Saturday, 28 March 2009

Prologue

To the most reverend Josselin lord bishop of Soissons[1], Suger by the patience of God abbot of the blessed St. Denis[2] the Areopagite[3], servant of God as best he can be, hoping to be united with the bishop of bishops.[4]

We should submit ourselves and our works for the consideration and judgement of those by whom, on the day of judgement the sentence of love or hate will be pronounced according to deserts, when ‘the noble man shall sit in the gates with the senators of this earth.’[5] Therefore, best of men, even had you not occupied the episcopal throne, to which I am wholly devoted as you are yourself. I could say no more of you than that you asked of me. That is why I am sending for your approval and wisdom the deeds of the most serene Louis, King of the French. Thus, because he showed himself the most generous of lords in promoting us and also when we had been promoted, both I in writing and you in correcting may equally praise the man whom we have equally loved and whose death we equally mourn. For friendship, even when it is born of benefits received, puts no barriers in the way of love, since He who ordered us to love our enemies did not prevent us loving our friends. So in payment of a double debt of gratitude and love, unequal but not irreconcilable, let us build him ‘a monument more lasting than bronze.’[6] So with my pen, I describe his devotion to the worship of God by the church and his passion for the good of the kingdom, which ought not fade from men’s memory with the passage of time; nor should the zealous prayers of the interceding church cease from generation to generation, because of the great benefits it received from him.

May your highness occupy happily your episcopal throne among the senators of the sky.


[1] Josselin de Quierzy (or Vierzy) (-1152), surnamed ‘the Red’ was archdeacon of Bourges and then bishop of Soissons. He was elected bishop of Soissons in 1126 and died on 24th October 1152. He was a friend of Suger and owed his advancement to Louis VI. The letters of St Bernard suggest that Josselin and Sugar cooperated in affairs of state and in 1129-30 Josselin was one of the bishops who supported the claims of St-Denis over the house of Argeneuil.

[2] St Denis was bishop of Paris and martyr. Nothing is known of his birth or his early life, other than he came from Italy. His feast is kept on 9th October. He is usually represented with his head in his hands because according to the legend after his execution the corpse rose again and carried the head for some distance. While still very young, he was distinguished for his virtuous life, knowledge of sacred things and firm faith and Pope Fabian (236-250) sent him with some other missionary bishops to Gaul. The Church of Gaul had suffered terribly under the persecution of the Emperor Decius and the bishops were to try to restore it to its former flourishing condition. Denis with his inseparable companions, the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius, arrived near the present city of Paris and settled on the island in the Seine. The earliest document that gives an account of his labours and of his martyrdom is Passio SS. Dionsyii, Rustici et Eleutherii. It dates from the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century and wrongly attributed to the poet Venantius Fortunatus. It is interwoven with much legend, from which, however, the following facts can be gleaned. On the island in the Seine Denis built a church and provided for a regular solemnisation of the Divine service. His fearless preaching led to countless conversions. This aroused the envy, anger and hatred of the heathen priests. They incited the populace against the strangers and persuaded the governor Fescenninus Sisinnius to put a stop to the new teaching by force. Denis with his two companions were seized and as they maintained their faith were beheaded (about 275) after many tortures. Later accounts give a detailed description of their sufferings. They were scourged, imprisoned, racked, thrown to wild beasts, burnt at the stake, and finally beheaded. Gregory of Tours stated ‘Beatus Dionysius Parisiorum episcopus diversis pro Christi nomine adfectus poenis praesentem vitam gladio immente finivit’ (Historia Francorum I: 30). The bodies of the three holy martyrs were buried through the efforts of a pious matron named Catulla and a small shrine was erected over their graves. This was later on replaced by a basilica. From the reign of King Dagobert I (622-638), the church and the Benedictine monastery attached to it were more and more beautifully decorated. The veneration of St. Denis became by degrees a national devotion, rulers and princes vying with one another to promote it

[3] The abbey of St-Denis owed a great deal of its status to a curious process by which three different people had come to be seen as one person. In Acts 17: 34, St Paul numbered among one of his converts in Athens one St Dionysius (French Denis) the ‘Areopagite’, later bishop of Athens. In the third century, a second Dionysius, who seems to have been bishop of Paris was martyred. Finally, in the early sixth century, an eastern author of texts on themes like the unknowability of God and the hierarchy of angels added the name Dionysius the Areopagite to his work. The identification of St. Denis of Paris with St. Dionysius the Areopagite and with the Pseudo-Dionysius, the composer of the Areopagitic writings persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The combining of these three persons in one occurred as early as the eighth or perhaps the seventh century, but it was only through the Areopagitica written in 836 by Hilduin, Abbot of Saint-Denis, at the request of Louis the Pious, that this serious error took deep root: see Levillain, L., ‘Etudes sur l’abbaye de Saint-Denis a l’epoque merovingienne’, in Bibliotheque a l’Ecole des Chartes, vol. lxxxii, (1902), pp. 31-36. When Suger thought of the patron saint of his abbey, he viewed a particularly impressive figure: an individual who had direct contact with St Paul and the author of important theological works and who had been martyred for the faith. St-Denis had benefited from royal patronage since the Merovingian period and various Merovingian, Carolingian and Capetian monarchs were buried there. By the twelfth century many people felt that the blessed Dionysius was in some ways patron saint of France and that the abbey had special ties with the French monarchy. It is not surprising that when Peter Abelard denied the claims of the monks that their patron was the Areopagite in the 1120s that he was regarded as ‘a traitor to the whole country’. For the linkage between St-Denis and the French monarchy, see: Crosby, S.M., The Royal Abbey of St Denis: From Its Beginnings to the Death of Suger 475-1151, New Haven, 1987 and Spiegel, Gabrielle M,. ‘The Cult of Saint Denis and Capetian Kingship’, Journal of Medieval History, vol. i, (1975), pp. 43-70, reprinted in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, pp. 138-162. Beaune, Colette, Naissance de la nation France, Paris, 1985, pp. 83-90 examines the cult of the blessed Dionysius before Suger.

[4] ‘Bishop of bishops’ refers to Christ: see Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 5/2 678, 72-75 for applications of the term ‘episcopus episcoporum’ to Christ among the Church Fathers.

[5] Proverbs XXXI, 23.

[6] Horace, Odes III, 30, v 1.

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