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Chinon (Municipality, Indre-et-Loire, France)

Last modified: 2022-07-30 by ivan sache
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Flag of Chinon - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 25 March 2019

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Presentation of Chinon

The municipality of Chinon (8,104 inhabitants in 2019; 3,902 ha; fortress website) is located on river Vienne, 50 km south-west of Tours.

Chinon emerged at the Gallo-Roman period, while stone houses were built on the heights. At the end of the Roman Empire, the promontory overlooking the town was fortified as a castrum mentioned by the historian Gregory of Tours (538/539-594).
A first stone tower, isolated from the old castle by a proper wall, was erected in 954 by Theobald the Trickster, first Count of Blois (r. 956-975). In 1044, Count of Anjou Geoffrey II Martel (r. 1040-1060) took over Touraine, Chinon included; his nephew, Fulk IV (r. 1068-1109), regained control on his challenging vassals and built a new wall around the Chinon fortress between 1087 and 1105.
King of England Henry II Plantagenet (r. 1154-1189) often stayed in Chinon between 1160 and 1180, where he transferred part of the royal treasure. He ordered the building of the palace of Fort St. George, located east of the fortress, to house his administration. Abandoned by his children he had refused to associate to his rule and challenged by king of France Philip II Augustus (r. 1190-1223), Henry II died in the fortress of Chinon in 1189, being only supported by his illegitimate son Geoffrey.
In 1200, John Lackland (r. 1199-2116), aware of the strategic significance of Chinon, increased the defense of the fortress. In the aftermath of the conquest of Normandy, Philip Augustus invaded Touraine and besieged Chinon in autumn 1204; in spite of the skills of Hubert du Bourg, appointed Constable of Chinon in 1203, the fortress surrendered on 23 June 1205. Heavily damaged during the siege, the fortress was revamped and increased by the addition of the circular Coudray tower.

In 1308, King Philip IV the Fair (r. 1285-1314) ordered the arrest of all the members of the Order of the Temple, in the context of his rivalry with Pope Clement V (p. 1305-1314). While 75 knights of the order were on their way to Poitiers to meet the pope, the king ordered to jail in Chinon the five rulers of the order, Grand Master Jacques de Molay (1244/1249-1314) included, to prevent potential papal absolution of the "heretics"; the pope sent to Chinon three cardinals who interviewed the prisoners from 17 to 20 August 1308; this is related in the Chinon Parchment, kept in the Vatican secrete archives.
In 1429, the castle of Chinon was the scene of the miraculous recognition of Charles VII (r. 1422-1461), dressed as a servant and hidden among the courtesans, by Joan of Arc (c. 1412-1431). As she explained during her trial, Joan indeed met the king twice; on 25 February 1429, she was interviewed by the king and a small number of his counsellors. Sent to Poitiers to be "authenticated" by doctors in theology, she was interviewed again by the king at some date between 27 March and 5 April 1429; the public event, which ended the Poitiers investigation and officially recognized Joan of Arc, was transformed into a myth as the recognition scene.
Decommissioned in the 16th century, the fortress was transformed in 1824 in a public park, which included a mulberry nursery. Registered in 1840 as an historical monument, the fortress was saved from demolition in 1854 by the writer Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870), Inspector General of Historical Monuments from 1833 to 1852.

Chinon is the self-styled capital of Rabelaisie, the country described by the writer François Rabelais (1483/1491-1553). This is not another attempt to attract tourists with cheap "historical" facts since the adventures of Gargantua and his merry fellows take place in a strictly delimited geographical area, which matches more or less the Chinon AOP vineyards. Several of the feudal domains listed in the record of the wars fought by Grandgousier against Picrochole are now famous wine estates: La Bonnelière, Coulaine, Vaugaudry, Sonnay, Coudray-Montpensier... Rabelais' description are so accurate that the University of Tours could reconstitute the cartography of the war. The Picrocholine wars starts in Seuilly, during the grape harvests, when two farmers fight for a fouace, the local cake. The conflict soon turns into a "world war", the world being here the Chinon district, where thousands of soldiers throw hens to their opponents and hit them with sticks; the decisive event is the flooding of Picrochole's men in the piss of Gargantua's giant mare.
Chinon wine is the symbol of Pantagruel's quest of wisdom, which ends in the Fifth Book at the oracle of the Dive Bouteille (Divine Bottle) hidden in the Caves Painctes (Painted Caves) of the town of Chinon.

The Chinon wine was first mentioned in the 11th century in St. Maximus' hagiography, which relates the journey of a Chinon winegrower shipping his barrels to Nantes via river Loire. Highly prized by the kings of France and England who stayed in Chinon, the local wines gained international fame in the Renaissance, when Dutch merchants established counters in Nantes to trade French products with North Europe. They gained a de facto monopoly on the shipping of Chinon wine to Britain and the Low Countries, and significantly contributed to the agronomic improvement of the vineyards. At the time, the best Chinon wines were white wines, easier to vinify and transport, most probably already made with Chenin grapes.
Rabelais often mentions white wine, without quoting the name of the grapes, but his most famous quote is related to red wine, "Listen to this good Breton wine, which does not grow in Brittany but in this good Véron country" (Gargantua, XII). The "Breton" grapes are indeed the most famous Cabernet Franc, now the main grapes grown in the Loire valley. Some say that in the 11th century, most Loire boatmen were Bretons, who shipped Cabernet Franc grapevines from Aquitaine to Touraine and brought back local wine, known as the Breton's wine. The grape's nickname has also been associated with the Le Breton family, which is credited massive planting of Cabernet Franc grapevines in the 16th-17th centuries, or with priest Breton, who imported thousands Cabernet Franc grapevines from Bordeaux on behalf of Cardinal de Richalieu in the 18th century; notarial deeds list "priest Berton's plants", which might have became "Breton plants".
The Chinon AOP (official website), established in 1937, groups 170 winegrowers scattered on 26 municipalities (2,400 ha), producing red (84%), rosé (12%) and white (3%) wines. Overall production is 100,000 hl / 13 million bottles per year.

Ivan Sache, 24 July 2022

Flag of Chinon

The flag of Chinon (photo, photo, photo, photo) is white with the graphic element of the municipal logo. The representation of the fortress has little to do with the imposing remains overlooking the town.

Olivier Touzeau, 25 March 2019