Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val is a slow-moving town with its feet deep in the past. Founded in the 9th century deep in a stony gorge on the Aveyron river, it’s belonged to the Romans, to the English, to the French, to the Catholics, and to the Protestants, in a relentless cycle of conquest and upheaval. The fact that it’s now a sleepy little place with a generous summer infusion of tourists is probably responsible for the annual pageantry that is the town’s medieval festival. By happy accident, the town remembered its former travails and glory on our second night here, reminding us that we are a truly insignificant fraction of its long list of foreign invaders.
When we saw the signs for a medieval festival we didn’t know what to expect, but we went along for the ride since this will be our home for the next five weeks, and we wanted to feel a part of its history. In the event costumed marchers gathered, torches were lit, and hundreds of us followed the torchlight procession through the narrow streets of the ancient town
stopping in front of important buildings to listen to talks about their significance in history. Luckily we had read about it in advance, since we could neither hear nor understand most of what was said, public address systems being no better in France than they are anywhere else.
I couldn’t help but notice that lots of little boys were dressed up, but there were almost no little girls in costume. I hope that has nothing to do with the forgotten role of women in much of our past, but I fear otherwise.
After the torchlight parade, the party really got started, with fire juggling
a band playing and singing rollicking Occitan music
and the whole town square filled with dancers of all ages. A bevy of volunteers urged endless cups of hippocras, a sweet and spicy red wine concoction, on the merrymakers along with bites of medieval sweet breads called fouace and massepain.
Finally, after midnight, we followed a path of light home to our little house that is several hundred years old, and fell into our blissfully modern bed. History and progress both have their places, and I think it’s a particular genius of the French to keep them closely tied, side by side in daily life, reminding us that here and now is a good time to be alive, but there and then are what made us who we are today.