Sur le Pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse....It was the first French I learned, singing the merry little song as a child: On the Bridge of Avignon, everyone is dancing, everyone is dancing....
“It was my first French too,” said my husband, John, as we drove toward Avignon last spring. Funny how a song can impact a life: Loving the sound of the words, each of us had gone on to study French, meeting as students bound for the French-speaking University of Geneva. Our three children, our eight grandchildren, a lifetime of work together—all because of a song about a bridge.
So of course, on reaching Avignon, the bridge was the first thing we wanted to see. We parked outside the crenellated walls of the medieval city and stood gazing out across one of France’s longest, largest rivers. Here the Rhone is swollen and unpredictable. Watermarks on the city walls attest that even today’s dams and dikes cannot prevent the Rhone from periodically rampaging out of its banks.
But where was the Bridge of Avignon?
Signs for a pont had pointed us this way, but they were for a different bridge, the Pont St–Bénezet. We walked on outside the towering walls, the river on our left. And then, rounding a corner of the rampart, we saw the ruins of an ancient bridge so beautiful that we stopped short, staring. Four graceful stone arches, gleaming white in the afternoon light, extended a little way into the river, ending abruptly in midair. We followed a group of tourists up a stairway and stepped out onto the worn stones of the roadway. A few yards along, above the bridge’s second pier, was a small Gothic chapel. Underneath it, down stairs cut into the pier, we found a still older Romanesque chapel dedicated to the mysterious Saint Bénezet.
We climbed back up from the lower chapel and walked the rest of the way out to where the bridge ended, high above the fast-flowing Rhone. Three little French girls skipped past us on the way, singing a familiar song. Sur le pont d’Avignon...This was our bridge, all right! But who was Saint Bénezet?
Over the next few days John and I wandered around Avignon asking about him and getting energetic answers in lively Provençal French. Everyone we asked agreed on two things: Bénezet was a young, illiterate, penniless shepherd, and it was an angel who guided him to build the bridge at Avignon.
From the lady at the tourist information desk we learned that the Romanesque chapel on the bridge had once held the saint’s tomb. He died very young, she told us, while the bridge was still being constructed, his body placed there when it was completed. Many years later, when floods swept most of the bridge away, his casket was moved within the town. Following her directions, we located Bénezet’s final resting place in St. Didier, an austere fourteenth-century church. From the wall, the statue of a young man with a stone at his feet looked down at us; beside him an angel held a bridge in outstretched hands.
More and more intrigued, we went to the library and looked up Bénezet’s story. Here is the account as it has come down across 800 years, a mix of fact and legend—where the legend says even more to John and me than the historical details, fascinating as they are....
So Bénezet must have been 17 or 18 years old when his life took its sudden, stunning turn. One day as he watched his mother’s flock, he heard a voice call his name. Bénezet! Bénezet! The boy whirled around, but there was no one to be seen. Bénezet, I have chosen you to go to Avignon and build me a bridge across the Rhone. The shepherd lad stared in every direction, but all he could see were the peacefully grazing animals. Go to the great city of Avignon many days away? Nobody he knew had ever been there. And build...a bridge? All he had ever built was a sheep pen. He’d heard of the Rhone—everyone knew of the fearsome river, inhabited by a dragon, it was said, that time after time sent the river raging out of its banks to sweep away farms and villages. Pilgrims to the Holy Land might have to wait for weeks till the ferrymen could row them across. Everyone feared the deadly Rhone.
And yet the command came again. Build a bridge at Avignon. Bénezet protested that he was only a country bumpkin without money or connections. Why, he didn’t even know the way to Avignon! To each objection the answer was the same, I will send my angel with you.
That night Bénezet reported the message to his mother. At first she was as incredulous as he, but at last they agreed that if indeed this was the voice of the Lord then Bénezet must obey. Next morning he took three small coins—all the money he had in the world—wrapped some bread and cheese in his cloak, kissed his mother good-bye, and set out following the mountain streams downhill.
He had gone only a short distance when a pilgrim, a hood hiding his face, appeared on the path and fell into step with him. For three days the two traveled together, at each crossroad the silent stranger pointing the way.
When they reached the bank of the great river, the pilgrim vanished. Now Bénezet knew his fellow traveler was the angel the voice had promised. With new confidence he followed the river south. At last he came to a cluster of people, horses and donkeys gathered at a ferry crossing. On the other side of the broad river rose the walls and towers of Avignon.
Bénezet approached a boatman and held out his three coins. The ferryman looked at them scornfully. “Six obole to cross,” he said. “That’s only three.”
Bénezet pleaded till the man, grumbling that paupers were ruining him, rowed him across. In Avignon the young shepherd wandered the streets open-mouthed. The crowds, the shops, the noise—he hadn’t known there were this many people in the whole world! He followed in the direction most of them were moving and found himself in a great square before an enormous church.
After a while a man in jeweled robes and a bishop’s miter appeared on the porch of the church and began to speak. Bénezet was too far away to hear his words, but if he was to deliver his message to anyone, surely it was to this great man of God. Pushing through the crowd, he scrambled up onto the porch.
The bishop stopped, the people stared. In the silence, Bénezet’s words rang out over the crowd. “Holy Sir, God has told me to build a bridge over the Rhone!”
Soldiers were moving swiftly to haul this lunatic away when there was a bellow of laughter from the velvet-gowned man at the bishop’s side. It was the provost, highest civil authority in the city. Guffaws swept the crowd, wave after wave of mocking laughter.
“All right, mighty bridge builder,” gasped the provost, when he could speak, “since you hear God so well, I’m sure he’s telling you to pick up that stone there and start this great work at once.”
He pointed to an immense building stone that had been bypassed in recent repairs to the cathedral because it was too big to be lifted even with block and tackle. Following the instructions of one who was clearly a man of importance, Bénezet climbed down from the church porch, lifted the stone onto his shoulder and headed for the riverbank.
Amid the gasps and exclamations of the onlookers Bénezet carried the massive block through the city gate and set it down at the water’s edge. In all that throng, only Bénezet was not surprised at the feat, for he knew whose hands had lifted the weight. Hadn’t an angel been with him all the way from Le Villard? Hadn’t his mother taught him that angels were always near?
Bénezet stood beside the stone, looking out over the Rhone as if he were already seeing the Pont d’Avignon. Mockery turned to astonishment, then to wild enthusiasm for the shepherd’s project. A bridge across the Rhone! No one had ever conceived of such an achievement! A roadway high above the capricious river, safe passage any time, any season. That very day the provost donated 300 gold coins to a building fund, while everyone from churchmen and nobles to the poorest peasant crowded around Bénezet to add their contributions.
In the following weeks, as masons and architects debated the spacing of the piers and the height of the arches, Bénezet traveled up and down the river, repeating the words he had heard on his hillside. At every stop funds poured in for the great undertaking.
John and I walked once more onto the bridge that sprang from the stone Bénezet placed on the riverbank. The four arches date from after his time; the first bridge was lower, with a wooden roadway. Time and again floods and war tore portions of it away.But always it was repaired, enlarged, improved as building techniques developed. Only in the seventeenth century was the old bridge finally abandoned, the remaining arches left as a memorial to a shepherd’s obedience.
What Bénezet gave his twelfth-century world—what he gives us today—is the confidence that with each task God gives us he also says, I will send my angel with you. This is the part of Bénezet’s story that makes it so meaningful to John and me. When we don’t know which way to go, that’s when a stranger falls into step beside us. When we feel ourselves too weak for the burden, that’s when other hands reach out to share the load. And so a song about a bridge is for us a song of faith. The song John and I have long sung together.