The picturesque town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is an important vacation destination for visitors interested in culture, but few bother to stop in the town of Aniane, on the other side of the Hérault river. However Saint-Guilhem would never have existed if it weren’t for Aniane, as it was here that a Languedoc nobleman named Wittiza, the son of the Count of Maguelone, settled in 782.
His father was a Visigoth, but he was a Christian and had decided to create an abbey here, of which he would become the abbot. He changed his name to Benedict, in honour of Benedict of Nursia (480-550) who had written the Rule of Benedict for monks living in communities like the one that our Benedict planned to develop.
Benedict started building, and while there is very little left of these original monastery buildings, recent excavations in the cloister courtyard have revealed remains of the original church, dedicated to the Holy Saviour, along with a mediaeval building called a gimel (entrance tower) in the north-east corner, and medieval tombs. The abbey soon became a major centre for spreading the Benedictine monastic rule throughout Aquitania, and Charlemagne heard about Benedict’s work. His son, Louis the Pious, called Benedict to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) to be his confessor and to supervise the diffusion of the Benedictine rule throughout Europe.
As a child, Benedict had often played with another person who was to become important in the realm: his name was Guilhem or Guillaume or William, Count of Toulouse, Duke of Aquitania and Charlemagne’s first cousin. Like Charlemagne, he was a fearless knight, but he decided to give up fighting and devote his life to religion, retiring to the Benedictine Abbey of Gellone which he founded himself in 804, with the help of his childhood friend Benedict.
This monastery was located in the town today called Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, just across the Hérault river from Aniane. To connect the two abbeys, it was decided to build a bridge across the Hérault. The bridge dates back to 1030, a period when many pilgrims were travelling along the path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, so the bridge got a lot of use. It received the nickname of the Pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge) because a legend says that during the construction, every night a devil would come out and destroy what had been built during the day. Finally a pact was made with the devil: if he helped to build the bridge, the first soul to cross the bridge would be his. So a nice solid bridge was built, but the monks fooled the devil by sending a dog across first. The devil was so mad that he tried unsuccessfully to destroy the bridge. He finally gave up and dived into the water underneath. The place where he landed is called the “black hole” today. If you want him to stay there, throw a pebble into the water as you go by!
As Gellone prospered, the mother Abbey in Aniane declined, and during the Religious Wars in 1562, the buildings were sacked and the church destroyed. But the abbey initially recovered - in 1633 the Aniane Abbey, like many others at the time, was revived by the Maurists, a community of reformed monks who undertook to restore the buildings. The work stretched out over the next 150 years right up until the French Revolution. Thus a new church was built with large new cloisters on the south side including living quarters, a chapter room, an infirmary, a library, etc, and it is these buildings which remain visible today. But during the French Revolution the buildings, like all other religious buildings in France, were confiscated and sold. The Aniane Abbey was bought by the Farel family, who transformed the site into a textile factory, which operated until 1843 with up to 150 employees.
The buildings were then used as a prison, which opened in 1845. The new access with the honour courtyard and the wings framing it were added, as well as a new storey to accommodate more cells. In 1885, the site became a reform school for young delinquents, who were given jobs in a series of workshops built at the time to create the tools, furniture and other items needed for themselves and for other reform schools throughout the country. This continued until after World War II, when children’s courts were created and new public institutions took charge of young delinquents. However while the name of the reform school changed, the youngsters went on living there, but now they could work toward professional diplomas which would help them find jobs when they were released.
The Institution was finally closed in 1998, and the buildings were bought by the community of towns in 2010. They had been listed as a National Monument in 2004 (the Devil’s Bridge was also listed in 1998 as part of the Santiago de Compostela route), but they were run-down and dilapidated, and would take a fortune and many decades to restore.
Nevertheless the villagers bravely accepted to undertake the task, and have started to use the site for summer shows and guided visits, hoping thus to raise money for the restoration work. The inhabitants of Aniane, who have had to live with this eyesore for so long, will finally be able to take pride in this long-neglected part of their heritage.