Charlemagne and the Buckwheat King (Dennis Aubrey)


The Église Saint-André-de-Sorède is in the town of Saint André but is named after the nearby town of Sorède two miles south. Just three miles to the west is the church at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines. The Église Saint-André is actually a pre-Romanesque church dating from the 9th Century that was in a state of dishevelment by 1109 and was repaired and expanded and a new Benedictine community established there. The bones of what we see today, however, is that original Carolingian church.

The general plan is that of a Latin cross featuring a nave with three bays, two extremely narrow side aisles, a rounded apse, and an echeloned chapel in each transept.

Plan, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Plan, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

The exterior view of the chevet gives a view of the layout of the apse and the large chapels protruding from the east wall of the transepts.

Chevet, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The view down the nave to the apse shows the imposing piers that support the barrel vault. The transverse arches spring from pilasters and carry across the space to help support the weight of the stone vault. The vault is quite high and makes the church feel larger than it really is.

Nave, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

An interesting feature of the church is the narrow side aisle between the nave piers and the side walls. Most likely this is an artifact of the 12th century rebuilding campaign when the church was vaulted. The vault springs directly from the piers, which were probably added at that time as reinforcement to support the heavy weight of the stone vault, which well could have been too heavy to be supported solely by the outer walls. The piers were added and an arc rampant from the outer wall to each pier probably was added for support, creating the narrow, almost unusable, side aisle. Notice the barrel vault in the aisle running parallel to the nave.

Because the outer wall had no requirement to support the vault, it was possible for the builders to put fairly large windows in the side aisles. These provide a significant amount of illumination to the interior, far more than we would find in the sister church at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, which also dates from the Carolingian era but without the later modifications.

Side aisle arch rampant, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle arch rampant, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The flat western wall also has a large window above the portal. The amount of natural lighting at Saint-André-de-Sorède makes the church fairly unique in another aspect – there are no artificial lights on during the daylight hours and the church exists without intrusive modern lighting fixtures that we find elsewhere.

Nave from altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is a simple semicircular structure covered with an oven vault, while the transept crossing is covered with a barrel vault. The three windows in the apse walls provide lighting adequate to the space, again without the intervention of electrical fixtures.

Apse, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A highlight of the apse is the 11th century altar table made of marble with ornate carvings around the perimeter.

Altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most significant artifacts of the church at Saint-André is the lintel over the west portal. It has a great deal in common with the similar lintel found just 5 kilometers away at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines. We have examined these two early Romanesque carvings in a previous article. It should be noted that the Saint-André lintel is the same dimensions as the altar table shown previously, and imitates the format and subject matter of Carolingian altar retables. This indicates that at one time it might have been used for this purpose.

Lintel, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lintel, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There was once a cloister attached to the abbey church, but it was destroyed in the 15th century by troops of Philip II.

There is one very odd feature of the church. In one of the side chapels is a pierre tombale musulmane, a Muslim tombstone known under the Moroccan name of Mqabriya. This appears to be a sarcophagus cover and is carved with interlacing floral motifs and quotes from the Koran. One of these reads, “You are our Protector and give us victory over the disbelieving people.” Verse (2:286) The Mqabriya was found in the masonry of the church during restoration work.

Marble Mqabriya, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Marble Mqabriya, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

In trying to find more information about the Mqabriya, I came upon an interesting story. The Tractatusde captione Gerunde from the 15th century refers to Charlemagne’s wars in the Pyrénées against the Saracens. There is discussion that after a victory by the Emperor, he dedicated a convent in a town called Milet, near Elne. Jules Coulet, whose text is the source of my information, writes, “Celui-ci s’était borné à mentionner, qu’après la victoire remportée à Milet, Charlemagne avait élevé une église, placée sous l’invocation de saint André, auprès de la quelle se trouvait un monastère,” (It had merely mentioned that after the victory at Milet, Charlemagne had erected a church, under the invocation of Saint André, which subsequently became a monastery.)

Coulet was unable to find the town of Milet that the Tractatus supposedly referenced and instead posits that the text refers to the church at Saint-André-de-Sorède. This is approximately contemporary to the conventional explanation that the Benedictine abbey was founded by a Spanish monk called Miron around 800 and consistent with the dates of the Frankish-Moorish Wars (779-812).

If the chronicles are correct, Charlemagne won a major victory over the Saracens on the site of Saint André and dedicated this church in remembrance of the victory. What this means for the Mqabriya, I don’t know. I would like to think that this was part of a sarcophagus of a great Islamic warrior who fell on the battlefield before the great Emperor Charlemagne and that his headstone was taken to the church as a sign of respect. But this is probably merely fancy; the Mqabriya is probably from a later time (I have read of datings from the 10th and 12th centuries, both based on the supposed common use of the texts carved into the stone) and certainly there were more pacific verses than the “give us victory over the disbelieving people” that I quoted earlier. But these are just late-night fantasies, pleasant to indulge in but ultimately of little import.

South transept, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

South transept, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally, I should explain the title of this post, which is, of course, a jest. In researching Jules Coulet’s text from 1907, I ran across a paragraph that gave me trouble, so I translated it using an automatic translator. A line in that passage reads “A deux reprises encore, le roi sarrasin s’efforce d’arrêter les chrétiens, mais Charlemagne surmonte tous les obstacles,” which translates to “Twice again, the Saracen king tries to stop the Christians, but Charlemagne overcomes all obstacles.” The translation that was provided, however, read “Twice again, buckwheat king tries to stop Christians, but Charlemagne overcomes all obstacles.” Sarrasin, of course, means “buckwheat” as well as Saracen! I’ll never be able to eat a crêpe from Brittany without laughing at the “Buckwheat King’.

Location: 42.5525° 2.9711°

8 responses to “Charlemagne and the Buckwheat King (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. This was all very interesting. You’ve given me a few more churches to visit when I get there. I’m very grateful for your recent posts about the Pyrénées-orientales, Dennis.

      • PJ is quite taken with sarrasin because she has ciliac’s disease and can’t eat regular breads. She was so delighted to find out that buckwheat is available. We have a local French bakery here in Falmouth that makes a wonderful sarrasin loaf, but it is hit-or-miss as to when they bake it.

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