Thursday, July 20, 2017

St. Fris: Photos at last!

For a tiny little town (pop. 391) just a few klicks away from the middle of nowhere, I've managed to pass through Bassoues three times in the last 15 or so years.  The first time, I was astonished to come across a statue of what appeared to be a soldier (shield, raised sword, spear) who turned out to be Saint.  This was St. Fris, a supposed nephew of Charles Martel, who led a small band of Franks to repulse a Saracen invasion at this very spot.

St. Fris holds a certain fascination for me because he was my introduction to the world of folk saints.  These are highly localized, their real names often unknown, their very existence quite often doubtful.  Their legends, however, often share mythical elements not only with each other, but with more well-known religious figures.  The hagiography of St. Fris, for example, shares details with St. James, of Compostela fame, in that after his death, his body was somehow miraculously encased in rock.

From within this rock, a spring appeared, with miraculous healing properties.  We see the same story at Rocamadour, with the legends of Saints Quiteria and Liberata; with the majority of what are known as Black Madonnas; with the hermit Dadon, who after his "furtive translation" (i.e. theft) of Saint Foy's remains, struck the ground with his staff and voila!  H²O!  The same story is found at Covadonga, in Asturias, in the story of Pelagius, who in 722 is said to have pretty much kicked off the Reconquista.

So despite being a figure with an extremely limited geographical domain, he is nonetheless endowed with the powers over the forces necessary for the survival of what Julian Barnes calls the Ultimate Peasant: water, health, protection from attackers.  St. Fris is pretty much limited to the Gers:  he saturates Bassoues; there's a small cult at Vic-Fezensac (a town with a strong connection to another local element of folklore: the bull); and a small shrine at the cathedral in Auch.  Fris isn't even his real name; the legend states that when his uncorrupt body emerged from a rock being licked away as if it were salt, no one knew his name, so they called him St. Fris after his familial connection to the Frisian Islands. 

I recall being happily surprised in Asturias when I came across two hamlets, one dedicated to St. Sernin, and, more surprisingly, the "Saintes Puelles" (here called "Pueyes -- the Argentine "ll" and "y" share the same "zh" pronunciation so the changed spelling is fonetickly the same).  I mention this because I wonder if somewhere along the St James Way we can find either a hamlet named after Fris, or a chapel; would you give me a bust in a basilica maybe?

Anyhow, third time's a charm because as I recounted in a previous post, I never managed to get some photos in my first two visits.

So, without further adieu, I present thee with the photographs:

This first is typical of regional architecture, thick walls of rough-hewn stone; small, round widows; often asymmetric facade; a single tower; spare to zero ornamentation.

St. Fris Basilica

St. Fris shrine at l’Étendard hill
This shrine is located at the site where St. Fris allegedly planted his flagpole/spear in the ground, his line in the sand, and with a rousing "into the breach" pep talk, rallied his troops to defeat a rear-guard of Moors as they fled south after being routed at Poitiers.
There's a cinematic quality to the story of St. Fris; it could make a good film.  St. Fris rallies his men and defeats the Moors, but one last arrow, let loose by a young embittered hothead finds its mark and strikes the young champion.

Lakeside chapel dedicated the St. Fris
Fris' horse, suddenly without guidance, bolts, the dying Fris slumped in the saddle, bouncing brutally as the horse flees in terror.  It comes to a spot near a river.  The corpse of the young hero falls to the ground, is encased in rock and lays undisturbed for centuries, until a cow, licking away at the rock, reveals St Fris, apparently still magnificently mustachioed, for all representation of the saint feature long Asterix-like facial-hair.

The chapel itself is unremarkable and also typical of the region. Unfortunately one cannot see inside.  The S.F. monogram under the bell is a nice touch.

Lakeside chapel: facade
Finally, here's a photo of the scared spring with reputed healing powers.

Sacred spring: St. Fris chapel
So basically, since the Middle Ages, pilgrims came specifically to see the relics of St. Fris or visited on their way to Compostela (probably this is what accounts for the legend that Fris' body, like that of St. James, was encased in stone).  Pilgrims would ether drink or bathe in these waters for their reputed healing powers, but it wasn't until 1890 that the village priest, one Abbé Blajan, had the chapel built and (not pictured), a small bathhouse where numerous miracles have been reported.

I can think of half a dozen similar fountains within a short distance from my home.  In my village the fountain was reputedly best for fevers and stomach troubles.  Dedicated to John the Baptist, the current rude structure is only made of mud but has stood since 1713 on the site of a much more ancient chapel.  In at least two neighboring villages there are chapels with healing springs.  All of these are positioned along the local tendrils of the St. James Way that converge upon St. Jean-Pied-le-Port, both the beginning of the "French Road" to Santiago and the last stop in France before pilgrims cross the Pyrenees to arrive at Roncevalles.

So, finally LoS has some photos from my own telephone to illustrate to places where St. Fris was struck and where his body came to rest.  I made a longish detour on my return journey after three-plus days on the St. James Way, following the same route as millions of pilgrims before me.

St. Fris was the nephew of Charles Martel, who in 732 had defeated the Moors at Poitiers.  As the Moorish army fled, their rear guard encountered a small group of Franks led by Fris; his legend is thus directly tied to the battle which is said to have stopped the until then indefatigable advance of the Moors into Europe.

Ironically, later battles had Charlemagne, Martel's grandson, and thus Fris' cousin, allied with the Moorish Wali of Barcelona and Girona to combat his rivals in the Iberian peninsula.  The Wali received military aid and Charlemagne saw an opportunity to shore up his power and strengthen the Christian position in general.  In 778 Charlemagne was dealt his only military defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass as his rear-guard was ambushed by Basques in revenge for Charlemagne's attack on Pamplona, a Basque capital, during his adventures in the basque Country.  Fris' encounter reverses the roles,some wishful thinking to clean up an otherwise spotless military record.

In 824 a second battle occurred, where a combined Basque and Muslim army defeated a Carolingian expeditionary force.  Lots of shifting alliances, no?  The Carolingians had gone to quash a rebellion in that pesky Pamplona and met no resistance.  However, marching back with plunder, they were ambushed at Roncevaux pass and soundly defeated, much like Charlemagne 46 years prior.  The Basques were the true victors here, for the battle led directly to the establishment of the independent Kingdom of Pamplona.

So, though Fris's tale is probably a fiction, there is a possible historical basis for the story.

For the rest of St. Fris' hagiography, read my original post.

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