A troubadour song : The Romance of Arles by Janice Lert

A troubadour song 1The Romance of Arles (Roman d’Arles) is a troubadour song performed in Occitania by travelling entertainers in the Middle Ages going from castle to castle to recite historical poems, sometimes accompanied by music. These songs usually recall heroic deeds of knights in defence of Christianity. The best known of these poems are about Charlemagne and his family, and they often concern battles fought against the Moors or Sarracens. Several of these poems speak about Arles: they could have been sung in the courts of the castles of the Arlesian aristocracy, but also in those living in the Alpilles towns such as Les Baux or Saint-Rémy.


The text of the Romance of Arles is known because it was partially transcribed in the 14th century by an Arlesian surveyor, Bertran Boysset. At that time the story was called L’Enfant Sage, (The Wise Child). It starts with Genesis (underlining the importance of Christianity in the early city) and then moves on to Roman Gaul. We learn that the future Emperor Vespasian has been shut up in a tower in Fréjus (town on the Riviera founded, like Arles, as a Roman colony) because he has a terrible skin disease (his face is puffy and wasps - vespa in Latin means "wasp" – fly out from his nose). He is cured by Jesus’ robe taken from Pontius Pilate after the crucifixion. He returns to Rome, but his father, the Emperor Tiberius, moves to Arles-the-White (Arles- la-Blanche, perhaps because of the local white limestone used to build the city), “second Rome”, and spends 20 years there. When he goes back to Rome he takes with him the best of the men of Arles, who will henceforth defend Rome, but will leave Arles defenceless.

The Moors take advantage of the lack of soldiers to invade all of southern Gaul. Charlemagne (we have skipped 7 centuries somewhere...) comes south with his army to conquer the territory for the Franks. The rest of the poem tells of the battles fought by Charlemagne against the Moors, first at Freta, identified as Saint-Rémy, then following the Roman aqueduct through the Alpilles toward the city of Arles, and conquering the castles one- by-one along the way. He lays a nine-month siege to the city, and the Moors, who have taken refuge in the Roman amphitheatre, are reduced to eating their horses. They finally attempt a sortie, but they are massacred by Charlemagne, who leaves 15,000 men to defend Arles and returns to Paris.

But the Moors come back and gain access to the city centre by underground passageways (perhaps the tunnel bringing water via the Roman aqueduct into the city). The Christians are massacred and the Moors move back into the amphitheatre. They are finally defeated by Louis, the son of Charlemagne, who sets fire to the amphitheatre, a fire which burns for four months, making it impossible for the Moors to move back.

The poem is written in a variety of rhythms: the lines have different lengths, in certain parts they rhyme, in others they don’t. The story is designed to explain the Christian origins of the city of Arles: according to the legend Trophimus was able to evangelize Arles because of the benevolence of the Emperor. Actually the person called "Caesar" refers to all the different Roman Emperors, but seems to represent in particular Constantine. Tiberius governed the Roman colony of Arelate, but it is Constantine who is particularly known as having resided in Arles and who allowed the Christians to worship freely in 313.

A troubadour song 2

The early Christian legends about Trophimus and the Alyscamps cemetery which are still popular today often originate here. Two leit motivs reappear regularly: one is the use of an underground passageway or canal to enter the city (today entrances to the underground Roman aqueduct are still visible in the city), and the other is the miraculously sculpted marble tombs in the Alyscamps (or Aliscans) cemetery where the Christian heroes were buried.

But the author of the Roman d’Arles also managed to include in his story other local themes such as the wood of the cross of Christ (of which a piece was supposedly preserved in the little 12th century Holy Cross chapel at Montmajour Abbey). The palace of the emperor in Arles was transformed into a church. This could refer to space donated to Trophimus to create a chapel dedicated to Stephen, today St. Trophime’s, or perhaps the building known as the “baths of Constantine” which became a church in the Middle Ages known as the Holy Saviour of the Dome – Saint Sauveur de la Trouille.

His details of the battles fought, and in particular the names of local spots involved, show that he had good knowledge of war in this area. He also mentions family names that are well known in and around Arles. This makes us think that the author (unknown) may have been an Arlesian or someone who lived in Arles. The story is not a love story and it has no hero. The author apparently simply wanted to glorify the city and its Christian origins.