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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

Cluny, Emile Sagot (1805-1888),Cluny XVI siecle, httppasserelles.bnf.fr

Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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Apse and northern facade (Felix Benoist, 1861, lithograph)

Saint Denis was a third century Roman Christian who was sent to Roman Gaul by Pope Fabian. Denis was the first bishop of Paris, but when relations between pagans and Christians soured in the era of the Decian persecutions, he was martyred by decapitation upon Montmartre, the highest hill of Paris. According to tradition, after he was beheaded, Denis picked up his head and carried it 10 kilometers (6 miles) north while delivering a stirring ceremony. When the decapitated saint found the right spot (in what are now the suburbs of Paris—but what was then a Gallo-Roman cemetery) he put down his head and expired. In the late 5th century, St. Genevieve purchased this land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In the early 7th century, Dagobert, the king of the Franks chose this site as the location of a great Benedictine monastery the Abbey of Saint Denis. The site became a major center for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (and the monastery grew even more rich due to a lucrative whaling concession, from the crown), but as the centuries wore on, the Carolingian church started to wear out (and the original sacred complex was not big enough to contain the throngs of worshipers).

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West façade of Saint Denis, before the dismantling of the north tower (c. 1844 – 1845)

Thus, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger, a close friend of the kings of France, began to rebuild the church in a grand new style involving pointed arches, flying buttresses, large windows, high towers, and great interior spaces. This style—an abrupt departure from the Romanesque style, which had dominated architecture–was initially known as the French style. As the political fortunes of the Angevin dynasty waxed, the style spread throughout France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily. The style quickly was renamed Gothic style and it became the dominant architecture of Europe in the late middle ages (and beyond). The Basilica of Saint Denis, the resting place of deceased French kings (did I mention that all but three French kings are buried there? I probably should have said that) was the first great Gothic building–the first high cathedral.

800px-St_denis_naveThe nave of the Basilica of St. Denis. Shot from the chancel.

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 The Choir of the Basilica of Saint Denis
 

 
 

 

It has been a while since I have done a post concerning all things gothic.  To this end, I was researching images of the magnificent ruined Melrose Abbey in Scotland when I stumbled across the following picture of a gargoyle from Melrose’s ruined walls.

A gargoyle/sculpture on Melrose Abbey

An older photo of the same sculpture

It’s a pig playing a bagpipe!  And it isn’t alone.  Apparently this was a very popular image in the medieval Celtic world.  Pigs with bagpipes show up again and again in carvings and illuminations from Ireland, Scotland, and North England–and nobody is sure why.

Another carving of a pig piper from an ancient misericord in the cathedral city of Ripon in Yorkshire

In an article concerning the history of the bagpipe, distinguished Scottish historian (and piper), Hugh Cheape, speculates about the reason:

Strong visual imagery is a consistent and important element in medieval art and sculpture, and the bagpipe is found being symbolically played by pigs and angels. There are intriguingly different ways of explaining the pig pipers of the medieval period. On the one hand, by giving the bagpipe to a pig, it emphatically lowers the status of the instrument but associates it with the animal which could provide an airtight reservoir for the pipe bag. On the other hand it was said that pigs were lovers of music and were often shown in art as musicians, especially in ‘Bestiaries’ which were a popular type of book in the medieval period describing animals in a sort of ‘natural history’ but placing them in an ‘unnatural history’ of allegorical narrative.

How delightful!  I am a big fan of pigs and I probably ought to write about the bagpipe, that strange shrieking instrument, which is believed to have an ancient history dipped in war and magic.

Oh, and I should not neglect my original purpose of showing Melrose Abbey, the epitome of Gothic architecture in Scotland.  Constructed in 1136 by Cistercian brothers, Melrose Abbey replaced an ancient monastery to Saint Aiden which had been founded in the 7th century. The new Melrose Abbey was burned by Richard II in 1385 but rebuilt. In 1544, English armies again burned the rebuilt Abbey as part of their effort to coerce the Mary, Queen of Scots to marry the child son of Henry VIII.  After this the Abbey was not rebuilt, but its beautiful ruins are a major tourist destination in their own right.

The ruins of Melrose Abbey

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