Frederic Mistral postage stampYou won't go far in Provence before coming across the name of Frédéric Mistral, a Nobel Prize winning poet who wrote in the provençal language. Most towns have a street, school or square named after him. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

Yet Mistral's work won't be familiar today to many readers outside France. And his rather flowery writing might seem dated, above all in translation (though those who can read it in the original provençal testify to its beauty).

But in some respects Mistral was way ahead of his time. He predicted the threat posed by modernisation and globalisation to local diversity, identity, language and tradition. And he spent his life fighting against it.

It's pure coincidence, by the way, that he bears the name of one of the region's other distinctive features, the fierce north-west wind.

He was born Joseph Étienne Frédéric Mistral in 1830 into a well-to-do farming family in Maillane, a village just to the north-west of Saint Rémy de Provence, where he also died in 1914. His house in Maillane has been preserved in its original state as a memorial, the Museon Frederi Mistral (Frederi is the provençal spelling of his name). Website for the Museon Frederi Mistral

Frederic Mistral painted by Félix-Auguste Clément Mistral didn't spend his entire life in Maillane, though. He went to school in Avignon and Nîmes, then studied law in Aix en Provence. It was during these studies that Mistral got interested in the history of Provence, once an independent state.

He was surely inspired by Good King René (1409-1480), a cultured and popular ruler who made Aix - and Provence - famed throughout Europe as a centre of learning and art.

At the same time Mistral became fascinated with the mediaeval troubadour tradition and made it his mission to revive it.

In 1854, together with six other provençal writers, he founded a literary and cultural association which the group called Lou Felibrige (Le Félibrige).

The aim was to defend regional pride and dying languages and its symbol was - and is - a seven-pointed star.

Catalan poets from Spain were also welcomed, notably Victor Balaguer, who lived for a while in exile in Provence. In gratitude the Catalans offered the Félibrige a silver goblet called the Coupo Santo, or Holy Cup.

At the association's annual banquet in May, the Santo-Estello, a ritual toast is drunk from the Coupo Santo to celebrate this friendship. The Félibrige movement remains active to this day.

And the poem composed by Mistral in honour of the Coupo Santo is widely sung in Provence - not only at Félibrige functions but at popular events such as matches of the Toulon Rugby Club, which has this as one of its anthems.

Mistral's impact has been enormous. For instance, the pastorale, a 19th century nativity play in provençal, is still very widely performed to this day in the region.

Mistral didn't write this play (the most popular version is attributed to Antoine Maurel) but it's likely that it would have struggled to survive without him.

He was instrumental in persuading the women of Arles to revive and celebrate that region's elegant and beautiful folk costume, a tradition that remains vibrant today. And the mysterious cult of the noisy cicada, or cigale, the emblematic insect of Provence, is largely thanks to him.

Portrayed above in 1885 by Félix-Auguste Clément, Mistral cut a dramatic figure with his long goatee beard and broad-brimmed hat (one writer has likened him to Buffalo Bill!) He achieved fame early with an epic poem Mirèio (Mireille), published in 1859 when Mistral was in his late twenties.

A major literary work which took eight years to write, it's a tragic, star-crossed romance between a young woman from a rich family and a poor basket-maker.

Mirèio has been translated into numerous languages, including English. Buy Mireio here. In 1863, Charles Gounod made it into an opera, Mireille, written and set partly in the Valley of Hell near Les Baux de Provence.

In 1867 Mistral wrote another of his best-known works, Calendau (Calendal in French), the story of an anchovy fisherman who becomes a legendary hero and performs amazing feats in his quest all over Provence to marry a fairy named Esterello.

Part of Calendal's journey took him to the Gorges de la Nesque, which Mistral himself also explored. A little memorial to him has been erected there.

cassis calendalYou can see a modern statue of Calendal, pictured, in Cassis, where the poem is set. Mistral famously said of this pretty coastal resort, "Qu'a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire, 'n'ai rèn vist'." ("He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, 'I haven't seen anything'.")

Lesser-known works by Mistral include Nerto (1884), a novella set during the Avignon Papacy, and Lou Pouemo dou Rose (1897), a love story unfolding on the Rhône River.

He also wrote Moun espelido, Memòri e Raconte, his own memoirs, which are less an autobiography than a genial anecdotal account of growing up in rural Provence. It too is available in English. Buy the Memoirs of Mistralimage! here.

Mistral compiled the languages and dialects of Southern France into a huge two-volume Provençal-French dictionary, Lou Tresor dóu Felibrige (The Treasure of Félibrige), published in 1886.

And in 1899 he founded an ethnographic museum, the Museon Arlaten in Arles, which exhibits artefacts from everyday provençal life, including furniture, costumes, ceramics, tools and farming implements. Website for the Museon Arlaten

There are now many such museums all over Provence, such as the one at Château Gombert in Marseille or the Palais du Roure in Avignon, but this was among the first of its kind, not only in the region but in the whole of France.

One of the very few writers to receive the accolade for a minority language, Mistral was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904 jointly with Spain's José Echegaray.

The committee's official prize motivation stated that Mistral was chosen "in recognition of the fresh originality and true inspiration of his poetic production, which faithfully reflects the natural scenery and native spirit of his people, and, in addition, his significant work as a provençal philologist". He donated his prize money to the Museon Arlaten.


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