Florin Curta

title.none: Sapin, Archeologie et architecture d'un site monastique (Florin Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.004 02.03.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Sapin, Christian. Archeologie et architecture d'un site monastique. Paris: Editions du comite des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 1999. Pp. iv, 310. ISBN: 2-735-50416-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.04

Sapin, Christian. Archeologie et architecture d'un site monastique. Paris: Editions du comite des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 1999. Pp. iv, 310. ISBN: 2-735-50416-6.

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Florida

Even before this monograph appeared, the abbey of Saint Germain in Auxerre was arguably one of the most meticulously excavated and best-documented medieval sites in France. It is a milestone of monastic archaeology. Added to this is Sapin's approach to monastic archaeology as an archaeology of monastic life, not just of monasteries. Monastic archaeology began in earnest in the 1950s as a result of Michel de Bouard's foundation of the Center of Studies of Medieval Archaeology in Caen. In France, however, medieval archaeologists were not primarily interested in monasteries. This only changed with the foundation of the Medieval Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Aix-en-Provence. Sapin's book is a vivid testimony of how far monastic archaeology has gone since then.

Excavations began at Saint Germain in Auxerre, in northwest Burgundy (95 miles to the southeast from Paris, 45 miles to the southwest from Troyes, 75 miles to the northeast from Bourges, and 80 miles to the east from Orleans) more than ten years ago. Sapin is the director of the project and his team from the CNRS and the University of Lyon II carried on excavations in Auxerre ever since the first trial digs of 1986 and 1987. Salvage archaeology quickly turned into a long-term project sponsored in part by the city of Auxerre and aiming not only at restoring (for, in Charles Bonnet's terms, "every restoration is in fact an epidarmal loss"), but also at presenting to a large audience the multitude of transformations through which the fifth- century chapel of St. Germain turned into a large monastery. The end result is the archaeological crypt, a fascinating museum of its own kind, well advertised on an excellent web site (, which also offers a virtual tour of the crypt.

Compiling a final site report is no easy task and medieval archaeologists will no doubt appreciate the work of Christian Sapin and his 24 associates in bringing this impressive volume to completion. Excavating, analyzing, and writing comprehensive reports is an ideal hard to achieve. Too often archaeologists are accused of taking too much time for drawing the final conclusions. Sometimes, there are sound reasons for the long period separating interim from final reports. Painstakingly studying the considerable wealth and variety of finds does not seem to have deterred Sapin and his team from turning ten years of research into a book in only three years after the last archaeological intervention on the site (1998). Without any doubt, this impressive site and regional report is a major addition to the study of medieval monasteries, and pays tribute to Jean Hubert and Rene Louis, who "perfectly set the research problem long time ago". (5)

The volume is organized into a brief introduction by Christian Sapin and thirteen chapters by specialists working on various archaeological aspects. The clarity of the monograph's narrative and presentation are a model for comprehensive site reporting. A large number of the volume's 400-plus pages comprise illustrations, tables, maps, and graphs, a major resource for comparative research. In addition, the accompanying CD-ROM provides a wealth of stratigraphical details, burial descriptions, detailed analysis of sculptures and walls, pottery and other finds, all complete with illustrations and photographs of archival resources. Most chapters are by Christian Sapin, some containing encarts by other archaeologists (Fabrice Henrion, Stephane Buttner, Emmanuel Poil), historians (Daniel-Odon Hurel), art historians (Chantal Arnaud, Giuseppe de Spirito, and Marcel Angheben), and physicists (Michel Dabas and Christian Camerlynck). More specialists contribute various other chapters: Hermann Arnold, Harry Titus, and Nadege Raymond-Clergue on the Gothic architecture of the abbey church; Emmanuelle Cadet on paintings and plasters; Fabrice Henrion and Patrick Comode on burial typology and forensic anthropology; Stephane Buttner on masonry; Sylvie Balcon on stained glass; Sylvie Mouton on pottery; and Marc Bompaire on coins.

The history of research and the aims of the project are clearly expressed in the introduction. Two principles guided the investigation, namely the study of the monastic site as a whole and a detailed examination of the elevated structures. (11). This creates the framework within which the history of the abbey is seen in the light of royal initiatives and support. Hence, the excavations at Auxerre were aimed at "shaking historians out of their torpor" (19), as the archaeological evidence raised new questions and posed new problems. The ninth-century "school of Saint Germain", which featured such towering figures as Haymon, Heiric, and Remi, is thus given not just an architectural background, but also a social and political context of utmost importance, especially when we take into consideration Haymon's contribution to the famous scheme of the three social orders of medieval society. (17) But readers should be warned against Sapin's idea that an eleventh- century manuscript, now in Vatican, dealing with the re- dedication of the abbey church points to some serious reconstruction following the devastation inflicted by Count Landri of Nevers in 1003. (19-23) In fact, this is a purely circular argument, since the text is used to date the reconstruction, while the reconstruction posits the text within a framework of chronological considerations. In addition, if the re-dedication triggered such an effort of liturgical exegesis as illustrated by the manuscript text, one wonders why was the reconstruction not mentioned at all in the Gesta abbatum sancti Germani Autissiodorensis, particularly if, as Sapin suggests, it had all started under the influential abbot Heldric.

A short review cannot do justice to the material presented in this volume and the rigor displayed throughout. The following, however, may be of note for those new to this material. Using a combination of archaeological, written, and map sources, the various components of the abbey, particularly the cloister, are described in chapter 3, as are the gardens that once stood on the northern and southern sides of the monastic complex, respectively. The earliest building phase in the cloister is dated to the fifth century (50), but the evidence presented is not very convincing. Circular arguments appear in the sequencing of building phases in the narthex (chapter 4). Phase 2 is dated to the late fifth and early sixth century, in part, at least, on the basis of the typology of the associated sarcophagi (058, 137, and 154; see p. 82). Nevertheless, group A of Henrion's typology of sarcophagi is dated on the basis of the corresponding building phase in the narthex (358). Sapin uses the grave goods associated with a number of burials in the central part of the narthex to date phase 3 between the late sixth and the early eighth century. The lower limit of this chronological bracket is established on the basis of an inscription, perhaps an epitaph, the epigraphical features of which allegedly point to 730/780. Much more serious problems, however, appear when we examine the evidence presented for the upper limit of the chronological bracket of phase 3. The artifacts associated with burial 96-19 are intrusive to the grave pit (pp. 456 and 457 fig. 474, where the caption wrongly attributes the belt buckle and mounts to burial 96-34). Burial 96-34 belongs to phase 2 (70) and thus dates to the second half of the sixth century. Finally, the pair of earrings with polyhedral cubes found in burial 96-35 cannot be dated later than ca. 530 (460).

The reconstruction of phase 4 confronts the reader with problems of interpreting evidence on which there will be differences of opinion. In particular, the tribune may well have been as shown on page 87 with figure 77, but its reconstruction is not supported by the archaeological evidence. No evidence exists, on the other hand, for the northern wall of the narthex, the trajectory of which is entirely conjectural. Leaving aside the radiocarbon dates of wooden fragments from the narthex (dates apparently not calibrated, for no standard deviation is indicated), the dating of this phase to the ninth century is also questionable, especially when we examine the stratigraphic sequence. A quick glimpse at the Harris matrix on figure 78 and at the photograph of the corresponding stratigraphical units on figure 79 shows that 2506 does not rest on top of 2507 (judging from the slope clearly visible in the photograph), while 1388 is on top of, not underneath, 1391. The latter was dated to the eleventh century on uncertain grounds. The date of phase 7 may well fall within the second half of the eleventh century, but the archaeological evidence supporting this date does not exist. In the absence of a clear stratigraphical relation to phase 6, Sapin turned to style elements, such as the vaulting vaulting, most typical for mid- eleventh century Romanesque architecture. By such means, he dated phase 7 immediately before the erection of the Tower of St. John in the southwestern corner of the narthex. (113). The most interesting remains are those of the church itself, still sporting coats of arms of such important patrons as Pope Urban V and Duke John of Berry. The analysis of the Gothic architecture and sculpture of the church reveals close analogies with the neighboring St. Etienne Cathedral, as well as with other fourteenth- and fifteenth-century monuments in Burgundy.

Chapter 5 provides as full a description of the crypt as is ever likely to be achieved in an archaeological report of a medieval church. The sculptures, paintings, and inscriptions found in the crypt are also described. Even details such as the chronology of plasters are included in this chapter. Plaster and painting layers are crucial for establishing various building phases and the use of several chapels. Emmanuelle Cadet's sub-chapter on plasters and paintings, detailed in its description of ten types of Carolingian plasters, makes sense of the original use of the chapels of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen, and the adjacent hallways. Fabrice Henrion's encart on the sarcophagus of Bishop Chrestien (293) will no doubt retain the reader's attention for its description of the techniques used to recuperate, analyze, and identify the remains of a poorly preserved male skeleton. Chapter 6 ties various archaeological and historical arguments together in an attempt to reconstruct the history of the site. There are sixteen building phases, ten of which cover the medieval period, from the fifth to the fourteenth century. While presenting this detailed survey, Sapin does not shy away from interpretation or from comparing the abbey of St. Germain to other examples of Carolingian, Romanesque, or Gothic architecture. The analytic categories and attendant assumptions (such as "expansion" or "exegetic traditions") will be familiar to art historians, and the author is concerned with reconstructing the past, rather than questioning them. Yet by its focus and attention to detail, Sapin's chapter on Carolingian architecture highlights the need to tread carefully in accounts of local, regional, and large-scale developments in church architecture between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. By contrast, Noelle Deflou-Leca's chapter on the abbey's estates in the Burgundian borderlands (chapter 7) reveals a very localized network of resources, by no means comparable to that of the large Benedictine abbeys of the same period.

The final section of the book brings up a variety of subjects pertaining to burials (chapter 8), sculpture (chapter 9), masonry (chapter 10), the bell-casting workshop (chapter 11), and "finds" (chapter 12, including headings on mosaics, stained glass, pottery, metal artifacts, and coins). The volume is lavishly illustrated with high-quality color and black-and- white pictures, clear maps, and diagrams, and technically informative drawings of various artifacts. Sapin has presented us with a very solid piece of work and enough data to keep generations of scholars busy continuing the analysis. The publication in so much detail of the research at Saint-Germain in Auxerre should increase interest in the early medieval architecture of Burgundy. A particularly important aspect of the Saint-Germain excavations lies in the light they may come to throw on the relation between the abbey and the medieval landscape, in terms of both site location and resource management, one of the most interesting aspects of current research in monastic archaeology. For historians of medieval monasteries who might not cross paths often with the archaeological evidence, this book--not to mention the larger body of work of Christian Sapin and his team--is well worth the foray. For archaeologists, this excellent volume contributes a corpus of impressively documented material from a pivotal area of medieval France.