The Medieval Review 10.03.16

Colardelle, Renée. La ville et la mort. Saint-Laurent de Grenoble, 2000 ans de tradition funéraire . Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité Tardive, 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. 413. . $52.00 978-2-503-52818-2.

Reviewed by:

Christine Delaplace
Université de Toulouse

This book is the eagerly awaited publication of the excavations of Saint-Laurent of Grenoble conducted by Renée Colardelle (hereinafter RC) and her team from 1978 to 1995. This very beautiful publication is accompanied by a CD Rom. It emphasizes one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleochristian archaeology in France, and even Europe, over the last thirty years. After the excavations of the paleochristian sites of Lyon (J.-F. Reynaud), Geneva (Ch. Bonnet), Aoste (R. Perenetti) and Auxerre (J.-Ch. Picard and Ch. Sapin), the excavations at Saint-Laurent belong to an archaeological school whose methods of working and results have made it famous.

Two missions were very difficult. The first was to carry out the study of a building in both space and time, inscribing it within an examination of the evolution of the Christian topography of the city. The second was a consequence of the first, i.e., that they get the authorities' consent to twenty years of excavation in an urban area and manage to convince them of the necessity of presenting the project to a larger public and not simply the restoration of the building. RC has succeeded in all these undertakings and in addition she produces here an absolutely rigorous scientific publication.

The last chapter entitled "Une église dans une ville chrétienne: archéologie et histoire, hypothèses et interprétations" is useful for a brief access to RC's methods and results. But one must read the entire book in order to understand the evolution of the monument, because each chapter is dedicated to an individual period of architecture, which is presented physically on plans with a specific color. From Chapter IV to Chapter VIII (see below the table of contents) we can see the evolution of the area of Saint-Laurent from a necropolis (pagan or Christian?) of Late Antiquity to a modern church.

The most important discovery is a great mausoleum with three floors (Building B) which continued to be "the root of the later architectural developments" until the eleventh century. This mausoleum with a paved crypt, provided with a bench, a niche and one fenestella, must have been the memoria of one of the first bishops of Grenoble. It belongs to an important arrangement constituted by seven burial buildings, an exceptional area in Gaul. The number, the arrangement, the quality and the ornamentation of this hypogeums are very extraordinary and exceptional.

Afterwards, a first (sixth-century) and a second (seventh-century) cruciform church with superimposed trefoil transepts (11 apsidioles) were built on this memoria, but all the characteristic elements of it are preserved, particularly the fenestella. This cruciform plan is exceptional in the region, but it must be compared with Saint-Agaune's plan. RC argues that it was the episcopal basilica that Avitus of Vienne consecrated in 516 according to his Homiliae, in the theological context of the affirmation of the Trinitarian doctrine. RC suggests this hypothesis many times (particularly p. 156-163 and p. 206-207) but it seems to me a difficult one to sustain so positively.

The famous decorated Saint-Oyend's crypt, which was discovered by Champollion-Figeac, belongs to the second cruciform church. RC suggests the first half of the seventh century for the dating of this construction despite the more recent traditional dating for the capitals and abacus. This big cruciform church disappeared during the Carolingian period. An opposite church is built against this former one, on the place of the memoria, of which the crypt remains and has been always subject of a big devotion. But with the worship of saints initiated during Gallic Christianity new rituals around the oriental altar explain the function of this bipolar church, an unicum in the Rhône-Alpes region.

Later developments of the story of Saint-Laurent are related in the following chapters but they do not concern the scholars of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages for whom this review is intended. We would further point out that all the demonstrations and the chronological propositions are also based on a typo-chronology of the burial places. This is one of the most famous methodological results of paleochristian funeral archaeology over the last years. 1503 burial places have been studied and presented by RC in this book, but an anthropological study of the 3000 skeletons discovered at Saint-Laurent is still under consideration.

The exceptional nature of the excavations at Saint-Laurent deserves this high quality publication. RC's intelligence and patience offered during this long excavation deserve praise from the community of medieval archaeologists and historians.

Table of contents:



I Le site

II L'histoire de la paroisse et du monastère d'après les sources écrites

III L'historique des recherches

IV Les occupations antérieures à la première église

V Les églises paléochrétiennes (VIe-VIIIe siècles)

VI L'église carolingienne

VII L'église romane et ses transformations médiévales

VIII La fin du prieuré et le monument historique

Conclusion Générale


Liste des documents présents sur le CD Rom joint à l'ouvrage

Table des matières