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The mystery towers that watch over the dead

Beside the A10 motorway, heading south to Bordeaux from Paris, there stands a strange tower with no obvious purpose. 

If you came across it in the grounds of a chateau you would assume it was a folly, a whimsical structure with no function, simply meant to decorate the landscape.

This particular tower, however, had a deadly serious use in the Middle Ages – we just don’t know exactly what.

It is called a lanterne des morts (lantern or beacon of the dead) and the tower next to the motorway is a modern construction, an exhibit in an outdoor museum intended to advertise the local heritage. It is a replica of the original structure, which stands not far away, out of sight of the motorway down winding lanes, in a field outside the tiny village of Fenioux.

Fenioux’s lanterne is the finest of around 50 such towers that survive in France (out of an original total of 80 or more). It consists of 11 columns pressed together, rising from a plinth and culminating in an ornate pointed fish-scale roof with a finial 18m above the ground. Inside, the lantern is hollow. There is a door at the bottom that gives access to a narrow flight of 38 steps up to a series of openings at the top.

The other lanternes des morts are similar in structure — tall, narrow and hollow — although they vary in shape and height. The others though rarely exceed 10m.

As far as anyone can tell, all were erected in the 12th or 13th centuries and all are found in central western France in territories that were then under the sway of the Duchy of Aquitaine. Many stand in cemeteries; the rest mark the sites of former medieval cemeteries that have since been transformed into squares and gardens.

There are perhaps 100 other similar structures elsewhere in France, some even bear the name of lanterne des morts but, although historically interesting, they were built at later dates and had or have different functions.

The morbid name was given to the towers by historians in the 19th century and we have no idea what they were called by the people of medieval Aquitaine. There is only one contemporary account of a lanterne written by Peter the Venerable, 9th abbot of Cluny, on a visit to Charlieu in the Loire. “In the centre of the cemetery,” he wrote, “there is a structure of stone with a place at the top to receive a lamp whose light illuminates this sacred place every night as a sign of respect for the faithful who are buried here.”

The earliest illustration, meanwhile, appeared in a German book published around 1490, in which a lanterne des morts forms the backdrop for another, more familiar, late medieval subject, the Dance of Death.

The rest is guesswork. 

The great restorer of France’s ancient monuments, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc tried to link them to the Celts. The Templars and Irish monks have also been cited as instigators but no documents substantiate either idea.

Other theories maintain that they were built on the orders of crusaders. In Jerusalem they had seen an “elongated chimney” built over the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and they decided to imitate it at home.

The obvious question is: what was their purpose? It seems fairly certain that a fire was lit at the top. In Fenioux, there are steps for this but other lanternes may have been operated by scrambling up iron pegs inside or operating a system of pulleys.

Their location in graveyards indicates that they were associated with rites of burial.

It is possible that they were used to simply honour the dead by keeping a flame burning over the tombs – a practice dating back to antiquity. A more fanciful notion is that they were lit to guide the departing soul on the first part of its journey away from the earth.

However, at least one author on the subject argues that they were not a generous gesture to the dead but a selfish contingency of the living. Cemeteries have always been scary places but in the Middle Ages they were scenes of imaginary terrors. For this reason, candles were kept burning in monasteries throughout the night. The lanternes may have had a similar function: to scare off evil spirits, to warn the dead to stay in their place — or even, it has been suggested, to show hordes of ghosts the way home after a night spent haunting the living.

Throughout the Bible, there are references to divine light as a gift of god to steer the pious away from evil. In the New Testament, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is a lesson about spiritual vigilance represented by keeping an oil lamp alight through the night. This parable is depicted on the portal of Fenioux church, not far from the lanterne.

Indeed, it is hard to look at a lanterne and not be reminded of a candle burning in church in remembrance of those who have died: a huge stone candle permanently placed among the tombs of the cemetery that will never burn down.

Lanternes des Morts to visit

Cellefrouin (Charente, north of La Rochefoucauld)
In the cemetery above the town. Take the steps up from the main street.

Sarlat-la-Canéda (Dordogne)
A stout lanterne des morts, also called the Tour Saint Bernard, is behind the cathedral.

Felletin (Creuse, south of Aubusson)
Octagonal granite lanterne des morts in the cemetery

Fenioux (Charente-Maritime, north of Saintes)
Although next to the motorway, Fenioux can take some finding but it is worth it The replica is in Lozay service area on the A10, about 20km south of exit 33 for Surgères. There is another replica on top of the hill of Sion-Vaudémont in Lorraine.

Moutiers-en-Retz (Loire-Atlantique, southwest of Nantes)
In the middle of the village. The small statue on one side is of St Joseph, “the patron saint of a good death”.

Pranzac (Charente, east of Angoulême)
The lantern is on a village green on the road out of the village leading to Angoulême.

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