Dreams and Decay (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

View of Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) (1702)  Bibliothèque nationale de France,  Image in the Public Domain

View of Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) (1702) Bibliothèque nationale de France, Image in the Public Domain

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.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

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.

View of western gate, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by Dennis Aubrey

View of western gate, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Watercolor (1849) View of Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) Bibliothèque nationale de France, Image in the Public Domain

Watercolor (1849) View of Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) Bibliothèque nationale de France, Image in the Public Domain

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.

Chapel, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

Chapel, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 49.4320088° 0.8192216°

14 responses to “Dreams and Decay (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Helen, I can’t begin to tell you how your brief comment resonated. We were there in the afternoon (obviously) and it was absolutely magical. There were not many people and we were able to spend as much time as we wanted absorbing the feelings and sensations of the ruins. It was not the first time I savored Rose Dame Macaulay’s “pleasure of ruins,” but one of the most intense.

  1. Nothing ever stays the same and Man’s inhumanity to man has been a given ever since humans peopled this earth but it is still very sad to see beauty so wantonly destroyed.

    • Kalli, just today we did a post on the Église Saint Jouin de Marne which also has suffered from those terrible wars of France. The record of French Romanesque carries those scars on almost every church. Even the sublime Notre Dame de Chartres was saved from destruction in the French Revolution by one of the townspeople telling his neighbors that more money would be made by visitors coming to see the cathedral than by selling off the stone. How prescient he was!

  2. After the Joyce quote, Sonnet 64 by Shakespeare seems most appropriate:

    When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
    The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
    When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
    And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
    When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
    Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
    And the firm soil win of the watery main,
    Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
    When I have seen such interchange of state,
    Or state itself confounded to decay;
    Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
    That Time will come and take my love away.
    This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
    But weep to have that which it fears to lose

  3. Had this been southeast Asia, the running roots of giant banyan trees would have covered the walls and discarded blocks by now. At least this ruin is still visible, which is more than you can say about ancient temples in Cambodia. Great photos, Dennis. Thank you… Vann

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