Monasticism and the Royal Abbey of Saint Denis
By Ariela Steif
Michigan Journal of History, Vol.6:1 (2008)
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.
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.