My Medieval Childhood in Chauvigny (Dennis Aubrey)

When I was growing up in the sixties, my father, an American soldier, was stationed in France for the second time. The first was in the 50’s and we lived in the area near Orleans. I have some early memories of the area and my life there, and in the last decade have renewed acquaintance with both the people we knew and the places we lived. In the 60’s, however, we lived for awhile in the Poitivin town of Chauvigny. This was perhaps the height of my imaginative life – picture a thirteen-year old boy with the complete freedom to explore this French town without adult supervision. That will give you an idea of our life there.

The town of Chauvigny sits astride the Vienne and has a great hill at its center, surmounted by no less than five feudal chateaux and a wonderful church, the Collégiale Saint Pierre. While the church had its attractions, principally the grotesque capitals of the chancel, the Chateau d’Harcourt was our first love. My brother David and I walked the mile from our house to the hill and climbed up into the ruins innumerable times, exploring every inch, and naming the different sections – Roland, Oliver, Turpin, Jeanne d’Arc, Charlemagne, and other heroes from our medieval mythology.

Our explorations were not always safe – David and I once climbed the crumbling walls shown in the foreground of this shot and across the high wall at the back until we arrived at the round turret at the far side. It was a blustery windy day and we were very anxious. As we traversed the last wall to the tower, we considered turning around, but it seemed more dangerous to reverse our positions on the crumbly windswept wall than it did to continue. Continue we did until we finally arrived at our destination with a sense of relief and accomplishment. We looked out at the town below as if we were those heroes of old.

Chateau d'Harcourt, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Cosmos (CHAUVIGNY DANS LA VIENNE)
Chateau d’Harcourt, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Cosmos (CHAUVIGNY DANS LA VIENNE)

Years later I returned with our parents and the Gayets, long-time friends from neighboring Vivonne. I pointed out where we had ventured and everyone was aghast. So was I, when I realized how foolish we had been to scale the crumbling masonry.

Far less dangerous, and today far more interesting, is the collegiate church of Saint Pierre. On that day when we returned with my parents and friends, the townspeople were upset because someone had broken into the tronc box and stolen the offerings. The church looked exactly as I remembered it, whitewashed stone with traces of red paint, green mold and cobwebs, musty smelling and with dirt on the floor. Imagine my surprise when I returned fifteen years later with PJ. The church had been beautifully restored and painted, cleaned and was in perfect condition.

The tall, narrow nave terminates at a crossing with a small hemicycle apse lying beyond. There are no transepts. In this shot of the nave we can see the imperfect restoration of the ogive barrel vault atop the rounded chancel arch. Notice how there are no clerestory windows because the arcades rise all the way to the vault.

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Pierre is a hall church, typical of the Poitiers region. That means that the side aisles are almost as high as the nave. These narrow, open side aisles are covered with groin vaults that permitted large windows to light the church. I particularly admire the transverse supporting walls with the windows high up.

Side aisle, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Side aisle, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse and altar are filled with wonderful touches. Instead of the oven vault directly over the hemicycle, there is an arcaded half drum intervening. The arcade is composed of nine arches centered over the seven arches of the hemicycle. This is another of those unique features in this little church, adding height to the altar area.

Hemicycle arcades and oven vault, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Hemicycle arcades and oven vault, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The glory of Saint Pierre are the chancel capitals that adorn the columns of the hemicycle and the drum arcade. We have posted earlier on these, so follow that link to see more details. But the following shot shows them in situ and gives an indication of how evocative they are in this church.

Chancel capitals, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Chancel capitals, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But one particular capital needs to be shown here, one of the few signed by a medieval artist. The sculptor signed Gofridus me fecit on the Visit of the Magi capital, center on the altar, visible to all. PJ and I both love this and have a whole story in our mind of who Gofridus was and how he obtained the freedom to create this unique ensemble of story-telling capitals.

Gofridus me fecit, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Gofridus me fecit, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Some of my fondest memories of are of that hill in Chauvigny. I felt part of those histories that I read so avidly, of the “Song of Roland,” but it went further than that. There is evidence of a Mesolithic settlement from about 12,000 BCE and the Celts settled here and built an oppidum. The Roman road passed through the adjacent village of Saint Pierre-des-Églises and a settlement grew up here. Clovis and his Franks burned the city and its temples and made it Christian, Charlemagne raised its lords to his service, and as vassals to the Count of Poitiers, the Barons of Chauvigny ruled the area from their stronghold. All of this was palpable and somehow I felt part of that. Maybe for the first time in my young, well-traveled life I felt part of history.

Location: 46.570501° 0.648799°

24 thoughts on “My Medieval Childhood in Chauvigny (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Boys will be boys, but there’s not much wrong when they grow up to take pictures like these! I love the style of this church, and reckon the columns would make good quilting designs!

    1. Boys will be boys. To get into the chateau we had to climb up a wall holding on to ivy, to an opening about 30-40 feet above us. One late August day the ivy was too dry, pulled loose, and I tumbled down from about two thirds of the way up. No damage, but shaken. The site was off-limits for two reasons – there were archaeologists working there and it was dangerous, but that didn’t stop us. The danger was unperceived and we started an archaeologists club (complete with little hand-printed cards that we made) that gave us the necessary status. When we discovered bits and pieces, we would leave them out in the open for the archaeologists – with our cards, of course.

    1. Janice, you remind me of my sister Ann, who (if only she were a couple of years older) would have been on those walls without a doubt. In fact, I would worry that she would go tomorrow if she could.

    1. Thanks, Ana, I appreciate this comment very much. It is always a little difficult to know if there is too much of my personal life in a blog dedicated to Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

  2. How beautiful is that church, the Collégiale Saint-Pierre!
    It’s interesting, your account of climbing ruins as a boy, because I’ve watched children playing in ancient buildings in France and thought how rich their childhood is compared to mine – I grew up in a new country. Observing the children at play, I understood why European writing is so descriptive, and often intense, and bleak; they’ve survived so many battles.

  3. your stories are very nice, you seem still living in your teens. It reminds me how much I miss Marseille where I grew up ( I am younger than you). An architect who built in Alger and later in Marseille, stone facades, said ‘the stone speaks’. Your souvenirs convince me that all noises about run after modernity, globalization, sustainability has no meanings. Just simple life and countryside is all. I stayed 18 years in France but did not visit your place, what a miss.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments – yes, part of me still lives in those days, I’m sure. The French desire for modernity has always annoyed me. So much of the newer public architecture in France is abominable. But then, my interest is in those deep currents that drive us forward, not the quick little eddies of fashion.

    1. Graham, just the kind of thing I would have done, but you are right – there would have been no helicopter. We feared our Dad’s censure more than anything else. He was, after all, a soldier.

  4. Dennis: Your mother and I recall another incident in Chauvigny. You remember that dinner time was when we all talked about what had happened that day. It was our time for stories from school or work or car repairs, as when Lucille took our Corvair station wagon to the local mechanic to have the carburetor repaired (it was the alternator). One evening it was obvious that you had something important to share. After we said grace you said, “Mom, Dad, do you realize we live where the Battle of Poitiers was fought?” We recognize that day as the one that began your love of history.

  5. Dennis:I have enjoyed all of your posts and amazing photography (P.J. too.)this one however was very special; the exploits of two very adventurous kids, the delightful church with its signed capital and the feeling of love and warmth that came across cyberspace. During our two brief trips to France(only a month each) we barely touched the tip of the iceberg but I am grateful for even that much. My voracious reading of history has to try to fill in a few of the blanks. Your wonderful stories and pictures provide the rest.

    1. Kalli, thanks once again for your kind words. We lived seven years total in France and PJ and I spend seven weeks there every year on our project. We are going to buy a house there soon, which will make it easier. I won’t be climbing the walls of Chauvigny, but you know we will be going back to the wonderful Église Saint Pierre.

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