The Avignon bridge in Provence is known around the world today because of the famous children’s song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Bridge of Avignon). In medieval times, it was also a well-known bridge, but not because of this song – and it wasn’t known for being danced upon either.
Pont d’Avignon – a miracle of construction
First of all, the bridge was renowned as a marvel of construction. Twenty-two arches spanning 915 meters / 3,000 feet made quite an impression on the medieval observer. Secondly, it was associated with a miracle. A young shepherd called Bénezet heard the voice of God telling him to build a bridge across the Rhone. Then to prove that it was God, he picked up a huge boulder – so heavy that thirty strong men couldn’t move it. It was declared a miracle and the devout started making pilgrimages to see the bridge. Its fame spread far and wide – throughout France and beyond.
People started singing about this miraculous landmark as far back as the fifteenth century, when it was referred to in “pillow songs,” songs sung to newlyweds at midnight as they were served soup in their bedroom. It’s a mystery to me why people would go into the newlywed’s bedroom and sing about a bridge (or anything else for that matter) but I guess those were different times.
Today, Sur le Pont d’Avignon is a children’s song about dancing sur (on) the bridge of Avignon, but did people ever really dance on the bridge, or did they actually sing on the bridge and dance under it?
Walking and singing on the Pont d’Avignon – but no dancing
One of the first known printed versions of a song using the phrase “sur le pont d’Avignon” comes from Venice in 1503. But this song talks about one’s beloved walking across the bridge – not dancing on it. Then in 1575 another manuscript uses the phrase “sur le pont d’Avignon” but it talks about singing on the bridge. The phrase shows up in other songs from 1602, 1613, and 1711, and in all of them, people are still singing on the bridge – no dancing to be found.
So it seems that up until the late 1600s, when the bridge was washed away, people only walked across, and sang upon, the Avignon bridge. It’s highly unlikely that it was ever a place for dancing. The “dancing on the bridge” form of the song that we know today, seems to have been sung only after the original bridge had been washed away, and it’s probably more of a romantic idea than actual fact.
The Pont d’Avignon was not a wide bridge. At only 2.5 meters / 8 feet wide, there wouldn’t have been enough room to dance around in a big circle like the chorus of this song suggests: they all danced “tous en rond.” In addition, the bridge would have been a dangerous place to hold a dance. It was known for being very slick, and accidents involving horses, wagons, and people slipping off the bridge into the water were not uncommon. Add the strong mistral wind that blows right down the Rhone River into the mix, and we can imagine that even if people had started out dancing sur le pont (on the bridge), they probably would have ended up sous le pont (under the bridge) anyway.
Dancing UNDER the Pont d’Avignon
Starting the dance under the bridge would have been a much wiser decision. You might wonder how people could have done that, since normally, dancing under a bridge means dancing in the water – but not in this case. The remnant of the bridge that we see today in Avignon has only four of the original twenty-two arches remaining. In the middle ages, however, the bridge spanned the entire river and crossed a large island in the middle. On this island, under the bridge, there were restaurants and places of entertainment where dances were held. So, it was probably there that people danced sous (under) le pont d’Avignon and not sur (on) it.
The current version of the song, which talks about dancing on the bridge seems to have come from an 18th century operetta set in Avignon and called “Le Sourd ou l’Auberge Pleine,” (The Deaf Man or the Full Inn). This musical was reworked several times throughout the years and spread the song’s fame worldwide. Then in 1843 the song was published, in a form very close to the one we know today, in a book of songs and dances for children.
So, it looks like during the middle ages, people only walked across the Pont d’Avignon and occasionally sang on it. But they probably never danced on the bridge for fear of slipping and falling into the water or being blown off by the mistral wind.
Most of the original bridge was long gone by the time people started to sing about dancing on it… but still, it does make a lovely song and dance for children.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and write. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”. Margo blogs at curiousrambler.com and is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions.