Rouen: we consider pilgrimage and cathedrals

Day 16: Blessed are the fish merchants for they shall be known as donors of stained glass. The 13th century French cathedral and pilgrimage.

(Previous post: Day 15 Clères to Rouen.)

Today is a rest day. It is raining in Rouen. We have walked from Dieppe along the Chasse Marée – the mediaeval overnight fish route to Rouen market – and now we find a wonderful connection with that route in the stained glass of this fine cathedral.

The great window celebrating the story of Saint-Julien l’Hospitalier inspired Flaubert with wordless tales told in coloured glass. In the three lowest panels where we begin to read (“bottom to top, left to right” – as master mediaeval lecturer Malcolm Miller taught us all those years ago in Chartres cathedral) we see the poissonniers of Rouen, donors of the window.

It strikes me straight away that this is a window on the 13th century world that connects us to ordinary people – in a market – and the ordinary English pilgrim who looked at this window, on his way to Compostela, would identify with the fish merchants. These chaps would look just like the people down the street at the marketplace – where Joan of Arc had not yet been burnt at the stake when this window was made – and where the price of fish was the most dramatic topic of the day.

The cathedral website takes you through the stained glass, pane by pane. If your French – like mine – is not really up to it, let the glass speak for itself. We enter the story of Saint Julian’s life, a typical mediaeval tale of sex and violence and redemption. In the window we see Saint Julian as a penitent pilgrim on the road to Compostela, just like us.

The window would be ‘read’ by the pilgrim passing through Rouen. Like all 13th century story windows this was the way to explain scripture and Catholic culture to a largely illiterate audience in the days before the arrival of the printing press. I mentioned Victor Hugo yesterday, so let’s consider his thinking in the essay he inserted into his classic novel about the hunchbacked bell-ringer in Paris. It’s an example of direct exposition, a narrative oddity in the story, a bit like me going off on one, while I’m walking to Compostela, and I suddenly start talking about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a sort of flight of intellectual fancy to accompany our passage through the landscape.

Human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression. The dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner. The book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable.

Printing will kill architecture. In the fifteenth century everything changes. Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but still more simple and easy. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone.

In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once.

The book is about to kill the edifice.

Abridged from Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, Bk. 5, Chap.2: “This Will Kill That

My Worcester pilgrim walked through France just a donkey’s lifetime before the Gutenberg printing press. He was carrying the original 15th century bourdon – the replica of which I am carrying today – so he would have swung that pilgrim staff through a world where architecture was the dominant mode of cultural and religious communication. The exception was the closed world of the monks who had access to great libraries of jealously guarded manuscripts (the theme of The Name of the Rose, mentioned at Blackfriars on our walk through Oxford) but our English pilgrims would have come here to see windows and kiss the relics of saints. In Rouen cathedral they would also have flocked to the shrine of an English king, Richard I the Lion Heart, whose actual heart is buried here.

My hosts, Jean-Noël and Line Toulouzan of the Normandy pilgrims association have arranged that we should meet other members for morning Mass. I spend some time in silence looking up at the great limestone vaults of the transcept crossing and wonder if the mediaeval pilgrim might have compared cathedrals and critiqued these vast ethereal spaces, commenting on the novelties of design. As they sat here looking up, were they still rain-sodden from the Chasse Marée? My laundered pilgrim clothes and tent are drying in the warm basement boiler room of my hosts, academics at the University of Rouen.

The rest day was complete with the Amis de Saint Jacques breakfast in a rather grand café opposite the cathedral, where I was invited to speak for a while on the influence of 5th century Syrian exiles in Umbria on later 13th century Franciscan eremitism (a still unpublished research project of mine which I am in no hurry to complete). Such is the variety of experience for the pilgrim to Compostela, where the previous day I was hiding from the weather and shivvering in a tent with a wild boar outside.

I went with my hosts to the modern church of Sainte-Jean d’Arc, built on the site where she was burnt at the stake in 1431. My Worcester pilgrim went through France just seven years earlier. There is a votive candle pricket which resembles the flames engulfing her at her martyrdom, in a symbolic flambeau. I added my candle: “Sainte Jean d’Arc, Dame d’Orléans, priez pour moi.” It was the first of two moments of homage to the saint on this pilgrimage. The sense of place is felt. The second moment will be more tactile: I will kiss her great battle sword in the parish church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, many days walk from here, on the Via Turonensis beyond Tours.

So I shall go to supper with my hosts and pack to leave tomorrow. They even have proper pilgrim tampons for my credencial.
This rest day in Rouen has hopefully informed us a little more of the nature of pilgrimage, and the history of the road, and the price of fish.

We’ll leave the last word on Rouen to Flaubert’s parrot:

You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define the net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.

Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

5 thoughts on “Rouen: we consider pilgrimage and cathedrals

  1. Thanks, Maggie! You’ll be delighted to learn that Malcolm Miller is still giving his lectures in Chartres. As he always said, “I’ll be here until Judgment Day!” There will be more about him when this virtual pilgrimage reaches Chartres cathedral. (I just wrote to him.) Meanwhile here is a lovely video of him explaining the vaulting and the flying buttresses from years ago. I was once an arch in 1983 in that very spot!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What place does the agnostic chemical engineer have within this virtual pilgrimage? I never thought I’d find a way in. Never thought I stood a chance. Never thought I’d get further than did our very own Ms. Red. Lipstick back in the U.K., especially when she asked if The Pope was a Catholic. No one would listen. You had to know the vocabulary of churches, bourdons and ferries to reach anything like the level required.

    I’d already tried to get in before this chapter, but was rejected out-of-context-out-of-hand when I suggested an account of the metal content of Rouen’s Gros Horloge. ‘Nonsense’, he replied. ‘It doesn’t count. It’s too modern’. Fourteenth century catchment mechanisms too recent for pilgrims? This was gonna be a tough one to crack. I needed something even older. Phew. I was about to resign.

    Then, a revelation. I messaged Our Pilgrim, ‘As well as the daily catch, did the Dieppe fish mongers [1] also carry the African cobalt for the Rouen glass blowers?’. This time, a decidedly more positive reply. Well, as positive as Our Pilgrim gets in messages these days, ‘The glass for Rouen Cathedral came from Chartres.’. He wrote back almost immediately. Now it doesn’t get much more positive than that, I can tell you. Chemistry at last. I was in!

    [1] I caught up with WhiteVanMan at the workshop where his van was being repaired. He had some interesting stuff in the back. ‘Psst, you wanna buy some top notch iron sesquioxide mate. Cheap?’, he suggested. ‘And I got half a yard of that cobaltous chloride they’re all raving about in Orleans. I’ll throw it in at fifty percent.’, he added.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Hugo had to be reduced to fit: it’s all good and deserves to be read in full, but I’m trying to handle all quotes within a tight page design.

    Thanks for the French corrections as always, and I’ll try to get this as we go along. Interesting orthographical clarification there. My French may even improve by the time I get virtually to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (all hyphens)!

    Stopped short of correcting to Sainte-Parrot-de-Flaubert, but crickey French gets confusing!

    Nobody guessed the tune for my chanson de la pluie, so, in today’s post on the way to Louviers all becomes clear.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Buhurojo, Santiago, The place of the agnostic chemical engineer within a virtual pilgrimage, (Prensa Fisterra, 2020). Available in inflammable asbestos hardback from Amazon, or in the Kindle 700-degree furnace-proof edition for stained glass workers, with free PPE kit.

    I’ve never been sure about the story that the 13th century blue glass at Chartres (as in the Belle Verrière window in particular) is something that cannot be replicated today. That link – by the way – gives you a magnifiable view of the entire window. It would be good to have the chemical input into that question. Plus you will be delighted to know we shall have a few words to say about the great organ of Chartres and Messiaen’s organ work, influenced by birdsong. But nothing about bourdons, as in organ pipes.


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