The Medieval Bounty of Poitiers (Dennis Aubrey)


Poitiers has been one of my favorite towns in France since I lived there in the early 1960’s. While the town and its suburbs are fairly large, the city center has changed little in centuries. Rising above the rivers Clain and Boivre, Poitiers is built on a series of hills which rise forty meters above the streams that surround it on three sides. Poitiers guards a gap in the Massif armoricain which rises in the west of France and the Massif central which dominates the center of the country. This gap connects the Paris basin and the Aquitaine basin. The position has always been strategic and, as a result, numerous battles were fought in the region.

Poitiers' strategic position between the two massifs

In 507, the Franks under Clovis defeated the Visigoths under Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, just west of Poitiers. In 732 the Saracens burned the Abbey Church of Saint Hilaire on their way to sack the Cathedral of Saint Martin in Tours. Just north of town, at Mousailles-le-Bataille, Charles Martel and his Franks stopped them in their tracks. In 1356, during the Hundred Years War, the French King Jean le Bon was captured at the Battle of Poitiers fought just south of town at Nouaillé-Maupertuis. In addition, Poitiers was besieged and pillaged many times.

But Poitiers also had a higher purpose than war. From the military camp of the Abbeville Caserne on a hill just east of town, one can see three of the seven great churches of the city. Just below, near the river, is Sainte Radegonde. Halfway up the hill is the Angevin gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre with its magnificent stained glass. At the top of the hill in the city center is our favorite, the Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande. The sculpted western facade is one of the treasures of the Romanesque world, but the interior (at least to me) is among the most moving in all of France.

Painting Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

North side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Poitiers is also home to the abbey founded by and dedicated to the first Pictavien bishop and subsequent saint, Hilaire (315-368). His disciple Saint Martin of Tours is considered by many the patron saint of France. The Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand has been one of the most famous and important in France since the fourth century.

Complex vaulting of Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle of Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Another favorite is the small Église Sainte-Radegonde-de-Poitiers. This was the abbey church founded in the sixth century by the Saint herself. Radegonde was one of six wives of the Frankish king, Clotaire I, who was the son of Clovis. After Clotaire I had her brother assassinated, Radegonde left him and founded the nunnery on this site. The current church is 12th Century, for the most part, but the crypt dates from Radegonde’s time and holds her remains to this day.

Crypt of Sainte Radegonde, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The largest medieval monument in Poitiers is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre. Its construction began in 1162 by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine on the ruins of a Roman basilica, and work was well advanced by the end of the 12th century. It is famous for the superb Crucifixion window, thought by many to be the finest single work of stained glass in the world.

Cáthedrale Saint Pierre, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

In addition to these churches, there is the second oldest surviving religious structure in France, the Baptistère Saint-Jean (4th century). Outside of town is an underground crypt and chapel from the early fifth century, the Hypogée des Dunes.

Baptistère Saint-Jean, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Poitiers is a small, unspoiled city with wonderful restaurants and a delightful downtown, well worth a visit when you go to France. In the immediate area is the Abbey Church of Saint Savin with the finest Romanesque frescoes in France, the Collégiale Saint Pierre in Chauvigny with its remarkable capitals by Gofridus, and so many other memorable churches. I was twelve years old when our family moved from North Carolina to Poitiers and the shock and delight that I felt at the time is still with me a half century later.

4 responses to “The Medieval Bounty of Poitiers (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thanks for sharing the wonders of Poitiers. My father was stationed there from 1962 to 1964. I remember and was impressed by the high degree of culture found in what many thought was a rural village. We lived in Bellejouanne a small Army (U.S.) Housing Area. I use to venture out with my siblings and parents and somewhere down the line was bitten by the history bug.

  2. This is really cool! My family also was in Poitiers (3 years there). My father was in the 313th Signal Corps at the post and we started out living in a large house at the edge of town toward the far end of Rue de la Grange St.-Pierre (we’ve seen the house on Google Maps). I think we moved to the American housing area about a year before returning to the States. I was in the middle of 3rd grade when we went and middle of the 6th grade when we came back. My 3rd grade teacher there was Mrs. Shepard (sp?); other teachers I remember were Mrs. Thompson and Miss Odale (O’Dale?). My brothers and I used to walk to the caserne from the house and I remember the long walk up the stairs that were built into the mountain who-knows-when; we’d start out counting the number of steps and either give up or get a different no. each time. I was very religious then and remember all the churches. I also remember the public park that we passed on the way to the post.

    I hope to go back someday before I die, but the internet has sure brought back *lots* of memories in the meantime.

    Merci beaucoup!

    • Rich, thanks for your memoir. PJ and I are lucky to go back regularly since there are so many churches to shoot in the region. It gives us the opportunity to see both the town and the friends that we have in the area. The central area of Poitiers has not changed very much at all, and I’m sure if you stood on the parapet next to Abbeville Caserne you would see something very familiar.

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