It’s not your ordinary run-of-the-mill holiday snapshot I’ll admit, but to see it was both moving and slightly disturbing. We were in the Languedoc region in southern France last week and visited a medieval abbey in the hamlet of St. Guilhem le Dessert which lies tucked into a verdant hillside fed by mountain streams. The abbey crypt contains the bones of Saint Guilhem, an advisor to Charlemagne and the the founder of the abbey who brought back three pieces of the True Cross from Rome. The abbey eventually became a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Spain and Santiago de Compostela. The crypt also contains this bit of installation art entitled “Memento Mori”. It’s actually a giant rosary comprised of fetters and human skulls and is, depending on your point of view, very devotional or just plain macabre. I sort of liked it (which probably tells you a lot about me). The bottom of the rosary chain (which is out of frame) extends beyond the iron bars that seal off the crypt and terminates in two leg irons that lay unlocked and open upon the floor. Symbolic of the release to a better world, I suppose. At any rate, for the kids running around me it was probably as good as any ride in the Fun House at the amusement park.
But something else resonated for me. The opening chapter of my current work in progress, The Guns of Ivrea, is set in an underground crypt and involves a terrible discovery made there by the monks. It was more than a little spooky to see the place you had built in your mind’s eye now laid out for real before you. From the worn sandstone slabs and stones, eroded capitals on the ancient pillars, and the dust of ages on the dirt floor, if a writer ever needed raw material for his imagination, then here it was. We ended up visiting several medieval towns and their Romanesque churches and abbeys on our trip in the Herault region and each offered something unique in detail, evoking more images and scenes I have already written as well as some I have yet to scribble down. They say that travel broadens the mind, but for a writer, it can also supply the spark to bring fiction and the characters that inhabit it, to life.