Sur le Pont d’Avignon
The Avignon bridge 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.
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 Begin to Sing
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 – 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.
Dancing Could be Hazardous to Your Health
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 Bridge
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.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon – The Children’s Song
Sur le pont d’Avignon,
On y danse, on y danse,
Sur le pont d’Avignon,
On y danse, tout en rond.
On the bridge of Avignon
There we dance, there we dance
On the bridge of Avignon
There we dance, all in a circle.
Les beaux messieurs font comme ça,
Et puis encore comme ça.
The handsome gentlemen go like this,
(accompanied by a bow or other action)
And then again, like this.
Les belles dames font comme ça,
Et puis encore comme ça.
The beautiful ladies go like this,
(accompanied by a curtsy or other action)
And then again, like this.
Different occupations (cobblers, laundresses, gardeners, seamstresses…) or groups of people (young boys, young girls…) all have their verses to dance to. It’s a never-ending song, as you can always add another occupation or another group of people to “fait comme ça” and keep the song going.
You can learn even more about the Avignon Bridge and the rest of Provence in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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Images 1-4 in public domain.
Video image : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJKfxtYAt0s
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I am glad that someone has at last explained this song to me – thank you! Though I agree with you that the notion of people sinnging about a bridge in the bedroom of newlyweds does seem a little peculiar…
Thanks Emily, I was just in Avignon and visited the bridge – or what is left of it. It’s a lovely relic, but certainly not made for dancing – it was so windy, we almost got blown off ourselves!
Such a catchy tune. Have not heard it in years, but your post will ensure it echoes around my brain all day! Thanks for sharing the story of this famous bridge.
Thanks. Actually, you reminded me that I had intended to add a Youtube video of the song – so I’ve gone back and done that now. That will ensure that the tune is in everybody else’s head who reads it now. 🙂
Thanks for clearing up that issue! That little ditty was my first exposure to the French language, along with Frère Jacques in Grade One. I had also read about the “sous le pont” explanation which referenced supposedly raucous parties on that island. I’m glad you didn’t get blown off during your visit, Margo!
Thanks, Patricia, I’m glad I didn’t get blown off either! That little song has been in my head ever since I wrote about it… Such a catchy tune…
Hello! Was just in Avignon a few months ago and le pont is certainly the capturer of imaginations! It is no wonder that songs, stories and child’s play centers around this spot. Avignon is really something, no? Thanks for sharing this story and educating me on this history!
I’m sure you had a great time in Avignon – it’s really a wonderful city. I was there just before the holidays. The bridge is a beautiful relic of the past and, for some reason, it just seems to make us want to sing. 🙂
I love these old songs and their origins, and I love the historical continuity in how we still sing these songs hundreds of years later. However, I don’t actually know this one! But I’m sure I would if I heard the tune (there are no bloody speakers on my work computer right now…) #AllAboutFrance
It’s true that songs and saying get passed down through the ages and sometimes the meaning gets lost. I was thinking of this on New Year’s Eve when someone said we should sing Auld Land Syne – everyone knew the song, but no one knew exactly what “Auld Lang Syne” meant.
Warning: if you listen to “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” the tune may stay in your head for days… 🙂
The boys’ pre-school teacher was french & she taught them this song, before they even went to school, let alone visited the town! The tune is a bit of an ear-worm, but it is also very jolly & it’s nice to learn some of the history behind it too. #AllAboutFrance
It is a great song for children – easy to remember and act out. It seems that most adults that study French as a foreign language learn it too. It’s suitable for all ages! 🙂
A definite classic…and even though no one ever officially danced on the Pont d’Avignon, I made it a point to do just that not long ago! The pics aren’t appearing for me, not sure if it is my connection or another issue?
I know that dancing is now the thing to do on the bridge. I hope you preserved the moment for posterity on video. 🙂
Thanks for letting me know about the pictures not displaying. I haven’t heard this from anyone else, but let me know if you continue to have problems (not that I would have any idea what to do about it).
Oh Margo! This is stuck in my head now.I learnt the song from my fabulous aunt, also called Margot! We visited Avignon together on an epic French road trip and she taught me the song. Thanks for the memories #allaboutfrance
You’ll probably be singing it for days! 🙂
How nice that it brought back good memories. Glad you enjoyed it.
Yup, I’ve got it going round in my head and probably will for the rest of the day, thanks Margo!!! It’s very interesting to find out the origins of this classic song, now as for the matter of singing to newly weds…..can you believe I have done that, but I’m quite sure we didn’t sing about a bridge! About 20 years ago a couple of friends got married in a hotel in Vietnam and we, the wedding party, took over the whole hotel. There were probably about 50 people staying there and late at night some time after the couple had gone to bed it seemed like a great idea for the rest of us to surprise them in their room with yet more champagne and we ended up serenading them! I’m sure they were delighted! Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance
Oh my goodness, Phoebe! You are quite the trouble-maker! When I read about singing in the newlywed’s bedchamber, I thought – “how terribly medieval!” But apparently it’s not… 🙂
Really interesting (as always!). I’ve been humming the tune whilst reading the article from start to finish 😉 I’ve never visited the Pont d’Avignon and didn’t realise that it was so narrow! #AllAboutFrance
Thanks, Daisythebus! So glad you liked it. Good luck getting that tune out of your head now. 🙂