A dilapidated church and some crumbling ruins in the process of restoration are all that is left of the village of Saint-Amans, set in the woods between Caylus and Saint-Antonin. A few mounds of stone hint at the former dwellings of long-gone inhabitants.
The place is now called Saint-Amans le Vieux (the old). Formerly, it was also known as Saint-Amans de Promilhargues. Perched on a cliff overlooking the valley of the River Bonnette, the view is magnificent.
The population of Saint-Amans le Vieux upped sticks and moved in 1892 to Saint-Amans le Neuf (the new). The ‘new’ village is a couple of kilometres away, closer to the road network. This week, our walking group chose a walk that takes in both villages.
A community had existed at Saint-Amans le Vieux since at least the first part of the 16th century, when the church was constructed, and probably long before. It was built on the foundations of a church formerly run by the Templars and then by the Chevaliers de Saint Jean of Lacapelle-Livron, one of the most important commanderies in the region. The cross incorporated into the stone above the church doorway is said to have been salvaged from the debris of the old Templar church.
In the light of some comments received since I wrote this (see below), I have done some more research. I haven’t been able to find very much about this village and I recognise that you have to treat a good deal of what you read on the Internet with caution. However, from a French site that is dedicated to Templar history, I found the following (my translation and paraphrasing):
Since the tithes were often insufficient to assure the maintenance of a church and the salary of its priest, the bishop had the power to entrust the church and its tithes to the keeping of a religious order established in the area, on condition that a kind of ‘minimum service’ was maintained. The Church of Saint-Amans [and another one in the area] were given to the Templars in 1271 and attached to this Commandery [Lacapelle-Livron].
The old presbytery, Mairie and schoolhouse are still there, being restored by the present owners. It’s not entirely clear why the people abandoned their village and moved to a new one. Although rural depopulation was starting in the late 19th century, it did not really gather momentum around here until after the First World War. It is clear, however, that scratching a living from this unforgiving land was far from easy. Around the old village, you can see enclosures bounded by stone walls. These were formerly fields, which have now reverted to woodland.
Further on, down the hill, is an abandoned farm, restored by a local association. In addition to the house and barn, there is also the original bread oven. It’s difficult to imagine living in such remote solitude. People were tougher then.
One of the curiosities that we saw during the walk is this dolmen with an iron cross on top. 19th-century Christians perhaps sought to exorcise the ghosts of their Neolithic forebears by appropriating their burial place. They certainly didn’t see this as desecrating an ancient monument. This is an interesting example of one culture overlaying another. Or maybe they simply thought the dolmen would make a good base for one of the many wayside crosses that sit beside the ancient pathways.
I find it fascinating to imagine how people must have lived when this village was abandoned – not much more than a century ago. How things have changed over that period. At the end of the 19th century, more than 50% of people in France lived off the land; at the end of the 20th this figure had dropped to 4.3%. That says it all.
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