Le pays Camisard

Camisard Country is the area where a few handfuls of Protestants, the “Huguenots”, dared to engage in resistance, sometimes by taking up arms, against the powerful armies of King Louis XIV, in order to recover the religious freedom of which he had deprived them in 1685. It is the legacy and memory of this unequal and heroic struggle that has forged the soul of this region’s inhabitants, by permeating it with the Camisard spirit, one of the identifying values of this land of resistance.


This very distinctive area extends northwards to the Vivarais mountains, in the Ardèche, and then down to the Vaunage and the area around Nîmes. It includes a large part of the Cévennes, the mountains forming the south-eastern buttress of the Massif Central, from the Ardèche department to the Hérault department, passing through the departments of the Lozère and the Gard.

From this harsh and difficult land, composed in turn of schist, granite or limestone, the native “Cévenol” has constructed his own mountain. Generation after generation he has built up dry stone walls so as to hold the land in terraces or “faïsses” and to protect it from bad weather which is sometimes very violent and which would easily carry off down into the valley the little fertile soil that there is. There he has planted chestnut trees, called “the bread tree”, because it has fed a good number of generations and protected them from the famines. By their side he has for a very long time cultivated “the silk tree”, the mulberry tree whose leaves feed the silk worms that he raises on silk farms, until the time comes when they roll up into their cocoons, fastened onto branches of white heather, and become a source of new money for the Cévenol countryfolk when they bring them to the local spinning mills. He raises goats and produces goats’ cheese (called “pélardons” or “picodons”) from their milk. He has built solid farmhouses (called “mas”) which are still there, and around them, in pride of place, would be a few 'bruscs' or trunk hives for producing honey and beeswax for making candles.

It is a scrubland (called “maquis”, or “garrigue” further south), typical of Mediterranean climates where everlasting fig-trees, knotty olive-trees, scented lavender, tree-like heather, rosemary, juniper, arbutus and many more all grow ... The ground is harsh and rough, with wild thyme, heather, chestnut trees, evergreen oaks, broom, stony pathways, flowers dried by the sun and some wild boar that make the gardeners despair but the hunters rejoice...

Here and there, maritime pines have invaded the territory after having been planted for the coalmines. They are the botanical and natural remains of a bygone industrial era.

All of this countryside benefits from the Languedoc sun. But it also experiences downpours of legendary violence and intensity (especially in autumn) as well as summer droughts which can sometimes be worrying. The area is the scene of Cévenol episodes of weather (also known as the Cévenol effect). These consist of torrential rains accompanied by very localised - sometimes stationary - storms, lasting several hours or even several days. They are mainly due to cold air coming from the Atlantic Ocean touching the western peaks of the Cévennes and meeting warm, damp air coming up from the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Because of their suddenness, their violence and the local geography, these episodes often lead to floods which can sometimes be dramatic (1890, 1907, 1958, 2002, 2014…)

So it is easy to understand how the landscape has marked the people who live in Camisard Country. But history, too, with its fighting, and its trials and tribulations, has permeated the culture of this land.


The Reformation

Camisard Country has been shaped by ideas, as well. Starting in the 12th century, the Cathars and then the Waldensians spread doctrines preaching the responsability of Man and emancipation from the Church of Rome. Though persecuted by the Inquisition, the ideas remained and were passed on. In the 16th century, it was the Reformation of Luther and Calvin which became widespread, thanks to the printing press. By 1560 several Protestant churches had been erected. A large majority of the population of the Cévennes then converted to Protestantism and very quickly suffered opposition from the State and from the Catholic Church. In contempt they were called “Huguenots” (the word probably came from “Eidgenossen” which means Confederates in Swiss German). Ever since that time they have carried this name with pride. 

The Edict of Nantes

In 1598, Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes which put an end to the Wars of Religion and authorised the practice of the Protestant faith. Louis XIII, for his part, saw Protestantism and its growth as “a state within a state”. He wanted to restrain the political power of the Protestant party and started to remove the privileges granted by the Edict of Nantes. After the siege of La Rochelle, that of Privas[1] in May 1629 and the capture of Alès[2] in June, he signed the Grace of Nîmes which took away from the Protestants their strongholds, all political and military power and therefore their capacity to resist. Religious Freedom now existed only through the goodwill of the king.

Its Revocation by Louis XIV

Louis XIV, the Sun King, then applied a policy of absolutism which can be summed up in a few words: “one king, one law, one faith”. He then constrained the Huguenots to recant by prohibiting their access to all trades, or by force with the dragonnades. A large number of troops of soldiers, the Dragoons, were sent into the villages where there was most resistance. They had a completely free hand as far as making people recant was concerned: they could steal, ransack, rape … This was the case all over Camisard Country; in 1683 for the Vivarais (the Ardèche of today), and in 1685 for the remainder of the Cévennes. Faced with the horrors of these persecutions, thousands of Protestants attempted to flee the kingdom or converted – in any case on the face of it  – to the king’s religion. They were called the “Newly Converted”.

On the 18th October 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, doing away with Protestantism in France. All the temples (Protestant churches) were razed to the ground, the pastors were sent into exile, the borders closed to the Newly Converted who were impoverishing the kingdom by their mass exile, and the children had to be educated in the king’s religion. The penalties risked by anyone contravening the king’s orders were terrible. Anyone found “guilty of religious malpractice” was sent to the galleys, his womenfolk to prison for the rest of their days, his children locked up in convents, and his pastors put to death.                                                                         

Going Underground

And yet, faith was burning in the hearts of those who had been forced to recant. They held meetings in deserted places, despite their being banned, so as to live out their faith. Many caves, such as the “Huguenot” Cave at Vallon Pont d’Arc and those in the canton of Les Vans, the Fort Cave, or the one at Peyras near Mialet, the Rouville Cave at Saint-Jean du Gard, as well as ravines or ruins, all welcomed the singing of psalms and the preaching of the Gospel. Many are the places that watch over the memory of these assemblies “in the Wilderness” in the Cévennes. 

The Camisards

Faced with this apparent failure, the royal troops hunted down the smallest kind of assembly. People were faced with the doubling of arrests, convictions and persecutions, and a revolt was brewing. In the Cévennes some Protestants preached violent resistance and took up arms in 1702 against the soldiers of the king and leaders of the Catholic clergy such as the Abbé du Chayla, accused of torturing his prisonners to make them disclose who the itinerant pastor was, or who was the person in charge of organising their flight abroad. They organised themselves into small companies and, taking advantage of knowing the terrain like the back of their hands, harrassed and routed a fair quantity of royal troops. In 1703, the king authorised the “torching of the Cévennes”. 450 villages and hamlets were destroyed and torched. Their populations were carried off to prison in the Roussillon area. The Camisards, so called because they wore a “camiso” (shirt in the Occitan language spoken in these areas) as a token of recognition, were still resisting even in the face of nearly 30,000 soldiers. In the end they accepted surrender after Jean Cavalier, a Camisard leader, went into exile and Rolland (Pierre Laporte) died in August 1704. In 1709, Abraham Mazel, who had been a Camisard right from the start, raised troops in the Vivarais. His death in 1710 put an end to the Camisard Uprising.

These few years of open fighting have left an indelible mark on the history of the Cévennes. The whole of Europe was aware of the Camisards’ distress.  

18th Century

During Louis XV’s reign, non-violent resistance continued, through times of intense persecution. Nourished by the spirit of resistance, people carried on teaching the Reformed Religion at home and learning to read from the Bible, a book which was forbidden but carefully hidden away.

Clandestine meetings were organised and itinerant pastors received, even if they were outlawed, wanted men. The penalties risked were always dramatic and meant to set an example. Many names of heroes of the faith have been handed down to us; such as the family Durand du Bouschet de Pranles near to Privas in the Ardèche.

Pierre Durand became the pastor for the Vivarais after having been trained at the Seminary of Lausanne (Switzerland). This seminary was called “the School of Death”, so high was the number of pastors who lost their lives for having carried on their ministry. He was hunted down but because he could not be captured, his father and his sister Marie aged 19 were thrown into the prisons of the Tower of Constance at Aigues-Mortes (Gard).

Pierre was arrested and hanged at Montpellier in 1732. Even so, Marie was not set free and she spent 38 years locked up in her jail cell, refusing, with her fellow captives, also Huguenot ladies, to recant and so be set free. She finally went back home in 1768 when tolerance was beginning to make headway. It is thought that she was the one who engraved the word RESIST into the stone of the Tower of Constance, which can still be seen today.

It was the French Revolution of 1789 that allowed Protestants to regain liberty of conscience and religious freedom. Indeed, Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 (the preface of our Constitution of today) states: “No-one shall be in jeopardy on account of his opinions including religious opinions, provided that they do not disturb public order”.

The Legacy of the Spirit of Resistance

From that time the Protestant churches in the Cévennes were rebuilt, the country having remained Protestant at heart despite more than a century of intolerance and persecution. Cévenol families would spend the evening talking about this legacy of resistance, quoting ancestors sent to the galleys or prison. And so the whole population was bathed in the Camisard spirit; no longer a spirit of violence, but a spirit of non-violent struggle, resolutely confronting intolerance.

This part of history became emblematic of the spirit of resistance. The Revolution took the Camisards as an example in order to show how the people can team up against their king for freedom of conscience.

Many 19th century historians went back to the epic of the Camisards, as did Jules Michelet who used to testify: “Nothing in the entire history of the world is like the story of what happened in the Cévennes.”[3]

It was this same spirit that Robert Louis Stevenson came to feel when he undertook his crossing of the Cévennes in 1878 in order to discover this legacy. He had been struck by reading the book by pastor-historian Napoléon Peyrat : A History of the Pastors of the Wilderness from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the French Revolution, 1685 – 1789, published in 1842, and had wanted to go to meet the inheritors of this part of history. He tells of his encounters in his famous book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).

In the 20th century, Philippe Joutard speaks of the “Camisardisation of the area” in his work The Legend of the Camisards (1977) and shows how the Cévennes landscape is still today telling of this part of history and perpetuating the Camisard spirit: caves where clandestine meetings were held, private graves in the gardens of Protestants forbidden to use the cemetery, places that hold memories, commemorative plaques, the Camisard bridge at Mialet, Le Musée du Désert[4] (Museum in the Wilderness) which tells of this epic …

Numerous authors have contributed to the broadcasting of this memory of Camisard Country. One cannot forget Jean-Pierre Chabrol, the Cévennes storyteller, from Chamborigaud, or André Chamson, a member of the French Academy, born in Nîmes and buried on the slopes of Mount Aigoual. He was the author of : The Tower of Constance; The Superb (one of the Sun King’s galleys); The Cévennes Sequel; Castanet, the Aigoual Camisard; Catinat).

From Camisard to Maquis (French Resistance) Country, the Land of the “Righteous”

The Camisard spirit came right out into the open during the Second World War. All over the Cévennes the people, whatever their religion, nourished by this heritage, resisted the invader and hid Jews being hunted down by the Nazi regime of intolerance. It is in Camisard Country that you will find the highest number of Righteous Among the Nations Medals, given by the State of Israel to people who ensured that Jews were kept safe. The spirit of resistance had been sown in people’s hearts.


Nature has often regained control after all the rural-to-urban drift so well described by Jean Ferrat, who became a great fan of the Cévennes[5] , and who settled in Antraigues-sur-Volane near to Aubenas in the Ardèche. Several “Cévenol Newcomers” moved in after 1968, restoring abandoned terrains and collapsed walls and taking over goat and sheep farms. Today this land, still untouched by intensive agriculture, is suitable for organic farming, in numerous sectors such as bee-keeping. The Camisard spirit is still alive and well in its homeland. There was a resurgence between 1980 and 1987 during which time the authorities were confronted by the Saint-Jean-du-Gard region residents’ opposition to the La Borie dam. They were protesting against a decision handed down by Paris (recalling others handed down by Versailles) which would destroy – by drowning it – the ecology of their valley, just for a dam whose sole objective (which no-one of course admitted) was to provide the Lower Rhone Development Company with some work to do. 

It still brings to life all defenders of the land, ever ready in their groups to mobilise against the extraction of shale gas, said to exist right in the soil of Camisard Country, from Montpellier to the Ardèche [6]. Their actions over these last few years and the 15,000 demonstrators in Villeneuve de Berg have brought about a change of mind in the State’s thinking over the so-called “Montélimar” permit, in the way it affects the South of the Ardèche.  

The Cévennes National Park has been set up over part of Camisard Country in order to preserve specific animal and plant species. What is particularly noteworthy is that it is the largest and only inhabited National Park in France. In its handouts for visitors, Camisard remembrance has not been forgotten.

A land of tourism, Camisard Country each year welcomes thousands of visitors from the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany or England, the lands that in bygone days welcomed Huguenot refugees. They all come to relish the preservation of this mountain country’s wealth of nature, crisscrossed with rambling trails inviting you to discover Camisard Country.


[1]     http://www.museeprotestant.org/notice/les-dernieres-guerres-de-religion-1620-1629/

[2]     http://www.nemausensis.com/Gard/Ales/PaixAlais.html

[3]     Histoire de France au XVIIe siècle, 1862

[4]     www.museedudesert.com

[5]     La Montagne – 1964

[6]     http://stopgrisou.blogspot.ca/