This is an excerpt from 101 Damnations by Ned Boulting.
La Planche des Belles Filles! The (Wooden) Board of the Beautiful Girls! Bonkers. This is not a place name. This is like Ashby-de-la-Zouch; it is in fact a loose and ill-fitting assembly of oddly matched words flung together and stuck on the wrong road sign in the wrong place. Now, happily, with the Tour de France returning once again (2012 was its debut on the race) I have been handed a second chance to get my head round this rather puzzling place name.
It got its name in 1635, some say, during the Thirty Years War, when pretty much all of Central Europe was being overrun by a Swedish Army intent on expressing its principled opposition to the doctrines of Catholicism by beheading children, disemboweling, raping or raping and then disemboweling their parents.
So 1635 it is then. Or, if we simply can’t really be bothered to give the illusion of historical veracity to this legend, then we could go with the official tourist board, who date the story as ‘Il y a bien longtemps…’, or ‘A long, long time ago…’
So now that we know it’s almost certainly utter nonsense, we can sit back and enjoy it in the knowledge that it never really happened.
This has always been my problem with all that pseudo-documented Arthurian stuff, or most of the stories involving Boadicea (including the wholly unnecessary late twentieth century revision of her name’s pronunciation), or anything involving Dick Turpin. It’s all a load of hokum dressed up as something historical. I would much prefer to read about burning bushes, resurrection and transubstantiation all of which fall into the category of “a little improbable” than to be force fed, as evidenced fact, the nineteenth century inventions of hired fantasists and professional yarn-spinners looking to rebrand their local town.
So, anyway, here is it: The Legend of the (Wooden) Board Of The Beautiful Girls (In As Much As It Relates To Stage Ten Of The 2014 Tour De France).
One day (probably around about then…) the inhabitants of Plancher-les-Mines, going about their dutiful, if slightly miserable, Alsatian business of mining gold and lead from deep subterranean caverns, were in for a rude awakening. They got wind, probably literally given seventeenth century hygiene standards, of a marauding Swedish army, just a day’s march away from their pretty, and distinctly non-militant mining community.
Now it just so happened that a local farmer had a breathtakingly beautiful daughter. This kind of thing often happened to farmers, so no one was very surprised. In fact, the villagers rather routinely, and with a distinct lack of imagination, ascribed to Ines, the “appearance of a queen” and the “virtues of a saint”. So far, so good. The problem was that the Swedes were doing a lot of rape and murder, and the more saintly the victim, the more “Grrrr!” they got about the whole thing, and then things never ended well.
There was only one thing for it. Ines (for that was the lady’s name) gathered up all the other maidens of the village, even though not one of them was really a match for the stunning Ines, who really was remarkable in her virtue and beauty. The rest were fine, you know, but no more than that. Together, and dressed in their most precious Festival Day white robes (you can probably see what’s coming) they made their way, chanting choral incantations, to a secret lake high up on the hillside. This spot, which on the day of Stage Ten of the 2014 Tour de France was respectfully marked by a line of makeshift urinals and chemical toilets erected by the commune, was a place of perfect seclusion. There was no way that the Swedes would find them there.
Oh yes they would! The girls, combing each others’ hair, singing gentle lamentations and pressing flowers all the while, listened in increasing horror to the shrieks and cries of their at-that-very-moment-being-horribly-murdered brethren echoing up from the valley, as the Swedes vented their awful bloodlust (this was, you see, a long time before Volvo, with its concern for health and safety, came to define the spirit of the Swede). They were drawing ever closer. But nothing, legend has it, stopped the girls from continuing their crochet work. And nor should it have done. Brave girls.
Suddenly, in a parting in the woods there appeared a Swedish officer, astride a mighty white steed (nowhere in the accounts of this legend does it actually say this, but I don’t think we’ll find anyone who would object to this slight embroidery on my part. At least no one from the local tourist board.)
Run, Ines, run, you might think. Make for the safety of the woods! Flee, and take your dear, petrified, singing sisters with you!
Except, head-in-the-clouds Ines doesn’t do that at all. Instead, and not especially usefully, she falls in love. Instantly. There and then. And do you know what the noble Swede (possibly astride a mighty white steed) does? Exactly the same thing as Ines. Let’s go back to the historical source:
“Le Suédois contemplait la jeune fille, muet d’émerveillement. Dans un regard, l’espace d’un instant, ils s’aimèrent vraiment.” – “The Swede contemplated the young girl, struck dumb in wonder. With one look, in that instant, they fell truly in love.”
So how will this end? Will he spare her, marry her, and call a truce to all this frightful bloodshed? Will the Thirty Years’ War be prematurely ended after only seventeen years, saving millions of innocent lives?
No. The other Swedes attack the girls, who run into the lake and drown. The main Swedish chap tries feebly to stop them, lifts Ines out of the water, lays her out on a mossy bank, tries a bit of fruitless CPR, and then gives up. Before moving onto the next massacre, he inscribes an Epitaph to her onto a (Wooden) Board, and that’s your lot.
Les Belles Filles is not Les Belles Filles at all, but Les Belles “Fahys”, which means beech tree in an old Alsatian dialect.