Between 1000 and 1400, the kingdoms of the Franks, divided among many leaders, become the kingdom of France, which emerges under the Capetian dynasty as one of the most prosperous, powerful, and prestigious in Christendom. Three kings stand out: Philip II (Philip Augustus, r. 1180–1223), Louis IX (Saint Louis, r. 1226–70), and Philip IV (Philip the Fair, r. 1285–1314). Each expands his political and territorial authority well beyond the capital at Paris, wresting lands from the English and attaching southern territories to his domain. Each establishes a centralized administration, a hierarchical judicial system, and an efficient system of taxation.
The Capetians earn much prestige on the religious front: they surround themselves with clerics as advisors and in return confer privileges and gifts on churches and abbeys. The most famous of these “ministers” is Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, counselor to Louis VI and Louis VII, and regent during the Second Crusade until his death in 1151. Participation in the Crusades and pilgrimages, and, especially, the concept that the king’s authority derives from God (monarchie de droit divin), give the Capetians the title of “very Christian kings” (rois très chrétiens). The Crusades waged in the East, alongside constant battles with the English, generate a sense of French identity.
The expansion of royal authority is halted in the fourteenth century by an economic crisis, the loss of a third of the population to the plague, and, from 1337, constant military conflict with the English, who hold large territories in France. The fourteenth century also sees the establishment of the papacy in Avignon, under pontiffs who are natives of the Limousin region of central France.
So many building campaigns are underway that one writer, Radulfus Glaber, speaks of a Europe “clothing itself with a white mantle of churches.” Among the major monuments are the churches of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Saint-Philibert at Tournus, and Notre-Dame at Jumièges. The introduction of a choir with ambulatory and radiating chapels, which defines church plans for the next four centuries, is found at the Church of Sainte-Foy at Conques, built between 1039 and 1065 and the contemporary Church of Notre–Dame at Paray–le–Monial.
At Clermont, Pope Urban II calls for a holy war, later known as the First Crusade. Spurred by appeals from the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos and reports of difficulties from Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land, the West launches a military campaign to wrest the holy city of Jerusalem from Muslim control. While armies are assembled, a “People’s Crusade” sets out, terrorizing Jews on their route. Poorly armed and disorganized, most never reach enemy territory; those who do, perish at the hands of a superior Muslim force. On July 15, 1099, the main Crusader forces led by the nobility take Jerusalem.
Extensive programs of architectural sculpture are initiated throughout the country. The earliest capitals with narrative decoration appear in Chauvigny around 1080, bearing the signature of their sculptor Gofridus, and at Cluny and Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire around 1100. Imposing sculptural reliefs decorate the tympana set over doors of churches such as Vézelay (ca. 1120) and Autun (ca. 1120–35) in Burgundy, Moissac (ca. 1115–30) in the south, and Chartres (ca. 1150) just west of Paris. The first jamb statues flanking doors adorn the west facades—the principal church entrances—of the royal abbey of Saint-Denis by 1140 and of Chartres Cathedral by 1150.
Saint Bernard (1090–1153) joins the abbey of Cîteaux, founded in 1098 near Dijon in an effort to adhere more strictly to Benedictine rule and to restore monastic rigor. Bernard founds the abbey of Clairvaux in 1115. Under his leadership, the Cistercian order flourishes, with 350 houses at his death in 1153. Concerned with maintaining orthodoxy, Bernard becomes involved in the fight against heresy in southwestern France and, in 1146 at Vézelay, calls for the Second Crusade. In a famous diatribe, he criticizes sculpture in churches and monasteries as distracting both for the clergy and the faithful.
Eleanor of Aquitaine marries the man who, two months later, becomes King Louis VII of France. She brings to the marriage the duchy of Aquitaine—a far larger domain than that possessed by the French kings. Their marriage is annulled in 1152, and Eleanor immediately marries Henry Plantagenet, who becomes Henry II, king of England, in 1154. This marriage brings Aquitaine, Normandy, and England under one rule, marking the beginning of English presence in France. Eleanor’s court at Poitiers becomes a great center for poetry and culture.
Abbot Suger (ca. 1081–ca. 1151), advisor to Louis VI and Louis VII, begins to remodel the royal abbey church of Saint-Denis outside Paris, the burial site of French rulers since Carolingian times. In 1144, Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine attend the consecration of the choir, remarkable for its open, light-filled spaces. Suger’s architectural innovations spell out the basic principles of Gothic architecture. The abbot also commissions precious objects to furnish the abbey, believing, as he explains in his own written account of the building and refurbishment of Saint-Denis, that only the finest materials are worthy of God.
Paris nurtures a considerable community of scholars, including Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, and John of Salisbury. It becomes the leading center in Europe for the study of theology and the liberal arts. The university of Paris is founded between 1150 and 1170.
Bishops and architects around Paris experiment with architectural forms as they compete to create ever larger and taller churches, such as the Cathedral of Saint-Stephen, Bourges. The collapse in 1284 of the 64-meter-high vault of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre Beauvais marks the technical limits of Gothic architecture.
Philip Augustus (d. 1223) ascends to the French throne. During his reign, official documents begin to speak of “a king of France” rather than “the king of the Franks.” Philip augments the royal domain through marriage and conquest, extending his territorial influence to much of what is modern-day France. He reforms his administration, increases the royal treasury, and builds extensive defenses. In establishing the court permanently at Paris in 1194, he secures its place as the capital.
Spreading the weight of vaults over a series of ribs, columns, and pilasters, Gothic architecture allows the dissolution of the wall. Windows in cathedrals and churches are filled with stained glass; the shimmering colored light transfigures the vast interiors. Depicting biblical stories, scenes from the lives of the saints, or single figures, stained-glass windows complement the sculptures on the exterior and the rites and ceremonies observed within.
The Albigensian Crusade is launched by Pope Innocent III with the help of Cistercian monks. While the original spark for this war springs from papal desire to extinguish the growing problem of heresy in the region surrounding Toulouse, the political struggle between the independent southern territories and lords from northern France, joined after 1226 by Louis VIII, plays itself out in a war. In 1229, Count Raymond VII of Toulouse, who had been Louis VIII’s main adversary, is compelled to cede territory to the king’s control.
Artists at Chartres install an elaborate and extensive program of stained-glass windows in the cathedral under construction there. In addition to religious and historical subjects, the intensely colored windows depict numerous scenes of tradespeople at work, including bakers, furriers, wheelwrights, and weavers. These tradespeople were likely contributors—through hefty taxes—to the construction of the church.
Louis IX (d. 1270), grandson of Philip Augustus, becomes king. A pious man involved in works of charity and with a strong sense of his responsibilities, he exemplifies the virtues of the Christian knight. A protector both of the university and the arts, Louis IX makes Paris a thriving cultural center. Having bought the Crown of Thorns from the Byzantine emperor in 1237, Louis IX commissions the Sainte-Chapelle, his royal chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris, as its reliquary. During his long reign, the capital becomes a center for the production of all precious arts: manuscript illumination, ivory carving, and goldsmiths’ work. Louis is canonized in 1297, less than thirty years after his death.
The Capetian kings foster national unity through the use of one language. The monk Primat translates the Grandes chroniques de France, a manuscript written at Saint-Denis celebrating the Capetian dynasty, from Latin into French.
With 20 million inhabitants, France is reputed the most powerful nation in Europe, as compared to Germany with a population of 14 million and England with 4 million.
Due in part to political insecurity in Italy, the French pope Clement V takes up residence in Avignon, which at the time belongs to the count of Provence, a vassal of the king of France. The papal court at Avignon attracts intellectuals and artists from France and Italy, among them Petrarch and Simone Martini.
Endemic wars and the development of sea trade contribute to the decline of the annual fairs held in the county of Champagne east of Paris. Diverse wares such as Flemish cloth and tapestry work, Chinese silk, Egyptian satin, Eastern spices, furs from the North, and even wax from Russia had been available at these fairs, which made the region a crucial center of international commerce and banking since the late eleventh century.
Philip VI, the first French king from the Valois branch of the Capetian dynasty, ascends to the French throne.
The Black Death reaches France, killing, according to chronicler Jean Froissart, a third of the population.
These are the conventional dates given for the Hundred Years’ War, a struggle better described as a series of battles between England and France over the succession to the French throne. Upon the death of the French king Charles IV in 1328, King Edward III of England claims the French throne and, in 1337, crosses the Channel with an army. The two countries fight intermittently for more than a century. In 1453, Charles VII, taking advantage of the Wars of the Roses in England, regains Normandy and Aquitaine and brings the conflict to an end.
“France, 1000–1400 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=07®ion=euwf (October 2001)