I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then? James Joyce, Ulysses
In reading this quote from Joyce, the image evoked by “one livid final flame” is the destruction of the Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire de Béziers where the heat grew so intense from the flames that the church exploded “like a grenade;” it split in two and collapsed in an inferno on those sheltering within. But often the destruction is less of an explosion and more of a decay.
No church demonstrates this gradual destruction as much as the famous Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges, one of the landmarks of the Norman architectural renaissance in the 11th century. There had been a monastery on the site since 654 and in its early heyday, the abbey had a population of a thousand monks.
The Vikings appeared in the 9th century and on May 24, 841, the Carolingian monastery was burnt to the ground. The monks scattered and prayed “A furore Normannorum libera nos Domine!” (“From the fury of the Normans, Lord deliver us!”) Shortly after, the French king purchased the peace with Rollo and his Vikings by signing the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. The blighted lands on the west coast of France became Normandy and experienced a marvelous renaissance at the hands of their former tormenters. The abbey at Jumièges was rebuilt by William Longespee, Duke of Normandy, a century after its previous destruction. On the first of July 1067, Champart, archbishop of Rouen, dedicated the abbey church Notre Dame de Jumièges – the glory of Norman Romanesque architecture – in the presence of William the Conqueror. During this time, the abbey became one of the great centers of learning in Europe and her abbots participated in all of the important affairs of both church and state.
Decline began in the 15th century during the English invasions of Henry V. The abbey suffered greatly – many of the monks fled both a plague and war. Both English and French troops looted and pillaged the monastery. Jumièges was lamentabiliter desolata, destructa and annihilata, sad desolate, destroyed and annihilated. Felled buildings, ruined farms, and agriculture were abandoned for five years. Nicholas Le Roux, abbot of Jumièges, felt that the abbey was being punished for his participation in the trial of Joan of Arc.
During the Wars of Religion, the abbey was sacked again. On May 8, 1562 the Huguenots, not content with ravaging Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre and Cadebec, put Jumièges to the sword. Every thing of value – even the lead with which the buildings were covered – was looted. The books of the library and the archives were stolen. The abbey was once again desolated. A mere seventeen monks returned to bring order to the chaos.
Further disaster struck during the French Revolution. The abbey was sold and in 1795 the purchaser, Pierre Lescuyer, destroyed the cloister and dormitory. In 1802 a new owner, Jean-Baptiste Lefort, timber merchant from nearby Canteleu, demolished the choir of the church, which subsequently served as a stone quarry until 1824.
With the added decay of time and neglect, we are left with a ruin that only hints at the glorious abbey that was the pride of both Normandy and France. Even the best of our hopes and dreams and love will fall in decay, perhaps leaving an impression of greatness, but most likely scenting softly of decay, even in the glorious sunlight of a Norman afternoon.
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