To my faithful servant and his descendants I bequeath these lines. May they
throw them away when they cease to be of any interest. A copy of the whole
text is in the possession of Monsieur de la Vauguyon, the French Ambassador
|THE FRENCH ZERO MERIDIAN
the fall from a horse that was suffered by Father de la Caille
(1713-1762) during his journey to Rennes-les-Bains! Was this happy
accident not well worth it, given that it gave us a chance to get to
know this learned man who was honoured throughout France, this
zealous Christian who should really have lost his sight (and some
would say his life) through his habit of always looking through his
spectacles simultaneously at his notebook with his right eye and the
sky with his left eye. Other countries envied us for having such a
person among us. The adjustments that he made to the zero meridian
described by Piccard, and more particularly to the Dunkirk-Paris
section, earned him the admiration of Frederick the Great, who
should have given him the task of constructing Unter den Linden, the
zero meridian of all German territories. Our country could not
however do without him. The Church then took him on as a
collaborator on its ‘Art de vérifier les dates’ [The Art of
Verifying dates], the fundamental work of Dom Lobineau to which our
descendants owe the existence of a history of France and, therefore,
a history of Europe as well.
The fact is that a knowledge of
history and geography are indissolubly linked with a knowledge of
the stars. One could therefore say that an astronomy that does not
tend towards astrology is but the ruin of the soul.
notes that follow, which I owe entirely to Father de la Caille, I
have added some comments provided by Fouillée and by the memoirs of
Abbé Delmas drawn up in 1709, but my gratitude towards the former is
only increased by the light that he has shed on works whose
significance I would never have seen if left to my own efforts.
Curé of Rennes-les-Bains
A priest, because he has to concern himself as part of his job
with both Heaven and Earth, has a duty to meditate on the relationship
between astronomy and geography. It's all very well saying that the French
zero meridian is an "imaginary" line, but one immediately asks where this
"imaginary" line comes from and where it goes to. Here we propose to examine
in the light of our rational understanding what poetic instinct has never
forgotten: innate knowledge demands that we view it with infinite rigour.
For if a rational geography is content with vaguely knowing that the zero
meridian passes through Paris and Carcassonne, a poetic geography would
insist that one actually visit the exact places that it passes through in
order that the map be brought to life and experienced for the greater glory
Out of the forty remarkable points that the French zero
meridian passes through we shall deal here with only thirteen, leaving the
curious reader to examine for himself the other twenty-seven in order that
he may be fully persuaded of the spirit of mischievousness that can be
discerned in the physical geography of humanity.
The zero meridian entered France via Till Eulenspiegel and was then moved in
the year 1670 following the work of the geographer Piccard. Louis XIV was
anxious to establish on this Flemish territory a French community which,
thanks to Colbert, formed a little country within a country, a sort of
seed-bed for seafaring folk.
The history of Fort Mardyck is full of
proud traditions, dating back to Julius Caesar embarking for Britain and
handing over his command to Sulpitius the Red, from which is perhaps derived
the name Blooteland, "land of blood", by which the Flemish still call it.
Christianized in 646 by Saint Eligius, it prides itself on having
the first steeple surmounted by a cross ever to be seen in the north of
Europe. In 911 the Peace of Gisors led to the baptism here of Rollo the
Norman and his subsequent marriage to the daughter of Charles the Simple.
The zero meridian at that time ran through a primitive lighthouse, the
church and the rue du Gibet [where the gallows were].
In 1168 Fort
Mardyck was the first town to be declared a "ville franche" [a town
chartered by the King], a privilege solemnly renewed in 1297 by Philip the
Fair. When the Count of Flanders was proclaimed King of Castile and Aragon
in 1504 the town returned to the Spanish crown until 1662 when it was
returned to France even thought the reconquest was achieved with the help of
Cromwell. Responsibility for it then passed to the Marquis de Monpesat, who
held Dunkirk and whose orders were to detach Fort Mardyk from the
territories of the châtelain of Bergues, which were under English rule.
The restoration of this region to French influence in 1670 was a great
success. The fishermen of the region, having been granting the privilege of
raising geese there, maintained close economic links with the interior, and
we know that this example was followed by a community in Lower Canada which
still exists (1).
It was in 1679 that Vauban replaced the old
lighthouse with a more modern structure, the lamp of which was covered with
a small lead dome surmounted by a golden fleur-de-lys, the compass-North of
which can still be seen today. This building was demolished in 1718 under
the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht.
is the original name of this place. The word means "hexagonal chapel", i.e.
a scale-model of the hexagon of the nation of France. Today the meridian is
still indicated by the "Cruys Bellaert" or "Cross of the Little Bells", a
Celtic boundary-stone which was Christianized and dedicated to Saint Anthony
the Hermit, whose feast-day is 17 January and which has given rise to the "Rozenhood"
or "Rose Hat", a dance performed on the meridian. The dancing takes place
beneath a crown of roses hung in the air. With the Rosenhood is associated
the Roze-papa or Reuze-papa of Dunkirk as well as all the giants of the
North who have received the name of Reuze but who tend to have their
celebrations at the time of the summer solstice (2).
The meridian passes through an old grave and a lime-tree.
The meridian is marked by a stone statue which the Infanta Isabella of
Spain embellished with a red thread and a golden girdle.
Here you can still see the place where St. Martin cut his red cloak in
two, thus giving the Celtic region its structure. His tradition of
miracle-working, inherited from St. Hilary, has been transmitted to us by
the chronicler Sulpitius Severus via Saint Sulpitius of Bourges, from whom
it was adopted by Saint Gregory of Tours. The presence of Sulpitius Severus
and Saint Sulpitius of Bourges on the zero meridian reminds us of Sulpitius
the Red, whom we encountered when we were discussing Fort Mardyck. The name
of "Severus", denoting a separation, is itself an allusion to the cutting in
two of the cloak by Saint Martin.
This cutting of the cloak has
sometimes been misinterpreted in excessively concrete terms as if it had
something to do with the establishment of a territorial or social frontier.
"Was it really so cold that winter", asks Sancho Panza in Don Quixote,"that
Saint Martin needed to keep the other half to himself?" And we can quote
here the popular Spanish song:
San Martin, santo francés,
la capa con Dios;
Entera se la habria dado
Si hubiera sido espanol.
Saint Martin, a French saint,
Shared his cloak with God;
would have given all of it
If he had been Spanish.
Amiens Cathedral is not located precisely on the meridian it is worth
examining the relationship between the "Beau Dieu", the rose-bowl and the
bowl of lilies in the portico. A beautiful text by Saint Jerome prescribes
the following meditation:
"He stands in the doorway because it is
through Him that we come to the Father, without Whom we shall never enter
into the City of God. A judgement will admit the just, deeming unjust those
who are not within the doorway."
Here the zero
meridian coincides with the trail of blood from the severed head of Saint
Denis, as also with the wine from his grapevine at Montmartre, a name that
has something in common with Mars, Martin, Mercury and martyr. Saint Denis
is also the location of the Merovingian necropolis founded by Dagobert I as
a successor to the necropolis at Saint Germain des Prés, which neither the
Carolingians nor the Capetians entered. On the tomb of Dagobert I you will
notice the image of Osiris, the Egyptian Sun God.
there is an ambiguous situation regarding the meridian, since you have to
trace simultaneously the line that we have followed above and then pass
through the cave of the devil Vauvert (on which the Observatory rests) and
also find the church of Saint Sulpice on the vertical plane of Saint Germain
The meridian of the Observatory is mentioned by Rabelais in
the story about the bet that he proposes between the devil Vauvert and the
valet of Saint Martin, where the Devil is understood to mean an occult
The meridian of Saint Sulpice is found 200-300 metres to the
East of the first meridian, and is peculiar in that it is inscribed in the
paving by means of a metal line which extends to the obelisk of the gnomon
and which must then be traced northwards until it marks out the Merovingian
necropolis of Saint Germain des Prés. This obviously raises the question of
a possible conflict between the "royal" meridian based on the Observatory
and the "clerical" meridian based on Saint Sulpice.
To deal only with
the zero meridian of Saint Sulpice: you must note the care that has been
taken over piercing a hole in the southern stained-glass window, a hole
which is so positioned that at noon on the equinox the Sun shines for
several seconds on the copper disc in the choir. This disc was formerly
moistened with vinegar before the office of Tenebrae and therefore at noon
gave off a greenish glow, the last beverage consumed by Christ on the cross
(3), and the colour of Raphael.
LA CHAPELLE SAINT-URSIN
is found the centre of the French landmass and the middle of the French
section of the zero meridian.
This place was consecrated by the Kings
of the World known as the Bituriges, who welcomed Vercingetorix as a
war-chieftain. Battle was actually joined further to the East, at Avaricum,
where today the city of Bourges is to found, the city's name being a
corruption of "Bituriges" into "bourgeois". Saint Ursin itself was the huge
camp where 40,000 knights assembled and where the headquarters of the
general staff was to be found, but there is also a legend of an underground
passageway running from La Chapelle Saint-Ursin via the Faubourg d'Auron to
the house of Jacques Coeur in Bourges.
Gregory of Tour mentions Saint
Ursin as the first Bishop of Bourges, and therefore the predecessor of Saint
The central location of La Chapelle Saint-Ursin make it
possible to superimpose upon it simultaneously both of the hexagonal
emblems, i.e. the fleur de lys and the Seal of Solomon. This can be seen
from the fact that a Jewish community established itself there in the 6th
century and subsequently flourished. This community possessed the basin of
red jasper decorated with gadroons which came from the Temple of Solomon.
Here we find the earliest of the Black Virgins of France,
known as Notre Dame des Miracles thanks to the power that it gives the
faithful to transport themselves in space and time. The legend of Mauriac
says that two Crusaders captured by the Moors and loaded with chains
miraculously found themselves in the local chapel. The same legend is found
in the Acta Sanctorum, which locates the Crusaders in Saint Germain des Prés.
This Black Virgin was brought there in 507 by Theodechild, the daughter
of Clovis, who lit a candle there, the flame of which was only extinguished
last year (1791).
In 1270 a man should have drowned
in the gorges of Belcatel (through which the meridian passes). Elzéar of
Sabran jumped in to save him, while Jeanne de Villeneuve, his cousin, saw a
red rose falling and, raising her head, an immense rope which she threw to
the two men for them to clutch onto. Jeanne de Villeneuve became a nun and
took the name of Roseline (meaning "red line") [or more correctly, "pink
line"], under which name she was canonized.
Colombe, who travelled from Spain accompanied by a bear, took up residence
here in the year 201 and lived there for twenty-eight years, receiving manna
from heaven served upon a shield. Veneration of Saint Colombe was instituted
by Saint Sulpitius when he was master of the Palace School of King Dagobert
II. He it was who dedicated the abbey of Colombies to this saint.
The rock of Campsoleil near the village of Lafontaine follows
the zero meridian. It was here that the "canis Domini", the Dog of God,
known as St. Dominic saw the red star descend and received the instructions
to found the Order of Preachers that bears his name. In a neighbouring
grotto the saint, annoyed by the mischief of an ape and by the need to hold
a candle, invented the rosary.
RENNES LES BAINS
My own parish.
A beautiful avenue planted with trees traces out the zero meridian, leading
to the Source d'Amour, so-called because of the bitterness of its water
which cures heart trouble.
If you follow the zero meridian out of
France towards the south you encounter three remarkable points.
A suburb of Barcelona. A place of exile and gathering for
non-juring priests. It was here that there died my colleague Bigou, curé of
The zero meridian
passes between Majorca and Menorca. Joinville tells us that the ship of
Saint Louis, when it was crossing this line, picked up there a sailor who
was swimming. When the crew expressed astonishment that he could have
survived a shipwreck he said that he had been, "ordered to Notre Dame de
Vauvert" who had "lifted him up by the shoulders from the moment he had
fallen until the moment the King could rescue him".
A legacy of plays
on words seems to have turned Notre Dame de Vauvert into Notre Dame de
Verdelot, who formed the object of a cult in the diocese of Meaux, where her
statue was of walnut . The Revolutionaries, having decided to move the
statue, were forced to abandon the attempt as it was so heavy (4).
An Algerian village, in ancient times known as Caesarea.
The zero meridian runs through Kubr-er-Rumia, which means "the tomb of the
Christian". This is an Egyptian pyramid which was built by Juba II of
Mauretania, lord of the Canaries, in honour of his wife Cleopatra, who was
not actually Christian but the last sovereign of the line of Ptolemaic
MATER DEI MEMENTO MEI [MOTHER OF GOD,
Notes by General David-Leroy
(1) The French
society of Fort Mardyck was dissolved in 1824 on the orders of Charles X, as
the fishermen had descended into illiteracy and so were no longer capable of
(2) The French Republic takes its nickname of
"Marianne" from the Marianne Canal which formerly joined Mardyck, Petite
Synthe and Dunkirk.
(3) The reputation for ugliness bestowed on the
church of Saint Sulpice has always had the aim of distracting attention away
from its prodigious interest, which goes far beyond the "mystery of the
cathedrals". If Saint Sulpice is ugly then that is probably due to the
multiple plans that meant that it was constantly being modified during its
construction, in other words as a result of the pursuit of the most complex
symbol which, unfortunately, remains inaccessible.
If we remain in
the Romantic Era for a moment, certain phenomena have attracted the
attention of historians. It was while looking at the towers of Saint Sulpice
that Flora Tristan had the revelation that they had been built with
charitable donations, which she then made her personal quest on behalf of
the people. It was at Saint Sulpice also that Flora Tristan, the grandmother
of the painter Gauguin, invented the famous Christian formula, "Workers of
the world unite". It was once again at Saint Sulpice that the conspirators
of the "Jeune France" movement agreed that "El Hierro" would be the rallying
cry for the Battle of Hernani.
And what was going through Madame
Victor Hugo's mind when, on those nights when her husband had a "first
night" at the theatre, she had guilty meetings there with Sainte-Beuve?
The case of the sculptor Carpeaux seems to be a case of being, as it
were, split in two by the two meridians. His home in the Rue de l'Abbaye was
located on the golden line of Saint Sulpice, and it was at Saint Sulpice on
15 August 1854 that he prayed to the Virgin to arrange for him to win the
Prix de Rome for his "Hector invoking the Gods in favour of Astyanax".
However it was on the meridian of the Observatory that Carpeaux enjoyed good
fortune on two separate occasions: the first under the porch of Amiens
Cathedral, where Napoleon III saw his bas-relief depicting the surrender of
Abd-el-Kader. The second was the commission entrusted to him in 1867 to
construct the monumental fountain of the Observatory, which illustrates the
zero meridian in the Luxembourg Gardens. Between these two events one must
situate the famous dialogue of the artist with the scientist Arago:
Carpeaux: "You bunch of astronomers, you don't believe in anything at all".
Arago: "But who lives closer to God than we do?"
It seems that the
Carpeaux was the spiritual heir of the sculptor Elschoet, known as "La
Chouette" (the owl), who was born in Dunkirk in 1791 and who decorated the
Palais de Luxembourg.
(4) PréParadol reports a groundswell of opinion
which, in 1859, demanded the return of the Balearic Islands to France
because of their location between France and North Africa.
pyramid of Cherchell is the strangest of all. Recent excavations have
revealed a network of corridors that do not lead to any burial sites.