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Meymac (Municipality, Corrèze, France)

Last modified: 2018-06-28 by ivan sache
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Flag of Meymac - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 4 September 2005

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Presentation of Meymac

The municipality of Meymac (3,000 inhabitants; 3,715 ha - the largest municipality of the department of Corrèze) is located in Limousin, on a hill dominating river Luzège, 20 km west of Ussel.

The legend says that an hermit called Mammacus built there in 546 a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. A more probable etymology for the name of the town is the Gallo-Roman anthroponym Maximus with the suffix -acum, which gave Meimacum, then Mamacum and eventually Meymac. On 3 February 1085, Viscount Archambaud III de Comborn founded a Benedictine priory on the site of the chapel; the priory became an abbey in 1147. A village developed around the abbey and was incorporated in the 14th century to the powerful Duchy of Ventadour, whose four main towns were Ussel (capital), Égletons, Meymac and Neuvic. The abbey church was built in the 12th century in Limousin Romanic style; it houses a black Virgin statue (16th century) and St. Leodegar's bust reliquary.

Leodegar (c. 616-677) was murdered in Autun (Burgundy) by order of Ebroin, Mayor of the Palace (a kind of Prime Minister) of Neustria. In the Middle Ages, every abbey church needed relics of a famous saint in order to attract pilgrims, and monks did anything to get these relics, including military expeditions. These expeditions were later often described as "miraculous" translations of the relics. The translation of St. Leodegar's relics to Meymac was celebrated in the past on 25 August. The story says that the monks from the abbey of Saint-Maixent, in Poitou, were "granted" the relics (the saint's head and hands) by the monks of the abbey of Ébreuil, in Auvergne. The legend does not explain how the relics had travelled from Burgundy to Auvergne. Back to Poitou, the happy monks were killed nightly by thieves in the forest of Ventadour; the thieves hid the relics in the stables of a neighbouring castle. The next day, all the horses were dead, as were the thieves, except a single one who told the story. The local lord placed the relics in a honour place, but its cattle soon died. He decided to get rid of the relics, and the Viscount of Ventadour was happy to get them for the abbey of Meymac. There were of course other abbeys which claimed to house the authentic St. Leodegar's relics, such as Murbach in Alsace and Jumièges in Normandy. Anyway, the Meymac relics were kept inside a solid silver shrine, and Grand St. Leodegar was invokated against madness.
The abbey was closed in 1791; at the time, there were only five old monks there. The shrine was sold but the relics miraculously came back to Meymac; on 11 Pluviôse of the Year XII (1 June 1804), the Bishop of Limoges visited Meymac and certified the authenticity of the relics.

Meymac was located on the road set up by Intendant of Limousin Turgot (1727-1781). The road, called the turgotière, crossed Limousin from west (Limoges) to east (Bort-les-Orgues) and was served by modern, rapid coaches nicknamed turgotines. Turgot is also known for having introduced the cultivation of potato in Limousin, and mostly for having been Louis XVI's Minister of Finance. Unfortunately, the King did not agree with the economic and social reforms proposed by Turgot after his successful experience in Limousin.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Meymac became a main center of trade for the Bordeaux wines and was nicknamed Meymac-près-Bordeaux (Meymac-near-Bordeaux), in spite of being located 350 km from Bordeaux. After a long and complicated lawsuit, the municipality was ordered to drop -près-Bordeaux from its name.
The history of Meymac-près-Bordeaux started with Jean Gaye-Bordas (1826-1900), the natural son of a poor farm servant. Young Jean left his village with a group of cart-drivers trading goods between the north and the south of France. In Bordeaux, he went his own way and met by chance a sales representative from the Rockefeller company, who freely distributed the new Rockefeller oil lamp all over France; Gaye-Bordas followed him and became a street-peddlar. In Pauillac, near Bordeaux, he witnessed, again by pure chance, the shipping of a wine casket from Bordeaux to Lille, in the north of France. He joined the expedition with a few lamps and addresses of wine traders gathered in Bordeaux. The Bordeaux wine was then extremely priced in the Belgian Borinage, then one of the richest regions in Europe due to coal mining. Gaye-Bordas claimed to be a wine producer and convinced the Belgian burghers to order a lot of wine. He came back to Bordeaux and was warmly welcomed by the true wine producers. Gaye-Bordas only lacked the funds required to purchase from the producers the wine he had already sold in Belgium, but a wise banker from Aurillac, in Auvergne, accepted to lend him money. The trade was very successful and extended to Brussels; a single wine bottle was then sold for 70 francs, whereas the daily wage of a worker was 3 francs.
Gaye-Bordas was very rich but he was a spendthrift. He fell in love with a Brazilian and bought for her in Bordeaux a castle with turrets, made of stone imported from Meymac; he bought another castle in Médoc, but had to sell it rapidly after having spent all his money. The Brazilian left him and he came back to Meymac, where he married a local girl and amassed money again. In 1878, he purchased a piece of land neighbouring the abbey and built the Larose monks' castle (Chàteau des Moines Larose); he used the picture of the two-turret castle on the labels of his wine, "assuming" that the castle was a genuine wine estate in Bordeaux. It is said that some wine amateurs travelled to Meymac and asked to see the Larose vineyard. Gaye-Bordas became the benefactor of Meymac; after the mass, he threw away coins to the children from the balcony of his castle. He bankrupted again and his wife left. After having sold the Larose castle, he still pretended to be rich but died in poverty in Ussel, housed by one of his old friends. Anyway, Gaye-Bordas opened the northern market to the Bordeaux wine and was followed by several other men from Meymac. This explain why the city of Meymac looks so wealthy in a rather poor region; the Wine Merchants' fountain is still there, in front of the Larose castle, and there is still a tenth of wine merchants registered in Meymac.

The other great man of Meymac is Marius Vazeille (1881-1973). President of the Republic Raymond Poincaré (1913-1920) once took the train Limoges-Meymac-Ussel. He was astonished by the bare area known as plateau de Millevaches, located north of Meymac. The name of the plateau has been related to Latin moles vacuum, the empty country, but a more probable etymology relates it to the Celtic root *batz, source. The plateau is also known today as the Plateau of the Thousand (Mille) Sources: several important rivers indeed have their source there, for instance the Vézère, the Vienne and the Creuse. The popular etymology says that a farm maidservant once signed a pact with the devil, who changed her thousand cows (mille vaches) into stone.
At Poincaré's times, the plateau was indeed a desert covert with moors and peat bogs. The young engineer of the Forestry Service Marius Vazeille explained the President why the plateau was desert: it has been settled in the Gallo-Roman times (therefore the moles vacuum etymology is probably wrong) and several trees were cut at that time; during the Religious Wars, Baron of Treignac burned down what remained of the forest in order to expel the Protestants and the trees were not replanted; the only agricultural use of the plateau was very intensive sheep grazing, which completely destroyed the vegetation and damaged the structure of the soil.
Vazeille was appointed to revive the plateau and became known as the apostle of reforestation. Vazeille promoted the prés-bois system, associating pastures (prés) and small woods (bois), which were expected to maintain agriculture on the plateau and develop timber industry. Vazeille's ideas were extremely innovative and what he proposed would be called today "sustainable development". Unfortunately, the rural owners were interested only in profit and planted large plots of woods, mostly with conifers. The small farmers never took any benefit from Vazeille's utopy and most of them emigrated. The plateau de Millevaches has been resettled in the late 1960s by newcomers (the so-called néo-ruraux) who have attempted to redevelop a local life around the few big villages of the plateau (Faux-la-Montagne, Gentioux-Pigerolles, Peyrelevade). Sheep have been mostly replaced by cattle of the Limousin breed, and timber exploitation was developed. Most wood is exported via the railway station of Meymac.
Vazeille attempted to defend the interest of the farmers of the plateau by joining the Parti Communiste Français in 1920; he was elected Deputy in Ussel in the 1930s but rejected the German-Sovietic pact and was expelled from the party in 1946. He was also fond of archeology and discovered several Gallo-Roman sites on the plateau, including the big villa of Les Cars. All his findings were stored in his personal greenhouses, and were, fortunately, transfered in a museum housed in the former convent buildings of the abbey of Meymac.
[Découverte de Meymac, Tourist Office of Meymac]

Ivan Sache, 4 September 2005

Flag of Meymac

The flag of Meymac, hoisted in front of the Town Gall, is blue with three vertical wavy grey stripes.
The flag is a banner of the municipal arms,"Azure three pallets wavy argent", adopted by the Municipal Council on 18 June 1988.

The shades of blue and grey are specific and probably recall the granite and the slates used to build most of the house of Meymac. These shades are seen on all the representations of the coat of arms, and the flag uses the same shades - the wavy stripes are indeed grey and not white.

Ivan Sache, 4 September 2005