My hosts had set aside a Sunday afternoon for the exploration of Poitiers. Having owned a local property for over twenty years, they had shown numerous visitors around it's ancient streets, cathedral and past Aquitaine splendours. It came as some surprise when I asked to visit the megalithic remains, as they didn't know of any.
Poitiers was founded by the Pictones tribe and their fortified centre or oppidum was named Lemonum, Celtic for elm, Lemo. Although the Pictones assisted Rome and accepted Roman control when Caesar defeated the Gaulic tribes at the decisive battle of Alesia in 52 B.C., Lemonum became the scene of resistance and it's oppidum was raised to the ground. Although La Pierre-Levée escaped this destruction, the might of Rome was to be felt alongside it with the construction of the major road from Lemonum (Poitiers) to Avaricum (Bourges) and onto Lugdunum (Lyon). When Poitiers became the capital for the roman province of Gallia Aquitania, aqueducts, baths and a vast amphitheatre, larger than the one at Nîmes, were constructed Unfortunately this was destroyed in 1857 during a period of "modernisation" of the city. Remains of Roman baths complex, built in the 1st century and demolished in the 3rd century, was uncovered 1877 and led to a more civilised conservation approach to the city's antiquities and history. In 1879 a burial-place and tombs of a number of Christian martyrs, hypogee martyrium were discovered on the heights to the south-east, the names of some of the Christians being preserved in paintings and inscriptions.
La Pierre Levée is located outside the old city walls in the district known as the Dunes. This lies across the river by Le Pont Neuf, which is the start of the old Roman road to Lyon (N151). If following this road into the city, when it becomes the Rue de la Pierre Levee, turn right at the cross roads with Rue du Dolman and the Pierre Levée is in front of you. If travelling out of the centre on Le Pont Neuf, you will need to turn right onto Allee du Petit Tour and then cross over Rue de la Pierre Levee onto Rue du Dolman. La Pierre-Levée is a cultural icon of the city and is well sign posted. La Pierre-Levée lies south-east of the city in the Dunes. Its sandy soil would have yielded poor crops and seems to have been set aside by the Pictones for the revered ancestors. A short distance away is the hypogee martyrium which is also a pre-roman sacred site.
La Pierre Levée means the raised stone or rock and is 22 feet (6.7 m) long, 16 feet (4.9 m) broad by 7 feet (2.1 m) high with a rectangular chamber. The large capstone sits on several supports along the southern side, but is broken and falls to the ground at the northern side. This damage apparently happened in the 18th Century, but facts are unclear as to what caused it. There are accounts of several stones, presumably the "pillars" which held up the northern side, being removed from the site and taken into the city. The site is mentioned in various records from the Middle Ages, with its Latinized name in different ways: Petra-Levata in 1299, Petra-Soupeaze in 1302, Petra-suspense in 1322. The Charter of 1302 also indicates its position: Super dubiam, the Dunes.
Church records indicate that the site was used as a public meeting place and several festivities were held here including the great fair of Saint Luke. The city prison used to stand behind the site but this was demolished after WWII and the area redeveloped.
In the quaint dirty tumbledown City of Poitiers, Dr. Veryard detected a marvel which escaped my observation. It consisted in a stone, twenty-five feet high, sixty in compass, and supported by five small ones. 'Some will needs have S. Aldegonde to have brought it hither on her shoulders, with the five supporters in her apron, and that, letting one fall by the way, the devil took it up, and following her to the place where she erected the stone on four pillars, set the fifth in the middle; but, cunning artificer as he is, he could not make it touch the great stone by an inch, nor does it to this day'.
Quoted in Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries, but originally in notes from the start of the 18th century. Twenty five feet high is somewhat of a misremembering / massive exaggeration!
La Pierre Levée seems to have become entwined with Poitiers and this is recorded in the various legends and folklore connected with, and still lived out on the site.
One legend says that St. Radegonde , who is buried just over the river in …glise Ste-Radegonde, brought the huge capstone block on her head and the pillars in her apron. The church of Ste-Radegonde can be seen in the background on the 18th c. print of La Pierre Levée from Monuments Druidiques.
The other, more famous folklore comes from the writings of François Rabelais (c. 1494 – April 9, 1553) who was a major French Renaissance writer, doctor and Renaissance humanist. He has historically been regarded as a writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, and both bawdy jokes and songs.
This is the story of two giants, the father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures, written in an amusing, extravagant, satirical vein. There is much crudity and scatological humour as well as a large amount of violence.
Pantagruel was said to have snatched La Pierre Levée from a local cliff face and placed it in the Dunes, turning it into a banquet table for local scholars who, 'when they have nothing else to do, pass the time by climbing up onto the stone and banqueting there with large quantities of bottles, hams and pastries, and inscribing their names on the capstone with a knife'. This was illustrated as early as 1561 in Georg Hoefnagel's "Civitates orbis terratum"
Well things have moved on since then and every year around the spring equinox, a week long festival takes place called the 69th Student's Semaine. This is overseen by the Bitards, a brotherhood of alcohol enthusiasts who keep alive the infamous Bitardbourg . Activities take place every day, such as the drunken parade to and from La Pierre Levée in honour of Pantagruel. Some of this material is for adults only but for a taste here is the big penis 2007
The Venerable Bitard (LST!)
The demigod of estudiants Poitiers has its origins in ancient times, when gods lived on Olympus. Juno, wife of Jupiter, leaped one day with a shepherd. The anger of her husband must have influenced the destiny: she gave birth in pain. His offspring was a monster head weasel, body of carp, turkey feathers, peacock feathers, wing rails and academic honours. This being, God by his mother, was the revered Bitard (LST!). But Juno, horrified by the sight of her divine child, hurled him over mountains and valleys. The latter fell in the forest of Liguge. For many miracles, he made known his divine nature to the natives. They paid him a cult and fought a shrine in his honor. In the fifth century, St. Martin converted many natives to their religion. The shrine became a convent. But insiders, rejecting the new ideas, fled into the woods with the relics of revered Bitard (LST!). They taught their religion to their children. Thus, over the centuries, their mysteries were sent to dignitaries of the Order of the revered Bitard (LST!). The cult is still celebrated "schoolboys faithful" at night and secret meetings which are allowed the dignitaries.
In addition, every year, around the spring equinox, the heart of a large gathering in the forest of Chanteloup, estudiants, guided by the College, engaged in hunting Bitard (Praised be He!) then back to Poitiers for the new Grand Bitardier through the city.
Joris Hoefnagel drew the stones for volume 5 of a book called 'Civitates Orbis Terrarum', published 1598. The engraving shows the names that people had carved on the main stone (including some by famous mapmakers of the time).