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Secret history of buildings - August 2018

A church in a Bourgogne village houses an intriguing clutch of empty stone coffins. Jane Hanks discovers their origins

The village of Quarré-les-Tombes in the Yonne in Bourgogne owes its name to the extraordinary number of Merovingian tombs, dating from the 7th or 8th century, which surround the Church of Saint-Georges.

It is thought that at one time there were over 1,000 of these ancient, plain, rectangular tombs, but now there are 117 elements, 66 lids and 46 bases. Over the years there have been several explanations for this phenomenon.

Catherine Robbé has lived all her life in the small village, and her father was mayor for 24 years. Her parents instilled in her a passion for the history of Quarré-les-Tombes and as a student she wrote her thesis on the history of the tombs. She vowed that when she retired she would look further into her local history and has written another long essay on her finds.

In it she explains that Merovingians were the first dynasty of Kings of the Francs after the Roman Empire and famously included Clovis and Dagobert.

The tombs, which date from their reign, are made either from granite or from limestone from local quarries.

The oldest text referring to them is a novel written by a monk in 1330, which tells the story of a nearby battle, won by Girart de Roussillon in the 9th century, who found a quantity of tombs around the Church of Saint George in the village and used them to bury his soldiers.

This is disputed by a legend which tells of another battle between the Christians and the Saracens during Charlemagne’s reign. The song of a nightingale had lulled the chief of the Christian army, Knight Renaud, to sleep under a tree, while battle raged around him. But luckily, his army was saved by the intervention of St George, who, using the same sword he used to slay the dragon, put an end to the battle. Tombs then fell from the sky to bury the dead Christians.

A more practical reason is that tombs were stocked in the village for sale to passing trade, as it is on the crossroads to many towns.

There is even the suggestion that the site was a vast cemetery because St George would give sinners entry to heaven, making this an attractive burial place. The majority of the tombs were removed in the late 18th century to make way for housing in the village centre.

This is just part of the local history. Mrs Robbé says they were very lucky to have two priests who wrote extensively about the village. One recounted that during the 19th century, poor children from Paris were sent into the countryside to live on farms and remained, often until they were grown up. “There are many tales of these children, some good, but also some bad where they were treated like slaves.” 

The village was also very active in the Resistance where 2,000 fighters grouped together to participate in the liberation of the Yonne and the Côte-d’Or.

Since the 1960s the population has decreased from 984 to around 670 today, but its remaining villagers are keen to keep its stories alive.

Guided visits with Catherine Robbé: contact Office du Tourisme Avallon on 03 86 34 14 19; €2.50 per person.

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