We have written a great deal about the pilgrimage churches of the Camino de Santiago – Conques, Vézelay, Le Puy and so many others. This post is about the great basilica of Saint Sernin in Toulouse and about the role that it played in the unification of France.
The dates of the construction of the basilica are not completely clear, but it seems that the work started about the year 1000. The choir was consecrated in 1096 and the church was dedicated to the city’s first bishop and martyr, Saint Saturnin (transformed to “Sernin”). Saint Sernin is one of the greatest of the pilgrimage churches and most likely was the model for the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It has the same double side aisles and ambulatory with radiating chapels.
The Basilica also played a small but vital role in the unification of France. In the course of the Albigensian crusade, the “crusaders” led by Simon de Montfort confronted Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse who was allied with Pedro II of Aragon.
To this day, the name ‘Simon de Montfort’ rouses both enthusiasm and detestation. Nobody contests that his personal morals were exemplary and that his troops adored him. The leading men of Christendom regarded him as an instrument of Heaven and religious justice. But his brutal plundering of the Midi caused his victims to execrate him, and their descendents continue to do so to this day. Montfort was a great military leader and decisively defeated Pedro and Raymond at the Battle of Muret in September 1213. Pedro was killed but Raymond kept up the struggle and Toulouse, the capital of the kingdom of Tolosa, was occupied successively by both sides suffering a great deal in the process. In 1215, Raymond took advantage of Montfort’s absence and returned to take command of the city.
Montfort immediately returned and besieged the city. On the 25th of June 1218, however, the fortunes of the toulousains revived. Exiting from mass at Saint Sernin, still uncompleted because of the ravages of the ongoing wars, Montfort was killed by a stone thrown from the roof of the church. Legend has it that the stone was thrown by donas e tozas e mulhers (ladies, girls, and women).
Montfort’s death changed the character of the so-called crusade. His son Amaury de Montfort was incapable of holding the lands won by his father and passed his claims to the King of France. From this time on, the struggle became political. Blanche of Castille, regent of her son Louis IX solved the problem with the Treaty of Paris-Meaux in 1229. Raymond’s only child, Joan, Countess of Toulouse, wed Alfonso, Count of Poitou in 1237 in fulfillment of the terms of the treaty. Part of the treaty stipulated that if the couple died childless, Languedoc would revert to the French crown.
Both Alfonso and Joan died returning from Louis IX’s ill-fated crusade and the Capetian crown inherited the province of Languedoc as part of the French lands.
It is interesting that just a couple of years prior to the death of Montfort, Philip Augustus won an important battle at Bouvines (27 July 1214) against the English, Flemish, and Imperial German troops arrayed against him. The battle effectively ended the Angevin empire on the mainland of France and brought Anjou, Brittany, Maine, Normandy, and the Touraine into the French kingdom. The battle also had a curious effect in England itself – the next year English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.
In the course of just a few decades, the holdings of the Capetian monarchy grew from a small area into the land we recognize now as France.
Today the great basilica of Toulouse shows no trace of the horrific wars that ended the Cathar movement in the land of the langue d’oc. The barrel-vaulted Saint Sernin stands as a beautiful monument to the more peaceful aspirations of our ancestors.
Saint Sernin is known for its wonderful pink stone and the magnificent sculpture that adorns the church. Hundreds of superb capitals top the capitals, tympana highlight the entrances, and some of the finest Romanesque carvings are featured in the ambulatory.
These sculpted plaques, built into the ambulatory, are carved of marble. The ‘Christ in Majesty’ is the most famous, and dates from the early 12th century.
The tympanum of the Miègeville portal dates from the first or second decade of the 12th century and was influenced by early Christian sarcophagi reliefs. This ‘Ascension’ ensemble marks the beginning of the revival of medieval monumental sculpture. Within a generation of its appearance in Saint Sernin, every great cathedral and abbey church in France received one of these defining sculptural compositions.
Today the language of the south is experiencing a revival – occitan is found on signs and heard in the markets. My father recalls with relish a colleague who exclaimed enthusiastically, “on parle la meilleure franchese en Toulousa”. And Simon de Montfort is still held in the greatest contempt.
But nobody could have predicted such extraordinary results from the warlike acts of women and children standing on the roof of the basilica on that day in June of 1218. A great stone crushed the life out of the leader of the Crusade and paved the way for the medieval kingdom of Tolosa to pass into the hands of the hated French king.
Location: 43.608489° 1.442185°