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Monasticism
 and 
the 
Royal
 Abbey
 of
 Saint ­Denis

Monasticism
 and 
the 
Royal
 Abbey
 of
 Saint ­Denis

By Ariela Steif

Michigan Journal of History, Vol.6:1 (2008)

17th century image of Saint Denis
17th century image of Saint Denis

Introduction: The
 Royal 
Abbey 
of
 Saint‐Denis
 in 
the 
time
 of 
Abbot
 Suger
 emerged
 in 
a 
historical moment of
 tenuous
 balance.
 Poised 
between
 the 
decline 
of 
monasticism,
 the
 rise 
of 
urban centers,
 and a 
market‐based
 economy,
 the 
abbey 
under 
Suger
 existed 
simultaneously 
with the
 emergence
 of 
bureaucratic 
secularism, 
the 
Cistercian 
and 
Gregorian
 controversies,
 and warring
 forces 
of
ideology
 and 
skepticism. 
At 
this 
critical 
juncture,
 Saint‐Denis
 struggled
 to maintain
 a 
balance between
 church 
and 
state, 
between
a
 monasticism
 of 
resistance and 
a monasticism 
of 
reaction,
 and, 
ultimately, 
between
 the 
past
 and 
the 
future.

Saint‐Denis 
seems 
to 
occupy
 a
 curious
 place
 in 
French
 history:
 never 
has 
there 
been a
 church
 so
 revered
 and
 yet 
so 
reviled.
Although
 the
 Abbey
 suffered 
many 
cycles 
of 
damage and
 restoration, no 
event 
was 
as 
destructive
 as the
 Revolution
 of 
1789,
most
 notably 
upon the
 crypt
 and
 the
 three 
great 
bronze 
doors,
 which 
were 
melted 
down.  

Reverence 
for 
the church, however,
began
 very 
early 
on.
 The
 first monarch
 to 
be 
buried 
at 
Saint‐Denis 
was Queen 
Arnegonde 
in
 570, 
just 
outside 
the 
western
 entrance.  
The 
burial 
of 
Queen Arnegonde 
in 
the 
sixth
 century
 started
 a
 long
 tradition
 of 
royal 
burials,
 particularly 
of several
 noteworthy
 Merovingian
 kings,
 although
 no
 specific 
reason
 is 
known
 why 
they chose 
to be 
buried
 there.

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In 
the 
seventh
 century,
 King 
Dagobert 
I 
and 
his 
son 
Clovis 
II 
gave the
 church
 its 
monastic
 standing. 

It 
was 
rebuilt 
in 
the
 eighth 
century 
as 
one 
of 
the
 first great
 Carolingian 
abbeys,
 and 
dedicated
 in 
775 
before 
Charlemagne 
and
 his 
court. 
By 
867 Saint‐Denis 
became a 
royal 
abbey 
and 
Charles
 the 
Bald
 took 
on 
the 
title 
of 
lay 
abbot
 to 
give the
 Abbey 
more 
protection 
during
 the 
Norman 
raids.
 However,
 even
 by
 this 
time,
 Saint‐ Denis
 had 
long 
been 
recognized
 as 
the 
“patron
 saint 
of 
the 
monarchy.”  
Furthermore,
 after Hugh
 Capet 
was 
buried
 at 
Saint‐Denis
 in
 996, 
every
 monarch 
that 
followed 
him
 was 
also buried
 there,
 with
 only 
three 
exceptions:
 Philip 
I, 
Louis
 VII, 
and 
Louis
 XI.  

One
 other notable 
exception,
 prior
 to 
Hugh 
Capet, 
was 
Charlemagne,
 who was
 buried
 in 
his 
own palace
 chapel 
at 
Aix‐la‐Chapelle.

Click here to read this article from the Michigan Journal of History

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