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Chablais (Traditional province, Savoy, France)

Last modified: 2010-11-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: savoy | chablais | lion (black) |
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[Flag of Chablais]

Flag of Chablais - Image by Pascal Gross & Ivan Sache, 24 January 2004

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History of Chablais

Until the VIIIth century BC, human settlements were set up on the shore of Lake Léman, mostly between Tougues and Thonon; the lakeside villages built on piles sticked into the lake are called palaffites. These early settlers knew how to work bronze, which was not available locally but was easily shipped via the lake. This was the only period in the history where industrialization really existed in Chablais. During the late Age of Bronze, settlement moved inland, along the line Veigy-Douvaine-Thonon until the foothills of the Voirons massif, and even to Lullin, beyond this massif.
There are very few remains of these settlers, who were replaced by new Celtic settlers classified among the Ligurians. The newcomers came from the East of Europe, spoke an Indo-European language and worked iron. They came in two waves, the first one between 900 and 500 BC, the second one between 500 and 50 BC. The latter wave is the only significant for Chablais. The settlers, called the Allobroges, most probably colonized the lower territories whereas the earlier settlers moved up into the mountains and developed a civilization based on cattle breeding. The Allobroges were subjected by the Romans in 121 BC and helped them to held the Helvetes in check.
During the Gallo-Roman period, Chablais was mostly settled by villae (big estates) and a few urban centers, the most significant being Douvaine, Bons and Thonon. The river Dranse constituted a natural border to colonization: no significant settlement seems to have existed beyond the Dranse, including in Évian, which is one of the few French spa towns without a Gallo-Roman history.

After the Great Invasions, Chablais was incorporated into the Kingdom of Burgundy, which was one of the most stable "states" at that time. In 1032, King Rodolphe died without a male heir and was succeeded by German Emperor Konrad, who claimed to defend the interests of Rodolphe's widow. Count Humbert, who owned domains near the towns of Chambéry and Bellay, in Lower Dauphiné and in Val d'Aosta, supported Konrad, who awarded him the titles of "Gatekeeper of the Alps" and Count of Chablais. Humbert was also the protector of the Christian religion, which had flourished in Chablais, since King of Burgundy Sigismond founded the St. Maurice abbey in Agaune in 515 to emphasize his conversion.
Humbert's successor, Pierre I, increased his position by helping Emperor of Germany Henri IV to cross the Alps on his way to Canossa. He was rewarded with the permanent protection of the St. Maurice's abbey and the domain between the towns of Martigny and Vevey (a region located today in Switzerland, shared between the cantons of Valais and Vaud). A place called Pennoslacos, located on the lakeshore on the road linking the rivers Rhône and Rhine, was part of this domain. The Celtic toponym Pennoslacos, meaning "the lake's head" (end) was latinized by clarks into Caput Lacis, which later gave Chablais. Caput Lacis was then used to designate the St. Maurice abbey's domain, which equaled the territory granted by the Emperor to Pierre I. The toponymist Albert Dauzat relates Chablais to châble, the name given locally to a corridor opened in a mountain forest in order to retrieve cut trees, but this hypothesis does not seem to be supported by any evidence.

The subsequent history of Chablais is linked to the big ambitions of the Counts of Savoy, who attempted to become Kings as the "natural heirs" of the Kingdom of Burgundy and to reunify their domains scattered all over the Alps.
In the XIth and XIIth century, the abbey of Agaune set up a daughter abbey in Abondance, whereas the Cistercians founded an abbey in the Val d'Aups. In the same time, the Counts of Savoy, from their castles of Chillon and Villeneuve (today in Switzerland) attempted to control the valley of Rhône, Lake Léman and the neighbouring areas. Count Pierre II (1263-1268) set up the Bailiwick of Chablais; in 1325, Chablais included the châtellenies of Entremont, Saint-Maurice, Saxon, Saillon, Conthey, La Tour de Peilz, Vevey, Châtel-Saint-Denis, Payerne, Morat/Murten, La Corbière, Versoix, the Island's Castle in Geneva (all of them constituting significant parts of the modern cantons of Geneva and Vaud, a part of Valais and a part of Fribourg), Yvoire, Thonon-Allinges and Évian-Féternes (the three of them constituting the modern French Chablais). The build-up of Chablais was made through marriages, agreements, debt paiements and pressures, but did not involve war actions.
However, the Counts of Savoy had strong challengers in Western Chablais, the Counts of Genevois, who hold the fortresses of Hermance and Beauregard on the lakeshore, and of Ballaison and Langin inland, and the Sire of Faucigny, who hold the fortresses of Rovorée, Nernier, Avully and Allinges-le-Vieux. In the beginning of the XIVth century, the Count of Savoy suppressed the fortress of Rovorée and took the control of most other fortresses owned by Faucigny. The Treaty of Paris (1355) confirmed the leadership of Savoy on Chablais, and the fortresses lost their strategic importance, allowing the development of the towns.
During the reigns of the three great princes of Savoy Amédée VI (1343-1383), Amédée VII (1383-1391) and Amédée VIII (1391-1451), Chablais was the political center of Savoy. Since Savoy then completely controlled lake Léman, the court moved from Chillon to Thonon, which became the prefered residence of the princes (at that time, Savoy had no capital). Bonne de Bourbon, Amédée VII's wife, made of the castle of Ripaille her main residence. Marie de Bourgogne, Amédée VIII's wife, set up beautiful castles in Ripaille, Thonon, Amphion and Évian. Chablais was also a center of art and science: the cloister of the abbey of Abondance was decorated with frescos, whereas laboratories were set up in the castle of Ripaille in order to find control measures against the black plague.

The decline of Chablais started at the end of the XVth century, under the reign of the nefarious Duchess Ann of Cyprus and her personal councillor Valperga. The political center of the Duchy moved to Chambéry, the seat of the Government Accounting Office and the Archives, until the capital was transfered to Turin (1563).
Savoy took the party of Burgundy against France and paid a high price for this unfortunate choice: Valais, that is the historical Chablais, was lost in 1476. Duke Charles III (1504-1536) attempted to take control of Geneva, completely underestimating the increasing power of the Swiss canton and the independence feelings in Geneva. Accordingly, Bern set up an alliance with Geneva and invaded Savoy, including Chablais, in 1536. For a few decades, Chablais was shared between the Protestants from Bern and the Catholics from Valais, the border being the river Dranse. By treaties signed in 1564 with Bern and 1569 with Valais, Chablais was reincorporated to Savoy. The eastern border of the Duchy was fixed as the river Morge, crossing the village of Saint-Gingolph, thus confirming the 1476 loss of the caput lacis. The occupation by Bern is often described as the worst period in the history of Chablais, but it seems that Bern administrated the area much better than the Duke of Savoy.

In the rest of this description, Chablais must be understood as Chablais savoyard. The Chablais ancien (the old caput lacis) followed the destiny of the cantons of Vaud and Valais.
Duke Charles-Emmanuel, crowned in 1580, had the obsession of reincorporating Geneva to Savoy. His clueless ambitions caused another two invasions of Chablais in 1589 and 1591: the castles of Thonon and Ripaille were plundered and the town of Évian was burned. In 1602, the pathetic expedition of L'Escalade ended Charles-Emmanuel's ambitions and allowed Geneva to develop without the Savoy threat.
Chablais reflourished in the XVIIth century but lost its strategical importance: the Dukes were only interested in the thermal sources of Chablais and used the region as a base for light attacks against Geneva. The main role of Chablais was then to spread the Counter-Reformation in the neighbouring Protestant Swiss cantons: St. Francis of Sales reorganized the abbey of Abondance, moved a Carthusian foundation from Vallon (in the mountains) to Ripaille, and welcomed the monks and nuns expelled from Switzerland. However, the center of the operations was Annecy, where the Bishopric of Geneva had it see.
In the XVIIIth century, Chablais was occupied by the French (1703-1709) and Spanish (1742-1748) troops. The economical situation was very bad: the farmers needed to sell their products in Geneva, whereas trade with the Protestant countries was restricted and even forbidden by the Duke under the pressure of the Catholic church. Chablais was the poorest province of Piemont, administrated by an Intendant. It is therefore not surprising that Chablais massively voted for the incorporation to France in 1860. During the Second World War, Chablais, which until then had not really fought against any invader, violently opposed the German occupation. The tragedies of Saint-Gingolph and Habère-Lullin are the main symbols of the Resistance to the Nazi barbary.

Chablais has kept a lot of local words and expressions, someone also used in the rest of Savoy, Jura and Switzerland. Some of these words are listed and explained in a very pleasant way in the Dictionnaire du chablaisien by André Depraz (Jean-Claude Fert, Yvoire, 1998).
It includes the famous panosse, a floorcloth, but does not say that la panosse verte et blanche (the green and white floorcloth) is the nickname of the flag of canton of Vaud.

This presentation of the history of Chablais is based on the lecture Vous avez dit Chablais ?, given by Bernard Sache on 14 May 2002 in Douvaine, and unfortunately unpublished. Bernard Sache is a retired teacher in history and geography currently doing research on the history of Chablais. He already published a book entitled Meillerie, ou les caillous de la gloire (Editions Le Vieil Annecy, 2003) and is preparing a more ambitious study on Chablais under the great Amédées.

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2005

Flag of Chablais

The flag of Chablais is white with a semy of black billettes (rectangles) and a black lion with a red tongue.
The flag can be seen over the town halls of Évian-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains and in front of the town hall of Sciez (and in several other places).

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2004