The Lost Poets of Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ will tell you one thing about my work at Via Lucis; I love research. It runs in the family; my brother David is a scientist with books and hundreds of published papers to his credit. My sister Ann is a professional writer and editor, and my brother John Paul is a professional researcher as well as an accomplished classical musician. Today’s article only happened because I was determined to figure out a discrepancy in the dating of a Norman church.

The town of Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville, famous for the Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, is about 12 kilometers by road west of Rouen. This abbey church is the largest and most beautiful Romanesque church in Normandy, and best preserved example of pure Norman church construction.

Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Most descriptions of the church put the date of the construction specifically between the years 1113 to 1140 and claim that it was built by Benedictine monks from the Abbaye de Saint-Évroult-en-Ouche, famous for its Abbot Lanfranc. But both the date and the founders seem to be erroneous. The abbey church at Boscherville is built on almost exactly the same lines as Queen Mathilda’s famed Église Sainte-Trinité in Caen which was started in 1059. Matilda was, of course, William the Conqueror’s wife.

In researching the situation, I came across Albert Besnard’s exhaustive 1899 monograph on Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville, which makes a very strong case of an earlier date around 1090. Citing the perfect architectural harmony achieved at a time of rapid developments in the constructive arts, Besnard estimated that the church was completed within the space of seven years or so, placing the dates of construction sometime during the 1080’s. This fits with the Archives of the abbey as well, which states that the church was built at the behest of William the Conqueror, who died in 1087.

Nave, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But what I find fascinating is the information buried in the description of the arrival of the monks of Saint-Évroult-en-Ouche in 1113, a year that seems to be the source of the erroneous dating of the church’s construction. If the church was built by 1090 and the Benedictines arrived in 1113, who occupied the church during the intervening 23 years?

Side aisle, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

This is where the story starts to get interesting. The archives of Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville mention that the church was originally built as a collégiale, or a collegiate church for canons. A collegiate church is defined as “a church where the daily office of worship is maintained by a college of canons; a non-monastic or ‘secular’ community of clergy, organized as a self-governing corporate body, which may be presided over by a dean or provost.”

But sometime in the early years of the 12th century at the new church in Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville there was a problem in discipline in the community of canons.

Apse, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

What was the manifestation of this lack of discipline? Was it licentiousness, greed, gluttony, or one of the other deadly sins? Was there violence amongst the brothers? The answer is as delightful as it is unexpected. It seems that the head canon, a cleric named Deville, was responsible. His crime? He was a poet!

The archives describe how Brother Deville substituted his austere prayers with worship of the muses. “He wandered the shady oaks of the forest of Roumare,” embroidering his very pretty fantasies instead of kneeling on the hard stone floors of his new church.

Crossing, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Normandy was the land of the descendents of the Vikings who terrorized Europe. At this time in history, they were busy carving out new kingdoms in England, Sicily and throughout Europe. What must these hardy Normans have thought of their gentle poet in their midst who dreamed of couplets instead of conquest?

PJ fell completely in love with this idea of the poet who let his congregation lapse as he pondered his verse. She said, “I can just see him out in the garden wandering, and he says ‘I wonder what rhymes with …?'”

Transept chapel, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Transept chapel, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Perhaps it was only Deville who was smitten, but I can easily imagine the entire community of brothers wandering the gardens and the forests seeking their rhymes as they ignored the good works expected of a collegiate community. The neighbors who watched the church rise to its perfection in seven short years might have wondered at the poets and exchanged scandalous glances.

We will never know if it was the whole of the community or just Deville alone who was responsible, but the strict Benedictine monks came to Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville. The poets packed their meager belongings and disappeared into the mists of history, but PJ and I will remember them fondly.

Chapter house sculpture, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chapter house sculpture, Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally, there is one other thing of note about our exploration of the abbey – this was the site of one of PJ’s favorite shots of me.

Dennis working at Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Dennis working at Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Georges, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The lady in the picture watched with guarded interest as I worked until we started talking. She told me that she lived just a few minutes from the church and this was her favorite place. She was so glad that we took an interest in “her” church and was particularly taken with the fact that we were from the United States. I wonder if she knew about the poets who wandered the woods in Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville.

Location: 49.4442° 0.9645°

16 responses to “The Lost Poets of Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What a delightful way to begin this glorious morning of April first in southern Arizona.
    Thanks so much for your great piece of research, Dennis. And PJ. what a neat photo of Dennis

    • Thank you, Margarita. PJ and I both love the idea of the dreamy monks wandering around seeking their muses. It might not have been quite so romantic in reality, but in our imaginations, it is just so.

  2. Well done Dennis! I reckon you’re absolutely right about the earlier date being the proper one for this magnificent church. And I reckon I might be able to prove it! One of your photos (no. 5) shows the current sanctuary under the crossing tower with a gilmpse into the north transept. This transept seems to be closed by an arcade before the north wall, Exactly the same detail can be seen in the north transept of Winchester Cathedral in England.

    This cathedral was built by Bishop Walkelin, a relative of William the Conqueror and onetime chaplain to the King. Walkelin was appointed bishop of Winchester in 1070. In 1079 he began to build a new cathedral in Winchester, a structure which still survives although dressed in later Perpendicular Gothic finery. Walkelin’s cathedral was completed and dedicated in 1093, and on the day after the dedication the old cathedral of St Swithin was demolished. Walkelin died in 1098 – so he managed to oversee the building of the longest cathedral in medieval Europe during his episcopacy! And they say that medieval builders were slow? Not if the patron was in a hurry!

    One question – did any of the poetry composed by the priests survive?
    One thing is clear – St Martin-de-Boscherville is beautiful! No wonder the priests were lost in composing poetry! I love the creamy white interior and the contrast between the white stone walls and dark blue slate on the roof and spire.

    • Thanks,Tony, great information on Walkelin’s cathedral at Winchester. I took the liberty of linking to your referenced photograph in your comment (we normally never touch the comments). PJ and I haven’t shot in England yet, but Winchester is high on the list.

      As far as the poetry, the only reference that I have found to the situation is in the archives of Jumiéges, which was the mother-house of Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville. And the only references there were the few that I cited, but there was a reference to tales of warlike deeds in addition to the more peaceful verses.

  3. Many thanks for your work to make this fascinating little tale ,so appropriately punctuated with the images, and for Tony Harpur’s additional note as well. Great.

  4. Indeed it must have been strange for the locals to see the warlike Norman clergy wandering about the woods in search of inspiration. Great story.

    Also, I visited Mathilda’s Eglise Sainte-Trinite in Caen several days ago and the resemblance of the nave is striking. I have 1 week left in Normandy (currently I’m still in Caen, staying on a farm/collective with a bunch of young French people) but I fly out of Deuville, in Upper Normandy, so I have to go back in the direction of Rouen. I will try to pay a visit to St-Martin-de-Boscherville. Know anything about visiting hours?

    • Nathan, wish we could join you in Normandy to explore – one of our favorite areas. Sainte-Trinité is wonderful. Did you study the vaulting in Saint-Etienne and Sainte-Trinité. In those churches you are looking at the origins of the Gothic quadripartite vault.

      As far as Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville, when we were there it was open and virtually empty the entire day that we were there. There is a museum in the gardens, and I know that they provide guided tours, so I think it would be open all the time.

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