BESSON; WHAT’S IN A NAME?
A paper by Gerard Besson HBM
THE SITE CANNOT REPRODUCE PICTURES IN THE POSTING OF THIS EMAIL. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE IMAGE OF THE VETTIUS TWINS IN POMPEII AND THE COATS OF ARMS OF THE BESSON TWINS, AND THE STONE FACES IN THE CHURCH IN BESSON, SEND ME AN EMAIL AND I'LL FORWARD TO YOU.
Lucius Bettius and the House of the Vettii at Pompeii is an interesting starting point for an enquiry into the origins of the name Besson. The name Besson, as we have discovered, is of Gallo-Roman origin. For the benefit of those named Besson, I, Gerard Besson, will cobble together an outline that will go along these lines:
The House of the Vettii is a popular tourist attraction amongst those who go in search of Italy’s antiquities. It is to be found among the unearthed ruins of the city of Pompeii and is famous for its risqué frescoes of happy fornication. Priapus presides, his influence enormous. The villa, which dates from the mid-first century A.D. belonged to the brothers Vettius or Bettius, whose rings were discovered on the site. These were decorated with, as you might well have guessed by now, phalluses—or is it phalli?
It would appear that they were wine merchants and dedicated to the god Bacchus. In the very heart of their villa, we find, however, their household gods, their lares, the shrine dedicated to the founders, perhaps, of this interesting group of people. Wealthy merchants, wine growers, vintners from Picenium in north-eastern Italy, perhaps, who during the social engineering of Gaius Gracchus, tribune of Rome, in about 122 B.C., were elevated to the ranks of the nobility and made equites or knights of the empire.
As wealthy freemen, now a part of the ruling class, they were to figure in the affairs of Rome. The lares or household gods are of interest, for they show two apparently identical dancing youths with ram-headed cups raised in celebration of an obviously excellent vintage, with the genius of the family, the pater familias, togaed and austere in the foreground.
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Lararia are shrines to the gods of the household, and are found in different shapes and forms in many Pompeian houses, ranging from simple wall-paintings to large and elaborate shrines.
Here, the lararium imitates the form of a temple. Columns support a pediment, and frame a central painting. Two dancing lares (guardians of the family, who protect the household from external threats) hold raised drinking horns. They are positioned on either side of the genius (who represents the spirit of the male head of the household), who is dressed in a toga and making a sacrifice.
Beneath them all is a serpent. Snakes are often depicted in lararia, and were considered guardian spirits of the family.
These twin figures dancing in the porch way of the temple, with cups held high, are reminiscent of the twin figures to be seen on many of the heraldic devices of those who bear the name Besson. In fact, the name Besson means twin in some dialects of the French provinces.
What is also of interest is the early 11th century church in the village of Besson in the Auvergne. Tucked away in this little village church that was built in 1009 are the founders of the village. As local legend goes, these two brothers, twins, founded Besson village, perhaps in Roman times. Their names are remembered to have been Bettius or Vettius, perhaps Roman administrators sent to Gaul.
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Early Besson arms showing “the twins” of Besson from an Armorial at the
The stone faces in the Church at Besson village are meant to be “the founders”
Local legend maintains that there were once two churches and two chateau.
We read in Plutarch’s “Lives” and in the works of Cassius Dio that Lucius Vettius, knight and soldier, kept close company with the first men in Rome around 89 B.C. the tribune Pompei Strabo was his patron during the ascendancy of Strabo at the time of the social wars, and he was at the siege of Asculum in 89 B.C. He served in the legions with Catalina, Marcus Tullius, Cicero and Pompei, and he was a favourite of Sulla during his ascension to power.
Considerable controversy surrounds the actions of Lucius Vettius or Bettius, B and V being interchangeable in Latin. It would appear that his involvement in one of the many plots to murder Julius Cesar landed him in jail, where he died mysteriously in 59 B.C.
One of the privileges enjoyed by the knightly class that was brought into being by Gracchus when he drew from wealthy families fresh blood to invigorate the Roman senate, was the granting of a position, a commission in fact, in the armies of Rome as knights, the cavalry attached to the legions. Of greater significance certainly to our story was the position and responsibilities of the magistracy with the power to form juries and preside over the actions of provincial governors. The little village of Besson, with its antique stone carvings of the founding brothers, reminiscent of the lares of the Vettii seen at Pompeii, makes one think of a Roman magistrate of that name, sent out to Gaul, coming from a family of wine growers. He, they, might have introduced the vine to these parts, in truth an excellent wine comes from that region. Their villa may have over the years become a village, and as the Roman legions departed, their name was said to have changed from Vettius to Bettius to Bessonius to Behenson, Bessonio to Besson.
It is perhaps not surprising to find recorded in the book “Gallia Regia” of the 12th century that Johan Besson was a judge in the city of Limoges in 1175. Learning, reading, writing and arithmetic was very rare in the Dark Ages, and was not found especially among the ranks of the Frankish aristocracy that took over the Gallo-Roman world from the 6th century onwards. Historians appear to agree that education survived among some Gallo-Roman families, but was mostly the province of the church. We find in the “General description du Bourbonnais” by Nicholas the Nicolay, written in the 16th century, a description of the town of Besson and in the “Armorial du Bourbonnais” that the de Bessons are the seignorets de Besson de Vernuillet, chateleains de Souvigny, de Billy, de Murat in the 14th century. Henri of Besson de Vernuillet of the parish of Souvigny in 1302. Vernuillet, the priory de Vernuillet, formed a part of the fortress complex of Bourbon-l’Archambault, the principal seat of the royal house of Bourbon. The nearby city of Souvigny was a significant administrative centre during the middle ages, and the cathedral, the necropolis of the Bourbon dukes. The bastides of Billy and Murat were large castles that formed a defensive screen around the heartland of the Bourbonnais. Patents of nobility were granted to the family Besson and their legitimate descendants in 1379 and in 1385. This was an already well known extended family; the notion of “known” being the basis of the term “nobility”, and as such was an obvious choice.
In medieval terms, the family of Besson could be described as the nobility of the race, being known from the Gallo-Roman period, before circa 600 A.D., and as nobility of the epée, because we find individuals such as Oliver de Besson, ecuyer, commander of a company of knights in the service of the Connêtable of France, Olivier de Glisson, in 1388, and may be described as well as the nobility of the robe: magistrates, judges, servants of the law, from the mid-12th century.
Pierre de Besson, lieutenant du receveur royal in Poitou in 1338, this from the “Gallia Regia”, would be of interest to this discussion. A cursory glance at the records at Moulin, Souvigny and Dijon finds individuals of the family from medieval times onwards, acting in positions of trust and administration of the law.
There is, however, another strain that emerges in the annals of the Bessons over the centuries, and that is of learning, and of a preoccupation with publishing books. We find, for example, Jacob Besson described as a famous mathematician and philosopher from Dauphiné, and a professor at the university at Orléans, an inventor around 1569. He is referred to by J.H. Zodler at Leipzig-Halle in 1733. Jacob Besson published 22 books on engineering, mathematics and astronomy.
There are as well two learned Jesuits, Io Besson, born 1585, and Joseph Besson, born circa 1630, and several others in every century for more than 500 years, publishing more than 500 titles which include books on art, religion, history and science.
To return to Pierre de Besson, who left the village of Besson and the parish of Souvigny for Poitou in 1338, he is of interest to us, as he may be the originator of our own branch of the family, who would eventually find their way to the western world, Canada, North America and the Caribbean. It is not surprising to find Bessons practicing law in the ancient city of Pons, and living in the nearby hamlet of Tanzac, a small village, where in 1604 Denis Besson is born. His great-grandson, Pierre, is the royal notary at Pons, whose second son, Eli François Besson de Beaumanoir, goes first to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, and then to Grenada. From the 1750s to his death in the island of Trinidad in 1819, he would fill many legal and administrative roles, including that of ordinateur, a judge or attorney-general, in the island of Grenada, be a sugar planter and exporter, and be the founder of the Branche Américaine in the Caribbean. The alliances made through marriage from the early 17th century are the families also involved in the practice of the law. These include the Isnard, Thibaudau and la Prade families.
Eli François Besson de Beaumanoir would bring his family to Trinidad in 1788. They would become cane farmers in the south of the island and prosper there for a while. They leave many descendants.
In closing, the Besson family all over the world should look forward the 1000th anniversary of the church in Besson in the year 2009. Best wishes to you all