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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 …?'”
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.
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.
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°