The Cathedral in the CityCollection


The Cathedral in the City: A Mighty Fortress is Our God "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. On earth is not His equal." Martin Luther, 1529 Thomas F. Gieryn asked in 2000 in the Annual Review of Sociology, "How do places come to be the way they are, and how do places matter for social practices and historical change?" For this discussion, I will be looking at the concept of place versus space while identifying the agents who impact the "place," taking the Cathedral of St. Julian in Le Mans as an example of the interaction of the parishioners with the building. In many instances, it is the parishioners who make a Gothic cathedral church what it is, what it becomes. In others, it's a long list of important patrons or kings. In Le Mans, specifically, it is the actions of the people of Le Mans, adding to them the many bishops, counts, popes, and one former English queen, that help to paint a clearer picture of this cathedral in this city and, in doing so, they establish a network of competing interests and needs that systematically contributes to the ongoing life of the church over 18 centuries.

Gieryn's argument is, put simply, that a space is defined geometrically and a "place," by the items that you put into it. He writes, "people identify places those spots that they go to for some particular purpose of function," in the case of the French Gothic cathedral, the pre-eminent urban church, the seat of the diocese, this would be baptisms, marriages, funerals, sometimes even a call to arms to defend the faith. "People recall more easily places that they associate with momentous events in their lives. . . . Places are made as people ascribe qualities to the material and social stuff gathered there." He defines this as the difference between a map and a neighborhood, with the idea that the map represents the geometric boundaries, but the neighborhood is an "ongoing practical and discursive production/imagining of people." (Gieryn, ARS, p. 472). According to Gieryn's analysis, "A place is remarkable."

How did the cathedral "place" in the city of Le Mans become so vital and how did it remain at the heart of the community such that even though the successive buildings on this site could not withstand 12th century fires, 16th century desecration, or 18th century threats of demolition? Why is it that it was not demolished in favor of courts and prisons? The cathedral in Le Mans stands today, displaying the fingerprints of the many people who found a connection here, in this building or on this spot, to something celestial, something important, something of substance. The sign that was hung on the cathedral on the 28th of August, 1798 in an effort to stop its destruction says it best: "The French people recognize the existence of God and the immortality of the soul." (Le Mans St. Julian's Cathedral, p. 15) Not the French clergy or the French king certainly -- the French people, the citizens of Le Mans.

Eugène Lefèvre-Pontalis describes the existing cathedral in the Étude Historique et Archéologique sur le Nef de la Cathédrale du Mans. The cathedral church of St. Julian in the diocese of Le Mans began its life of service to the people of Le Mans during the Roman era, as legend tells it, as a room in the governor's palace in the third century. Citing the similarity of the first church in Le Mans to the legendary founding of the first church in Bourges as recalled by Gregory of Tours, Lefevre-Pontalis notes they were both housed in a private home, the governor in each case was converted to the church by the local bishop and in gratitude he turned over a large hall in his palace to their use. (L-Pontalis, p. 4)

Lefèvre-Pontalis puts the first built church in this location in the 6th century. Saint Innocent built the first basilica in Le Mans dedicated to Peter and to Mary with side aisles, no transept, and the western frontispiece possibly a former Roman triumphal arch and some version of it stood until the 9th century when it was repaired and then replaced by Aldric, also bishop of Le Mans. The assumption is that Julian's remains were most likely interred somewhere in or near that first basilica and that most scholars believe that nothing of that structure remains in Le Mans in the existing cathedral. Aldric's life and work is described in several documents, the most complete being the much disputed Gesta Domni Aldrici Cenommanicae Urbis Episcopi a Discipulis Suis, the manuscript now in the library of Le Mans and dating from 997-1038AD. Born in 800, Aldric came to Le Mans from the court of Charlemagne and, after a brief stay at Metz, became bishop of Le Mans but, according to Walter Goffart's 1966 The Le Mans Forgeries: A Chapter from the History of Church Property in the Ninth Century, he was as much a political figure as a religious one, gaining and losing church properties through a system of charters. (English translation and discussion - Goffart)

The cathedral he built lasted for nearly two centuries before it was replaced again and again by the bishops of Le Mans. In 1055, Bishop Vulgrin began to renovate Aldric's cathedral in 1060 but did not live to see the work completed, dying in 1064. A good bit of his work collapsed due to the use of recycled building materials and a poor foundation. The Gesta Arnaldi, written in the 1090s, chronicles the life and times of Vulgrin's successor, "Lord Arnald," who came to the bishopric in 1065. It names specifically how Arnaldo was elected: "the clergy and people of Le Mans elected Arnald to the episcopate." The vote was not unanimous and his detractors in the congregation argued that he was unfit to become their bishop because he was the son of a priest. Nevertheless, he was installed in 1065 and witnessed the collapse of Vulgrin's building: "When he had for some time dwelt in the episcopal seat, the fabric of the new cathedral, which Bishop Vulgrin had begun, ominously began to threaten its own ruin through the shifting of the foundations and the corruption of the stones [used] in countless foundations. Although the builders tried to prop them up, the new structure collapsed in the night with a sudden crashing noise. " He then "demolished the entire structure of the previous construction down to the deepest foundation, and began to build that church anew, with a firmer foundation and with more solid stone. He placed a roof on the upper part, which they generally call the chancel, and was building the most solid foundations of the towers and the aisles, which are called crosses, before he died." (Internet Medieval Sourcebook)

Unfortunately, Arnald's path to his new cathedral was strewn with the debris of William of Normandy's conquest of England in 1066. According to the Gesta, while William was away from Le Mans, the people withdrew their fidelity to him and installed for a time, an Italian named Azzo, as their sovereign. Since Arnald had been a devoted follower of William, Arnald fled immediately to England to the protection of the new king, returning shortly to the region, but only returning to the leadership of the canon of Le Mans after the intervention of the Manceau clergy and not without producing substantial sums donated to him by William.

André Mussat, in "Les Cathédrales dans Leurs Cités," (Revue de l'Art 1982) discusses how cathedrals were built within the urban milieu of the city in which they live. The cathedral assumes a prominent geographic location, sometimes to its own detriment. And the route to the completion and establishmnet of a city church relies on the economy of the city as well as the continued patronage and protection by the city itself. There is a fire that is described in the Gesta Arnaldi that is so close to the cathedral that "Our men had to fight hard from the roof of the cathedral to prevent the cathedral from burning." (IMS) This is only one in a series of significant and devastating fires that threaten the future of the cathedral.

Picking up where Arnald left off, Bishop Hoel takes over after William famously tries to get his own chaplain, Samson, to take up the ecclesiastic reins of Le Mans. William warned Samson that the people of Le Man are notoriously anti-authority and prone to rebellion and Samson immediately declined the position, recommending a colleague, Hoel, who is installed as bishop (Ledru). Hoel (1085-1097) established a friendship with Pope Urban II who visite Le Mans on his way back to Rome following the Council of Clermont in February of 1096. While visiting Hoel, the Pope preached the first crusade to the men of Le Mans in the cathedral church. Hoel too continued building at Le Mans but his work was destroyed by fire in 1099 and on his deathbed, he magnanimously distributed the silver and gold of the church to the needy and the poor. (O'Reilly, p. 270)

Hildebert followed Hoel in the same year (1096), more famous for his poetry and theological writing on transubstantiation than as a cathedral building contractor even though he is credited with an important stage of building. (Freeman, p. 882) Hildebert, who was also for a time bishop of Tours, found himself in the middle of a power struggle that certainly impacted Hildebert's building campaign when he was commanded to tear down the towers of the church which had been used as military towers against King William II, called William Rufus. William Rufus complained they were taller than his own. Hildebert died in 1133 -- it is unclear whether he actually tore down the towers or did and could not bring himself to write it down. (Freeman vol. 2, p. 654)

The Cathedral saw the marriage of Geoffroy, Count of Anjou called Geoffroy Plantagent, and Mathilde, daughter of Henry I, in 1128 and the baptism of their son, Henry, in 1133. But the fires in Le Mans are catastrophic and two, in particular, destroy most of the existing cathedral in 1134 and again in 1137. Henry II assumed the throne of England in 1154 after his marriage in Lisieux to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a marriage which effectively doubled his kingdom. And the cathedral, which by now has been in a state of almost continuous construction since 1060, is like a phoenix, rising from the ashes over and over again.

The next bishop of Le Mans to contribute to the building and renovation of the existing structure is Guillaume de Passavant (bishop, 1143-1186) who oversaw the development of the nave, reportedly using existing materials, and the opening and decoration of the south portal which provided a side entrance to the cathedral that is marginally closer to the city. In Gothic Architecture, Paul Frankl and Paul Crossley discuss the vaulting of the Le Mans nave that immediately preceded the 1158 consecration and transferral of the relics of Saint Julian. This peculiar Angevin arch system is described as "one of the first buildings after the porch of Moissac in which ribs are deliberately built in the form of pointed arches." (Frankel, Crossley, p. 66) This puts Le Mans at the forefront in cathedral building and Guillaume de Passavant in the role of pioneer if the current vaults in the nave actually date from his time as bishop, a time described by Frankl and Crossley as "Transitional," bridging the gap between Romanesque and Gothic. It is not entirely clear, looking at Le Mans today, whether all the nave vaults and the vaults in the side aisles are entirely contemporary but the establishment of a replicable rib vault prototype is fundamental to the construction of what is to become "Gothic," and it is seen here in Le Mans.

Henry II and Eleanor's son, Richard the Lionheart (1153-1199) was not a true Manceau but his widow, Berengaria, the daughter of Sancho VI of Navarre, became the Lady of Le Mans by decree of the King of France, Richard's friend Phillip Augustus, in 1204. By this time, Phillip Augustus already had taken Le Mans in repeated campaigns into Maine in the last quarter of the 12th century, the fighting forces using the cathedral itself as a resource in battle, partly as a strategic location in its position high above the Sarthe River, partly because of the heavy stone construction. Richard and Berengaria had no children, so, upon his death, he left the kingdom of England in the hands of his brother, John, and poor Berengaria to describe herself repeatedly in her correspondence simply as "former queen." In France, Phillip Augustus was established in Paris and there was no immediate, obvious role for the Richard's widow in France.

Berengaria runs afoul of the clergy at the cathedral almost immediately when she accuses them leaving the church to marry while insisting they were still exempt from paying her taxes. She argues that the clergy should pay based on their revenues and they retaliate. She faces three interdicts during her tenure as Lady of Le Mans. In the 1245 Livre Blanc, providing testimony of the events of her time in Le Mans, one of the testimonials describes Palm Sunday in 1218. Berengaria approached the cathedral with her entire retinue and, "the bishop and Chapter refused to admit them and shut the doors of the Church in their faces, to their utter confusion, creating scandal and dismay among the onlookers." (Trindade, p. 171) The pope wrote to her to assure her that only he can excommunicate her and urges the bishop to make amends and treat her kindly. (Epistolae, CCNMTL)

Berengaria had an interesting relationship not only with the Cathedral of Le Mans but with the date of the beginning of the construction of the Gothic chevet that is traditionally identified as 1217. Berengaria's biographer, Henri Chardon, writes that the date is established in a note written to her by Phillip Augustus in November of 1217 in which the king tells her he already has given to the chapter at Le Mans his permission to remove part of the Roman wall in order to enlarge the Le Mans cathedral, implying that it should not bother her to go ahead with the plan and that the enlargement that was being done should be to her taste. (Chardon, p. 83) It would be safe to assume that there was some other documentation now lost that communicated this directly to the clergy of the Cathedral pre-dating the note to Berengaria and no reply from her, such that a reply was necessary, survives.

Thomas Gieryn identifies a place as "remarkable." It is "something in the built-form of a place to distinguish this building or that patch of ground from its overlookable backdrop." But what of the backdrop if it is a length of the antique Roman wall that is determined to be in the way of the expansion of the chevet toward the Place des Jacobins to the east of the existing cathedral?

It is very likely that, in fact, Berengaria opposed the construction of the new Gothic chevet, figuring that if the clergy had enough funds available to them to embark on a massive plan to enlarge the cathedral to the point of breaking through the Roman wall, they would have funds that could go to her, or that the work would be income-producing in the future. Another possibility is that the clergy at the cathedral, the chanoines, deliberately expanded the east end in an effort to enlarge their territory at this precise moment against her claims that they were abusing their tax exemption. This tacit seal of approval from Paris would have identified the king as their true protector regardless of Berengaria's entitlement to the revenues of Le Mans. But once the wall was removed and the work begun on the new Gothic chevet, apparently the churchmen were left alone to build it -- left alone by Paris and, more importantly, by Berengaria.

Ultimately, and not surprising, she abandoned Le Mans Cathedral for the Cistercian calm of her own monastery, Pietas Dei, which she had built in 1228 just outside the city of Le Mans at l'Epau while construction must have been in full swing at the Le Mans cathedral. She died there and was buried in 1230. In 1821, her funerary monument was moved into the cathedral, not certainly by anyone who knew her history with the cathedral, but in 1960, during renovations at the Abbaye de l'Epau, workers found remains that now are believed to be Berengaria and her monument was returned to l'Epau (Trindade). Her funeral monument depicts a reclining figure with flowing hair, eyes open, serenely holding an image of a woman in a rectangular stone frame tablet with a lion, clearly a reference to Richard, and a dog, most likely a symbol of her faithfulness to him, at her feet. (Kenan-Kedaar)

Lindy Grant discusses the three masons at work in the chevet at Le Mans in her larger view of architecture in Normandy (Grant, 191). She names the second mason to work at Le Mans, as a Norman who worked as well at Bayeux but she is puzzled by the canons' choice of a particularly Norman mason for Le Mans, specifically in the tradition of the Lisieux cathedral, the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage to Henry II. Knowing the relationship between Berengaria and the Bishop at the Le Mans cathedral, is it possible that she adopted the tracery, quadrafoils, and ribbed arches in an effort to display a greater allegiance to Phillip Augustus? Could it be that Grant's Le Mans-Bayeux mason was working at l'Epau first?

Sometime prior to November 1217, the clergy and the bishop and the people of the Cathedral of St. Julian had made the decision to grow, to change. By consensus, the construction of the Gothic chevet, which stands today, is dated from Berengaria's letter of 1217 to the date of the transferral of the relics in 1254 or by some to include the installation of some of the furnishings to 1273, but it is likely that a great deal of planning took place before the wall was actually removed to begin the work. Truly "remarkable" in the Gieryn sense, is that this length of the city's defenses was not demolished to build a stronger wall, a higher wall, or even a more substantial wall that would continue to defend the city. Rather, the defenses of the city of Le Mans were replaced by an altar, a church, a religion, a holy "place." The wall defined the space geometrically but did little in the new era of the 13th century French king to define "place." The cathedral was now, by 1217, filled with the history, heartache, and memory of the people of Le Mans; their weddings, baptisms, funerals, the pope preaching the Crusade, the fires, the annexation of the region by the French king in Paris, interdict after interdict, and the attempted excommunication of an irritating former queen and her staff. Somehow, the people of Le Mans, on their way to a more fitting chevet, decided to replace their material defenses for an immaterial one.

Shortly after the chevet was completed and dedicated in 1254, the windows were installed and they depict the people of the parish, along with images of the beloved founder of the diocese of Le Mans; included among them are donors, gamers, artisans, women presenting windows, and more than a few images of the founder, Julian, performing miracles, raising the dead and preaching to small groups of Manceaux. In much the same way Julian had saved them from iniquity, the new chevet and the older, retrofitted Romanesque nave would allow the clergy of Le Mans to continue Julian's work and defend future generations from whatever vice threatened their souls. Truly their mighty fortress was not even the king of France, sitting over a hundred miles away in Paris, even though they received his blessing before they set out to take down the wall. And it certainly was not the succession of counts who ruled and argued over Maine and Anjou. Nor was it the long list of bishops who came and went depending on the favor of their congregants.

In Le Mans, the mighty fortress was their God.


The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages
By John W. Baldwin, University of California Press, 1991

French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
By Jean Bony, University of California Press, 1983

The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments
By M. Christine Boyer, The MIT Press (November 2, 1994)

The Roman Walls of le Mans
R. M. Butler, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1/2 (1958), pp. 33-39

Histoire de la Reine Bérengère, Femme de Richard Coeur-de-Lion et Dame Douairiere du Mans
Henri Chardon, Le Mans, 1866

Catalogue des Actes de Philippe-Auguste
Leopold Delisle, Paris, 1856

The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420
By Georges Duby, University of Chicago Press, 1981

La Cathédrale du Mans
Gabriel Fleury, Paris, 1912

Gothic architecture
By Paul Frankl, Paul Crossley, revised edition, Yale University Press, 2000

The Reign of William Rufus and the Accession of Henry the First, Volume 2
By Edward Augustus Freeman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1882
A Space for Place in Sociology
Thomas F. Gieryn, Annual Review of Sociology (ARS), Vol. 26 (2000), pp. 463-496

What Buildings Do
Thomas F. Gieryn, Theory and Society, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 35-74

The Le Mans Forgeries: a Chapter from the History of Church Property
Walter A. Goffart, Oxford University Press, 1966

Architecture and society in Normandy 1120-1270, p. 191
By Lindy Grant, Yale University Press, 2005

The Norman Ambulatory of Le Mans Cathedral and the Chevet of the Cathedral of Coutances
Joel Herschman, Gesta, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1981), pp. 323-332

The Enigmatic Sepulchral Monument of Berengaria
Nurith Keenan-Kedaar

Le Mans et Ses Environs
Ambroise Ledru, Le Mans, 1905

Étude Historique et Archéologique Sur La Nef de La Cathédrale Du Mans
Eugène Amedee Lefevre Pontalis, Paris, 1889

Les Cathédrales Dans Leurs Cités
André Mussat, Revue de l'Art, LV, 1982, p. 9-22

How France Built Her Cathedrals: A Study in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
By Elizabeth Boyle O'Reilly, Harper and Brothers, New York and London, 1921

The South Portal of the Cathedral at Le Mans: Its Place in the Development of Early Gothic Portal Composition
Thomas E. Polk II, Gesta, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1985), pp. 47-60

Berengaria: In Search of Richard the Lionheart's Queen
Ann Trindade, Four courts Press, 1999

Music and Ceremony at Notre Dame of Paris, 500-1550
Craig Wright, Cambridge University Press, London, 1989