Pleasure boats ride the Yonne as it flows through Auxerre, at ease on both sides of the river. The right size for a city, it has wealth but not too much, enough to feed the body, including the part that can’t live by bread alone. The train from Paris takes an hour, but when you buy your ticket you must ask for “Aussere.” If, however, you are asking for Vix, as in the “Trésor de Vix,” an Iron Age survival due east in Burgundy, you don’t muffle the “x” but pronounce it. Though the French are sticklers for correctness, they speak an impure tongue that bends the rules or honors special cases. Otherwise, no one could stand them. Three hundred years ago, alarmed by this generous streak in themselves, they created a French Academy to clean up the language, and purists today carry on the good fight. Being alive, it fights back, though.
Burgundy in its heyday took in much of modern Belgium, stretching south as far as Provence. Since then it has tightened its belt. Sens, further north in the valley of the Yonne, marks its northern boundary, its southern passing through Cluny, once the light of the world, now a ruin. The Loire River is a natural boundary on the west. Chartres lies above the river, of Burgundy though not in it, like some great aquatic creature left behind by the tide. On the east is Dijon and below it the Côte d’Or, named for its golden earth. Noble wines grow in this earth but ordinary folk like moi même can’t afford them.
More than place names in the atlas, Burgundy is an état d’esprit or state of mind. What it means to my mind is a handful of churches, already ancient when America was young. Sens is the first of them built in the new style, Gothic and feeling for heaven. Others, looking back to Rome and its rounded arches, feel for the earth at our feet. Modified by Norman conquerors, this Romanesque style doesn’t aspire, though the people that favored it made the world tremble. Towers like traffic cones are part of its profile, but seem moored to the vaulting below. Norman churches take their power from restraint, and vitality in check tautens the guy lines.
The English countryside has its own General Issue church, but its profile, like the mindset that produced it, is different. Gray-stuccoed, perpendicular, and hopeful from a distance, it looks less convincing up close.Audace! Toujours audace is a motto for Gothic, and it must succeed hugely to succeed at all. Burgundy’s great churches mix this “French style” with old Romanesque. St. Lazarus in Autun is characteristic, as old as the hills but crowned with a new Gothic belfry.
The new isn’t imposed on the old but rises from it, and the mix isn’t the same as a hodgepodge. There is the comprehensive spirit, then there is the eclectic or je m’en fiche spirit that doesn’t give a damn for anything, so draws the line at nothing. Near the middle of Burgundy, Saulieu, an old post town known for good eating, has its mandatory cathedral, St. Andoche. Though it still holds its head up, French revolutionaries and English soldiers in the Hundred Years’ War have left it sadly bedraggled. The carved capitals on the pillars widen your eyes—look for starters at Balaam and the Ass—but the choir and cupola tell of a later time when taste took a beating, and the word for this church is eclectic.
Every big town in Burgundy gets a star in the guide book for its cathedral, like St.Étienne in Auxerre. Looking across the Yonne to cherry orchards and vineyards renowned for Chablis, this house of God and such locals as want to petition Him, chew the fat, or strike a bargain, commemorates the first Christian martyr. English speakers know him as St. Stephen, Stoned to death in Roman times and often depicted with a stone in his hand, he epitomizes our history of violence. Out of the violence comes its opposite, and his memorial flowers in peace.
Biblical figures on the walls of St. Stephen are truer to life than the people next door, and the stained glass in the ambulatory blazes with blue and red medallions. In the Wars of Religion, Protestants decapitated most of the statues. Exalting the spirit over the flesh, they swept through Burgundy’s old churches, leaving their telltale destruction. Two centuries later, the Revolution took up where these reformers left off. Making a deity of reason, it prayed to Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, like the Trinity but abstracted. For a long time at Sens, Old Testament prophets above the south doorway seemed to utter jeremiads in stone. Not any more, and the revolutionaries, filled with abhorrence for the Word Made Flesh, shortened them all by a head.
Time’s ill wind doesn’t always blow ill. In Auxerre, the abbey church of St. Germain, falling to pieces after a thousand years, has uncovered an older church beneath it. Tombs and underground chapels mix Gothic, Romanesque, and Carolingian styles, and some of the columns reuse Gallo-Roman work from Aries. Stout pillars support the ceiling, between them trompe l’oeil pillars, painted in fresco. In the subterranean church, the natural world and the world of spirit run together, convincing the eye. Wall paintings, some of France’s oldest, show St. Stephen dragged before his accusers. Already the stones are flying but he doesn’t duck, and leaning forward eagerly, prepares to enter an open doorway. Above his head, a helping hand descends from the clouds. Up there is the City of God.
The saint’s eagerness wasn’t everyone’s, many taking their time, often their own sweet time, on the way to the Heavenly City. The men who painted the frescoes knew that life was a pilgrimage but honored it while it was passing. They weren’t deep-dyed sinners, only laggards in the City of Man. A tour guide I know, never at a loss for answers, spells out the difference between the two types or cities, one sacred, the other profane. But both hope for salvation, though the way they pursue it puts them at opposite poles. The man who lives contentedly in the here-and-now needn’t turn a blind eye on salvation, far from it. “Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house,” said St. Odo of Cluny on his deathbed.
Love for the world pairs with a hatred of “terra damnata,” and France then and now accommodates both. In the Year of Revolutions, its chief of state imagined “two true and natural governments,” each vieing for a place in the sun. One looks to the past, the other hangs out at the Cafe du Progrès. One, death on the Big Picture, opts for little things, while the other pulps them like force meat. Challenging this other, too much with me on my travels, I have invented a 12th-century Frenchman, Amadeus de Bourg-Dieu, “God Lover of the City of God.” His heavenly city is earthbound, however, and his God lives in its details.
Jean Thorez is the tour guide with the gift of gab, also a cultural guru. Just now he wants “an egg to peel together,” “un oeuf à peler ensemble.” This old French proverb, he tells his charges, means to set the record straight. History in France is the tale of “two nations,” one the “Notables” or uppercrust, the other those it sits on. Most of France’s down times you can trace to the Notables, embodied in the ancien régime.History’s new broom has swept it into the dustbin, however. As tender-hearted as the next man, he deplores violence but has to acknowledge that you can’t have change without it. After all, the guillotine was an instrument of justice, and the Terror “an emanation of virtue.” He is quoting Robespierre, he says, giving credit where credit is due.
Both of us have been working the same time-honored sites, me for the fun of it, he for his tour guide’s stipend, and it isn’t surprising that our paths continue to cross. But I take a deep breath when I see him again in Auxerre, holding up a placard with his name and title, “Licentiate of the Sorbonne.” Dignity is part of his stageFrenchman’s kit, like the waistcoat on his paunch and the wax on his moustache. The tourists he is shepherding, mostly American, aren’t easily cowed, though. Skipping the “Mister,” many address him as “Gene.”
His mini-lecture, trimmed to sound bytes, mixes history and anecdotal detail. 4,400 villages in France are named after saints, and no wonder if progress has faltered. St. Martin, the patron saint of private charities, tops the list. Cutting his coat in half, he gave half to a poor man, leaving the giver worse off than he was, and the receiver no better. Gene’s version of history runs upward. It has color to spare, like the jacket of a popular novel. In the “dark ages,” feudal landlords with a gleam in their eye wouldn’t take No for an answer. Serving maids in low-cut dresses did what they could to keep virtue intact, but were no match for the droit de seigneur.
Farsighted for a dandy, he misses the world under his nose. Though he takes to ideas like a duck to water, shapes, textures, and colors, all but the boldest, elude him. Religious he isn’t but puts me in mind of a great religious man, St. Bernard, one of Burgundy’s finest. When engineers of genius were building the cathedrals, this saint exalted faith above works. Beauty he “deemed as dung,” and the monasteries he founded, like Fontenay, near Dijon, barred the door to art. Once, walking for a day on the shores of Lake Geneva, he asked in the evening where the lake was.
French peasants around Dijon, the ancient capital of Burgundy, come at the world from a different perspective. Indifferent to the forest, they lock in on the trees. History and its up-and-down doesn’t impress them but they remember their local saint, special like the vin du pays.He was Benignus, most of whose big church went to placate revolutionary zeal. But as the tour books say, Dijon is still worth a detour. Claus Sluter, Holland’s gift to Burgundy, escaped the new broom, and his sculpted head of Christ is still on display in the old refectory beside the cathedral. The bust of Rameau, high cheekbones and a superior smile, still fills its niche in the local museum. He drew ravishing music from catgut.
Still environing the ducal palace, the 18th-century town houses are hotels particuliers.I like the delimiting word. Triangular patterns, rusty, darker red, and bright yellow, zigzag across their tiled Mansart roofs. The triangles look like fish scales before the iridescence goes, and aren’t perfect but serried, crowding together as they ascend. Though St. Bernard lived close by, Sluter the artist gives the city its savor. He stands in the courtyard of the Musée des Beaux Arts, a short, powerful, blocky man, dressed in his artisan’s smock. On his head, he wears a soft-cornered cap like those velvet crushed caps scholars wear in academic processions. His learning isn’t theirs, though, and his hand holds a stone cutter’s mallet.
Stands of poplar fence the fields beside the road to Fontenay. Emptied of people, the land can’t have changed much in 800 years. Conical Norman towers, black, without ornament, give it a skyline. The road skirts a little lake where men in skiffs are casting lazily, sun glinting on their artificial lures. The French make the best lures, curved like the scallop shell pilgrims wore on their way to the shrine of St. James. In the hamlet beyond the lake, every red-tiled roof has a TV antenna. This is change.
The abbey greets you without fanfare, but its cloisters are special. Norman arches undulating like waves of the sea, chaste double columns purged of mortality, they come close to vindicating pure form. Up a flight of stairs off the south transept, the dormitory is vaulted with a chestnut ceiling, hooped like the inside of a barrel. Along either wall of the long narrow building, the lancet windows are mullioned. Glass panes between the lead dividers dispense with color, however, and hard-packed dirt serves for the dormitory floor. A warming room near the scriptorium warms frozen fingers, but otherwise the monastery does without heat. Dominating the forge, the fireplace means business, like the anvil and whetstone. Windows pierce the walls, and a swallow, flying through one of them, crosses the room and flies out another. “Sic transit vita,” I say to myself, St. Bernard getting into my head.
Left of the entrance, the dovecote is Norman, a miniature donjon. The privet hedge smells uriniferous, like rognons de veau.Butterflies skim the hedge top, though the flowers it encloses, white, spiky pale lavender, and pale shades of green, are bleached of all but the suggestion of color. Set in closely cropped grass, tapering arbor vitae frame the four corners. Not a pure ideologue, St. Bernard cared for nature, whatever he thought of men. On the wall in an anteroom, a saying of his, the kind that ought to raise eyebrows, declares this. “One can learn more from things in the woods than in books; the trees and the rocks teach you of things that otherwise you would never understand.”
Once they had him to Cluny, Christendom’s greatest abbey. Comfortable in a valley between rich grazing lands and the wooded slopes of Mâcon, it boasted the largest church in the world. Four centuries later, new St. Peter’s, Rome, was about on a par with Cluny. Inspecting its cloisters, St. Bernard didn’t like what he saw, though. On the sculpted capitals, monkeys, lions, and centaurs cavorted, and he wondered what these creatures, half-beast, half-human, were doing in the house of God. Though he poured scorn on their “mis-shapen shapeliness and shapely mis-shapeness,” the mind of his time runs much on the unlikely pairing. In Burgundy’s heartland, the basilica at Vézelay is named for Mary Magdalene, once a prostitute, canonized later. Unlike some moderns, she wasn’t born again but mended.
St. Bernard had his mighty opposite, Abbot Suger of St. Denis, the “royal abbey.” Giants in their time, they divide the 12th century between them. France’s kings and queens were buried at St. Denis, until the Revolution broke open the tombs. Named for a martyred saint who walked out of Paris with his head in his hands, it remembered the spot where he ran out of steam and fell dead. On the foundation of the old church, Suger built the first Gothic cathedral, a Biblia pauperum in stone. The common people, holy “plebs” of God, couldn’t read or write but learned what they had to from this illustrated Bible. St. Bernard called it “the workshop of Vulcan,” artificer of the pagan gods. Suger said, however: “The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material.”
Gene, my bad-penny friend, has a nearer way to truth, and looking through the world, sees the bare bones beneath it. Gallic people get credit for this super-rational talent, like the detective Hercule Poirot, ransacking his little gray cells. But old Gaul is divided in two parts, at least, some of its people descending from Proust. Stupefied by a piece of sponge cake, he wondered endlessly how it tasted and smelled. Gene has read Proust, what hasn’t he read, but about the famous madeleine has nothing to say. Like the armchair detective, he does best when he deals with pure logic.
Logicians in Suger’s time, previewing our modern horror of things “Eurocentric,” were bullish on the present but filled with contempt for the past. Suger turns this around. We were dwarfs who stood on the shoulders of giants, and the artisans he instructed, fanning out from St. Denis, limned his psychology in pictures. A rose window at Chartres shows the Old Testament supporting the New, and the Evangelists carried by Prophets. His great image, the Jesse Tree, has Christ rising from the root of the prophet. Intellectualizers, bored by the ancestors, laid the ax to the root. But “the recollection of the past is the promise of the future,” a saying of Suger’s. Life wasn’t orderly nor society a theorem, and the tree that figured both grew up crooked.
A man of God at home in the world of the senses, he lived long and died happy, said his monkish biographer, “because he had enjoyed to live.” Meanwhile he wrote poetry, told stories with gusto, and spoke his delight “in the beauty of God’s house.” He liked to eat, and covered his bed “with pretty fabrics in daytime.” Out of his atelier came the art of stained glass. When the king went off on the Second Crusade, he served his country as regent. But the cell where he slept on a pallet of straw measured 10 feet by 15.
Discovering everything in everything else, the old-fashioned intelligence makes my scientific friends smile. Under its scrutiny, our world that seems only particles in flux takes on a crazy coherence. Kubrick the movie-maker, throwing up a bone, turns it into a rocket ship, and the medieval sleight-of-hand man does something like this with his sequence of 3s. Where moderns see a prime number that can’t be divided unless by 1 or itself, he sees the cement of a place we can live in. E.g.the Three Wise Men, versions of the three parts that make up the earth. Because the African third of the earth was dark, another story for another time, one of the Wise Men is too. There they are at Autun, asleep on a single pallet, too tired to take off their crowns.
From the church’s twin towers, you look west to the Morvan hills, Burgundy’s granite spine. On the near side of the hills, the oak forests sheltered Druids. Two millenia ago, the city itself was Roman, but only a pair of gates and the skeleton of a theater recall this. Coming in from the east, you drive through Roman arches split by a Corinthian column. Up the road, the Middle Ages awaits you. Between this proximate past and the remoter past, the modern world raises its head.
Rears its ugly head is more like it. It does this on Rue 1’Arquebus, home of Prix Unique, a multi-storied supermarket. Fresh out of provisions, I take the elevator out in back by le parking.It has an instrument panel with color-coded buttons and fruity symbols like a slot machine’s. No attendant mans the panel, but an old gent in coveralls gets on when I do. He is all grizzled peasant, I am another type, known as Type A, and each of us acts as expected. Decisive like the general who didn’t reason why, I press the red button, setting off an explosion of bells.
“Nous sommes dans la choucroute,” evidently “in the sauerkraut,” the old one informs me, showing the whites of his eyes. His thumb like a hammer thumbs another button, and the 1812 Overture falls silent. Emerging on the second floor, known as the first floor, le premier étage, I am blinded by white light, the kind that goes with apparitions. In its spooky glow, packaged vegetables, canned fruit, tins of anchovies, and giant rolls of toilet paper come to life like animated cartoons. The intercom, stereophonic and not to be evaded, is playing music of The Grateful Dead. On the radio this morning, France’s minister of culture, deploring the tide of neologisms, has had words for the tide of “cacaphony,” too. Seeping in from you know where, it threatens our national fiber.
Not an American import for nothing, the supermarket has gin on the shelves, though. Clutching my trophy, I head back to the parking lot, this time via the stairs. Electric power, lighting the fluorescent lights in the stairwell, doesn’t disclose its modus operandi—no packets of energy moving from A to B—but cause and effect have their apparent relation. I don’t need to take it on faith. Once I cut a live wire with a pair of wire cutters, and still have the cutters with a hole in them to prove it. Medieval people missed this experience, and their sense of relations is different.
You can skin the cat in more ways than one, however. Men and women of Autun, rooted in the physical world, weren’t aware of a “ghostly paradigm” beneath it, but the way things worked got their attention, and the questions they asked were real posers. Notoriously, they asked how many pins you could stick in an angel’s bum, or was it bums on the head of a pin. Connoisseurs of number asked about the four rivers of Paradise—still there between the apse and choir—wondering why they had to be four. The answer to this one is easy.
Numbers like 3 and 4, potent like magnetism or an electric current, made nature’s insubordinate parts toe the line. Four winds blew about the earth, divided in four quarters like the cardinal virtues and the North-South-East-West of the compass. Four gospels irrigated the world, and the rivers of Paradise did the same for the Garden of Eden. The capital at Autun shows how they did it. Tickling old funny bones, four crowned figures carry jugs on their heads, and upending them, turn the dry earth to water.
St. Lazarus still dominates the old town south of the river, but most of its patrons are tourists. The saint who gave it its name, brought back from death by a miracle, is in his grave for good, or looks down from an empty heaven on a dwindling communion. When St. Hugh, Cluny’s greatest abbot, died at the beginning of the 12th century, his monastery’s daughter-houses, scattered through France and as far away as Poland, numbered nearly 1200.As the modern age dawned, a new psychology questioned their merit.”Freed from the heavy Gothic night,” said Rabelais, “our eyes are opened to the single torch of the sun.” Though prone to jokes, he wasn’t joking, and his “Gothic” meant the old days, all that wasn’t modern.
Soon after his death, Huguenots pillaged the library at Cluny. Later, the Revolution sent what they spared to a great bonfire, like that on the Unter den Linden. Smashing the statues inside and out, soldiers stripped the lead from the roof. Rain rotted the timbers. A merchant from Mâcon, having bought the monastery for building materials, laid out a street through the center of the nave, and blew up the bell towers and chancel. By 1823, only a transept tower remained.
Until the other day, few have regretted this. “Great God, what ugliness!” said Stendhal at Autun, and Pater allowed Vézelay “little or no sense of beauty.” Eighteenth-century canons, cleaning house at Chartres, demolished the ancient rood screen separating nave and choir. Bits and pieces survive in the crypt for tourists to ooh and aah at. Canons at Autun and Vézelay plastered over the sculpted figures on the tympanum and interior portal. At St. Lazarus they broke off the head of Christ and broke up and took down the Temptation of Eve that used to adorn the north lintel. In our age when one man’s taste is no better than another’s, the Christ of Vézelay is available again, freed from its plaster coat. Next to Autun’s cathedral, Eve, put back together, reaches once more for her apple. A nude temptress with full breasts and heavy lidded eyes, she has Botticelli hair falling to her shoulders. Gislebertus, stone mason of Autun, did Eve’s likeness. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, he carved his name beneath the Last Judgment.”Gislebertus made this.”
The mark of his hand doesn’t vary. Leaves and palm fronds on his capitals resemble a woman’s boa, swept-back wings are for angels, for his devils pointy ears, buck teeth, and electric hair like an Afro. You can tell his women from his men. Gene the tour guide has a modish piece in the recent Nouvelle Revue Française, comparing the medieval image of woman—he mentions Gislebertus’ Eve—with our deconstructed modern image, familiar from certain paintings by Picasso. Like thesis and antithesis, if I take his meaning, with synthesis still over the horizon.
In the same NRF piece, this ingenious cicerone plays the “What-century-would-you-choose-to-come-back-in” game. He wants to come back a hundred years in the future, when the contradictions that beset us no longer exist and the world’s great age has begun. Joining in the game, I choose to come back in the High Middle Ages. Not as a peasant, though, as Abbot of Vezelay.
Festooning the little town, swags of wisteria grow on the walls of houses and on free-standing walls. At right angles to the road climbing up to the church, the highway ends in lush champaign country, not flat but broken with hillocks. Yellow and green crops alternate in the fields, a pattern repeated in the two-toned arches that hold up the church roof. As the light wanes, starlings swoop past the open windows of my hotel, their up-and-down like a roller coaster’s. Reaching the top of the rise, they steady, then plunge.
I lie awake, looking over the rooftops until the midnight sky makes a cheap Christmas card, sprinkled with a million stars. Dawn is French and theatrical, a moment of éclaircissement and on me before I know it. In the early light, the squared-off fields stand out sharply, like geometric figures, but as it strengthens they lose definition. Contours begin to shimmer and a painterly world, “pointillist,” takes over from the mathematician’s. Cock crow begins at first light. Chiming in with the rooster, king of his dunghill, coal-black hens cluck in the garden below.
The “white noise” is from the trucks, downshifting as they climb the little hills and descend. Like an automated camel train, they are carrying produce from the country to the city and its markets. Old Les Halles, where early risers broke their fast on onion soup and pigs’ feet, is gone with the snows of yesteryear, and the trucks, rolling through the night, are bound for the modern market at Rungis. Nothing in the past to match the metal-on-metal screech of their gears. Silence, the one intolerable thing to moderns, filled every pore of the medieval village. You could smell it a mile away, though.
Some in the village made a fetish of abstention, heroizing crazy anchorites who bruised the body to pleasure soul. Capitals at Vézelay supply the details. St. Benedict, retired to the desert, and why was its stony soil their ideal landscape? is tempted by the devil, leading on a woman he used to know in his youth. But the saint tears off his clothes and throws himself into a thorn bush.”Misogynist,” Gene calls this culture of denial, getting part of it right.Amor vincit omnia,they told themselves fearfully, seeing how sexual love had power to blot out the life everlasting. Woman was “Satan’s lyre,” and on one horrific capital, she shrinks away as the devil gropes her naked body. Behind him, a jongleur, it looks like, plays a merry tune on his horn. Whatever this means, it means mischief.
But the same 12th century that licked its lips at fevered sexual images sponsored the cult of the Virgin. You see her at Vézelay on the south portal, heroine of the Christian epic. Not etherealized either, she is flesh of our flesh, a woman like the milkmaid that does the meanest chores. The devil she spurns comes out of nightmare— dwarfish, macrocephalic, with a simian forehead—and is also a figure of fun. The God born of her body is both the Pantocrator and the Son of Man, intimate with all the ills flesh is heir to. Even in their greatest age, the Greeks, radiant with health, strength, and poise, have nothing to show us like this.
Though Vezélay’s art is didactic, a dread word to moderns, its teaching needs delighting, the two going together like the yolk and white of one shell. The St. Eugenia capital, seventh pillar on the north side, means to instruct us but doesn’t mind a bit of tickle. Quick-marched to the altar by her father, the local bigwig, this unwilling saint detoured to a monastery, hiding out for years in monk’s costume. Some of Shakespeare’s women dress up like men, triggering the happy ending where you have to suspend disbelief, and Vézelay wasn’t above it. Accused of rape by a lustful woman—she hadn’t heard that appearances deceive us—Eugenia bares her breasts at the trial. This astounds and persuades the trial judge, who else but her father. You remember his eyes as he looks around, stage-left, for the exit. Devotees of last things find the story beside the point, and St. Bernard will have asked them about it.
On Vézelay’s northern slope, he preached the Second Crusade and Richard the Lion Hearted mustered his army. Above the plumes and banners, St. Mary Magdalene looked out from the height of Heaven. Grapes, a Sargasso Sea of them, flow down from her basilica, behind it the blue Morvan hills. A single tower where there ought to be two rises over the west front, to its rear the long roof, topped by dome and finial. The narthex, a huge vestibule, admits you to the nave. When the doors are open, you sight along an avenue of light, lined by white-and-brown columns. Or the nave is a country road lined by plane trees, and patches of bark have peeled off the trunks of the trees.
The Christian temple is full of surprises, giving entrée to the centaur who tutored Achilles, and Ganymede in the claws of the eagle. Each brings the ancient past into the present, and that is lucky, like the Fortunate Fall. But this ecumenical world doesn’t cancel distinction. Over the central door of the narthex, earth’s citizens show off their difference, some turbaned like Othello’s Turk, others with dogs’ heads or huge ears like the vans of a windmill.”Vertically challenged,” a pigmy needs a ladder to get up on his horse. Modern men and women, agnostics in religion but true believers in their politics, say that all are equal, omitting the qualifier, “in the sight of God.” Without it, however, the saying is foolish, and the stone tableau only a freak show.
Huffing and puffing, I walk up the nave toward the apse and its radiating chapels, dragging my old man’s body with me. I am a medieval pilgrim, paying my respects to some “holy blissful martyr,” at the same time a modern man, en route to my death. This trip to the past had pleasure for its end, though, and I don’t mean to be gloomy. Like the Bishop-Princes of Sens who indented the dining table to make room for their bellies, the abbot and friends of his ate well at Vézelay, crayfish, frogs, boar and venison, fairy-ring mushrooms, fat snails. Gorging on cheeses, they favored creamy Chaource and powerful-smelling Époisses, washed down with the wine of the country. Truth to tell, it has its debit side, stimulating venery. In the old days, however, the celibate life was a goal they strove for. If their reach exceeded their grasp, that wasn’t the end of the world.
Keeping flocks and tilling the soil were the two “paps” of France, said the great duke Sully. He was friends with Henry IV, the same who thought Paris worth a Mass, and what he said 400 years ago seems on target to me, motoring back in time though the country. As Paris and environs disappear in the rear view mirror, the modern world and its veneering burn off like morning dew. South of Évreux, shocks of wheat and cylinders of hay, one to feed the farmer, the other his flocks, stand on end in the yellowing fields. Some are planted in sun flowers, blazing like Van Gogh’s. Protected from the motor car by strands of wire, white cattle, the famous Charolais, are beefing themselves up for the table. Men have worked these fields forever, and they are broken, like all civilized places, to the hand.
Marching with the N-10, pollarded trees cut nature down to size. But no fence or housewall lacks its obligatory creeper. The creepers creep, however, not asserting themselves like trees in California, and nature and man have worked out an entente cordiale.Public spirit hasn’t caught on here. Litter blows along the highway, and from the windows of cars, more of it, a jet stream, keeps coming. No “Adopt a Highway” signs on French highways.
My route south carries on to Bordeaux but I get off at the exit for Chartres. East of town, the roadside cafe, a convenient pit stop, invites travelers to choose among partridge, pheasant, hare, and trout from the River Eure. This takes thought and turns out to be worth it. Men, women, and dogs share most of the tables. Discouraging ooh-la-las, the women wear shapeless frocks made for Deborah Kerr in Brief Encounter.One, lisping like a devote, shares her lunch with a squeaky lap dog. Diners, their elbows boring holes in the table, drag deep on Gauloises, ignoring the defense de fumer signs. Pear shapes predominate, and bottoms envelope the plastic chairs they sit on. After 40, Frenchmen think, a man has the right to let down his belly. Only once have I seen a jogger.
Windmills, creaking like castle doors in old horror movies, stand about the Beauce Plain on the outskirts of Chartres. Tall above the wheat fields, the cathedral called for Our Lady shows its profile from a distance, and once seen, isn’t ever forgotten. Pilgrims trekking south thought they saw the towers of the New Jerusalem. Twin spires thrust at Heaven, not a Norman thing to do, but these are twins-with-a-difference, like the stone Gemini carved on archivolts beside the church doors. The North Tower is the new one, finished 400 years ago. Its stonework, like lace stitched with hammer and chisel, is all about joie de vivre.On your right as you face it, the Old Spire, less flamboyant, dares more. Sprung from a square tower, the steeple makes an octagon, smooth as a skating rink and narrowing as it goes up. Pointed gables, thrusting it up, hide the transition, and you feel that what you see is what you get. Rising toward Heaven, it rises from earth, a limitation and the source of its power.
As I enter the nave, Gene the tour guide is at it, giving “jam to the pigs,” la confiture aux cochons.E.g.quarries at Berchères, five miles away, furnished the ceiling stone. A miracle that they got it up there, and he points toward the great blocks under the roof, “115 feet over our heads.” He has a lot to say about the Holy Camisole, this church’s most highly venerate relic. Mary, Christ’s mother, wore it next to her body at the Annunciation, or maybe at the Nativity, and its travels from Palestine to medieval France make a story he likes to embroider.
All the natural world comes crowding in at Chartres, fish and birds on the voissoirs surrounding the arches, on the rood screen the lion St. James says we are yoked to, and the serpent, engineer of our fall. May, the merry month, his winter hat discarded, carries a hawk on his wrist. July is for reaping, and a bas-relief peasant mows down the wheat with his scythe. Winter waits round the corner, though, and February finds him frozen with cold, warming his feet by the fire. He does this on the north porch, north for winter darkness and the dark age before our new dispensation.
In last things Chartres is simple, an affront to Gene’s little gray cells, but where the waters are limpid he roils them.”C’est ne pas du gâteau,” he advises his hearers, pausing in front of this statue or painting.”It isn’t a piece of cake.” His model artist, setting up a strawman, fakes out the reader. Or he himself is fooled, and the reader, deconstructing him, “unpacks” his hidden intention. This is what happens in the well-known essay Gene’s reputation depends on. “Sophocles contre Lui-Même,” he calls the essay, proving that Oedipus suffered from an Oedipus Complex. He really meant to kill his father and marry his mother, but the author didn’t know that.
Gift shops around the church set out copies of the Christmas crib, shepherds in their fields by night, and Jews like homunculi, made of plaster of Paris. They stand for the old law but turn up on the west portal, wearing their funny hats. Medieval people thought the Old Testament advertized the birth of Christ, “recognized in the midst of animals,” so for their Nativities invented the ox and the ass. No ensemble more touching than the one on the rood screen, but you had to have the ass to carry Mary to Bethlehem, the ox coming along in order that Joseph could sell it. Justifying all that “copia,” stone- and glass-workers supposed we came to God through our senses. They wanted the whole story, completed with that extra thing, a sense of air about it. At Chartres, two midwives appear on Christmas day. Sometimes you see them washing the child in a tub.
Hierarchies organized the world outside the church, but the low man on the pole equaled the highest in the sight of God. On the Royal Portal, Aristotle, a writing desk on his knees, pen at the ready above it, bows his massive head in thought. Beside him, a shepherd raises the Pan-pipes, ready to play. The mason has bored out the pupils of his eyes and he looks on vacancy, or perhaps is witless. But like the master of those who know, he fills a place.
When I lived in Paris in the 60’s, I read St. Augustine on the two cities, one God’s, the other the world’s. The Bishop of Hippo runs on, to say the least, and his eye, more than mine, is on the world over yonder. But his two cities partake of each other, and the one in Heaven has its sympathizers on earth.”Sojourners,” he calls them, biding their time until the resurrection. This bit in the meantime gets my attention. Even the bishop, a great Salvationist, said he wanted to be saved, “but not yet.”
While I read I smoked cigarettes, one after the other, on the table beside me a glass of oily liqueur. All these years later, if I open The City of God, I smell the acrid smell of Gauloises, mingled with Marc de Bourgogne. Weekends, with my son I trooped round to old churches like St. Germain dés Pres, the oldest of all, on the Left Bank close to the river. It might have been stolid except for its spire, cone-shaped like the hat Jews wear in old paintings. Looking at it, your eye travels up, not all the way to Heaven, though, and this church sanctifies the mundane.
Descartes, a philosopher who cared about the forest more than the trees, is buried in the south chancel. He took his cue from early icon smashers, but where they broke things, bad enough, he looked through them. Getting rid of flesh and blood, he turned Euclid’s spatial figures into algebraic equations. Some countrymen of his were “Cartesian” long before the word was coined, and some are still with us today. Pairs of Romanesque arches support the square tower of St. Germain dés Pres. Four pairs in all, a sacred number, they keep the church from flying apart. In my next life, I want to live within sight of the spire.
My son, who thought an altar was where you sacrificed beasts, liked the gorier side of old churches. St. Bartholomew, flayed alive, appeared in bronze or marble holding up his own skin, and St. Lawrence the griddle he burned on. When we first encountered them, I was no older than my son is today. Best was headless St. Denis, decapitated but cradling his head in his hands, gingerly, befitting a relic. His likeness survives in the church Abbot Suger built, still standing in a northern suburb of Paris. On a Sunday morning, wanting to see how time has been treating it, I make the journey again.
The northern suburbs used to be Communist and working-class French, but the people riding the Metro are mostly Third World, black African, West Indian, Oriental, Near Eastern. Loafing and chaffering around the cathedral, the men wear jalabas, and a street market like a souk covers several square blocks. Gaudy canvas awnings shade the booths from the sun, but keep the smell of skewered lamb and the sweat of its customers from wafting away on the breeze. Though modern St. Denis has come down in the world, Sunday Mass is packed. Many are suited up in their best, some devout, others passing the time. No dogheaded worshipers, like the ones old travelers saw in the East, but otherwise this congregation evokes the one in Vézelay’s narthex. Both are catholic, not the sect, the amalgam. Full of good hope, appropriate to Sundays, I imagine my favorite century staging a comeback on the scruffy outskirts of the city.
Decorating the arch supports around the doors of the church, the seasons of the year and signs of the Zodiac tell of time passing and returning on itself. The middle door, embossed metal, does the Last Judgment, reprobate and elect, angels and Elders of the Apocalypse, demons dragging in their prey. Above this omnium gatherum, the Son of God holds out His hands. Nothing human was alien to Him, and the spectrum of humanity covered the whole of creation. Sentimental He isn’t, though, and granting mercy to some, He withholds it from others. But His discrimination is moral.
Jews keep their heads down in this quarter of Paris. Unexpectedly, though, I come across them in St. Denis. Suger himself supervised its construction, dictating themes and stories, and in a stained glass window, Christ crowns the Church with one hand, unveiling the Synagogue with the other. Old and new law made a pair like the twins in the Zodiac, not identical, only fraternal. At least it was like that when Suger built his cathedral. Tolerant he could hardly be, not in the Age of Faith. He was provident, however, the next best thing, and Jewish heroes, 20 of them, appear on his portals. You know them by their hats, conical or shaped like a melon.
At just this time, an Italian banking family gave the Papacy a Jewish Pope. St. Bernard, speaking for the establishment, called him an Anti-Pope, and historians still follow his lead. A power struggle with the establishment turned out badly, and he isn’t much remembered today. But that is only because the other side won.