West Virginia University in Vendée, France
The Lionness in Summer...
June 25, 1999
A very heavy day in class today as we prepared for Monday's trip into the nearby valley of the Loire. Our WVU-Vendéens are also busy working on their individual communication and culture projects. Many of those projects involve contemporary subjects like life in local schools or businesses. Kathleen Schattenberg, however, has chosen a topic that, like many of our field trips, will take her back through time to the 12th-century world of Eleanore of Aquitaine (Aliénor d'Aquitaine). Daughter of the first real troubador of the Middle Ages, Guillaume X d'Aquitaine, Eleanore was always a great patron of the arts, and much of the poetry, music and literature of the 12th century came directly from her court. Her marriage to King Louis VII of France in 1137 united two of the great domaines of the time and brought an immense boost in prestige and wealth to the kingdom of France. Aliénor maintaned close contact with her lands here in Aquitaine and continued to rule as Duchess while at the same time becoming active in Paris. Among others, she worked, more or less well, with the great Abbé Suger, who at the time was building the world's first Gothic churches at Saint Denis and then at Notre Dame de Paris. Suger also encouraged the movement to take the Holy Lands back from the Moslem forces that occupied Jerusalem. Aliénor would in fact accompany her husband Louis on the Second Crusade -- a complete disaster in many ways. Not only did the military campaign fail, but this trip also revealed a profound incompatibility of character between Eleanore and Louis. Only days after the divorce, Eleanore would marry Henry Plantagenêt. Henry was already Count of Anjou and of Tourraine and he would soon inherit the lands on both sides of the Channel of his great grandfather, William the Conquerer. The small kingdom of France, controlling only territories just around Paris, found itself suddenly face to face with Normandy, Anjou, Tourraine, Aquitaine, and England "united" under one crown. Eleonor would continue her work for the arts and for the Christian faith in her new role as Queen of England. She would also play a major role in the career of her son, Richard the Lion Hearted, accompanying him on the Third Crusade. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of her contributions to the world of her time and the consequences her work has had through the ages.
In pursuit of more information, Kathleen has decided to visit the birthplace of Eleanore in the Vendée village of Nieul-sur-l'Autize. Knowing the roads fairly well, and also wanting to visit this site myself, I volunteer to drive with Kathleen down to Nieul about 50 miles from Les Sables.
Kathleen has called ahead and arranged an interview with Madame Lambert who runs the museum built around the monastery of Nieul-sur-l'Autize. We will hear more from Kathleen on this interview next week.
The abbey here has a small but incredibly beautiful collection of Romanesque sculptures. The detail and finesse of the piece below shows that Gothic art drew its inspiration from a fine and already elaborate tradition.
The pilgrimage to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in northwestern Spain was one that many medieval Christians felt to be a vital part of practicing their faith. The shell below is the symbol of Saint James, who is said to have come to Spain for his last works of evangelism. The "coquille Saint-Jacques" (scallop shell) is found all along the route to Saint-Jacques or Santiago. Thanks to an important Dutch petroleum company, this emblem is now familiar on roads leading to many other destinations.
The halls of the cloister are sober, but strikingly beautiful in their quiet symmetry.
The monks in this abbey followed the rule of Saint Augustin. The cloister below is where they meditated and read the scriptures. It is the oldest in the West of France.
We've already seen that it was common practice for burials to occur within churches and abbeys. In fact, Eleanore's mother was buried on this site. The tomb below was likely that of an abby, or leader of the abbey.
The monks' dormitory has been converted to house an exhibit on Romanesque sculpture.
The arch below is a replica of the one on the main portal of the nearby church of Benet.
The exhibit focuses on "excerpts" from the arch, with explanations of their meaning.
The illuminated crystal block below tells the story of Cain's murder of Abel. We see in Cain's left hand the knife. He holds the instrument while at the same denying his crime with a gest of his right hand.
The "salle capitulaire" or chapter room, was the place where the monks gathered for daily readings of a chapter from the rules that guided every detail of their daily life.
The rounded arches inside the church are of the purest Romanesque style.
On our way back into Les Sables, we stop to take a picture of the ancient abbey of Saint Jean d'Orbestier which is just on the edge of town. This abbey was founded by Eleanor's father, the poet, singer, and duke Guillaume X d'Aquitaine.
On Monday, our first visit in the Loire Valley will be to the abbey of Fontevraud, where Eleanore is buried along with her husband Henry II Plantagenêt and her son Richard the Lion Hearted. Kathleen and I both feel better prepared for the visit now that we have seen the place where Eleanore's eyes first saw the light.
Two notes to conclude:
1) If you have not seen the movie "The Lion in Winter," I believe it would be worth renting if you can get it. It tells the story of Eleanore's troubled marriage to Henry II and their struggle to choose which among their sons would inherit the throne upon Henry's death. Katherine Hepburn won the 1969 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Eleanore. Peter O'toole as Henry II Plantagenêt was also nominated as Best Actor. A younger Anthony Hopkins was nominated by the British Academy for his role as Richard the Lion Hearted. Both the music (John Barry) and the script (James Goldman) also won the Oscar.
2) A few of our Vendéens have rented a mini-van to drive up north to visit the Mont Saint-Michel. I have sent my digital camera along and if I get pictures from this trip tomorrow, I'll try to post a page on their day. Otherwise, since our trip to the Loire Valley lasts two days, I may not be able to post again until Wednesday. Don't worry if there's no news for a couple of days.
Stay tuned to WVU-V!
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