In the town of Saint-Denis, situated on the northern periphery of Paris, an exquisite Gothic cathedral proudly stands. Within its intricate catacombs repose nearly all the monarchs of the French Middle Ages for a span of 1,300 years, and its vibrant stained glass windows narrate the vicissitudes of French medieval society.
The Demise of a Saint
Traveling back to the 3rd century AD, France was still under the dominion of the Roman Empire. The city known as Paris during the Gallo-Roman era was a mere northern outpost. The Romans bestowed upon it the appellation Lutetia Parisiorum.
Historical accounts reveal that Saint Denis assumed the episcopal role in Lutetia during the 3rd century AD. It is posited that he was dispatched to Gaul from Italy by Pope Sanctus Fabianus (reigning from 236 AD to 250 AD) with the aim of imparting Christianity to the distant pagans of Gaul.
However, the Roman Emperor Decius (reigning from 249 AD to 251 AD) at that juncture attributed the political unrest in the Roman Empire to Christianity’s disruption of societal order. He contended that Christianity’s profound veneration of God undermined the earthly authority of the emperors, as Christians refrained from participating in traditional Roman religious rites and avoided interaction with what they perceived as “heathens” in theaters or baths. It’s essential to note that the Roman Empire placed significant emphasis on fostering social cohesion. The renowned Roman Baths were accessible to all citizens, ostensibly to diminish the influence of class in society. Even nobles who possessed private baths were obligated to attend public baths periodically for social engagement. Not to mention the multitude of festivals and celebrations in the late Roman Empire, with 175 days a year designated as statutory holidays. People would set aside their labor and congregate in the amphitheater, reveling in the affluence of the empire while reinforcing their sense of citizenship, connection, and unity.
In January 250 AD, Decius initiated a purge of Christians throughout the empire. He issued an edict mandating all citizens to offer prayers to the bust of the emperor in front of the envoy, a directive that clashed with the Christian prohibition of “idol worship.” Many Christians were apprehended and either exiled for resistance or met their demise. Saint Denis was among those who faced persecution.
Shortly after 250 AD, Saint Denis, along with two of his clergy, was beheaded on Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris. Legend has it that even after his head fell to the ground, he continued to preach. Serenely stooping to retrieve his severed head, he proceeded to walk for several miles. A chapel was later erected at the site of his burial, unaware that this unassuming church would evolve into a radiant jewel in French history in the ensuing centuries.
The Maiden French Monarch at Rest: Dagobert I
Toward the conclusion of the 6th century, the Merovingian dynasty plunged into a savage and sanguinary political upheaval. The descendants of Clovis, the dynasty’s progenitor, fell victim to the prevailing medieval principle of “blood vengeance” (a belief that personal harm to an individual constituted an infringement of justice, warranting retaliation against the perpetrator’s entire family). In the ensuing internal strife within the family, countless royal kin became embroiled in the conflict, culminating in the murder of Clovis’s grandson Chilpéric I in 584. It wasn’t until the reign of the king’s son Clotaire II that the farce was brought to an end, and his son Dagobert I ultimately restored unity to the kingdom.
The Merovingian rule at the time was perceived as lax and precarious. Contemporary Western historians generally assert that Europe in the early Middle Ages was still undergoing “Ethnogenèse,” with inhabitants adhering to various beliefs in the kingdom—some venerating the old Roman gods, others embracing different branches of Christianity, and still others converting to Roman Catholicism following the invasion of barbarian Germanic tribes. Christianity had not yet attained the pervasive influence it would wield in Europe centuries later, and Gaul was geographically distant from the Roman Church at the time.
In an endeavor to swiftly establish authority amid the intricate political landscape, Dagobert I opted to align with the Roman Catholic Church. In 632 AD, he restructured the church where Saint Denis lay buried into the Saint Denis Monastery and commissioned the construction of a new sanctuary to house the saint’s remains. Architects of that era devoted their utmost efforts to sculpting the tomb, to the extent that the contemporary chronicler jestingly remarked, “hardly a single ornament was left in the whole of Gaul.” In 639, Dagobert I became the initial French monarch interred at this revered site.
Surget’s Renaissance of Saint-Denis
Advancing to the early 12th century, medieval Western Europe witnessed a period of climatic warming. Concurrently, agricultural technology underwent innovation, economies experienced rapid development, and towns burgeoned to replace villages, assuming roles as administrative and cultural hubs. The feudal system unfolded methodically, and the Capetian dynasty monarchs gradually wrested public power. The Renaissance infused fresh vigor into society, with troubadours in the south extolling the chivalrous spirit in royal courts, while Paris in the north emerged as the political and religious nucleus of the kingdom, coinciding with the fervor of the Crusades.
It was within this milieu that Suger, the most efficacious regent of Louis VII, commenced the reconstruction of the Saint-Denis church. It was through his efforts that the church underwent a metamorphosis, emerging as a resplendent exemplar of Gothic architecture. When the weather is fair, the gentle sunlight permeates the church floor through its colossal stained glass windows. The choir’s voice resonates with serenity and melodiousness, while the organ’s chords resound with grandeur and desolation. The vast expanse reverberates with a staggering echo. Gaze upwards. Towards the ceiling, the steep and vertiginous height induces a sense of dizziness. These myriad colors, sounds, visuals, and sensory stimuli transport individuals into a veritable paradise. It is arduous to fathom the awe that overwhelmed the hearts of Louis VII, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the countless individuals from across Europe who beheld this unparalleled architectural marvel.
As a cultural hub, Saint-Denis beckons people from far and wide. A marketplace was established in the square adjacent to the church, attracting merchants from all walks of life. The prosperity of Saint-Denis mirrored the gradual amelioration of the feudal system in medieval Europe. By examining the tax records preserved from that era, it becomes evident that, commencing in the 11th century, the nobility imposed an increasing array of taxes upon the peasantry and other social classes. What began as the basic land and protection taxes evolved into levies for the utilization of mills and waterwheels. Even those who set up stalls in the market to engage in trade were subject to commercial taxes. Some influential and affluent lords took the initiative to organize markets, enticing small merchants and peddlers to engage in the exchange of goods and secure profits. Craftsmen in these burgeoning towns were compelled to seek the patronage of local lords in order to establish their own guilds, acquiring public rights to land and taxation privileges by means of signing “Charte de franchises” (Charte de franchises). Thus, the emerging urban bourgeoisie became intertwined with the powerful feudal lordship system, engendering the prosperity of the French urban economy in the Middle Ages.
Returning to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, this splendid cathedral became embroiled in a dispute between two Catholic orders during the early 12th century. Since the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne, the practice of St. Benedict had been upheld as orthodoxy in monasteries throughout the kingdom. The Saint Benedictine order, symbolized by the Church of Saint-Denis, gradually began to advocate for the utilization of beautiful and magnificent external elements to captivate believers and evoke profound worship and awe. Consequently, they commenced the construction of similar Gothic-style Catholic cathedrals in other locales.
However, the Cistercian order, which emerged in the early 12th century, dissented. Towards the end of the 11th century, Saint Robert, disheartened by the Benedictine establishment, along with several likeminded adherents, established a monastery in Cistercian near Dijon. In a span of 30 years, St. Bernard de Clairvaux of Mingu rapidly expanded the order across Europe. They disapproved of opulent edifices, comfortable attire, and even elaborate embellishments on manuscripts. To them, the resplendent rose window of Saint-Denis held no significance, save for being a diversion from doctrine. The struggle between these two religious orders endured for two centuries, only concluding at the close of the 14th century.
Naturally, the tale of Saint-Denis did not conclude with the termination of the Middle Ages. In subsequent epochs, it weathered countless calamities and renovations. During the summer of 2023, the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeology (INRAP) excavated a portion of its foundation during a reconstruction endeavor atop the church’s tower, unearthing a vast Merovingian tomb within. This discovery furnishes us with abundant material for scholarly inquiry. The dynasties chronicled in literature provide invaluable archaeological insights.
Today, the towering Saint-Denis Church stands serenely in a small town on the outskirts of Paris, France, akin to a custodian of history, gazing into the distant horizon.