You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘French’ tag.

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The medieval architecture of France includes many of the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture. Thus you are probably asking  yourself, “Were the French a part of the Gothic revival architecture movement of the 19th century?”

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The answer is Oui! Boy were they ever! This is the Chapelle royale de Dreux, the burial place of important members of the House of Bourbon-Orléans (the royal family of France after the revolution).  Its story is interesting.  During the French Revolution, an enraged mob burst desecrated the family chapel of the Duke of Orléans and threw all of the corpses which had been therein interred into a common mass grave at the the Chanoines cemetery of the Collégiale Saint Étienne.  After the revolution was over, the Duke’s daughter arranged for a grand chapel to be built over this new burial site.  Later on, when her son Louis Philippe became King of France, he added substantially to the grand new building which was built to mimic the great ancient structures lost to the revolution.  As a bonus, Alexandre Brogniart, the director of manufacturing for Sèvres porcelain, used his resources to produce huge fired enamel paintings on large panes of glass to go in the chapel.

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This year’s Halloween theme (both in Ferrebeekeeper and our benighted democracy) is “Evil Clowns”.  Clowns date back to dynastic Egypt and they have always been liminal figures who have straddled lines between wisdom and foolishness, outcast and insider, living person and weird effigy, and even between good and evil.  Evil clowns really got up and running as a meme in the 19th century with stories like “Hop Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, yet there is a critical precursor which I overlooked.  Back when I was young and innocent, I started a toy company with a mysterious & dodgy business person I met.  For some reason, running an international business proved impossible, but I loved making toys and I also enjoyed looking back through the history of toys which combines cultural, technological, and art history (and which stretches to before Eridu rose from the mud).  Evil clowns turn out to have a very direct link with one of the most successful and powerful toy concepts of the last thousand years.

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In the early 16th century, a German clock-maker known as Claus built the first known example of what we would call a “Jack in the Box” for a local princeling.  Claus built a wooden box which popped open when the user turned the crank.  Except it wasn’t a clown that popped out, it was a devil!  The French name for this toy is “diable en boîte” (devil in a box) which hearkens back to the first generation jack-in-the-boxes which were all devils.   Some toy historians speculate that all of this was related to a 14th century English prelate named Sir John Schorne who was said to possess a boot with a devil inside it (for reasons which are obscure).

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Fairly on, jack-in-the-box toys diversified from being just devils, but a lot of these clowns maintained a sort of Krampus-like demonic aspect to them.  Here are some photos I stole at random from around the web and I think they illustrate how alarming Jack in the boxes are (although people with sensitive and anxious temperaments could already tell you that–this is after all a toy meant to startle you)

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Gah! Just look at these puppies…and they were made for children.  Jack-in-the-boxes are already bad enough, but imagine if one of these things popped out.  The depraved marketers for the movie “It” made a jack-in-the-box featuring Pennywise, the evil clown from that movie (see below) but frankly Pennywise looks like he would be mugged by any of these older anonymous jack-in-the-box clowns.  It is hard to say anything with certainty when we are talking about nebulous and ancient cultural concepts, but I wonder if the idea of clowns as terrifying bogey-men didn’t come as much from generations of jack-in-the-box scarred children as from literary lions like King and Poe.

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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.

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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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During the eighth century AD, as the Merovingian dynasty declined into a sad series of feuding puppet kings, the mayor of the palace became effective ruler of the Franks.  In 751 this arrangement was formalized by Pope Zachary who annointed Pepin the Short, formerly palace mayor (and puppetmaster of Childeric III ) as King of the Franks—the first of the Carolingians.  Pepin’s son Charles, known to posterity forevermore as Charlemagne, succeeded Pepin as king of the Franks in 768.  Charlemagne became King of the Lombards from 774 onwards (he conquered Lombardy as much to end his nephew’s pretensions to the throne as to rescue the papacy, but whatever), and as the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800 to his death.  Above is the crown of Charlemagne!  It was the coronation crown of French kings from its creation until 1775 when it was the coronation crown of Louis XVI.

Except…

That is clearly an engraving of the crown.  The real crown of Charlemagne is gone.  Like Louis XVI, it was destroyed during the French revolution.  Also, this was not the crown of Charlemagne per se.  Historians believe this crown was actually manufactured in the late ninth century as a crown for Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (who was believed to have had long beautiful hair in real life).  Additionally there is some question about whether this even was the real crown of Charles the Bald or whether it was switched with a similar crown made for a queen at the end of the 12th century.  One of the two of them was melted down in 1590 by the Catholic League during the Siege of Paris.   It is unclear if the crown destroyed in the French revolution was the 9th century original or the 12th century queen’s crown.

There is a lot of duplicity in history, particularly involving crowns, the ultimate status items which invest their wearer with supreme authority.  Based on this black-and white illustration, it is a bit hard to tell what the precious stones of the Crown of Charlemagne are, but at least it is possible to clearly see the distinctive fleurs de lis (although admittedly, these were only added in 1180…)

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When it comes to colors, our understanding has cultural and historical connotations.  The names of colors change over time as points of cultural relevance change and as the language evolves.  Many colors we are familiar with today (thanks to the miracles of synthetic chemistry and industrialization) were extremely esoteric to Europeans of the ancient and medieval world.  The old Latin and Greek words for exotic colors were influenced by rare jewels and unusual birds (which might be the only shared terrestrial examples of hues which were only seen in sunsets and other mutable natural phenomena).  We have already written about the ponderous word “icterine” an old Greco-Roman term for the beautiful pale yellow of various birds and insects. Today we take on an even more dissonant word which entered Middle-English in the 14th century from ancient Greek (possibly by way of France).  “Smaragdine” is the bright blue-green color of emeralds. It was a color which was rare and precious in the 14th century world.  The word has lingered in the corners of English and is still on the books today (although, if you ask your colleague to hand you the smaragdine mousepad you might not get the green one…or anything other than an angry stare or sharp words).  Even if the word smaragdine is not euphonic to modern ears, the color is exquisite and rich.  The chief conclusion of this etymological diversion is that Ferrebeekeeper needs to write more about emeralds.

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Today’s post is largely visual: here is a French Gothic Revival Bookstand made of ebony inlayed with wood, mother of pearl, and precious metals.  The beautiful carvings are ivory.  Carved in 1839 for the Duc D’Orleans, the piece evokes French renaissance furniture while exemplifying the apex of 19th century joinery and carving.

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There’s exciting news in the, um, news: French archaeologists have discovered brand-new ancient ruins! The beautifully preserved Roman town were discovered in Sainte Colombe, a contemporary French town next to the Rhône River (as an aside, Sainte Colombe was named after a famous Baroque-era master of the viola da gamba). The ruins, which date back to the second and third century AD, are currently being excavated. So far the researchers have discovered the shops of various artisans and metal workers, a wine warehouse, a temple to an unknown deity, and two luxury houses which belonged to wealthy Romans. The ruins are being dubbed a new Pompeii, since fire caused them to be abandoned and forgotten until present (and left them much more intact than other such discoveries. I love Roman ruins and I am looking forward to seeing more of this ancient town!

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Here is a diadem made of diamonds from 1904.  It was created by Chaumet during its glory years under Joseph Chaumet (who remade the 18th century jewelry house into an international boutique).  Chaumet was an artist who looked for inspiration in unexpected sources, so this crown of diamonds is made to look like the stalactites in a cave, dripping with scintillant water. The piece was originally owned by Louis Cesar, Marquis of Lubersac, who was an esteemed senator of the Third Republic.  He commissioned the piece for his daughter-in-law.  It is so beautiful against a black velvet background, but I wonder if it is annoying to wear!

Verdun

A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.

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The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).

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The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.

As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.

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Spent shell casings at Verdun

I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.

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What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.

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Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.

During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged.  Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition”  A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”

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The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)

And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.

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One of my favorite clothing colors is “French Blue” a brilliant bright ultramarine color which is best known for its use in men’s suits and shirts.  French Blue is the same color as French ultramarine—the synthetic version of ultramarine (a princely and ancient pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli).  It’s hard to tell if “French Blue” is really French or not—I couldn’t find the equivalent in this French dictionary of color, but it is certainly beautiful and fashionable.

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