|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 to Spain.
THE FRENCH ZERO MERIDIAN
God bless 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.
the 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 of
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.
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
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
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:
Partie la capa con Dios;
Entera se la habria dado
Si hubiera sido espanol.
Saint Martin, a French saint,
Shared his cloak with God;
He would have given all of it
had been Spanish.
Even though 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
"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.
Here 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 des Prés.
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 science.
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
Here is found the centre of the
French landmass and the middle of the French section of the zero
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
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
Saint 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
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 Rennes-le-Château. RIP.
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).
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
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 governing themselves.
(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,
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
(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.
The pyramid of Cherchell is the strangest of all. Recent excavations
have revealed a network of corridors that do not lead to any burial