Spacefleet Ecclesiastica: Cathedrals of France

Amiens Cathedral, rebuilt beginning 1220 to 1260s: doubtlessly the largest cathedral by volume in medieval France

Time for part two of cathedrals… in SPAAAACE! So, how many cathedrals were there in medieval France?


The first problem is defining “medieval“, then “France” and then “cathedral“.

The old cathedral of Saint-Nazaire in the Old Town of Carcassonne. The cathedral was moved to the parish church of Saint-Michel in the distance in 1803

To begin with “cathedral”, we are treating churches built and maintained as cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Many of the dioceses of the Ancien Régime were not restored after the Revolution: even some famous cathedrals like Laon are now purely ceremonial in their title and do not have their own bishop today. Also, as towns shifted away from their medieval centres, the church designated as the cathedral changed: at Agen, Carcassonne and Périgueux I have made sure to use the medieval cathedral, not its later substitute of another medieval church. Places like Dijon, only the site of a cathedral since 1731 (the cathedral first at the Abbey of Saint-Etienne and after the Revolution the Abbey of Saint-Bénigne) are also not included.

The Ancien Régime provinces of 1789/1802 (some major monastic churches are also shown). Paris (green) and Cambrai (purple, top) are post-medieval divisions of the provinces of Sens and Reims.

“France”? Medieval kingdoms were not as static as modern nation states, allegiances could shift constantly: Normandy, an autonomous Duchy, gained the Kingdom of England, then the English crown gained the Duchy of Aquitaine but lost Normandy, and so forth. So my scope includes any cathedral in modern France that was ever under the medieval Kingdom of France.

So, “medieval” then? Well, I decided to draw the line at 1552, before the Three Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun in the Archdiocese of Trier came under the French Crown: before that they were states in the Holy Roman Empire (which would be a dream Spacefleet Eccles if I could find a good list). Strasbourg (archdiocese of Mainz) was not French for the first time until 1681, and Corsica was held in the Middle Ages by Pisa and then the Republic of Genoa after 1284, so they’re way out.

Here’s my final map of 136 cathedrals, in 134 dioceses. This might seem a lot compared to England. And it is! Compared to 23 cathedrals and 21 dioceses in the Kingdom of England (plus, perhaps the three York support collegiate churches and six Henry VIII dioceses bringing medieval England up to 32 cathedral chapters briefly in the early 1540s). Even though France’s population was about three times that of England, this is still around twice the amount of of diocese per capita. Hence why English cathedrals were so consistently massive, but even by the end of the Middle Ages, many French ones remained surprisingly modest: they simply didn’t have the assurance of funding in the same way.

The twin cathedrals of Saint-Lizier. Both have excellent medieval wall painting inside.

(Google MyMaps annoyingly only allows 10 layers, so I had to group together the archdioceses of Embrun, Aix, Arles and Vienne)

There were only two joint sees akin to England’s Coventry/Lichfield and Bath/Wells, however, they were extremely obscure. Forcalquier and Sisteron in Haute-Provence were a joint see, and Saint-Lizier in Occitane had two cathedral churches with separate chapters, the titular one in the town and Notre-Dame-de-la-Sède attached to the episcopal palace. So that’s a fact you probably didn’t know.

The black-basalt built Cathedral of Saint-Flour in the Auvergne, created 1317 and rebuilt between 1396 and 1466, is about as vanilla as a medieval cathedral can get.

The archdioceses themselves largely conform to the Roman civil provinces of Gaul, and archiepiscopal control did not necessary conform to secular politics: Besançon archdiocese included Basel and Lausanne Cathedrals: now in Switzerland and never in France (and Basel being German-speaking).

Condom Cathedral. The axial chapel dates from 1368: the rest of the church was rebuilt as a mini-Albi after the collapse of a bell-tower in 1507. (Wikimedia Commons)

One thing that is noticeable is how many dioceses there were in the south of France: this is partly because of the great number of new dioceses created under the Avignon Papacy in 1317 after the final consolidation of the Occitane under the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars (almost entirely a false flag to justify the French crown’s military action against the south). While some of these were converted monastic churches (and often the abbot of the community got the gig as the first bishop), a great many were rebuilt on a modest High-Gothic cathedral plan in the 14th and 15th centuries (Saint-Flour, Sarlat, Condom) so are vital to consider in the idea of what constitutes a typical “medieval cathedral”.

And also, we couldn’t miss out Condom, right?

Compiling the plans

The plan of Rouen in Dehio, Georg: Die kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes Vol. 3, 1894.

Before getting to the images, a little on the job of gathering the source material. While the English fleet has been a struggle to find accurate plans and vaulting, the problem for France has been finding any at all for many of the buildings! Ultimately, for better or worse, most of them have been taken indirectly from Georg Dehio’s Die kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. In fact, for pretty much every major medieval church building, any plan you get online will probably be derived from Dehio’s overwhelmingly German masterpiece of cataloguing. However, Dehio’s versions of the plans generally were interested in the oldest fabric of the building and leave out important later additions without making it clear. Worst of all, they’re extremely straightened up, even if the builders were consciously building parts on different axes and widths. For instance, Rouen Cathedral looks like it has a perfect squared crossing in the Dehio plan (and consequently every plan on the internet), but listener, let me tell, you I have been to Rouen Cathedral, and I can tell ye, there ain’t nothing square about it:

My plans are of course are scaled to Google Maps aerial photography measurements to double-check scales, but there are also quite more serious inaccuracies in some of Dehio plans. For instance, Sées, also in Normandy, wasn’t coming up right in my measurement checks on the Dehio plan and on investigating the building itself, I found that the plan got the number of bays on the axial chapel wrong: it has three and then the apse, while the Dehio only has two! I had to rather annoyingly redraw the axial chapel partly to fix this.

So while I have checked details in Google Earth and user 360 photos (including having to draw the entire vault system on myself on myself for some buildings) I am, like Dehio also a magpie compiler who has done my best with buildings I’ve never visited and there are bound to be some errors. But without further ado, here is the entire fleet in one image: the resolution of the file at the same scale to the English fleet.

Luckily Embrun Cathedral is such a lovely church I feel no ill towards the many hours I hunted for a ground plan of it.

The smaller building, the more difficult it was much of the time to source a plan if Dehio didn’t include it. Really difficult ones to source were: Saint-Flour (eventually found a visitor leaflet pdf and drew the thankfully simple vaults on it), Saint-Lizier, Notre-Dame-de-la-Sède (which I made from, of all things, a fire escape plan) and Embrun (which I was forced to draw myself from aerial shots and one isometric view of the plan in a reconstruction of the bishop’s palace). I also made the fancy Flamboyant vaults on Viviers and a couple of others here and there. Autun and Langres had to be made from hybrids because most plans were only the core 12thc fabric, omitting the apsidal and buttress chapels.

The fully-armed and operational French battlefleet

So here they are, all of the archdioceses of medieval France and their cathedral churches. In space. We go from Reims anticlockwise round the Kingdom via Sens and Paris to Normandy and then Brittany (notice Nantes, which had the fires earlier this year), down the west coast through Aquitaine to the Spanish border, the over to the corner with Italy and Germany where I just rammed everything together because it’s all relatively small fry.

Many of the plans will look terribly samey in the northern provinces where pretty much every cathedral got a big chevet, and there only so much you can indicate about the originality of a building with a groundplan (which is only a representation of small aspect a built object, and never a surrogate for the real thing). However a few surviving outliers of pre-High Gothic styles are particular notable as what counted as a “cathedral” build before the 13thc, particularly the Angevin domed cathedrals of Angoulême and Périgueux (latter lost its nave and bell tower in the 17th century), which are hardly what you expect from a French cathedral.

Putting all the plans together shows how the archdioceses of Reims and Sens (including Paris, which was only its own archdiocese from 1622) became the exemplars for what a “cathedral” should be, and other well-off areas such as Brittany and Aquitaine following them in part, with the poorer ones maybe managing a chevet (the rounded east end with a continuous open arcade typical of those provinces) only for the archiepiscopal flagship. In the south-east corner (top-right on the spacefleet), only Arles and the largely replaced Belley managed a proper chevet. Under Narbonne, the 1317 episcopal creations of the former Benedictine abbeys Elne and Alet (the latter now a archaeological ruin) had chevets begun but never completed.

Narbonne and Toulouse (archiepiscopal from 1317) themselves also sport decidedly unfinished plans, with neither having their Gothic nave completed. Both of these unfulfilled projects were partly due to the cathedrals had their incomes cut drastically when their parishes were divided up in 1317 among a bunch of new dioceses.

Abbey church of Saint-Etienne, Caen, 1066-80s

The smoking gun for all this ambition arguably lies in the churches of the archdiocese of Rouen, which as Normandy, under autonomous control of its dukes, set the scale for cathedrals such as Paris and Noyon with its barely-precedented enormous churches in the Duchy from the 1040s and their new possession of the Kingdom of England after 1066, Winchester being designed from 1079 to equal Old St Peter’s Basilica (built in the 3rd quarter of the fourth century): the first building to do so since the heyday of the Roman Empire.

Beauvais Cathedral, chevet, 1225-60, remodelled 1284-1338 after structural failure. Construction of the High Gothic Cathedral was halted after the early 16th crossing tower collapsed in 1573, and the c. 1000 nave (NotreDame-de-la-BasseŒuvre) was never replaced.

But of course how France wiped the floor with the Anglo-Norman was the use of the pointed arch obtained from Burgundian Romanesque which in turn had developed through contact with the Crusader States and the ambitious basilicas built in the Caucasus c. 1000. Buildings like Paris used it to push the height of elevations to an absurd degree, cumuliating in the Icarus folly that was Beauvais in Reims archdiocese, still the highest masonry vault in the world, and still worryingly unstable as when a cell popped out in 1284 and the whole elevation had to be remodelled to be twice as supportive for its height.

Although Lugdunensis Prima is a bit crummy in comparison to the golden age of Early and High Gothic, Autun and Langres were exceptional for their day, at least managing to muscle up to the challenger by the Loire Valley of Old St Peter’s Basilica Rome: the Cluniacs’ head church of Cluny Abbey, which we now know as Cluny III. That church alone is good enough reason for me to do Spacefleet Monastica.

Dax Cathedral, portal of the Apostles: relocated to counterfacade of N transept of the otherwise completely 18thc building

In the western parts of France, many cathedrals suffered heavy damage or lost parts of their structure under occupation by the Protestant armies in the late 16th-century Wars of Religion. For instance, the medieval portions of Rennes in Brittany and Dax in Gascony were completely rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries, retaining the Renaissance-style W block of the former and the incredible portal of the Apostles from the latter. A subsequent post will explore the major cathedrals totally demolished and largely ignored by the art-historical canon, mostly at the time of Revolution, but also, startlingly, 1552. These are shown as greyed-out on my fleet, along with other demolished or permanently unfinished sections.

Rennes’s 16thc classical-style W front with 18thc rebuild behind: the dimensions are similar to the medieval cathedral
The small but beautifullly-formed archiepiscopal cathedral of Embrun, Hautes-Alpes, built beginning c.1175

However, the survival rate of the cathedral buildings across France isn’t too bad: at least compared to their monasteries. In the south, many of them were rather simple late Romanesque buildings with little episcopal distinction that could easily serve a parochial role in the Republic. After all, their purpose was really to serve as a church for the daily worship of a chapter under a dean, and they didn’t all need to be Chartres and Amiens (which, incidentally, are easily the two biggest cathedrals in this collection, with Reims and Paris vying for third place). Here are Tarbes and Lescar in Auch archdiocese, which are pleasingly modest yet stately:

So that’s it for now. I am planning some sort of “best of” for the big, small and medium of French cathedrals beyond the core canon, but for now, if you would like hi-res versions of the SPACEFLEET ECCLESIASTICA images, please donate to my Ko-fi shop thingy below. The pack includes the French fleet at the same pixel-scale as the English fleet, the remastered arch-diocese collections as I originally made them, and a “sensible” version with all the references to spaceships taken out and the colours inverted (which of course takes much less ink to print!). All for what you spent on a coffee in a cardboard cup in the old days! Remember them, eh?

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