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French Gothic - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )

(French Romanesque.)


I. Geographical.—France, on the western confines of Europe, may be considered, from an architectural standpoint, as divided into two parts by the River Loire. With the Franks on the north and the Romance races on the south, architecture was influenced not only by geographical position, but also by racial differences. The buildings of old Roman settlers in Provence and along the fertile Rhone valley not only deter-mined the character of Romanesque in this district (p. 270), but also exercised an influence over the Gothic which followed. In the well-defined valley of the Garonne, which had been a trade-route from Marseilles to Bordeaux for merchants from the East, it is natural that there should be traces of Byzantine traditions, even as late as the Gothic period. The north of France, on the other hand, had been exposed to incursions of Northmen, and this element left an impress on Gothic architecture there. The " Ile de France " or Royal Domain, with Paris and the surrounding country, became, as the headquarters of the kings of France, the district where the great French Gothic cathedrals were first built in rapid succession, as at Paris, Bourges, Chartres, Laon, Le Mans, Amiens, and Rheims.

II. Geological.—The excellent building stone of France continued as abundant as in the Romanesque period (p.270), and that found near Caen aided in the development of the northern Gothic style. In the mountainous districts of Auvergne the use of volcanic stone gave a rich chromatic appearance to the buildings ; while in the extreme south good local stone helped to continue the Classical traditions which had been handed down through the Romanesque period.

III. Climatic.—This influence remained the same as during the previous period (p. 271), and all that it is necessary to note here is that the comparatively dull climate of the north permitted, and even invited, the extension of traceried windows to light the vast interiors.

IV. Religious.—The religious zeal of the thirteenth century, when Christianity was united against the Saracens, was especially manifested in France in the Third Crusade (A.D 1189) under Philip Augustus, the Seventh Crusade (A.D. 1248) under S. Louis, and the Eighth Crusade (A.D. 1270), and was marked by the erection of many grand cathedrals which were the work of the laity and the free communes, in contrast with the monastic church-building of the Romanesque period, such as that of Abbe Suger, minister of Louis VII (A.D. 1137–80). The clergy, as a corporate body, had reached the summit of their power, largely due to their championship of justice and their adhesion to the royal cause. The papacy, in spite of vicissitudes, was undoubtedly powerful in France during the seventy years (A.D. 1307–77) of the residence of the Popes in their fortress-palace at Avignon. The religious spirit of the age found an outlet in the inauguration of cults of special saints in different localities, and this brought fame to certain shrines which thus acquired wealth and importance as pilgrimage centres, and this is reflected in the beautiful architecture and decoration of the churches. The active zeal with which urban populations set about building cathedrals produced almost miraculously rapid results, and so much did this outburst of building activity transform the face of France, that it has been compared by Viollet-le-Duc to the commercial movement which, in later times, covered Europe with railways. A crusade against the heretical Albigenses (see below) of Albi, Toulouse, and Carcassonne was preached by the Cistercians in A.D. 1209, and relentless war was waged during the thirteenth century, under papal orders, by the King of France and the nobles of the north against the south, and ended in the destruction of the famous culture of Provence, the humiliation of the princes of the south, with the ultimate extermination of the heresy.

V. Social—Before the establishment of the Kingdom of France, when Hugh Capet became " King of the French " (A.D. 987), the country had been peopled by races differing in origin who were at war with one another and who perpetuated differences in government, customs, and language. The consequent diversity of influences was not without its effect both on Romanesque (p. 271) and on Gothic architecture. The period during which Gothic architecture in France had its growth was marked by all the restlessness that characterises the style, which is instinct with the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of that age. The feudal system was the root from which sprang the tyranny of the lords over the common people as well as the revolt of the same lords against the kingly power ; when kings were strong, the nobles were kept in check and the people prospered, and thus kings and people naturally fostered the communes against the nobles. The twelfth century was remarkable for the continuous struggle of the communes to assert their freedom. During the reign of Philip IV (A.D. 1285–1314) the Parlement de Paris became the principal law court, and the constitutional power of the central authority grew at the expense of feudal and ecclesiastical powers. Vast stretches of fertile country were brought under cultivation for corn, vine, and olive, and these and other industries were carried on by a thrifty, sturdy population which worked, much as in England, for the feudal lord of chateau or manoir. Though the Black Death (A.D. 1347-49) swept off a large part of the population and inevitably retarded progress in architecture, the richness of the soil still. continued to supply the prosperity which, on the secular side, built the world-famous chateaux of France and the hotels de ville of the manufacturing towns, such as Arras and Rouen, while on the ecclesiastical side a powerful and religious laity erected, with their own funds, and often with their own hands, that wonderful series of cathedrals which are at once the marvel and the glory of France.

VI. Historical. — Philip Augustus (A.D. 1180-1223), after declaring King John of England to have forfeited all the fiefs he held of the French crown, proceeded to conquer Normandy and the other English possessions, with the exception of Aquitaine. Philip next defeated the combined English, German, and Flemish forces at Bovines (A.D. 1214), and it was in the reign of this strong monarch that a number of French cathedrals were commenced. The power of France was so predominant that the English barons were induced to offer the crown of England to Philip's eldest son, Louis. Louis IX (S. Louis) (A.D. 1226-70) further increased the power of the Crown, but died at Tunis, when setting out on the eighth or last Crusade. The overthrow of the independent counts of Toulouse by Louis IX, during the religious wars against the Albigenses, so extended the Kingdom of France that she obtained a triple sea-board on the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the English Channel, and this consolidation of the French Kingdom, by which the different nationalities were gradually absorbed under one king, corresponds with the great cathedral-building epoch of the thirteenth century.

Philip VI (A.D. 1328-50) defeated the Flemings at Cassel, in A.D. 1337 the Hundred Years' War with England began in consequence of the claims which arose from the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry II of England, and in A.D. 1346 the Battle of Crecy was won by the English. The French were again defeated by the English at Poitiers in A.D. 1356. Henry V of England defeated the French at Agincourt (A.D. 1415) and occupied Paris (A.D. 1421). During the reign of Charles VII (A.D. 1422-61) there was a great outburst of national sentiment when Joan of Arc raised the Siege of Orleans (A.D. 1429) and was burnt at Rouen as a witch by the English. In A.D. 1453 the English were expelled from the whole of France except Calais, thus terminating the Hundred Years' War. Louis XI (A.D. 1461-83) inaugurated reforms, strengthened the central power, and worked for the unity of France by annexing Burgundy, Artois, and Provence. Charles VIII (A.D. 1483-98), by his marriage with Anne of Brittany, united that province to the French crown. Thus the close of the Mediaeval period marks a united France, free from foreign invasion.

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