

The priors steadily built up a powerful estate. They encouraged, in particular, the alleutiers (free peasants) to place themselves under the dependence of the priory in return for financial compensation and absolution of their sins, or the possibility of placing one of their sons at the monastery.

The obligations to the priory implied paying tithes, one third of the crop, chores, and all the obligations associated with the status of being under the control of a temporal Lord.
A family which placed a child at the priory had to be able to feed the future monk for the rest of his life. This meant, at the very least, having a farm, or even two, to guarantee the future monk’s ‘dowry’.

Even though Chamalières itself stayed relatively small, the Priory estate grew considerably through the years. Donations were accumulated in various ways: through farm land, woods, houses, tithes, duties, and even churches or chapels. There were many motivations: hope of retribution in the hereafter, or the ‘dowry’ of a future monk, but also as compensation for a wrong, to obtain a tomb inside the monastery, to buy back pledged land, masses and processions…

Making a success of the estate : a difficult task

By the 10th century, the established custom was to bequeath property to the clergy. However, it was common for aggrieved successors to break their word and harass the monastery. Molesting peasants, stealing or burning crops, and stealing taxes were the favourite ways used by the young aristocracy to intimidate the monks, who often had to buy back the contested land a second, or even a third time, in order to be left in peace to cultivate their estate.

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The old mill district

Since time immemorial, apart from a vicarage for religious personnel, the district housed trades which used water from the stream, including a smithy and mill.
This stream descends from Mont Gerbizon to the Loire. Several mills were built on its banks, including ‘The Old Mill’ which stood on the same site where the terraces are today.

The mills in times gone by

These mills were built to use some of the smaller and intermittent streams. A sluice was built upstream which collected the water. When a sufficient quantity of water had been collected, a gate was opened to a penstock pipe which turned a tub wheel. Only a couple of metres fall was needed for this to work. Downstream from the wheel, another water basin for the next mill was built. In this way, several mills could operate, one after the other, on the same slope.

The route for the new road

In the 19th Century, the 103 secondary road did not exist; and it was not until 1901, under the Perrin council, that this “Main road from le Puy to Yssingeaux” was created through the centre of the village. This, together with the start up of the railway in 1866, helped turn Chamalières-sur-Loire from a cul-de-sac into part of major transportation route.

New buildings

When the terraces were constructed for the new road, a bridge was built to cross the stream, and the more affluent buildings which you see in front of you, such as the old Post Office, bakers, and the Experton house, were built. The ground floor of the latter was turned into a shop, with a lace factory in the basement. The machines were hydropowered from the stream. This factory was still operating during the Second World War.

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