Character Study: The Christ of the Corbières

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March 31, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith

Recently, I’ve been spending time with old friends. Not actual friends, mind you, most of them I’ve never met. These errant friends are the leaders of the movements I’ve written about from the Languedoc-Roussillon throughout the 1960s and onwards. At the moment, I’m revising a manuscript for Manchester University Press, and re-engaging in a big way with the topic of my thesis – the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole (or CRAV, for short). This group, formed in the early 1960s, was the militant wing of the winegrowers’ trade union movement. They had a fairly episodic existence and a decentralised structure, so that there were specific committees in each department (Aude, Hérault, Gard, etc), and sometimes in individual villages. Action and direction could be diverse, though it was always motivated by shared interests and concerns, often voiced by prominent figures that straddled these diffuse structures.

This was the ‘Porte Parole’ model, in which articulate and charismatic leaders emerged to champion their interests. One of the first, and certainly amongst the most memorable, was Andre Castéra. This small-holding winegrower from the Aude was a towering figure of viticultural representation. National newspapers called him ‘Castéra the Terrible’, and another big leader called him ‘The Christ of the Corbières’. He had a lined face, a gravelly voice and the fiery passion of a tribune.

He seemed to be a serious, forbidding figure, and I’ve always thought many of the photos I’ve seen of him bear a passing resemblance to Samuel Beckett (which did no harm in endearing him to me). I’m reminded of an excellent conference I attended at the University of Roehampton – ‘Life as a Lens’, organised by Charlotte Riley and Stefan Visnjevac – that considered & discussed individuals as the focus of written history (Will Pooley spoke well on the day, he also blogged about it HERE. Adam Smith gave the plenary, and he mentioned it in a post HERE). One of the big themes running through the day was personal involvement with the subjects. Part of this involved the question of whether to call people by their first name. Now, I’ve never gone that far (and many of the figures I study seem like they went by their surname with colleagues and friends), but I will admit a little more than scholarly respect for some of these men. None more so, perhaps, than Castéra.

castera crowd

He was described by another prominent CRAViste (about whom I may write another time) as the ‘Professor’ of the movement. His commitment to regional heritage, to political representation, and to his own principles was admirable. He laid flowers at the monuments to the Grand Revolt of 1907 both physically and symbolically. As the head of the winegrower’s movement, he unified the region and pushed it towards its most articulate moments.

One of his most mediatised moments came when he grabbed a CRS officer at a protest and kissed him in the face. This amazing moment seemed to subvert the power relationships, unsettle the police and create a sense of Carnival-esque upheaval in the protest.

castera kissing policeman

His words never encouraged violent protest, nor the ‘commando actions’ that made the CRAV famous. But neither did they counsel cool heads and compliance. Castéra drew on a history of hardship and spoke as a reluctant leader, called into service by wrongs that challenged his way of life and the entire profession that the region relied on economically. Speaking to young people of the region, he implored them not to abandon their fathers, but to stay and work the vines as their grandfathers had. Accordingly, in 1967, five thousand marched behind a banner that said: “Vaincre ou mourir avec Castéra”, To conquer or to die alongside Castéra.

Castéra stood for election in 1968, trying to kick out some of the Socialists that he felt had become complacent in their appeal, and trying to put winegrowers back at the forefront of regional politics. Ultimately, he was defeated. Traditional loyalties overwrote this political mission, however, and he failed to oust the incumbent. CRAV sources from the time describe winegrowers in tears as they were torn between loyalty to the party their grandfathers had voted for and the tribune to whom they had declared their loyalty. After this moment, he tried to step back, only to be drawn time and again to endorse protests, marches and campaigns that needed his validation.

I recently found a documentary on Ina.Fr that was shot in 1977 called ‘Raisins et Passions’. It focussed on a number of winegrowers up and down the country, choosing to talk to Castéra from the Aude. When watching this, however, I burst out laughing. The documentary maker called out, “Eh, Castéra!”, and he popped up out of a field of vines he’d been working and bounded over with a big grin on his face to say “Saluta!”. Suddenly this serious, forbidding figure was grinning and laughing, bounding towards camera amidst the vines that he defended so staunchly. The softening of his image was as endearing as it was shocking for me. It’s worth mentioning that I put this image on Twitter and said “someone shouts his name & he pops up out of a field of vines”. Ever quick with a droll response, Dave Andress (@ProfDaveAndress) retorted: “Wot, anywhere? Like Candyman in a cardy?” Amazing.

castera

But this gives us an insight into an odd historical moment when we look at personalities. I know I’m lucky to be able to see footage of some of the people I study – it’s the blessing of the contemporary historian. But how many of us who study individuals through the eyes of others truly see them as they were. Castéra went from a Beckett-like “Christ of the Corbières” to the “Candyman in a cardy” in the space of a single image. Infusing the serious and the political with small, everyday joys yields a humanity often lacking in historical analysis. Our omniscience in analysis can tend to create a certain arrogance. This arrogance needs challenged by the memory that our subjects had choices, and had concerns. The contingency of each moment shows us that choices were not always political, not always rational, nor always taken with the clear-sighted eye of the historian. Our subjects had moments when they whipped up crowds of protesters against towering injustices and they had moments when they popped up with a grin on their face and a spring in their step. Studying individuals can be a fantastic insight into the rich context of historical moments, as long as we remember that they are much, much more than simply the sketched out characters in the narratives we weave.

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One thought on “Character Study: The Christ of the Corbières

  1. […] Here’s a picture of the Montredon rugby team from 1943. This is a great photo of these young guys, though there’s one of them in particular that is of real interest to me. The youthful figure I’ve highlighted is Andre Castera, the Napoleon of the vines, the Christ of the Corbieres, Candyman in a Cardy… etc etc (see THIS POST) […]

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