Gascony, the last of the southern provinces and the farthest from Rome, had great prosperity under Imperial dominion. Many patricians emigrated there, roads were built, commerce flourished, and as in Provence and Languedoc, towns grew into large and well-established cities. Christianity made a comparatively early conquest of the province; and at the beginning of the IV century, eleven suffragan Bishoprics had been established under the Archbishopric of Eauze. Gascony has many old Cathedral cities, and has had many ancient Cathedrals; but after the fall of the Roman Empire in the V century, a series of wars began which destroyed not only the Christian architecture, but almost every trace of Roman wealth and culture. Little towers remain, supposed shrines of Mercury, protector of commerce and travel; pieces of statues are found; but the Temples, the Amphitheatres, the Forums, have disappeared, and even more completely, the rude Christian churches of that early period.
Although the province has no Mediterranean coast and could not be molested by the marauders of that busy sea, it lay directly upon the route of armies between France and Spain; and it is no “gasconading” to say that it was for centuries one of the greatest battle-fields of the South. Vandals, Visigoths, Franks, Saracens, Normans,—Gascons against Carlovingians, North against South, all had burned, raided, and destroyed Gascony before the XI century. It is not surprising, then, that there are found fewer traces of antiquity here than in Provence and Languedoc. Even the few names of decimated cities which survived, designated towns on new sites. Eauze, formerly on the Gélise, lay long in ruins, and was finally re-built a kilometre inland. Lectoure and Auch had long since retired from the river Gers and taken refuge on the hills of their present situations, while other cities fell into complete ruin and forgetfulness.
The year 1000, which followed these events, was that of the predicted and expected end of the world. The extravagances of Christians at that time are well known, the gifts of all property that were made to the Church, the abandonment of worldly pursuits, the terrors of many, the anxiety of the calmest, the emotional excesses which led people to live in trees that they might be near to heaven when the “great trump” should sound,—“Mundi fine appropinquante.” But the trumpet did not sound, and Raoul Glaber, a monk of the XI century, writes that all over Italy and the Gaul of his day there was great haste to restore and re-build churches, a general rivalry between towns and between countries, as to which could build most remarkably. “This activity,” says Quicherat, “may show a desire to renew alliance with the Creator.” It certainly proves that the generation of the year 1000 had fresh and new architectural ideas.
This was the period of recuperation and re-building for Gascony. The monks of the VIII, IX, and X centuries had devoted themselves with zeal and success to the cultivation of the soil. They had acquired fertile fields, and desiring peace, they had placed themselves in positions where their strength would defend them when their holy calling was not respected. These monasteries were places of refuge and soon gave their name and their protection to the towns and villages which began to cluster about them. Except the declining settlements of Roman days, Gascony had few towns in the X century; and many of her most important cities of to-day owe their foundation, their existence, and their prosperity to these Benedictine monasteries. Eauze regained its life after the establishment of a convent, and in the XI, XII, and XIII centuries, the Abbots of Cîteaux, Bishops, and even lords of the laity, occupied themselves in the creation of new cities. Many of the towns of mediæval creation possessed broad municipal and commercial privileges, they grew to the importance of “communes” and Bishoprics, and some even styled themselves “Republics.”
Although these were times of much re-building, restoring, and carrying out of older plans of ecclesiastical architecture, the XI and XII centuries were none the less filled with innumerable private wars, and in 1167 began the bloody and persistent struggle with England. The city of Aire was at one time reduced to twelve inhabitants, and the horrors of the mediæval siege were more than once repeated. In these wars, Cathedrals, as well as towns and their inhabitants, were scarred and wounded. Hardly had these dissensions ended in 1494, when the Wars of Religion commenced under Charles IX, and Gascony was again one of the most terrible fields of battle. Here the demoniac enthusiasm of both sides exceeded even the terrible exhibitions of Languedoc. The royal family of Navarre was openly Protestant and contributed more than any others to the military organisations of their Faith. Jeanne d'Albret, in 1566, wishing to repay intolerance with intolerance, forbade religious processions and church funerals in Navarre. The people rose, and the next year the Queen was forced to grant toleration to both religions. Later the King of France entered the field and sent an army against the Béarnaise Huguenots, Jeanne, in reprisal, called to her aid Montmorency; and with a thoroughness born of pious zeal and hatred, each army began to burn and kill. All monasteries, all churches, were looted by the Protestants; all cities taken by Montluc, head of the Catholics, were sacked. Tarbes was devastated by the one, Rabestans by the other, and the Cathedral of Pamiers was ruined. With the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, in 1572, the struggle began again, and the League flourished in all its malign enthusiasm. “Such disorder as was introduced,” says a writer of the period, “such pillage, has never been seen since war began. Officers, soldiers, followers, and volunteers were so overburdened with booty as to be incommoded thereby. And after this brigandage, the peasants hereabouts [Bigorre] abandoned their very farms from lack of cattle, and the greater number went into Spain.”
During long centuries of such religious and political devastation the architectural energy of Gascony was expended in replacing churches which had been destroyed, and were again to be destroyed or injured. It would be unfair to expect of this province the great magnificence which its brave, cheerful, and extravagant little people believe it “once possessed,” or to look, amid such unrest, for the calm growth of any architectural style. It is a country of few Cathedrals, of curious churches built for war and prayer, and of such occasional outbursts of magnificence as is seen in the Romanesque portal of Saint-Pierre of Moissac and in the stately Gothic splendour of the Cathedrals at Condom and at Bayonne. It is a country where Cathedrals are surrounded by the most beautiful of landscapes, and where each has some legend or story of the English, the League, of the Black Prince, or the Lion-hearted, of Henry IV, still adored, or of Simon de Montfort, still execrated, where the towns are truly historic and the mountains truly grand.