14.10.27, Hicks and Brenner, eds., Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen, 911-1300

Main Article Content

David S. Spear

The Medieval Review 14.10.27

Hicks, Leonie V., and Elma Brenner. Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen, 911-1300 . Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 39. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. 400. ISBN: 9782503536651 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David S. Spear
Furman University

Rouen was, and remains, the largest city in Normandy. Until about 1200 it was larger than Paris. What weakened Rouen was, first, the foundation of Caen, and second, the rise of Paris. Caen had been founded by William the Conqueror as a new outpost of his ducal power in central Normandy (Rouen, by contrast, was too far east in the duchy). Caen never surpassed Rouen in terms of population, but it had a large ducal castle and two very prestigious ducal abbeys (St.-Etienne for men, and La Trinité for women). In the later Middle Ages Normandy's first university was in Caen, not Rouen. The rise of Paris vis-à-vis Rouen came about when King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France in 1204. After that date, Philip Augustus lavished numerous resources on urban renewal in Paris, and seems to have actively thwarted further growth in Rouen. [1] Later in the Middle Ages, Rouen experienced periods of effervescence, but was condemned to be always in the shadow of Paris.

Rouen was, nevertheless, an impressive city. It had Roman origins. It had an archbishop. It had a castle (in fact, three of them). Located on the River Seine, it enjoyed a vigorous life of trade and commerce. There were numerous abbeys, the most prestigious of which was St-Ouen. Victor Hugo famously called Rouen the city of a hundred church towers. [2] Today Rouen remains a delightful ville, with numerous medieval nooks and crannies (the cathedral church, St-Ouen abbey, a late medieval clock tower, the marvelously Flamboyant parish church of St-Maclou, a plague cemetery, the marketplace where Joan of Arc was burned, etc.)--all this in spite of the widespread destruction that befell it during the Second World War.

Surprisingly, few modern scholarly books have been published on medieval Rouen. [3] The work under review, therefore, necessarily adds to our knowledge. As a collection of articles, it inevitably lacks the unity of a single-authored monograph. I will, nevertheless, try to highlight some of the main themes at the end of this review, even as I describe each of the essays in turn.

The book begins with a ten-page introduction by the editors, half of which is a bibliographic survey of historical writings on Rouen, and the rest of which is a survey of the book's contents. I must say that I was a bit surprised not to see my own writings referred to, since I have been publishing on the Rouen cathedral clergy since 1983. [4] One other notable omission is an important collection of essays on Rouen cathedral, published in 2005. [5]

Bernard Gauthiez gives a helpful context for the city in "The Urban Development of Rouen, 989-1345." He proposes that Rouen began as a highly regular Roman castrum, and then in the eleventh century it doubled its size, expanding to the west as a burgus. There were at the same time numerous suburban settlements. These settlements to the north and east of the city were surrounded by a new city wall in the twelfth century, probably under the patronage of Henry II. (Gauthiez also suggests that there was a previous, late eleventh-century wall, although he concedes: "The short lifespan of this wall may explain why it is hard to trace and still awaits confirmation of its existence through excavation.") Rouen clearly flourished in the twelfth century, especially under Henry II, and may have had a population of 30,000. But the city ceased to grow in the aftermath of 1204 (see above) with the exception of an extensive castle built on the north side. Prosperity returned, however, in the mid-thirteenth century, centered on the wool industry, and on new housing developments undertaken by the abbey of St-Ouen. The population may have increased to 40,000 inhabitants, but the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the Black Death in the mid-1300s hit Rouen hard. Gauthiez's essay does have maps and some nice photos of obscure medieval houses, yet following the details of the argument is hard because he refers to current street names as markers, but with one exception, the maps don't show any current streets.

Fanny Madeline's "Rouen and its Place in the Building Policy of the Angevin Kings," takes issue with Gauthiez, although primarily with his previous work. [6] The controversy boils down to a question of terminology. Is it really appropriate to call any European city a capital before the thirteenth century? After all, centralized government hardly existed, and royal courts itinerated constantly. Gauthiez, for his part, calls attention to royal patronage in the city (e.g., building walls, bridges, and castles; supporting monastic houses and other religious enterprises such as hospitals), as well as to the presence of urban residences held by distant bishops, abbots, and barons. Madeline, however, wants things tacked down more securely. She is skeptical of Gauthier's hypothetical reconstruction of the walls of Henry II. She shrinks them. And compared to the walled circumference of other Angevin cities, Rouen was not exceptional. She also insists that while ducal patronage may have been showered primarily on Rouen, it was also spread widely across other cities and sites. In the end she concedes that Rouen was the city where Angevin patronage was the greatest (especially if, as she does, one includes Chateau Gaillard as the strategic gateway to Rouen), but this does not justify calling it a capital.

Elisabeth van Houts provides a full context for two poems that depict "Rouen as Another Rome in the Twelfth Century." One is the obscure Rothoma Nobilis which van Houts translates into English; the other is the less obscure Draco Normannicus, by Stephen of Rouen. Both works extol Rouen, comparing it to Rome. Moreover, both poems praise the Angevin family of Geoffrey and Mathilda, and their son Henry II. In the eleventh century various random references were made by historians and hagiographers to Rome's importance to Rouen, but it is not until the mid-twelfth century that we have then a programmatic verse corroboration of the importance of Rouen to the ducal family.

In "Through the City Streets" Leonie V. Hicks develops the theme of "Movement and Space in Rouen as Seen by the Norman Chroniclers." She focuses on three or four specific incidents. In the first, the arrest of Duke Richard by King Louis IV in 942, we encounter a city working together in defense of its young duke. In the second, riots within the city of Rouen in 1090 and 1119 reveal a city divided against itself. In the final instance, Hicks calls attention to the importance of processions, such as the arrival of ducal brides or the display of relics, to show how these events linked the city to its hinterland. The article shows a careful reading of selected texts, but is more a plan for future research than a definitive treatment.

Richard Allen's reconstruction of "The Career of Robert, Archbishop of Rouen, 989-1037," is masterful. It is difficult to stitch together random fragments from such an early life, yet Allen convinces the reader that Robert was indeed an important figure in the early history of Rouen. He placed the archbishopric itself on much firmer footing, building up its endowment, its relic collection, and its cathedral church. And more broadly he fostered a culture of education in Rouen, and reconnected Rouen to the prestigious city of Chartres. The author provides a highly subtle discussion of the ins and outs of Archbishop Robert's career, carefully weighing out the possible implications of each known fact. As a bonus, he includes an edition of the five surviving acta of the archbishop.

"Archbishops and the City: Powers, Conflicts, and Jurisdiction in the Parishes of Rouen (Eleventh-Thirteenth Centuries)," accurately encapsulates the study by Grégory Combalbert. This is difficult terrain given the fragmentary and technical nature of the evidence. It seems that while most of the parish churches were under the jurisdiction of the archbishop, several exceptions existed. In the eleventh century, the monasteries of Montivilliers, Fécamp, and St-Ouen asserted their rights over some Rouennais churches. Gradually the archbishops of Rouen were able to chip away at these encroachments. St-Ouen proved the most difficult to corral, and in the mid-thirteenth century the abbey still maintained some of its powers over the parishes of St-Ouen and St-Vivien. At the same time the bishops of Lisieux were able to oversee the parish church of St-Cande le Vieux. Thus, the archbishops' powers of centralization and regularization were nearly unstoppable over the long haul, but small, historical anomalies lingered nevertheless. Combalbert makes occasional reference to similar trends in other episcopal cities, but these are not developed here.

Kirsten A. Fenton explores "Women, Property, and Power," drawing on "Some Examples from Eleventh-Century Rouen Cartularies." While the evidence is sparse, the author arrives at some tentative conclusions. That "there are no set rules governing the nature and extent of female roles within these [legal] transactions," certainly echoes the sentiment of Emily Tabuteau that diversity was the order of the day. [7] But that women were actively involved in property transfers is clear: they were called upon to explicitly approve land donations, witnessed charters that involved these transfers, handled money, extracted taxes and tolls, and had judicial powers. They also kept family memories alive. Thus, "even from this brief survey it is clear that women, property, and power should be recognized as fundamental in explaining the vitality of Norman society within the city of Rouen during these formative years."

Manon Six delves into the world of "The Burgesses of Rouen in the Late Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries." Such a study has long been lacking. Among the main families identified by the author are the du Donjons, the le Changeurs, the du Chastels, and the Malpalus. The key word here is "families," for as Six observes, "The history of a ruling class in a medieval city is more that of families than of individuals." Indeed, some mayoral families endured for four or five generations. According to Six, Rouen was the only Norman city that evolved real civic institutions (exception perhaps the town of Eu). The most interesting conclusion is that the Rouen patriciate owed its success as much to royal patronage as to trade and commerce. The urban elites seem not to have diversified sufficiently into rising concerns such as English wool and French wine, so that when Angevin support was removed by the Capetians, Rouen took a financial blow. I wish the author had made use of my book on the personnel of the Norman cathedrals, the largest part of which deals with Rouen. This would have made some of identifications of clerics who crossed paths with the mayors more secure. Indeed, the Malpalu family made greater inroads into the Rouen cathedral chapter than Six indicates. And one wonders if the Rouen merchant class "infiltrated" other Norman chapters as well. [8]

Daniel Power investigates "Rouen and the Aristocracy of Angevin Normandy." The traditional view is that across northern Europe the landed aristocracy adopted an antagonistic stance towards the developing urban centers, and that conversely the ranks of the landed elite were closed to members of the urban patriciate. Power moderates this view for Rouen, finding numerous instances where the two entities overlapped: In one direction "numerous ties existed between the rural personnel of Norman aristocratic households and leading urban families," while in the other direction "the seals of some of the leading Rouennais citizens suggest an aspiration to aristocratic status." Moreover, the predominantly aristocratic Rouen cathedral chapter included canons with burgess origins. Power reminds the reader that the Norman aristocracy and the citizens of Rouen worked together in the defense preparations of Rouen in 1204. Some of the landed elites from all across Normandy owned property in Rouen (the most prominent being the earls of Leicester), and some borrowed money from the local Jews. The author brings together a wide array of evidence in this successful essay.

Paul Webster explores the relationship of King John to Rouen. If he was "bad King John" in England, he tried hard not to be "bad Duke John" in Rouen. By scrutinizing the royal itinerary, Webster demonstrates that John spent more time in Normandy than in other region, and within Normandy he spent more time in Rouen than anywhere else. John was a serious patron for Rouen, augmenting the rights enjoyed by the city. A few of the Rouen burgesses were involved in direct service to John, and they were duly rewarded. Finally, John was a grand patron of Rouen cathedral, giving it vast sums of money to rebuild after the fire of 1200. Webster convinces the reader that Rouen was of fundamental importance to John. But if he lavished so much attention on Rouen, why did the city surrender to the king of France without a fight?

Elma Brenner studies "The Care of the Sick and Needy in Twelfth and Thirteenth Century Rouen." She focuses on three institutions, the leprosarium at Mont-aux-Malades, just north of the city; the female leprosarium of Salle-aux-Puelles, just across the Seine from Rouen; and the hospital of La Madeleine, which moved over time to different parts of the city. Brenner wisely links health care to spiritual care; thus, to give but one example, the archbishop of Rouen in 1261was acutely aware that Mass was not being celebrated often enough at La Madeleine, imperiling the health and the souls of the sick. Her essay discusses the important role played by the royal family in the original endowments of these health care facilities; the role of patrons played by the clergy of Rouen, especially the archbishops and their retinues; and the ongoing role played by individual people--laymen and laywomen, families, friends, and neighbors.

The final essay, by Elma Brenner and Leonie Hicks, discusses the current state of our knowledge on "The Jews of Rouen in the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries." Not surprisingly our knowledge is slight. But bolstered by the discovery in the 1970s of a large Jewish structure (conjectured here, following Norman Golb, to be a yeshiva), as well as a certain number of written document, the authors conclude that the Jews probably arrived in the city in late tenth or early eleventh century, and that they were "closely associated with Rouen's expansion and development." We know that the Jewish community suffered persecution in Rouen at the time of the First Crusade, and then periodically under the kings of France. It would seem, therefore, that the apogee of Jewish commercial and cultural life was the twelfth century.

Two key issues surface in this book. The first issue is more explicit, namely: to what extent was Rouen a true capital city? We have already seen that Fanny Madeline has reservations about the proposition made by Bernard Gauthiez that Rouen was the capital city of Normandy right up until 1204. Yet several essays in the book either explicitly or implicitly support Gauthiez's view. Here we can refer to the important commercial role played by the Jews and the burgesses, the presence of urban institutions, the attraction of the city to outsiders such as distant abbots and the landed aristocracy, and the lavish time and money spent on Rouen by King John. To this we could add that, unlike similar cities within the Angevin empire, such as London, Anger, and Le Mans, Rouen had an archbishopric. This would move it into an elite category, shared only with Tours, Bordeaux, and (more recently) Dublin. Thus, Rouen was a ducal city whose lord was a king, and which housed the Metropolitan of Normandy. Paris, too, flourished under royal influence, but it had only a bishop.

This clearly raises the second issue, namely, the lack of comparative studies between Rouen and other French and northern European cities in this same period. That of course was not the goal of the editors of this book. But their success in revealing various facets of the city should make comparative work easier.



1. On Paris in this period see, John W. Baldwin, Paris, 1200 (Stanford University Press, 2010); and Simone Roux, Paris in the Middle Ages, trans. J. McNamara (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

2. "La ville aux cent clochers carillonnant dans l’air." See François Lemoine and Jacques Tanguy, Rouen aux 100 clochers: Dictionnaire des églises et chapelles de Rouen (avant 1789) (Rouen, 2004) for a convient listing and brief history of these churches.

3. Michel Mollat (ed.), Historie de Rouen (Toulouse, Privat, 1979); Jenny Stratford (ed.), Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology at Rouen (Leeds, the British Archaeological Association, 1993). Norman Golb's The Jews in Medieval Normandy: A Social and Intellectual History (Cambridge University Press, 1998) contains much about Rouen.

4. David S. Spear, "Les doyens du chapitre cathédral de Rouen durant la période ducale," Annales de Normandie 33 (1983): 91-119; "Les archidiacres de Rouen au cours de la période ducale," Annales de Normandie 34 (1984): 15-50; "Les dignitaires de la cathédrale de Rouen pendant la période ducale," Annales de Normandie 37 (1987): 121-147; "Geoffrey Brito, Archbishop of Rouen (1111-1128)," The Haskins Society Journal 2 (1990): 123-137; "Les chanoines de la cathédrale de Rouen pendant la période ducale," Annales de Normandie 41 (1991): 135-176; "The Double Display of Saint Romanus of Rouen in 1124," Henry I and the Anglo-Norman World: The Haskins Society Journal 17 (2006): 117-132; The Personnel of the Norman Cathedrals during the Ducal Period, 911-1204 (Institute of Historical Research of the University of London, 2006), pp. 195-268 of which are on Rouen; "An Overlooked Letter of Pope Innocent III for Rouen," De Part et d'Autre de la Normandie Médiévale: Recueil d'études en hommage à François Neveux (Caen, 2009) (Cahier des Annales de Normandie, no. 35), 397-412.

5. 396-1996: XVI centenaire de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen (Colloque international 5, 6 et 7 décembre 1996) (Rouen, 2005).

6. "Paris, un Rouen capétien? (Développements comparés de Rouen et Paris sous les règnes de Henri II et Philippe-Auguste)," Anglo-Norman StudiesM XVI (1994, for 1993): 117-136.

7. Emily Zack Tabuteau, Transfers of Property in Eleventh-Century Norman Law(Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 229: "Indeed, the final impression left by the charters is that any transaction mutually acceptable to the parties involved was legal."

8. Spear, The Personnel of the Norman Cathedrals. For the Malpalu family see pp. 250, 252, 257, and 261. Six discusses the Groignet family, correctly identifying Benedict as a Rouen canon. But see p. 237 for more context. Was John Groignet, canon of Bayeux in the 1160s-1190s, (p. 67) perhaps a member of the same family?

Article Details

Author Biography

David S. Spear

Furman University