Tales of two rivers
78 Pages

Tales of two rivers



Two rivers, the Dordogne and the Lot, flow accros land that has know centuries of war and prosperity, struggle and calm. The region could be discovered through examining histry, but its folk-tales and legends speak with the voices of its own people.



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Published 01 June 1994
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EAN13 9782368480991
License: All rights reserved
Language English

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illustrated by LAURENT BRITSCH


Two rivers, the Dordogne and the Lot, flow accros land that has know centuries of war and prosperity, struggle and calm. The region could be discovered through examining histry, but its folk-tales and legends speak with the voices of its own people.


Juliet Heslewood








Illustrated by

Laurent Britsch


THE MILLER WHO BECAME A KNIGHT - A tale from Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

SACRED BELLS, SACRED POOLS - The story of St. Namphaise

THE DEVIL ON THE BRIDGE - The legend of Pont Valentré

THE GIANTS OF CAMBAYRAC - A legend from the river Lot

SAD ESPERIE - The story of St. Céré’s origins

A DEEP, DARK HOLE - The legend of Padirac’s cave

THE MONKEY’S LEAP - A legend from the river Lot

THE DONKEY THAT DRANK THE MOON - A popular tale of the Dordogne and other regions

THE DREADFUL DRAC - A traditional Quercy tale

THE MAGIC STICK AND THE MAGIC WHISTLE - A fairy-tale from the Dordogne

COULOBRE, THE TERRIBLE DRAGON - An ancient legend from the Dordogne

JOHN OF BORDEAUX - A fairy-tale uniting France and England


o discover a country from its legends is to approach the hearts of its people. Old beliefs and superstitions were born of enquiring minds stimulated by their environment. That stories should have continued to be believed over centuries, no matter how fantastic they were, proves that logic and reason held no place in those minds. Nature said a great deal more.

The river Dordogne and the river Lot have their sources in the mountainous country of the Massif Central. Over thousands of years on their journey to the sea they sliced their way past high, limestone plateaux and through luxuriant, flat plains. Before their waters meet to become the Gironde estuary they are sometimes only forty kilometres apart. If legends evolve from a reaction to geological phenomena, then a land that is so varied, with rivers, cliffs, deep caves, forests, dry plateaux and rich vegetation is bound to be steeped in folklore.

History also contributes to the development of folktales. Most of our knowledge of prehistoric man comes from here in caves such as Lascaux and Pech-Merle. Yet events that took place in the more recent past show their traces in popular tales. The two rivers lie in an area that was familiar with the sounds of battle during the Hundred Years War (1337-1454). Even today this war is spoken of as if it were within living memory and relations between France and England have never been quite the same since. In the stories, the English (with their claim on Aquitaine) appear as a threatening invader and many of the picturesque castles that can now be seen on the rivers were strategically built against attack. The Wars of Religion (1562-1598) and the years of Revolution (from 1789) also helped to create the character of this area.

Some stories go back further to the time when churches were first being erected. The Romans left Gaul as Christianity was beginning to spread both here and all over Europe. The church became the most important building in a town or country community and from the early Middle Ages pilgrims passed here on their way to Compostela. It is because of this strong awareness of religion that so many tales describe that other war, between good and evil.

A legend, then, is a record of a historical or geological fact or a spiritual belief, that is clothed with poetic imagination. A fairy-tale is pure invention and can be incorporated into a locality, making it seem like a legend. The great appeal of a tale, however, lies not so much in its facts or plot, but in its characters and I have tried to give these new life in the hope of making the fantastic seem almost logical. The stories include battle-weary soldiers renouncing the army life or the scheming relations of innocent young ; hard-working peasants with their feet on the ground or sinister beings from the world of the supernatural.

Though I carefully visited all the stories’ locations and talked to many helpful people about them, my real discovery was how images of the past can be revealed in the present. Unkempt castles and wild, wooded valleys may be silent but many of the people who live here are the descendants of the original authors of the tales. Discovering the stories was an adventure that held me spellbound in the land of the two rivers ; a particularly beautiful part of France.


Juliet Heslewood





A tale from Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

veryone knew everyone else’s business in Beaulieu It was hardly surprising. The little town was made of tiny, narrow streets where neighbours could peer into each other’s windows or hear hushed whispering at half-closed doors. In the market place and on the street corners people lingered to listen to the latest tales of all their friends and foes. These stories were enlarged once they reached the crowded inns where men paused to drink on their way home from work and women sighed and they all complained about each other. Beaulieu’s chitter-chatter buzzed round the alleyways down to the chapel by the river. But even there, where the slow-moving water gently circled the town, news travelled fast. Though surrounded by the calm of shaded chestnut hills, Beaulieu thrived on the nonsense of its gossip.

Now in the centre of the town there rose a fine, tall abbey. It seemed to resist the stirrings of the streets. Here monks walked through choir and cloisters in solemn silence.

Their thoughts were of a sober and spiritual nature but their stomachs, like everyone else’s in Beaulieu, tended to grumble at times. The monks, however did not have to beg for food, for the people working on the land gave one tenth of their produce to the abbey as a ‘tithe’. This was a kind of tax, paid by most people in money. Yet since the river valley was so rich in nuts and strawberries, in vegetables and wine, the people gladly paid the monks with goods.

In every way the monks’ life was comfortable. The fine, vaulted roofs above their heads and the tall abbey walls were soundly built. No unfriendly weather disturbed their daily prayers. At night, having eaten to their hearts’ content, they slept through the sweetest dreams, untroubled by the cares of the world. Seasons passed - the heat of summer turned to autumn’s gold and during the chilly winter the monks still kneeled to speak their long devotions.

In spring, unknown to many of the monks, the abbot of Beaulieu liked to leave his praying brothers very early in the morning. Naturally he was spied from several creaking doorways in the town, but few people took much notice of him once he and his mule had passed out of their sight. He rode out through the valley to his favourite shady spot on the gentle river Cère. Here he spent most of the day, idling his time and snoozing. If he woke up it was only to be thrilled by the bite of a trout on the end of his fishing line.

Now it just so happened that one person knew where he passed his time and that person was the Baron of Castelnau who hated the abbot with a vengeance. He believed that the trout belonged to him - and there they were being pinched from under his nose! One day he was determined to meet the abbot, face to face, to tell him all he thought.

It was a warm, dry, sunny afternoon. The Baron of Castelnau found no difficulty in creeping up beside the sleeping monk who lay so contentedly upon the riverbank. He coughed hard.

“Goodness! Mercy! Deliver me from woe!” cried the abbot unused to such rough awakenings. The Baron glared at him and then at the fish lying in the grass.

“What’s all this? Fishing again?”

“Ah yes but I can explain all,” said the abbot flustered and surprised as he shook the sleep from his head.

“Don’t you think I don’t know about your wicked ways. These trout are encouraged to swim here by the people of Gagnac and Biars. And in return you say they need not pay their tithe. But the fish are mine! You’re stealing them!”

“How can I steal from you when you are in debt to me?”

“I? What do you mean?”

“Even though you are a fine baron, you too owe me your tithe.”

“Now listen here,” said the Baron of Castelnau growing cross, “this is my land and they are my fish and I won’t let you steal them any more. In fact, I should really have you hanged for such robbery. But instead I might tell everyone I know about the theft.”

The abbot began to sweat as he saw the Baron of Castelnau was not going to change his mind. If his secret was disclosed he would be wretched with shame. To think of the abbey’s reputation! To think of an end to his precious fishing hours! What could he do to defend himself?

“If I may say so, my Lord, there are an awful lot of people who don’t like you. That is why they never offer you their food. You try to raise their taxes, not only from personal greed but so they may believe you are powerful. Well you’re not. Frightening people is only a fool’s way of gaining power.”

The abbot was rather pleased with his little speech. But he saw that the Baron of Castelnau had gone all pale.

“A fool am I?” he said. “You are a ridiculous monk and I am going to prove it. I shall give you three questions and the answers must be with me in a week, at two o’clock next Thursday afternoon.”

The abbot, who was an educated man, felt sure he would be able to reply. He noticed the fish on the grass were lying in the sun and hoped they would not begin to turn bad.

“Hurry up then with your silly questions. I have to go,” he said.

“Here they are:

One. How far away does the earth reach?

Two. What are the measurements of the moon?

Three. When you come next Thursday, tell me what, at that moment, I want most and how, having got it, I cannot be satisfied.

There now - let us see which one of us is a fool!”

Though the abbot claimed these were childish riddles, he parted company with the Baron of Castelnau in a sorry state. His return to Beaulieu was not the usual pleasant trot. The fresh spring air only served to multiply his fears - so that when he arrived at the abbey he was anxious and depressed.

Looking up at the portal of the church he saw the solemn carved figures staring down at him. They were rigid and still. He longed for them to speak and give him some advice. But their stone remained unmoving, as if in judgement. He rushed to be consoled by the monks and he told them all that had happened, both that afternoon and on the many days when he had lazed on the banks of the Cère.

“Let us all sit down and eat,” said the monks, feeling that this was the only way to calm the nerves, restore the brain and satisfy the soul. Food would also help them come to a sensible conclusion.

The abbey refectory was a large, cool hall where the monks gathered for their meals every day (three times a day). It was occupied by long tables, numerous chairs and a round, fat cat. This cat knew the times of each meal and when it wasn’t sitting in an elegantly carved window-frame, it was certainly not chasing mice. It knew each monk individually, from the smell of his robes, the touch of his hands and the manner in which he passed odd bits of fish-tail or gristle down beneath the table on to the floor. The cat particularly liked the abbot, so when this evening he paid it no attention, it was thrown into a sullen mood. It would not move. It remained on its window-ledge and stared with narrow eyes at the absurd behaviour of the monks. For they were eating faster than usual and talking far too excitedly. Plates clattered, jugs spilt and the little portions of cream that the cat had been anticipating did not appear. Finally, the cat sulked off in disgust.

“We shall have to ask someone else the answers to the questions,” the monks concluded though it remained for them to decide - who?

Night drew near. The bells of the abbey rang their final peal while the monks stayed awake wondering, sighing and at last yawning as they judged it best to think things over in the morning. Outside in the tiny cobbled streets, Beaulieu slept.

But the next day and the next and each day until the following week, the monks had still not found the answers to the questions. It was only when the abbot spied the refectory cat pacing down an alley, its face alert as it sniffed for food, that he was struck with an idea.

“Why not ask in Beaulieu? The people there have always remained at a distance from us. We don’t know them at all. If the cat can be satisfied beyond our walls, so might we.”

The monks agreed this was a very original thought and immediately the abbot stepped out into the streets, his heart and mind sure of success.

It was the day of the Strawberry Fair. Men, women and children were out and about, dressed in their best. Some carried baskets of the luscious, red fruits; others stopped to gaze at them or sniff or taste them at several stalls. The abbot was not sure where to begin since the noise and the crowds were all new to him and so unlike the quiet of the abbey. But he only had to remember the Baron of Castelnau’s threat - and the possibility that all these people would think badly of him - and he knew he should persevere. The narrow lanes, decked with flags and bright geraniums, were very welcoming but each person the abbot approached seemed in a frivolous mood. Again and again when he asked them his three questions, they shook their heads and suggested he went somewhere else.

‘Try Guy the cobbler,” he was told and as he pushed his way through the crowds, he didn’t notice how they stared at him and whispered among themselves, “Who is that and what is he up to?”.

Inside the cobbler’s shop were clogs and hide and laces all hanging from the beams. At first the abbot saw no-one, but over in a dark corner he soon discovered young Guy, busily counting pairs of shoes on shelves.

“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen - no, no I can’t answer your questions - my head’s too full of maths just now - twenty, twenty-one. But go and see Annie...