Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
A First View of Périgueux
By Edward Augustus Freeman (18231892)
From Historical Essays
LET the traveller, if he can, take his first view of Périgueux from one of the bridges over the Lisle where the river flows almost immediately under the great church of Saint Front. Standing there, he seems to see a model Gaulish city. The slope of a low hill rising above the river is covered by the houses of a considerable town, with the wonderful minster to carry our thoughts to Eastern lands. Its five cupolas stand out like those of Saint Sophia or Saint Mark; only, unlike Sophia or Saint Mark, the tall bell-tower rises also to remind us that we are still in Western Europe. Save for the special outline of the church, the site is essentially the same that we see in a crowd of other Gaulish cities. As we look across the Lisle at Périgueux, to most eyes the story would seem plain. Here is the usual tale; the head fortress of the Gaulish tribe has become the Roman, the mediæval, the modern city; the great church stands, as usual, as the central point of the whole. Everything seems perfect, everything lies compact, according to the received model of Gaulish cities. Could it come into the head of any man to think that he is looking at a spot whose story is wholly different, that he is not looking at any site of early days, that the wonderful church before him is not the original head church of Périgueux, but a secondary church, the fellow of Saint Ouen at Rouen or Saint Germain at Auxerre, which has supplanted the more ancient seat of the bishopric? It is true that, if he should go through every nook and corner of the Périgueux on which he now gazes, he will nowhere find a scrap, not a stone or a brick, of Roman work. But that is perhaps not very wonderful; on not a few undoubted sites of Roman towns the remains of the Imperial age have utterly vanished, or have to be sought for underground. We cannot conceive that any man who should know no more of Périgueux than he sees from the bridges, no more even than he would learn by making his way into every street of the town which he sees from those bridges, would ever doubt for a moment that he was looking on a town which had gone through the usual story of a city of France or Aquitaine from the days before Cæsar till our own.
To get rid of this very natural error our traveller must follow as he can the course of the stream downwards. At some little distance from the closely packed town which he has been studying, parted from it by ground partly left in open spaces, partly covered by buildings of very modern date, his eye will sooner or later be caught by quite another group of objects. From almost any point that he can reachsome of the best points are quite to the south, on the causeway between the river and the canal that runs alongside of ittwo, from some points three, buildings will strike him, which throw themselves from different points into various forms of grouping. Unlike Saint Front and the town which surrounds it, they lie at some distance from the river. They lie on the same bank as Saint Front, that is on the right, but not, like it, on distinctly rising ground. Indeed, from some of the points in this quarter one might doubt whether Saint Front stood on rising ground at all. When we go up from the quay to the church by steps or by steep streets, we feel that the puy of Saint Frontthe name familiar in Auvergne and Vélay is found here alsois a real height; yet the height of the church from base to cupola is clearly greater than the height of its own foundations above the quay. Still the puy is a hill, one of those hills which count for something when covered with houses, though they hardly pass for hills when free and covered with green grass. But at the point at which we are now looking, the ground is nearly level: there is of course some slope down to the river, but nothing that can be called a hill. The low ground indeed looks up to hills that are really of some height, a line of round-topped grassy hills, rising from the other side of the river. Will the thought of Dorchester on the Thames, of the Roman camp, growing into the Roman town, that looks up at the British site on Sinodun, come into the mind of any man? If so, he will have grasped the first key to the true story. If there are no traces of Roman occupation among the streets that surround Saint Front, here we have signs of the universal conqueror of no mean account.