Wayside Crosses
in the Countryside
About wayside crosses
When walking in the French countryside it won't be long before you become aware of the wayside crosses, or calvaires. These crosses are so much part of the landscape that, only recently, have they been recognised as important items of the patrimoine, or national heritage. Now, many départements have begun projects to research and record them before they disappear. This can be a considerable task as, for example, in the Cantal where about 3000 crosses have been recorded.
The destructive process began some time ago with many crosses destroyed during the Revolution of 1789. Over recent years there have been more modern threats and without legal recognition and protection the damage will be a real catastrophe. Many crosses have been damaged in traffic accidents, torn down to make way for road widening or new residential development. Others have been irrevocably eroded by pollution or neglected to the point when their significance can no longer be recognised.
Where are they found?
The tradition of erecting crosses may date from a time before Christianity when the Greeks and the Romans used statues of Hermes (from herma, "stone pile") or Mercury to mark a path and watch over travellers.
In recent surveys recently some have been identified as being from the Carolingian period, ie 8th-9th century. Many more have being dated between the 15th and 19th centuries. Anything after that is recent and indeed new crosses continue to appear, though sometimes they are replacing old ones.

Crosses are found alongside roads and pathways in open or wooded country, often far from towns or habitation and in very isolated places. They are frequently found at crossroads, not just of major roads but also of countryside pathways.
They may be constructed on bridges or stone walls or incorporated into natural features such as large rock. Often they are located at the entry to towns and villages, in the proximity of châteaux or manor houses and sometimes they are implanted to mark the four corners of a parish or property boundary.
They also mark geographical features, being placed on hillsides or at the top of knolls and the summit of mountains. A spring or fountain will usually be topped with a cross.
Why were they erected ?
All crosses have a very precise significance. Sometimes this is religious, with many people having believed that to plant a cross was an act of devotion. These crosses provide travellers and local people with a reminder of their faith and a place to pray. Those stopping in front of a cross may pray for indulgences, often very precise prayers.
Some places, such as springs, have been sacred since long before Christianity and many of these are marked with a cross.
Aside from religious connections, crosses have been erected for a host of other reasons: sometimes as a witness to events in local history; they may relate to legends or popular beliefs; perhaps they commemorate a family event; others have been erected at the scene of a tragedy, often an accident.
We are familiar with simple crosses erected in recent times at the scene of a traffic accident. The old crosses in the countryside often commemorate tragedies more in keeping with their times. From the 17th to 19th century accidents associated with timber felling and collection were frequent occurrences so there are many crosses have been erected in the woods by workmates or family. Some of these are incorporated into natural features or the local material has been fashioned into a distinctive cross.
The Revolution and centuries of warfare left their mark. Some crosses stand on the site of a wartime tragedy. Others may simply be where someone was buried.
Often, a cross has a happy or uplifting purpose. Planted at the entry to a village it tells passers by that their entry or departure from the village will be protected. This cross may also be seeking divine protection for the village. At a domestic level, a cross erected in the gable of a roof or above an entry gate is intended to protect the household.
Alongside a pathway, a cross may indicate a direction. During the middle ages they were erected to guide pilgrims on their way and perhaps invite them to stop for a prayer or two. Along the Compostella pilgrim route these crosses are often engraved with a cockle shell, the symbol of St James.
Others have an administrative purpose - to advise when you are leaving a parish or entering someone's estate. Then there are crosses that seem to owe their location simply to a desire to erect a cross at any significant spot. A crossroads, the high point of a plateau, at the top of a climb, on the summit of a mountain.
Materials and Form
Many crosses are true works of art.

The artisans were generally local people, many anomyous but sometimes they have left a name.
Each district tended to develop its own style and designs. Materials usually reflect what was readily available, stone or wood being the most commonly used materials. Sometimes these are finely carved and designed while other times the material may be left virtually in a natural state. In more recent times, concrete is used. There are also very attractive wrought iron crosses.
For protection many wood crosses were placed within a shrine or when set on a post, covered by a simple roof to better weather the elements.
The simplest of crosses will simply be two pieces of timber, joined at a central point. As the designs are refined the end points will be shaped and carved.
With further refinement, there are Greek, Latin and Celtic crosses on which are carved the Christ, the Virgin and the Saints.
Other symbolism includes little crosses, hearts, crowns, the sun and moon, a solar calendar, a cock, a lamb, the fleur de lis, heads, stars and the baton and cockle shell of the pilgrim.
Some carry inscriptions which may indicate the initials of the artisan or the date of erection. Sometimes the intention of the cross is conveyed in an inscription. But more often the surface will be worn and there will be little to indicate who or what significance lies behind the erection of a cross in this particular place.
A cross is, firstly, a symbol of Christianity.
But, in the case of wayside crosses, the symbolism may be very different and more closely associated with the history, remembrances and legends of places. They have now come to be recognised as striking, vernacular monuments demonstrating the design and decorative techniques of their times and carrying an high significance in the local patrimoine
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On a high point lookinmg towards the Haut Vivarais
Beside a pathway near St Agrève
On a bridge in the Aubrac
At a crossroads in the Vivarais
In the wall of a manor house near Aris
Entering the village of Cahuzac-sur-Vere
Embedded in a stone wall near Cordes -sur-Ciel
A windy hillside near Mt Mézenc
In the village square of Najac
In the forest, a new cross ....
.... replaces the old, which is discarded nearby
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