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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Picardie: The Heartland of French Gothic Cathedrals

          From Gallo-Roman origins to Late Medieval Prosperity: In the 11th-12th centuries France's northern provinces of Picardie began to experience a lengthy period of economic prosperity, based on growing agricultural and textile production. This economic expansion occurred together with a sizable population increase, and corresponded with the early period of Gothic cathedral construction at several of the towns in the province, including Senlis, Laon, Noyon, Soissons, Beauvais, and the provincial capital at Amiens.

          Most of the cathedral towns in northern France began as Gallo-Roman market centers at major road and river crossings (fig.1) Primary Gallic tribal centers had typically been converted by the Romans after 50 BC into civitas capitals, which eventually developed into medieval towns.

          The cathedrals were usually built on the sites of early medieval churches, which themselves had often been originally placed on the sites of pagan temples or shrines. Chartres cathedral, for example, is built at the site of the yearly assembly and sacred oak grove of Celtic Druids or priests, while Notre-Dame of Paris is built over the site of a Gallo-Roman temple of Jupiter. There is thus a striking degree of functional continuity and cultural overlay in the cathedral towns, in the use of the same ceremonial locales by different religions in a succession of eras.

[Fig.1: Map of Roman towns in north-central France that became cathedral towns in the Middle Ages. Cathedral sites are shown with red dots (after Barrington Atlas 2000)].

          After the collapse of the Roman Empire and its trade networks in the early 5th century AD, these towns attracted a succession of Germanic and Viking raids up through the 9th century. During this period, the early medieval settlements at Paris, Amiens, Senlis, Soissons, and neighboring towns had contracted within the confines of their 3rd-4th century Roman walls.

          Bourgs and the bourgeoisie: The bourgs or fortified towns of western Europe dated from the late Roman empire (ca. AD 250-400), when walls were built around towns, church centers, and military outposts to ward off increasing barbarian incursions from east of the Rhine River. In succeeding centuries, the walls were successively reinforced with stones taken from ruined Roman buildings, which were also used to build and rebuild early churches within these walls (fig.2). In Senlis, Amiens, and many other towns in France, the ancient Roman walls continued to be maintained as protective enclosures throughout the Merovingian and Carolingian eras (ca. AD 482-987). The genesis of cathedrals often occurred in small, early Christian churches or basilicas located in the central fortified zone of a town, and were literally (as at Senlis and Amiens) built into the ancient Roman wall (see The Roman Wall of Senlis).

          By the 11th century, as riverine trade again flourished in northern France and the threat of outside invasions diminished, merchants began to settle in colonies within the bourgs and ecclesiastical centers. Soon the towns outgrew their ancient walls, as new settlement areas crystallized around mills, factories, and related commercial zones. The merchant and craft worker's colonies expanded outside the original walled towns or bourgs, and were eventually enclosed by an outer city wall called a faubourg, such as the wall built in Amiens in the late 12th century; or that including the Right Bank of Paris where the merchants' ville was located.

         The medieval merchants or suppliers conducting riverine trade were called the bourgeoisie, or inhabitants of the bourg, a term with a fundamentally different meaning than the term bourgeoisie or capitalists used by 19th and 20th century political economists. As Belgian historian Henri Pirenne notes, in his classic analysis of medieval cities (1936) "In our days the word bourgeoisie ... is completely diverted from its original sense... Of the bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages nothing remains." Historian Stephen Murray (1996) also notes that "modern scholarship, dominated by simplistic concerns with class struggle, has sometimes failed to recognize the complexity of the medieval urban fabric." The 12th-13th century burghers in major towns such as Amiens and Paris represented an array of textile manufacturers, riverine traders, and venture capitalists often linked by family ties, who gradually solidified a new political and economic base. This new social entity created new wealth, encouraged upward mobility, and often became allies of the expanding Capetian monrchy, against a backdrop of feudal properties regulated by ecclesiastical laws.

[Fig.2: Gallo-Roman wall at Senlis (photo:Athena Review)].

          While the market towns of the Île de France and Picardie expanded steadily in the 11th-14th centuries, most of the population lived in the countryside, around dozens of villages administered by councils of aldermen and mayors. Village growth in Picardie is demonstrated by evidence of at least sixty town charters issued by the monarchy between 1175 and 1235, the same period in which most of the Gothic cathedrals were first built (Murray 1996). Population estimates based on the census of 1328 suggest that at the height of the Gothic era, during the 13th-14th centuries, Picardie held two million people (compared to today's 1.7 million), making it one of the most densely inhabited provinces of late medieval France. Picardie's largest town, Amiens, had a 13th century population of about 20,000, comparable to Arras (25,000) in neighboring Pas-de-Calais, and Paris (25-35,000) in AD 1190, during the reign of Philippe Auguste (Murray 1996).


          Food and textile production: This demographic rise accompanied a long period of economic growth in Picardie centered on agricultural products, including grain for food consumption, and textile and dye materials for export. The gently rolling, fertile terrain of Picardie (today the "breadbasket" of northern France) had by the middle of the 12th century already become a major producer of wheat. Farm lands were increasingly cleared in the 11th-12th centuries, and more intensive use of horses and improved iron plows and other farming equipment led to a steadily growing cultivation of wheat, barley, and other staple grains.

          Industrial inventions, meanwhile, such as water mills utilizing the Somme and its tributaries led to unprecedented levels of flour and bread production, as well as an upsurge in the manufacture of textiles, which became the prime export of the region. All of this greatly enhanced the economic stability of Picardie. By the early 13th century, at about the time construction began on the new Gothic cathedral in Amiens (fig.3; 1218), an estimated 8,000 tons of grain were provided annually to Amiens from the surrounding farmlands (Murray 1996).

          Ecclesiastical prosperity: An increase in the price of grain around 1200, and a resultant economic boom in Picardie which enriched farmers and landowners, was one of the underlying factors of the surge in cathedral building at that time. Among the large landholders were religious institutions and high-ranking clerics, who could now, in an atmosphere of prosperity, pursue various construction projects related to the Church.

          An expansion in royal coinage during the reign of Philippe Auguste (r.1180-1223) further linked the economies of different towns (see Paris under the Carolingians and Capetians). Significantly, by about 1200 royal coinage replaced local currencies from Laon, Corbie, Beauvais, and Amiens. A more liquid money supply resulted, enabling large capital outlays such as used in cathedral construction. The greater liquidity and supply of money also facilitated the importation of skilled labor and the purchase of construction materials, and enabled the complex logistics of supplying a large temporary or seasonal labor force with food and supplies.

         Royalty vs. feudal counts: Political upheavals in northern France had been building since the breakup of the Carolingian Empire, with local landowning counts usually affiliated with either neighboring Normandy and Flanders. By the end of the 12th century, the monarchy's program of establishing town charters in Picardie, and placing royal provosts in major towns along the Aisne and Oise Rivers including Saint-Quentin, Noyon, Senlis, Corbie, and Peronne came to political fruition (Murray 1996).

          In 1185-1223 Picardie was annexed by the Capetian monarch, Philippe Auguste. He also married Isabella of Hainault, a princess of Flanders, thus gaining extensive new territories. Between 1185 and 1191 Philippe took control of Amiens and eventually, all of central, southern, and eastern Picardie. This was extended to northern Picardie by his 1214 victory over Flemish, Norman, and German adversaries at the Battle of Bouvines. After the death of his first wife, Philippe married the Danish princess Ingeborg in Amiens.

 [Fig.3: West façade of Notre-Dame cathedral at Amiens (photo: Athena Review)].

          Gothic Cathedrals in Picardie: Economic prosperity combined with a more uniform currency, the expansion of urban centers, and a relatively more stable political situation, permitted the expenditure of large amounts of money on the construction of large cathedrals. Several of the major cathedral towns in Picardie, including Amiens (fig.3), Senlis, Noyon, Laon, Soissons, and Beauvais will be covered in the following articles. Construction costs were funded by a variety of methods including donations of land from local bishops (Soissons); donations by the burghers (Amiens); fixed percentages of clerical income from property (also Amiens); and royal gifts (Senlis). [For a fuller discussion of cathedral financing methods, see the article by Wolfgang Schöller]


Murray, S. 1996. Notre-Dame Cathedral of Amiens. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Pirenne, H. 1936. A History of Europe. (tr. B. Miall). New Hyde Park, New York, University Books.

This article appears on pages 53-54 inVol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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