Blessed Goats: On the Melding of Church and Cheese in Rocamadour, France

Rocamadour, France, is a beautiful geographic location, a centuries-old place of pilgrimage, and a region known for a specific goat cheese, also known as Rocamadour. Rocamadour cheese, which was granted AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) status in 1996, is made using the ancient technique of clotting full fat raw milk via a natural whey starter. The resulting disks of strong-flavored Cabécou-type cheese are one of the small commune’s claims to fame. Rocamadour’s association with cheese has inspired an annual Festival of Cheeses, held in June of each year. While its cheese festival and tourism in general are what draw most of Rocamadour’s visitors, its historical identity as a site of religious pilgrimage has begun to fade. This article examines an effort made by the clergy of Rocamadour to strengthen the shrine town’s religious status by forging links between pilgrimage, the herding of sheep and goats, and the annual Festival of Cheeses, focusing on a Rogation ceremony conducted during the Festival in 2007.

Rocamadour, Pilgrimage and Tourism

The dramatic appearance of Rocamadour, France has always been a draw for visitors. Its beautiful 140-meter high cliff overlooks a stunning, deep canyon, and the cliff’s face is marked by several hundreds-year old buildings, including a collection of seven churches and shrines, many of which cling to the cliff’s face in an impressive feat of medieval architectural planning. A huge stone staircase, le Grand Escalier, extends from the buildings near the bottom of the cliff up to the church courtyard. In the past, and sometimes in the present, the staircase has been the scene of remarkable acts of devotion, with pilgrims ascending each step on their knees, reciting prayers as they kneel upon the hard stone stairs.

The shrine of Rocamadour first attracted pilgrims at an unknown date, probably before 1000 AD. Efforts by its monks to popularize the shrine, including a book detailing its numerous miracles succeeded, and Rocamadour became an extremely popular religious destination in the 12th and 13th centuries. Pilgrims could see many wonders, including a renowned “black Madonna,” a miraculous bell that rang when the Virgin Mary of Rocamadour saved a ship from shipwreck, and the perfectly preserved body of a man who had been found buried just in front of the Chapel de Ste. Marie. This mummified body, unearthed in 1166, was declared to have been a saint, soon dubbed St. Amadour, and provided Rocamadour with a tardy relic after the pilgrimage was already in full swing.

Pilgrimage to Rocamadour began to falter in the 14th century, hampered by the hostile environment created by the Hundred Years’ War and by a rockslide that badly damaged the chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Michael. Attempts at recovery were made, with some success, but when angry Protestants sacked Rocamadour in 1562, much was lost and/or burned. The shrine’s archives were destroyed, the town was set on fire, and even the body of St. Amadour was hacked to pieces. The ruin of the shrine, combined with social change brought on by the Counter-Reformation, effectively ended pilgrimage to Rocamadour.

Despite this, the shrine maintained a small but steady stream of religious visitors, mostly coming from the immediate vicinity. However, in the 19th century, things began to change when devotion to the Virgin Mary started increasing in popularity throughout France. Bernadette Soubirous saw an apparition of the Virgin in Lourdes in 1858, and Lourdes soon began receiving pilgrims who sought to be healed. Rocamadour, fewer than 300 kilometers from Lourdes, began a program of renovation that lasted from 1858 to 1872. Local pilgrims were slowly joined by visitors, including tourists, from more distant climes, and by the late 1890s, tourist guides to the site were even being published.

Increased railroad and highway construction throughout the 20th century made Rocamadour an even more popular tourist site. Composer Francis Poulenc came to the shrine as a secular visitor in 1936 (before his famous conversion and the writing of his work Litanies to the Black Virgin) and he wasn’t alone. According to Michelle Chauveau’s 1998 work, Rocamadour: une cité en équilibre, visitors soon became so frequent by the 1950s that the four seasons of agriculture that had marked life in the small town were replaced by a tourist season and an off-season. In 1974 a major change in the direction of tourism took place when a troop of Barbary macaques, a type of monkey, were settled into a forest not far from the shrine and the animals’ caretakers began charging admission. La Forêt des Singes (Monkey Forest) was followed by a bird park, Le Rocher des Aigles (Eagles’ Rock), in 1978. Various other attractions opened through the end of the 20th century, and by the time Weibel began her fieldwork there in 1995, the town was noticeably more tourist attraction than pilgrimage destination.

Often pilgrimage destinations will bring in tourism as well. Rome and Jerusalem are examples of this, and even Lourdes has its share of secular commerce. What seems to have occurred at Rocamadour, however, is that tourism all but replaced pilgrimage as the reason for the site’s existence. Many visitors to Rocamadour know about the beautiful cliff and the opportunity to feed popcorn to free-ranging monkeys, but remain unaware of the ancient black Madonna statue and the shrine’s claim to miracles. Tourists who are aware of Rocamadour’s place as a pilgrimage destination often consign this image to the past, and many of the businesses at Rocamadour, which utilize images and language relating pilgrimage to the town’s idealized, romanticized history, contribute to the view that the pilgrimage is no more.

Regardless, Rocamadour remains a site with a real connection to Catholicism in contemporary France. Rocamadour comes under the purview of the Diocese of Cahors (sometimes referred to as the Diocese of Cahors and Rocamadour), and there is a modest clerical presence at the town. Like many other communities, Rocamadour has a rector and a curate. Nuns, usually in pairs, from the Notre Dame de Calvaire convent in nearby Gramat, serve as helpers to the priests and operate a private home with eight small rooms in the attic dedicated to lodging the pilgrims who still come to the site. Recently an organization of former pilgrims working as hospitaliers and hospitalières has begun to assist the nuns.

Nevertheless, Rocamadour’s religious presence cannot help but acknowledge the important role played by tourism. This has set up an uneasy balance between the two forces. During some points of Rocamadour’s history, tourism and pilgrimage have seemed diametrically opposed. In the late 1990s, for example, two sets of tour guides operated in the church courtyard, one working for the Tourist Office and one working for the diocese. Ground rules laid by both authorities declared that the secular tour guides would not be permitted to enter the churches during their tours. This created an unusual situation where some guides would accompany their charges into the religious buildings and describe everything they saw in front of them, while other guides would describe the interiors of the shrines to their charges ahead of time, hoping the visitors would retain the information when they went inside. During Weibel’s 1997 fieldwork, a Tourist Office guide got in trouble with the diocese when she sought shelter from a rainstorm under an overhanging bit of cliff judged to be too close to the entrance of the Chapel of the Black Virgin.

On the other hand, pilgrimage and tourism have sometimes been linked by the diocese, in a sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” move. One such situation involves the Catholic celebration of Pentecost. Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter, always on a Sunday, although the Monday afterward was, until 2003, a legal holiday in France as well. Rocamadour, in recent decades, has taken advantage of this long weekend by hosting a Festival of Cheeses. The event is very popular and attracts cheese artisans and tourists from throughout the southern and central parts of France. In 2007, however, it also became the occasion for a special Catholic Mass known as a Rogation, which typically is a thanksgiving for agricultural bounty. This folkloric religious festival has apparently reappeared in the last decade as a way for the local diocese to promote religion (despite encroaching secularism) while conforming to the theme of the Festival of Cheeses.

Pentecost remains an important religious holiday within the Catholic Church, even in mostly secular France. The second book of Acts states that 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the gift of tongues to help spread the gospels in foreign lands. Similarly, Shavuot, the Jewish agricultural holiday, takes place 50 days after Passover. This means that Pentecost always takes place two days after Shavuot. Some scholars believe in fact that the Jewish harvest feast of Shavuot inspired the Pentecost celebration as it is observed among Catholics (Gulevich 2002:480). Perhaps coincidentally, the feast of harvest is celebrated with dairy foods and its parallel holiday, Pentecost, is celebrated at Rocamadour with cheese.

Until recently in France, Pentecost signaled a three-day weekend and many French took advantage of this by traveling. The loss of Pentecost Monday as a legal holiday, however, has made such travel less frequent. Nonetheless, Ascension Thursday (marking the day Jesus Christ is said to have risen bodily into heaven) twelve days earlier remains a legal holiday, and because it is common to take off work the next day, a Friday, as a “bridge” to the weekend, Ascension weekend is often marked by grand travel plans. Pentecost weekend, in contrast, seems to have become a quieter weekend, associated with more local festivals and events. Interestingly, Rocamadour’s own Festival of Cheeses on Pentecost has, since 2007, come to be associated with a ceremony more traditionally linked with the earlier holiday of Ascension, the Rogation.

The Rogation

Until 1969, Rogation days were determined by the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. A Rogation was a special mass intended to bless the spring harvest and request a good growing season. According to Charles Gibson’s An Historical Event and its Interpretation: The Castilian Grain Crisis of 1506-1507 the Rogation tradition began in 470 when a French bishop called for three days of fasting, praying and processions in order to protect his diocese after it was damaged by an earthquake (Gibson 1978:532). The Council of Orleans proclaimed the general adoption of the practice in 511 C.E., and a Major Rogation was assigned to fall permanently on April 25 (perhaps as a welcome substitution for Robigalia, a Roman pagan holiday involving prayers for the growth of crops), while Minor Rogations were declared for the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday.

Perhaps due to a decrease in reliance on agriculture in the mid-to-late 20th century, the Church, following the reforms of Archbishop Annibale Bagnini, removed official Rogations from the Church calendar, allowing each diocese to plan Rogations according to their individual needs. However, there was some revival of the practice after Pope John-Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei Adflicta in 1988 and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Summorum Pontificum, both of which indicated the possibility of using older liturgical books and the rituals associated with them.

Rogation is a predominantly agricultural holiday, so it would make sense that it may be an important ritual in Rocamadour, a town with a famous shrine, but also one with well-known produits de terroir, such as foie gras, walnuts, and a Cabécou style goat cheese licensed to be sold as Rocamadour. Of these items, the most unique is the cheese. Flavors and styles of cheese are very specific geographically, and while foie gras and walnuts can be obtained throughout the Lot department of France (where Rocamadour is located), Rocamadour is from Rocamadour.

Perhaps with this in mind, the Fête des Fromages was established in 1989 as a way to celebrate the local cheese as well as the huge number of varieties available throughout central and southern France. When promoting something associated with good, old-fashioned agriculture, people in the region often use the older, more traditional name for their lands, Quercy. Vendors come to Rocamadour and set up tables located within tents to sell their specialties, offering tastes at each booth. Wines are also frequently sold, since wine is a traditional accompaniment to cheese. The festival area, a converted sports field, also includes places to buy food to eat on the premises and activities set up for children. We will describe the event as we attended it in 2007.

Illustration 1

"Cheese this way!! A helpful road sign points visitors in the direction of the Fête des Fromages."

La Fête des Fromages

We entered the festival grounds and saw Jean, one of our main anthropological informants, a cheerful atheist in his early 50s who tended to make fun of any displays of religion at the site. Jean was hard at work over a huge fire pit, turning logs and wiping sweat from his handlebar moustache. He and some other men were grilling lamb chops, which were being sold as part of a special, traditional luncheon at the festival. We purchased tickets for the meal and stepped into the queue.

Illustration 2

"Jean grills lamb chops in the traditional manner, to be served with aligot (a blend of cheese and garlic-seasoned mashed potatoes), salad, a Rocamadour cheese, and a slice of gateau de Tomme (a type of cheesecake)."

It took at least a half hour to reach the front of the food line, but when we did we were rewarded with aligot, a delicious mixture of melted cheese and mashed potatoes that is seasoned with garlic and served piping hot. There were also the grilled lamb chops we had seen being prepared, a small salad, a round of Rocamadour, and a gâteau de Tomme, a sort of cheesecake made from the Tomme variety of cheese. A bottle of water came with the meal.

Glad to be fed at last, we went in search of a place to sit. Tables had been set up in an open area of the festival and we were able to procure a pair of wooden chairs. As we ate we observed the activity around us. Children and dogs seemed to be everywhere, shouting and barking respectively. Different groups of musicians, often in traditional medieval costumes, made the rounds. There was a parade of old-fashioned French country maids dressed in colorful skirts, bonnets, shawls and white blouses, carrying floral wreaths. At one point they danced on stage with men dressed in black trousers and shirts with red handkerchiefs. One band of musicians included adults and children, and featured piccolos, drums, an oboe and a bagpipe. Sometimes two or more groups would approach each other too closely, creating a cacophonous collision of disharmonious music, but it seemed to fit the relaxed, gaudy atmosphere.

After lunch, we passed a face-painting booth and went to look at the animals on display. There were adult goats, loudly bleating kids, and even a group of dwarf goats featuring a kid about the size of a house cat. A petting zoo attracted the younger set. After examining the goods at several booths, we bought a few types of cheese, including a delicious Salers, to share and to give to informants and friends. In all, the festival was raucous, musical, loud, fragrant, and very tasty.

The 2007 festival was advertised with posters that set the schedule for the day. In translation they read:

Rocamadour

18th Festival of Cheeses

9:30am Mass of the Fruits of the Earth (Rogations) at the foot of the Cité Blessing of the herds

10am-7pm Farm cheeses market (Belveyre Stadium)

12noon-2pm Rustic lunch

2pm-6pm Reblochon cheese making, Baby animal farm, Traditional music and dances of Quercy

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Although dozens of cheese making communities and farms participate, in 2007 the “guests of honor” were the makers of Beaufort and Reblochon cheeses, and the fabrication of the latter on site was one of the great attractions of the day. The Rogation ceremony was listed as part of the festival, although it was not included in previous years. The poster’s image of Rocamadour’s cliff-side cité (even though the stadium is a kilometer or two away from the pictured castle and canyon), as well as references to farm-made food, traditional music and a rustic (champêtre) lunch, evoke a medieval theme. Even the mention of the blessing of the herds calls to mind an earlier, simpler, more religious time in Rocamadour’s history. Despite the fact that the pilgrimage is not explicitly mentioned in the poster, the linking of a religious event to a visual depiction of the site allows the shrine’s glorious past to be called to mind. Finally, images of soft, fresh, rounds of Rocamadour whet the viewer’s appetite.

The participants in the Fête des Fromages were quite varied, from throughout central France. Beaufort and Reblochon are from the regions of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, to the northeast of Quercy, bordering Italy and Switzerland. They are both cow’s milk cheeses, although Beaufort is firm and Reblochon is quite soft. Salers is an artisanal cow’s milk cheese from Auvergne, just north of the Lot. Cheeses from throughout central and southern France were featured.

The most famous cheese associated with the festival is of course Rocamadour’s own goat cheese, a Cabécou called Rocamadour. The term Cabécou comes from the diminutive of the Latin word for goat, and refers to goat cheeses that are generally processed into small, flattish disks, each only about two inches across. Rocamadour’s distinctive cheese was known simply as a Cabécou until 1997, when it received its own label under France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (A.O.C.) system, which basically permitted certain Cabécous to be called Rocamadour if fabricated under certain traditional conditions.

A Rocamadour cheese can be eaten in varying states of ripeness. When the disks are first made, the rinds are firm and powdery, and the cheese inside is rather fluffy and mild. Although it is typical for a Rocamadour to be allowed to ripen for several days or weeks, during which time the rind grows darker and chewier, the cheese inside becomes more liquid and much stronger smelling and tasting. In advanced stages of ripeness the rinds may harden and split, allowing the now runny cheese inside to breach the surface. Rocamadour is an intense cheese; one that requires repeated exposure to truly appreciate. Its legions of fans across France and elsewhere speak to its ability to create enthusiastic admirers.

Cheese, History and the Residents of Rocamadour

The cheese mongers and cheese aficionados at the Fête des Fromages are joined by local people who, often as members of civic organizations or church groups, volunteer at the event. These include people like the aforementioned Jean, who will provide us with a case study.

Jean, a man in his early 50s, came to Rocamadour in the early 1990s with his companion, Vera. Vera, an artist, wanted to run her own studio and sell her works at the site and Jean worked hard at various retail jobs in order to save enough money for her studio to become a reality. After a few years they had a child together and soon Vera was working in her studio, selling her works to tourists.

Jean and Vera, despite living at a pilgrimage site, are decidedly secular. They live near the nuns’ home and treat them with utmost respect, but have little patience with the somewhat showy religiosity of some of their other neighbors (to be fair, many locals can be just as showy in their atheism). Part of the issue is the exclusivity of some of Rocamadour’s older families; there are only five families whose ties at the site link their presence to the late 19th or early 20th centuries and people who have moved to Rocamadour in more recent decades are often treated as money-seeking outsiders.

Coming into Rocamadour in the 1990s put Jean and Vera into the category of untrustworthy newcomers in the eyes of some Amadouriens. They laughed at what they considered to be ridiculous provincialism. Ironically, one of the older priests who resides near the shrine was able to help Jean locate himself (and his daughter) on a huge family tree, indicating that they had blood ties that connected them to one of the five families, thereby granting them a status they did not want, but made them seem more legitimate nevertheless.

Well-traveled Jean and Vera were somewhat more sophisticated than typical Amadouriens, most of whom were also rather older than the couple. While their neighbors slowly moved into the computer age, for example, Jean and Vera set up a wireless Internet connection and their daughter entertained them with Bollywood moves she learned from watching videos online. From the researchers’ perspective, Jean’s family was an unexpected bit of 21st century France in what sometimes appeared to remain a medieval village.

Jean’s participation in the Fête des Fromages appears to have been motivated by a sense of civic pride. He did not personally connect the event to either Pentecost or the Rogation ceremony and had even joked prior to the event that Rocamadour’s tourism had turned the shrine into Disneyland, with its young curate, the passionate, charismatic, and rather conservative Father Gustave, as “Mickey.” Jean had very little use for religion, yet a chance to participate in Rocamadour’s past, grilling lamb in a very traditional and labor-intensive manner, was a secular way for him to participate in an event that evoked the history of his home.

History has always been an essential part of tourism at Rocamadour in any case. Images of the 12th century pilgrim dressed in a brown robe, carrying a walking stick, and adorned with a wide-brimmed hat and coquille St. Jacques scallop shell , are often used in advertising and decoration. The average French tourist is drawn to the romantic history of the country, even (or especially) if this history is flavored with bygone religiosity. In a France that sees itself as proudly secular, images and ideas of devout pilgrims walking untamed paths in the name of holy reverence can be seen as incredibly romantic.

This nostalgia for the past goes deeper, as religious imagery is joined with ideas of old-fashioned dress, music, agriculture and other folkways. Visitors to Rocamadour during the rest of the year are drawn to the site as a lovely medieval village, but events like the Fête des Fromages add another layer, with traditional foodstuffs prepared in time-honored ways served to ancient melodies. Despite the rampant tourism throughout the site, a visitor may experience what feels like a simpler time in France’s history, a time when religious activity was a common part of lived experience.

Rogation Reconstructed

Chauveau’s book includes interviews with long-time locals who describe the town before tourism was so prevalent. And although Rocamadour was certainly a place of pilgrimage at the time, religious events carried out by the locals conformed closely to those conducted by neighboring towns, such as a procession marking Ascension.

According to one of Chauveau’s subjects, the procession took place mainly along Rocamadour’s main path, which gradually descends from the Hospitalet area at the top of the cliff to the street at its bottom. The curate carried a monstrance and he and children from the choir walked under a canopy carried by a few citizens, who stopped to rest with their heavy burden several times along the way. Child participants often wore angel wings or robes like the Virgin Mary, and threw rose petals ahead of the procession. Finally, after another resting period, the processors would climb Rocamadour’s Grand Escalier, the Great Staircase, up to the church courtyard. This noisy, playful procession was something like a tourist attraction in itself and would gather quite an audience each Ascension Day.

No specific mention is made of Rogations in Chauveau’s interviews, but a description of these masses as they have been practiced in rural Spain can be found in William Christian’s work Person and God in a Spanish Valley. Christian writes that collective prayers in the village he studied, “would include the rogation ceremonies each spring (the greater and lesser litanies), when the priest leads the village out in procession to bless the fields…these are the prayers which, in a sense, make the year go round. As prayers for guidance and protection they are especially appropriate for the active patrons of the village” (Christian 1989:115). Rogations in Rocamadour were conducted in similar ways, for similar purposes, but after the reforms of the liturgical calendar, and the shift in Rocamadour’s focus from religion to tourism, these traditions and others like them fell by the wayside.

As times changed in Rocamadour then, the tradition of the Rogation seemed to disappear almost entirely. Weibel’s fieldwork in 1997, however, allowed her to experience a sort of revival of the ritual. Her notes from May 6, 1997 (the Tuesday before Ascension that year, and therefore a very traditional Rogation date) read:

Tonight was something called "La Rogation" which is an old word meaning a prayer, but more of a request-type prayer. It hasn't been held in about 15 years according to Sister Lucie, but someone requested it this past December and Father Beaux agreed to conduct it. It's an old ceremony meant to be a prayer for crops and rain, and fruit to grow, and all of that.

Jules drove Lucie, Aurelie and me to the Hospitalet, and then we walked to a little farm. This mass is usually held outside, but since it was raining so much earlier, it was held in a barn. Big farm machines and tools were pushed to the side and bales of hay were piled along one wall. The ground was covered with sweet-smelling hay and a number of wooden folding chairs and a table covered with flowers and candles were placed in the middle of the barn…

Father Beaux started us with several hymns, asking before each one if we all knew it. There was a prayer in which everyone acknowledged that they were sinners, then a woman in the front read a passage from Genesis, where God created all the living things (especially plants). The sermon emphasized how God's Word was like rain, and had called up living things like rain. There were lots of planting, reaping and sowing references, and a great deal about how much work it is to maintain a garden (removing weeds, watering it...). More singing followed and Father Beaux prayed, thanking God for the rain, and reminding us all how important the Earth was. It got very ‘green’ for a while there, with Father Beaux stating that we couldn't over-control nature or it would exact its revenge. A parable relating to nature that Jesus told was read and there was a small, intimate Eucharist… Father Beaux asked us to thank Notre Dame de Rocamadour and to pray for her to help us be like the earth and grow good things.

This 1997 Rogation seems to have lost any kind of linked procession, but was traditional in terms of its agricultural theme and its date. In 2007, however, the new curate mockingly called “Mickey” by Jean, Father Gustave, decided to revisit the ritual. Father Gustave has been described by Amadourien locals, including our informants Jean and Sister Lucie, as being rather conservative (to use Lucie’s term) or fundamentalist (to use Jean’s term). Part of his charge as a fresh presence at Rocamadour has been to help bolster Rocamadour’s religious identity against the onslaught of tourism, and it is not surprising that he might turn to older rituals to do so.

Although Weibel did fieldwork in May 2006, she left Rocamadour before the Festival of Cheeses. In the days beforehand, though, a secular ritual, transhumance, caught her attention. Transhumance is the moving of a herd or flock of animals, in this case a troop of goats, from low pastures to high pastures, and vice-versa. Rocamadour has neither valley nor mountains, but its cliff and canyon certainly give it high and low ground. Because of this, a picturesque, tourist-friendly and simplified recreation of transhumance was undertaken and something of an experiment in 2006. Weibel’s field notes from May 14th, 2006 read:

I decided to go to the crêperie on the main road at the foot of the cliff… some strange things began to happen in the street outside the window. A group of school children in yellow caps went by. Sometime later there came a whole flock of goats! This attracted the interest of one of the ladies at a nearby table and mine as well. It was very comical to see these little goat faces bobbing up and down as they baa’ed and snorted. They were marked with red ribbons.

Two Scottish ladies who had been seated in the restaurant went outside to get a better idea of what was going on, and one spoke with the proprietress who explained the situation to her outside. When she came back, I asked her what she had learned. As it turns out, the goat parade was a trial run (un essai) for an event that will be taking place during the cheese festival that is held during the weekend of Pentecost. Apparently it was traditional to move pastoral animals from the low grounds to high pastures for the summer and since Rocamadour’s famous cheese is a goat cheese, it was decided that the parade-like movement of these goats (transhumance) would be a nice addition to the festival. They wanted to walk the herd through the town to make sure they didn’t eat the flowers, enter the stores, etc.

Illustration 3

"To promote the 2007 Fête des Fromages, shepherds lead a herd of newly-blessed goats through Rocamadour's main street to the top of the cliff, evoking the ancient practice of transhumance."

The goats behaved beautifully, adding a special something to the Fête des Fromages of 2006. In 2007 the goats were part of something even more special when Rocamadour’s religious community decided to bring back the Rogation ceremony, tailoring it to fit the cheese festival that was already in place. Instead of gathering a small group of congregants into a field or barn, the event, advertised to both religious and secular visitors, involved a special service held under a billowing white canopy on the grassy canyon floor beneath Rocamadour’s imposing cliff. The service had an agricultural theme and was followed up by the blessing of flocks of sheep and goats that were penned in at the site. Weibel’s notes from the mass read:

This morning we got up early (for us) and got to the Rogation just as it was about to start. It was held in the canyon where balloons are sometimes launched. Someone was playing an instrument K identified as a wooden oboe and someone else with an accordion was there playing music. There was also a group of shepherds wearing special black berets and tan vests over white and green t-shirts, a flock of goats and a flock of sheep. An altar had been put together under the trees, sort of up on a dirt hill. A canopy made of white sheet-like material hung overhead providing a cover from the rain or sun and a table covered with a white sheet held the host and other objects. Regional products like bread and wine were placed on the ‘stage’ as well. Both the priests, Gustave and Marc, wore very ceremonial-looking red robes.

The mass was fairly straightforward, although Marc’s portion focused on things like comparing the canyon to Colorado and feeling like we were at the center of Creation. He also said something at one point about how Rocamadour was not built to attract tourists, but was built instead because there was something at the site that drew people in.

A young woman led a lot of the singing and after a Bible reading about the Apostles and Pentecost, Gustave gave a short sermon. It was hard to pay attention, though, because there were dozens of goats and sheep to one side, baa’ing and running into each other and generally being distracting. A sheep dog or cattle dog of some kind (it looked like an Australian shepherd) was really enthused about keeping them in line. Late we saw another shepherd dog called Luc who would stay close to the ground and look like he was preying on the sheep to keep them moving.

At one point a group of children came to the stage carrying various farm products. Near the end of the service, after the communion, the priests went down to the flocks. Gustave blessed them by dipping an olive branch in a vessel of holy water then flinging the water at the animals, first the goats and then the sheep. The sheep were a bit frightened of this and tried to get away from him.

Illustration 4

"Rocamadour's priests recite a prayer over the local cheese-producing goats, while a young parishioner holds an olive branch dipped in holy water for the upcoming blessing."

Kujala’s notes from the same morning read:

At mass, Father Gustave and Father Marc were both present. They had on red outfits on with gold embellishments. Gustave sang parts of the service that Marc had not in the previous mass we went to. Marc also read a poem in the Occitan language while the goats looked on in bewilderment. Goats and sheep were down in the valley where the service was held and there was a sheepdog present to help herd the goats. There were more people in attendance for this mass than previous ones we had gone to. There were families present with teenagers and I bet there were more tourists there for the service than usual. Louise was one of the helpers to set up the altar down in the valley…There was also a lady that did one reading who was sort of conducting us all while we were singing. There was no organ, but there was a wooden oboe with a bagpipe player playing not for the entire duration of the song that we were singing, but more during the chorus and in the beginning of the songs.

Gustave blessed the sheep and the goats, but he kind of made a joke in the beginning about it. Gustave did most of the service and Marc did an introduction to the sermon that Gustave gave. I was distracted by watching the goats. They were adorable, scratching their heads, head butting each other, etc.

Before 1969, small French villages, such as Rocamadour, had a clear set of religious rituals to be followed in the springtime. Easter Sunday came first, and was followed 40 days later by Ascension Thursday, marking the day that Jesus Christ is believed to have ascended to Heaven. Rogation days took place the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension and involved processions and prayers for agricultural bounty. Ten days after Ascension, Pentecost, during which the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon the apostles and given them the gifts needed to spread Christianity, is commemorated.

While Ascension and Pentecost are biblically rooted with inflexible dates, Rogation days are very different. They came about as the result of disasters only 600 or so years ago, and are not mentioned as biblical events. They were taken off the liturgical calendar in 1969, and, since the 1980s, have been encouraged but optional. Because of this, Rogation days are available to be used in non-traditional ways, as illustrated in Rocamadour’s case. Why, however, would the diocesan presence there want to take a traditional religious festival, change its date, and explicitly associate it with a contemporary, secular Festival of Cheeses?

The Melding of Church and Cheese

As mentioned earlier, the religious character of Rocamadour has all but been replaced by the idea of Rocamadour as a secular tourist attraction. Most people who come to Rocamadour do so as tourists, not as pilgrims. If the diocese is unwilling to lose its thousand-year old shrine to this identity shift, it can ignore the situation and pray for the best, fight tourism (thereby undermining the financial foundation of the town) or somehow find a way to stay relevant while tourism flourishes. Rocamadour’s religious presence has implemented the last option, although not always successfully.

The first major effort made in this direction by the treasurer of the Diocese of Cahors and Rocamadour, a Father Panat, was to renovate the shrine’s Museum of Sacred Art. According to one of our informants, Léon, what was a small, fairly basic museum featuring a small number of religious artifacts presented in a humble setting was modernized and gutted in the mid-1990s, creating a sleek, air-cooled space within a 14th century shell. Religious treasures were borrowed from neighboring towns to make up for what Rocamadour had lost in its various sackings. Father Panat insisted the expense of the renovation was worth the benefits, predicting that it would bring in 60,000 people annually (out of Rocamadour’s 1.5 million yearly visitors). Instead, Léon told us, 7000 people visited the museum its first year and did not even bring in enough money to cover its electricity bill. Other informants, such as Lucie, agreed with Léon that the museum’s cost far outweighed its benefits.

In 2002 Father Panat made another effort to link Rocamadour’s religious and touristic aspects by helping produce a show or spectacle called “Dis moi, Falco” (Tell me, Falco), featuring a child learning about Rocamadour’s history, including its pilgrimage, from one of Eagles’ Rocks falcons, Falco. Eagles’ Rock was a co-sponsor. Although Panat expected it to be a big hit, few of Rocamadour’s tourists attended the shows and, like the museum, it cost more money than it brought in. Even so, it was brought back in 2003 and, according to Léon, lost even more money.

Around the same time the diocese was experimenting with show business, Panat made another effort to mix religion and tourism. Rocamadour’s cliff is topped by a castle that was built in the 19th century to replace the ruins of an earlier château. This castle serves as the home for Rocamadour’s priests and until the very beginning of the 21st century, was also a lodging for groups of pilgrims who would come to Rocamadour as church or diocesan groups. A diocese elsewhere in France might, for example, organize a week-long pilgrimage to various destinations, including Rocamadour, and take people by motor coach. Large groups like this could stay in the castle, enjoy the view of the canyon, pray, and dine with the priests in residence.

In 2002, Panat decided the rooms at the castle could be used to help save the financial bottom line of the diocese, so he worked to convert the castle from a pilgrims’ lodging to a hotel-restaurant. He expected a hotel in such a wonderful location would be an immense success, but once again the renovations were expensive and the profits were paltry. Religious groups that had stayed at the property for very reasonable rates now had to stay in Rocamadour’s more typical hotels or stop visiting. The hotel-restaurant failed within two years.

In 2004, a new Bishop of Cahors and Rocamadour took office and within a short period of time ordered an audit of Rocamadour. Most of the efforts the diocese had made to join Rocamadour’s tourist economy were shut down after this investigation, except for a religious bookstore that did see a profit. Father Panat was removed from his position as treasurer. Many people who worked for the diocese at Rocamadour were laid off. However our informants almost unanimously expressed hope that these setbacks would lead to better times at Rocamadour and a more subtle effort to reconcile its religious and secular sides.

Certainly the diocese’s recent efforts were less than subtle, pitching a museum against successful animal parks, a fledgling hotel against more established lodging, etc. Rocamadour’s religious presence tried to do battle with tourism on tourism’s turf and faltered badly. Under the new bishop, though, a new approach seems to be underway. Father Gustave, young but conservative, envisions a Rocamadour whose status as a pilgrimage destination is completely restored. His idealism and energy may assist the diocese in their struggle to stay relevant in the face of Rocamadour’s secularization, and small assays, like garnering some attention for the church during the Festival of Cheeses could be successful.

Working a religious festival into the Festival of Cheeses is a different approach from Father Panat’s methods. The Festival of Cheeses, from a touristic perspective, is about presenting a romanticized, rural image of old France. Tourists come to eat traditional fare, watch folk dances, and enjoy an evocation of the past. The Festival’s location on the outskirts of a medieval village helps reinforce this sense of nostalgia. Because the Festival of Cheeses promotes an old fashioned image of Rocamadour (and France itself), at a time when agriculture was paramount, the town’s priests can participate in a compatible, not combative, way. In doing so, though, they deviate somewhat from the traditional Rogations, which sought successful harvests and the exceptional 1997 Rogation, which focused on planting, harvesting, sowing, and avoiding ecological disaster. Although Fathers Gustave and Mark did ask for agricultural blessings during their 2007 mass, and did express thanks for the bounty of produce to be found at Rocamadour, they altered their Rogation in three salient ways.

First, they acknowledged the site’s touristic identity, even as they subordinated this identity to Rocamadour’s religious one. Father Marc made a point of saying that Rocamadour was not built to attract tourists and that people were drawn there before tourism was an issue. This seems to have been an effort to both acknowledge the tourists who would be drawn to an old-fashioned, traditional religious ceremony and to proselytize to them in some small way.

Second, the priests moved the Rogation away from its customary, although no longer required, spot on the calendar to a date that would make it coincide with the Festival of Cheeses. There was no religious reason why a Rogation mass, should they have chosen to perform one in 2007, could not have taken place on May 14th, 15th or 16th. Then again, those dates fall before a long holiday weekend on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, thus occurring when tourists are unlikely to visit Rocamadour. A Rogation mass during Ascension weekend might have been possible, but an agricultural mass then would not have had the tie to the Festival of Cheeses. By changing the date to Pentecost weekend, the priests were able to link an agricultural mass to an agricultural festival, even if the date change made the celebration less “traditional.”

Finally, the presence of a flock of sheep and a troop of goats during the Rogation both breaks with tradition and sends a message. Rogations usually focus on produce that grows from the ground, not on livestock. However, by expanding the idea of the harvest to the acquisition of milk and cheese from dairy animals like sheep and goats, Fathers Marc and Gustave were able to bless agriculture in general, bless milk-producing animals more specifically, and ultimately bless the Festival of Cheeses in particular. The act of sprinkling holy water onto goats whose milk is used to make the famed Rocamadour on a weekend when that very cheese is lauded and celebrated is tantamount to endorsing the Festival itself.

By performing a Rogation mass in conjunction with the Festival, Rocamadour’s priests complemented the site’s existing tourism and even became part of what drew tourists that weekend, instead of trying to compete against tourism on its own terms. The ceremony reinforced the importance of goat cheese to the town’s economy and gave the religious representatives of the community a role in supporting the cheese, by blessing the very animals that supply it. Tellingly, after the Rogation the blessed goats were led from the mass at the canyon floor to the cliff-top Festival of Cheeses, symbolically linking, and perhaps ranking, the shrine town’s religious and secular identities.

References Cited

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