Knowledge and Power in Medieval France (late 8th—late 15th centuries)

King seated on a chair, pointing at a manuscript By the mid-eighth century when the Carolingian family deposed the Merovingian dynasty, the king was more than a warlord, he was also a religious figure, the Christian leader of his subjects, the new chosen people. From the start, his dual role spawned a potent mix of religion, politics, and culture.

Carolingian kings actively supported the study of religious texts which prepared monks, the “soldiers of Christ,” to lead their people to salvation. Their courts served as important centers for book collection, book production, and the dissemination of antique culture throughout the West. However, it was abbeys and monasteries that played the leading cultural role in the Carolingian kingdoms for it was in their scriptoria that manuscripts were produced and studied. Among the most famous were those at Saint-Denis, Corbie, and Cluny.

The monastery of Saint-Denis' wealth and connections with Italy made it one of the wellsprings of the Carolingian renaissance. It also became the royal abbey and royal mausoleum, guarding the regalia and the oriflamme, a crimson banner which accompanied the kings to battle. Monks at the monastery of Corbie not only collected and copied books but made their own contributions to the literature of theology, biography, and polemic. In the eighth century, Corbie's scribes helped perfect the clear script type known as the Carolingian minuscule. The abbey of Cluny played a critical role in the monastic reform movement begun in the tenth century, forming the hub of a network of European monasteries where prayer, viewed as the remedy for sinfulness, took on ever increasing importance.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, French power, culture and authority began to pass from rural monastic centers to cities and the royal court. Paris became the artistic and commercial hub of the kingdom, as well as its administrative and judicial center. From the mid-thirteenth century through the sixteenth century, the “religion of royalty” summarized by the motto “one king, one faith” (un roi, une foi) reigned supreme in France. Royal religion was disseminated through ceremonies and symbols preserved in manuscripts and in the artifacts the kings commissioned.

Each royal ceremony was carefully staged and orchestrated to impress those who witnessed it. The central ritual of the monarchy was the installation ceremony at Rheims during which the king was anointed with holy oil believed to endow him with the ability to heal a variety of diseases. Other occasions, like royal marriages and ceremonies marking the king's entry into a city, reinforced his authority which was symbolized by his regalia: the ring, the spurs, the sword, the crown, the scepter, and the hand of justice.

Early on, French kings understood that they could derive great power and prestige from the written word, particularly when it was embellished by magnificent illuminations. The potent impact of these images, symbols, and texts on the people of France is evidenced by the fury with which opponents of the monarchy and Catholicism—the Huguenots in the sixteenth century, the Revolutionaries in the eighteenth—sought to destroy them, as if they believed they could eradicate the power of church and monarch by eliminating the material traces and representations of their authority.

Lectionaries, which contained lections (readings from Scripture) to be read at church services, figure among the most beautifully decorated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages. Considered the image of the Divine Word, these manuscripts were carried in church processions to the altar and then to the pulpit, where the deacon conducted the reading. Gold, silver, and purple symbolized the celestial kingdom, the reward of eternal life, and the radiating splendor of God's Word.

2. Lectionary on Purple Vellum, northern Italy, around 800. Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 9451 Parchment

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This is a plastic replica of the bronze armchair which belonged to the abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris, and which was imaginatively attributed in the Middle Ages to the Merovingian king, Dagobert I (623/9–639). In the Middle Ages religious institutions maintained magnificent collections of relics such as this throne. Such treasures provided a concrete expression of the power of the Church and of the Monarchy, and could be melted down or pawned for cash.

5. Dagobert's Throne, France, late 8th–9th century, Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, no. 651

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The style of the rich ornamentation of this manuscript suggests that it was prepared at the flourishing scriptorium of Saint-Amand-en-Pévèle at the request of Charles the Bald (843–877) for his favorite abbey, Saint-Denis. As was customary for Carolingian sacramentaries, only the Preface and the Canon of the Mass are illustrated, in this case in the very beautiful, purely ornamental style that marked the end of Carolingian illumination.

7. Sacramentary—Use of Saint-Denis, second half of the 9th century, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 2290, Parchment. Right page

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The Gradual was a basic book of the liturgy that originally contained the chants of the Proper of the Mass. Remarkably decorative, embellished with marvelously colored geometric designs and interlacing, this manuscript exhibits a style that prevailed between 1050 and 1150 in France, from Limoges to the Pyrenees and into Spain. Crucial to the history of music, this Gradual contains elements of the Gallican chant used in Gaul before the Gregorian reform of the eleventh century.

10. Gradual—Use of Saint-Michel de Gaillac, near Albi, before 1079. Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 766, Parchment

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Founded by Clovis's son Childebert (511–558) in the sixth century, the Parisian abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was an influential intellectual center up to the eighteenth century. The abbey's prosperity dates from the eleventh century when it housed a flourishing scriptorium. This Psalter-hymnal, with its decorative alphabet and sparing use of highlights, is a brilliant example of Romanesque art from the Ile-de-France.

13. Psalter-Hymnal of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, middle of the 11th century. Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 11550, Parchment

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The fifteen miniatures of the Coronation Ordinal of 1250 present the oldest known iconographic cycle showing the coronation of a French king in the cathedral of Rheims, virtually as it would be staged until 1825. The archbishop of Rheims, assisted by the abbots of Saint-Remi of Rheims and of Saint-Denis, officiated in the presence of the peers of the realm. This manuscript was consulted for the coronations of Francis I (1515) and Henry IV (1594).

15. Coronation Ordinal of 1250, Paris, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 1246, Parchment

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Copied around 1250–54, this Bible is probably the oldest and most beautiful illuminated manuscript to come out of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem which was founded in the aftermath of the first crusade (1096–1099). Saint Louis probably commissioned this richly-decorated Bible on one of his visits to Acre, a flourishing port on the Palestine coast, and, after the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, the de facto capital of the Latin Kingdom and the Patriarchal See.

17. French Bible of Acre, third quarter of the 13th century, Library of the Arsenal, MS 5211 Rés. Parchment

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The Picture of the World apparently is the oldest encyclopedic treatise written in a vernacular language. Composed in the dialect of Lorraine, it was written in 1246 for Saint Louis's brother, Robert d'Artois (b. 1216–d. 1250), who wanted to know how the world had been “constructed.” The text is divided into three parts: God and human intelligence; nature and the elements of the cosmos; and, physical phenomena and astronomy. This opening depicts the arts of Logic, Rhetoric, and Arithmetic.

20. Gossouin of Metz, Image du Monde (Picture of the World), Paris, 14th century, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 574, Parchment

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In 1279–80, at the request of King Philip the Bold (1270–1285), Friar Laurent, the king's confessor, composed a manual of moral instruction known as La Somme le roi. The author was inspired by earlier texts, in particular a treatise on vices and virtues entitled the Miroir du Monde (Mirror of the World). La Somme le roi was translated into numerous languages and dialects and achieved a wide circulation.

21. Frère Laurent, La Somme le roi (usually referred to as, The Book of Vices and Virtues), northern France, early 14th century Library of the Arsenal, MS 6329. Parchment

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This account is the French translation of a Latin original, since lost, which was used in the canonization proceedings of Louis IX (1226–1270). It was composed for Blanche of France, Saint Louis's daughter. The manuscript's ninety illustrations are divided into two series: the first relates to the edifying actions of the king's life; the second consists of sixty-five supplementary miniatures illustrating the miracles that occurred at the sovereign's tomb in the Abbey of Saint-Denis.

23. Guillaume de Saint-Pathus (active 1277–1315), Vie et miracles de Saint Louis (Life and Miracles of Saint Louis), Paris, around 1330-1340, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 5716, Parchment. Right page.

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A poet and innovative composer, Guillaume de Machaut was a major figure in fourteenth-century French literature and music. Apart from his celebrated Coronation Mass, his art was essentially of secular inspiration and found its most finished expression in a series of Dits (stories in verse, interspersed with lyric and musical pieces). In them the author celebrated the traditional themes of courtly love. This manuscript may well have been intended for the royal family.

24. Guillaume de Machaut (b. around 1300–d. 1377), Oeuvres (Works), Paris, around 1350-55, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 1586, Parchment

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In 1372, Charles V (1364–1380) had Foulechat translate Policraticus, an important medieval text about political theory which projected a theocratic vision of the State and posed the question of monarchical legitimacy and tyrannicide. This illustration depicts the wise king Charles V seated on a chair from which justice was meted out and pointing to the manuscript placed on a bookwheel. He is the very picture of the learned and just king blessed by the hand of God.

25. Denis Foulechat, Translation of John of Salisbury's Policraticus, Paris, 14th century, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 24287, Parchment

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The manuscript on display contains the French-language version of the royal chronicles up to the death of Philip VI of Valois in 1350, as they were composed at the abbey of Saint-Denis. This volume was probably produced around 1370 for Charles V. The four miniatures that make up the painting at the beginning of the manuscript illustrate the key features of the myth of the Trojan origins of the Franks.

27. Les Chroniques de France selon ce qu'elles sont composées en l'église de Saint-Denis en France (The Chronicles of France as Composed in the Church of Saint-Denis in France), Paris, around 1370, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 10135, Parchment

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Jean de France, Duke of Berry (b. 1340–d. 1416), is associated with some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts from the end of the Middle Ages. The text of his celebrated Psalter is preceded by twenty-four paintings in grisaille which constitute one of the most remarkable interpretations of the Apostle's Creed, an extremely popular iconographic theme of the period. The figures and their strongly individualized physiognomies are the work of the sculptor André Beauneveu.

29. Psalter of Jean de Berry, Bourges, around 1386–1390, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 13091, Parchment

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Christine de Pisan, the first female writer to earn a living from her pen, defended the status of women. In this illustration, aided by Reason, Uprightness, and Justice, she lays the foundation of a City exclusively for women who have served the cause of women (female warriors, politicians, good wives, lovers, and inventors, among others). The imagined City will be crowned by the glory of the Virgin and sainted women.

30. Christine de Pisan (b. 1364–d. after 1429), Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Women), Paris, around 1405, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 607, Parchment

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This manuscript belonged to the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold (b. 1342–d. 1404), and reflects the interest of the dukes of Burgundy in Oriental matters. The text describes the victory in 1402 at Ankara of Tamerlane, khan of Mongolia, which temporarily ended the Ottoman threat to Constantinople. The manuscript's illumination reflects the Flemish influence that revitalized Parisian painting at the beginning of the fifteenth century. This folio depicts the coronation of Genghis Khan (b. 1162-d. 1227).

31. Frère Hayton (b. around 1235–d. around 1314), Fleur des histoires de la terre d'Orient (Bouquet of Stories from the Land of the Orient), Paris, 1403, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 12201, Parchment

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