Books and paintings are more than mere objects. Such things convey conversations, preserve meanings and symbols, and, above all, tell us about those who owned them, their values, and their imaginaire, or “social imaginary.” This latter notion, theorized by philosophers such as Sartre and Lacan, highlights the link existing between the real world and the identity we construct for ourselves. Things are symbols, often revealing a person's identity and mindset as well as aspects of his or her culture, time, and social class. Objects, representations, images, or words in books can reflect a conscious identity that an owner assumed through the acquisition of that object. The inventories of wealthy, aristocratic households are especially interesting in this regard because they contain a wide range of objects and also because members of the aristocracy had more freedom than their less affluent contemporaries to select and arrange objects according to their tastes and their values.
In this light, the inventory of the castle of Les Baux, made on the 14th of October, 1426, shortly after the death of Alix des Baux, is particularly illuminating.✱ Les Baux, known today as Les-Baux-de-Provence, is a village located on a steep rocky outcrop in the Alpilles mountains in the French département of the Bouches-du-Rhône, north-east of Arles and south of Avignon. The castle dominates the village, and the inventory of the things Alix des Baux owned and kept there gives us both an image of her material life and an idea of her imaginaire.
As one would expect, the interior of the castle was lavishly and luxuriously furnished. Materials appearing in the inventory include velvets, silk, and leather; the bedsheets are embroidered; gold and pearls are sewn into the clothing. One finds items made of gold and silver, studded with sapphires, pearls, and rubies, among them a light-red ruby called balai in Old French, also known as spinelle rouge. The jewels and gems listed in the inventory are innumerable.
Luxurious objects reflect the wealth and position of the Baux family. The objects which provide the most vivid insights into the symbolic and cultural world inhabited by the family, however, are those bearing signs and symbols that refer to cultural values both popular and aristocratic.
Among the rooms listed in the inventory, the first one, the chapel, stands out as one of the most luxurious, richly furnished with numerous liturgical objects. Here we find the first tapestry listed in Alix’s inventory, one representing the Three Kings, which was described as “old.” The scene was a commonplace, one that any Provençal peasant would have most likely recognized, since the Adoration of the Magi was one of the mostly commonly represented scenes of the Bible. The tradition of depicting the Nativity in a creche dates back to the thirteenth century when it emerged in Italy. The custom spread quickly to Provence, where it is attested from the thirteenth century onward. This tradition, known as the crèche provençale, remains alive to this day.
It also bears another very personal meaning to the Baux family given a longstanding tradition according to which the lineage was descended from King Balthazar.✱ The star on the family's coat of arms is a reference to the Nativity star, the one that guided Balthazar. The family motto was “Au hasard, Balthazar,” alluding to the king’s journey to find Christ.
Thus the tapestry was both an element of common knowledge and a personal family symbol. It was also a means of asserting power by endowing the family of the Baux with a highly religious and symbolic history. Tapestries not only had a practical function (keeping the room warm) and an aesthetic function (serving as decoration), they were also used as a means of propaganda in the later middle ages.✱ They demonstrated wealth as well as a certain imaginaire associated with the image aristocrats wished to convey.
The care with which the chapel was furnished and adorned demonstrates how important religion was to the Baux family: there is a great deal of religious iconography, including images of the Virgin Mary and Saints Christopher and Anthony. There are other paintings whose subject is unspecified. A great number of books are also found in the chapel including books of prayers, such as the psautier (Old French psaltier, or book of psalms in English) and the dominical. Many of these books were described as being annotated by the notary Brisset le Roy, who also compiled the inventory. The coat of arms of the Baux family, along with that of the Villars family - the family of Alix’s first husband, Oddon de Villars - are also present in the chapel, appearing on cloths, including a cloth described as “red” in the inventory. This is easier to understand when we consider that the Baux family wanted to display a link between the family and its sacred origins.
The family’s coat of arms appears quite frequently in the inventory (more than twenty times) and on different materials and objects: on bed covers, rugs and tapestries, on a golden basin, on silver bottles, on a silver bowl, on the silver cover of a book of prayers, and even on a red cloth used to cover the hindquarters of a horse. The omnipresence of the coat of arms, not only that of the Baux but also of those pertaining to other families such as the Villars and the Beauffort family (Alix’s grandfather’s family), or to cities such as Avignon and Geneva, testifies to the famous pride of the Baux, who were notorious for their rebellions against the counts of Provence.
Indeed, the Baux family had always been known to fight and resist the power of those who tried to reduce and circumscribe its own influence. During the middle of the twelfth century, the Baux fought against the House of Aragon, which ruled Provence at the time. This conflict, which lasted almost twenty years, is called the “Baussenque Wars.” Later on, when the Angevin dynasty came to power in the mid-thirteenth century, the Baux’s defiance against the new rulers was renewed. Barral des Baux epitomized the independent spirit of the Baux family in the mid-thirteenth century, but at the same time he showed sharp political intelligence by allowing his family to become close to the counts of Provence. In this way, the Baux lineage gained significant power. Some members of the Baux family were especially sensitive to the need to insist upon their rights, sometimes at the risk of appropriating others’. Hugues des Baux and his extended conflict against Pelet de Mimet exemplifies this attitude at the turn of the fourteenth century.✱ Up until this point, the Baux had been a synonym for resistance: Frédéric Mistral, the Provençal writer par excellence, compared them to free eaglets, “never vassals,” flying up in the sky (une race d’aiglons, jamais vassale qui, de la pointe de ses ailes, effleura la crête de toutes les hauteurs).✱
The aristocratic world was a world of symbols, mottos, alliances and allegiances, and of course rivalries and enmities, as suggested by several representations of the French fleur-de-lis that are listed in the inventory. The Baux coat of arms was certainly not displayed only within the confines of the interior of the castle; it must have been visible in the village of Les Baux and throughout the family’s jurisdiction, as some remnants still show today.
As we can see in Alix’s last will, she fought until the end of her life to keep the Baux seigneurie in the family. Her last will mirrors her strong attachment to the family name and coat of arms (Et que soit tenus celui que sera mon hiretier de porter les armes des Baux), both omnipresent in the inventory. Although her strong will and efforts weren’t sufficient to keep the castle and the seigneurie within the Baux family – their realms were quickly seized by the counts of Provence after her death, and many things were transferred to the castle of Tarascon over the years - this inventory allows us to grasp her character and values and gain an appreciation for her intense pride in her family. After marrying her first husband, Oddon de Villars, the young Alix found herself in a struggle against her second tutor, her maternal uncle, Raymond de Turenne, who tried to corner some of the possessions she inherited from her father’s side. The intensity of the struggle undoubtedly left a mark on Alix’s character.
Alix des Baux also seems to have been an educated and literate woman. The sense of history and legend, already visible in the chapel through the tapestry of the Magi, can be further discerned in the description of several tapestries and historiated cloths found in the dressing room of the castle, which seems to have been used as a storage room. There we find a historiated cloth representing King Solomon, another of Alexander the Great, and still another depicting Alexander and Darius. Aristotle, the preceptor of Alexander, is also depicted on a tapestry found in the dressing room.✱ The ideas of history and story lie at the heart of the description of these cloths. The fact that the notary doing the inventory was capable of identifying all of these subjects (lestoire de…) also implies that he, or at least his informant, was familiar with these stories. The historiated cloths also reproduce, with images, legends found in the Chansons de geste. Two stories associated with the life of Charlemagne are found in the dressing room: one tapestry represents the story of the enchanter Maugis, and another shows the story of Oliver and the giant Fierabras.
The Carolingian cycle, in which the latter story appears, was tremendously popular among medieval French aristocrats. A brief excursion into the history of the tapestry, however, reveals that the theme had an even more personal meaning to the Baux family. More than three decades earlier, Alix's first husband, Oddon de Villars, had served in the entourage of the count of Geneva. According to a reference in a 1393 inventory of the castle of Annecy, a town in the French Alps and the capital of the county of Geneva, the count of Geneva had given Oddon the tapestry along with several other items.✱
The scene of Oliver and Fierabras depicted on the tapestry had a very special meaning to the count, for according to legend, the counts of Geneva were descended from the eigth-century hero and knight, Oliver of Geneva, who had died while fighting alongside his friend Roland in the famous battle of Roncevaux. Aristocratic families lived in a world of their own, but these worlds were permeable inasmuch as families made alliances and were linked one to another. In the 1393 inventory of the castle of Annecy, Oddon de Villars is also described as having received several other objects, such as carpets, books, and other tapestries, including the ones found in our inventory which represent the story of Maugis, the conquest of Sicily, women hunting, and a hermit. He is also said to have given a beautiful Bible to the count of Savoy.
In our inventory, we are sometimes told who gifted certain objects or to whom they belonged – this also reflects the social and ceremonial world aristocrats lived in, a world in which gifts were crucial elements.✱ Thus, a beautiful book of psalms, covered with pearls, along with its leather case adorned with fleur-de-lis, is said to have belonged to John, Duke of Berry, and then to Joan II, countess of Auvergne, his wife, Alix’s relative on her mother’s side (le psalme et plusieurs oraysons couvert de drap dor et de perles avec son stuif de cuir garni dune corroie dargent doree a flours de lis qui fuit de messire de Berrini et apres de Madame de Bouglogne sa fame). References to previous owners give us some information about Alix’s social environment as well as connections between families and territories. References to geographical provenance also inform us about trends and the circulation of goods in late medieval Europe. An example is provided by a paternoster, or rosary, which is said to be in the Aragonese style (Item uns paternostre de jayet a la fasson d'Aragon garnitz de xxxvi perles).
Many other rosaries are found in the castle, and most of them are made of jayet (jais in French and jet in English), a black and shiny gemstone that was popular at the time. Such objects of devotion were familiar all over Europe and were popularized through the widespread practice of pilgrimages where such objects were typically sold.
While some tapestries and historiated cloths are described as old and worn out, others are beautiful and in mint condition. Such clues provide hints to different trends and fashions. One of the tapestries described as both impeccable and large depicts a more recent historical event, namely, the conquest of Sicily by Charles I, Count of Provence, in 1266.
Provence itself, like France, romanticized its own history, in the fashion of the chansons de geste and chivalric romances. All these stories refer to very different periods in time, ranging from the kings of the Old Testament and the era of Christ to the era of Charlemagne and events unfolding during the high and later middle ages. These provided temporal landmarks and mythologized times to the aristocracy, who were eager to participate vicariously in those legendary tales. Other figures appearing in the historiated cloths of the dressing room are reminiscent of the imaginaire we find in chivalric romances, including the hermit, a popular figure, and the lady.
The latter appears in two different tapestries: one, representing a lady (Item ung autre drap de hautelisse grant et large viel et grandement long apelle de lestoire a la dame), described as very large and old and a second smaller one, of lesser quality, depicting women fighting (Item ung autre petit malestruc tapis ou les dames se combatent). This latter representation of women fighting can be associated with the theme of the Nine Brave Women (Les Neuf Preuses), a female continuation of the male Nine Worthies (Les Neuf Preux).✱ This female group of nine women fighting was very popular at the end of the fourteenth century.
Let us look more closely at the room of the tower, where the last lady of Les Baux died. It is reasonable to think that this room reflects her personality the most, along with another room we will examine later on. The four tapestries which hung on the walls of her room (Item quatre tapis de autelice tendus aux murs) represented Alexander the Great, King Henry, and King Peter of Spain, as well as a scene of women hunting (les autres deux de chasses de femines).
The latter image is fully in keeping with Alix’s personality: it was she who ruled and delivered justice, as is shown by the judicial records and pleadings we find in the inventory (Item un petit autre cofre semblant a ceulx que dessus plain de letres tant de se pleydories quelle menoit come autres tant en saquetz come de hors saques). In her last will and testament, one can easily understand the extent to which she was in charge of her possessions and skillfully managed her rights and her estate. First, the will makes many references to notarial documents, known as instrumenta, and the entries carefully describe where the instruments were kept in the castle (par jadis Mestre Jardon notaire de mon lieu de Caromb lequel instrument jay vers moy en mes coffres).
The attention paid to the conservation of documents – a papal bull, debts, a document known as a vidimus, letters, homages - is striking, both in the inventory and in Alix’s last will, and says something about the society she lived in. During the later middle ages, writing came to occupy a very important role as a technology of information, and by the beginning of the fourteenth century, resort to written proofs and documents was common. In the inventory, many instruments can be found: some are original and some were copied out, sometimes in a very organized manner, as is shown by references to rubrics methodically written out on the covers of registers (I livre en papier contenant diverses copies de instrumens lesquelx sont designes dessus en la couverte de celui). The depth of the family history is paralleled by – and perhaps even depended on - the depth of the documents kept by the family (Item une bulle de pappe Clement contenent ung depte de iiim florins (…) par laquelle le papa engaiga a monseigneur messier Odde de Villars le lieu de Seres en Venessin).
Furthermore, Alix’s last will shows her frequent use of justice and recourse to experts in law as well as in notarial practices. Before dying, she chose her cousin Guillaume des Baux, duke of Andria, as her universal heir, and gave monetary bequests to many people who were related to her or worked for her. Among them was the jurist Pierre Astier to whom Alix decided to give a hundred florins for having served her well. The fact that Alix chose to give him money is not surprising, as she seems to have given a little something to all the people who surrounded her, but the fact that she mentioned his “good and loyal services” is not devoid of interest – few beneficiaries were given such a compliment (ITEM je laisse donne et ordenne estre donnes delivres et baillies a messieurs Pierre Astier licencie en lois juge général de toute ma terre pour les bons et aggreables services quil ma fais (…) cent florins pour une fois et oultre ce qui soit payes de ses gaiges se rien le est deu.) This emphasizes how Alix was indeed a woman of action and of power. She dealt with many situations, ran her estate, and ruled over her possessions: she was in charge.
It is significant that we find books not in her bedroom but instead in a space defined as “the room where she liked to lie” (en la chambre ou madame soloit gesir), whose window looked out over the town of the Baux. Two chivalric romances were found in this room.
Significantly, the books were not tucked away on a shelf or in a chest; instead, they were found on top of the bed. Since this room was identified as a favorite of hers, we can assume these were books she liked to peruse. Thus, thanks to this inventory, we catch glimpses not only of Alix’s life as the seigneur of the Baux and as a woman of duty, but also of her intimate life. These romances, which included stories of Lancelot and Tristan, give us a sense of her literary tastes.
From another reference made in the inventory, we see that Alix borrowed a book entitled the Sidrac from a man named Anthoyne Roy or Monet Lolier of Avignon. The Sidrac, also called Livre de la fontaine de toutes sciences, was an encyclopedia of general knowledge written at the end of the thirteenth century which remained popular until the sixteenth century. The Sidrac was found in her bedroom, which seems at odds with traditional understandings of the literary tastes of medieval women. Moreover, it suggests she shared her literary experiences with other people, here men — in her case, there doesn’t seem to exist a sexist barrier preventing her from reading certain texts.✱
Many of the letters and instruments described earlier were also found in the same room, stored in a multitude of chests and boxes, suggesting that it can perhaps be construed as a sort of office where Alix liked to work, while the room labeled secretarie could be used by her secretary or as a storage room for other notarial documents, such as account books or a black book containing the recognitions of rent owed to the Baux family. Alix’s favorite room also seems to have been the room in which she made her last will: when referring to a chest (coffre) containing certain documents, she indicates that the chest is close to her (lequel instrument jay vers moy en mes coffres). Since the room where the majority of the notarized documents were kept was the one where “she liked to lie,” we can imagine she made the will there, shortly before dying (her last will was made on the 7th of October). Proof of this would clearly indicate this room was her office, a room where she would work, store her most important archives and her treasure (Item ung arche de marine de nouguier en quoy madicte dame soloit tenir ses meillures letres et son tresor) and summon her personal secretary, Brisset le Roy, to draft legal instruments, including her last will.
The image of Alix that emerges, that of a highly active and cultivated woman, is not surprising, given her lineage and her family. After the death of her father, Raymond IV des Baux, in 1372, when Alix was only five years old, her maternal grandfather, Guillaume III Roger de Beaufort, was assigned to be her tutor. Guillaume was a prominent political figure, close to Pope Clement VI, his uncle, and Pope Gregory XI, his brother.
Her maternal grandmother, Aliénor de Comminges, was also a very determined woman who showed resistance to the counts of Provence on several occasions, a resistance for which she, at the age of sixty, was imprisoned in Aix-en-Provence at the very end of the fourteenth century. Alix was the sole heiress of the Baux family, since her brother Jean des Baux had died at a very young age. We can therefore suppose that her grandfather attended carefully to her education. Despite having married twice, Alix did not have any children. These biographical facts, intertwined with the inventory of the castle, spark our imagination. What kind of life did Alix lead in her castle? What was her daily life like? Did she enjoy reading or being read to? What did she think about as she observed the village through the window of her favorite room?
The many things found in the inventory of Alix des Baux give us a sense of what Provençal aristocrats would have known and appreciated about religion, literature, and their own history. It gives us an idea of their relationship to the world and their perceptions of it. The lushness of the inventory itself is all the more striking, given the stark contrast with the ruins of the Baux castle seen by the visitor today. This inventory not only conjures up objects, it resurrects a whole universe, made of coats of arms, symbols, colors, traditions and legends, beliefs, literature and ways of life.