Show Notes for Episode 354: What's Special About Moissac, France?

Categories: French Culture, French History, Toulouse Area

Discussed in this Episode

  • Saint Jacques de Compostelle
  • The largest library in France and a major scriptorium
  • The golden age of Moissac
  • Moissac during the war against the Cathar heresy
  • Moissac during the French Revolution
  • The Abbey of Moissac becoming a historic monument
  • Moissac protecting Jewish children during WW2
  • Visiting the abbey today: the remarkable architecture of the doorway
  • Church and cloister
  • The cloister of Moissac: the first capitals that tell stories
  • Walk around the capitals with the list in hand
  • The romanesque doorway
  • The tympanum of the Moissac cathedral
  • A gothic church in the south of France
  • Visiting Moissac and local gastronomy
  • How life in France can resume thanks to the French Health Pass
  • New travel rules are implemented in September 2021 but vaccinated visitors still welcome in France

A Brief History of Moissac

The first recorded history of the site of Moissac goes back very far, to the 600’s when there is mention of a small monastery that was created there. Moissac sits on the convergence of the Tarn River and a smaller river in the curve of a valley and the monastery, like most built a very long time ago, was set against the hills in a remote spot. Legend has it that the monastery was the gift of Clovis, the first Frankish king to convert to Christianity, but in fact there is no official record of this. Some buildings were begun in the 600’s as monastic life expended rapidly in the early Middle Ages.

A Benedictine Abbey

It was a branch of the Benedictine abbeys; the earliest order of monks that was extremely powerful and wealthy and the abbey of Moissac was under the orders of Cluny Abbey, in Burgundy, the MOST powerful and head monastery of the order.

During the early part of the Middle Ages, Moissac, on the road between Toulouse and Bordeaux (by river or by land) was attacked and invaded by the Moors, then the Vikings (who came up the rivers), then the Huns who attacked from the east.

In spite of these attacks, by the 1100’s, St Pierre de Moissac had become the second most important of the over 100 Benedictine abbeys in France and it in turn created smaller monasteries throughout the region of the southwest under its direction. The different royal dynasties, from the Merovingians, to Charlemagne’s descendants, to the Capetians and the Counts of Toulouse, all gave Moissac enormous amounts of money.

A Major Stop on the Pilgrimage to Saint Jacques de Compostelle

But what added to its prominence and prestige, and what has continued to make Moissac important was the fact that it became, starting in 1047, at the height of the passion for pilgrimages, a major stop on the road to St Jacques de Compostelle in Spain.

There are four major routes that take a pilgrim to Compostelle, two from the north, and two from the east. Moissac is a relay stop on two of them. And it one of the last stops before going across the Pyrenees to Spain.

The Largest Library in France and a Major Scriptorium

So important was the abbey in Moissac that it developed a major Scriptorium, that is a learned center for the copying of books (what were called codex before printing). At a time when few people including kings knew how to read or write, the power of having a learned center with monks who were educated and “copied” books, can’t be overstated. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Moissac had the largest library of France and one of the most important in western Europe with over 160 codex.

Over 125 of these precious codex still exist and are in the National  Library in Paris, having been saved by royalty and then bought by members of the nobility after the Revolution

The Golden Age of Moissac

So the golden age of Moissac covered the period from about the year 1000 to the early 1300’s. But there were tragedies and destruction along the way, as with almost everything in the Middle Ages. In 1188 there was a terrible fire that destroyed much of the church and buildings. The English, in Aquitaine very close by and of course loyal to the English throne, attacked and ransacked the abbey several times.

Moissac During the War Against the Cathar Heresy

During the war with the Cathar in the early 1200’s the buildings were attacked even though the monks were Catholic and loyal to the French king. They actually turned over to Simon de Monfort, the head of the King’s army, all the knights that were defending the Cathars!

And just a little later the period called the 100 Years War began, with the English and French fighting over all of the southwest and the abbey, caught in the middle of all the fighting, was partially destroyed.

What had been a collection of magnificent Romanesque buildings; church, monastery and cloister, and all the dependent buildings too, was partially rebuilt in Gothic style in the early 1400’s.

Moissac During the French Revolution

Strangely enough, by the early 1600’s the monastery, which had lost most of its monks, was secularized. And then, during the French Revolution, it was sold to the highest bidder, in pieces!

Furniture and sculptures were taken, the buildings were used for secular purposes, and in the middle of the 1800’s, the entire monastery was almost demolished when the railroad came through the area. After many petitions and much protest, the abbey was saved, except for the refectory (dining room) and kitchen and the train now runs right behind the monastery (you can feel the vibrations if you are inside the cloister)!

The Abbey of Moissac Becoming a Historic Monument

In 1840 Proper Mérimée, an intellectual and writer, was made the first Minister of Culture and Patrimoine (Heritage) for the new government and he went all over France looking at ancient buildings and ruins to see what should or could be saved. He reported back to Violet le Duc, the man responsible for establishing what could be renovated or saved or not. Le Duc insisted that the Abbey of Moissac be saved and so, in1840, it was one of the very first buildings to be made a Historic Monument.

Moissac Protecting Jewish Children during WW2

And one last episode in the history of Moissac that is worth mentioning; during WW II the entire city including the Prefet (head of the police) helped protect and hide hundreds of Jewish children who were brought there by the Jewish Scouts movement. Many families took in the children and they were enrolled in school – the Prefet refused to enforce the Vichy rules.

When, in 1944 the Germans came south and occupied all of France, including Moissac, the children were scattered among many families and farms, given false papers, and all of them were saved. This united front in the face of the enemy was unique. Moissac was partially demolished by the Germans as they fled, but that didn’t change the town’s attitude.

In fact, Moissac is now famous for having been so valiant and generous and ten people from the town are among the Juste (people honored for saving others, especially Jewish people during WW II).

Visiting the Abbey Today: the Remarkable Architecture of the Doorway, Church and Cloister

What makes Moissac special is not only its history which is rich and long, but that it is still a major stop on the pilgrimage route to Compostelle. What makes Moissac’s Abbey even more special is the originality and beauty of the very old architecture and sculptures everywhere.

What we see when we go to visit the abbey is a complex composed of a church, a huge carved doorway and entrance hall, and an enormous cloister with some of the monastic chambers still standing. Of all that is still there, the most ancient part is the cloister which is largely the original structure and which dates precisely from the year 1100, that makes it almost 1000 years old!

The Cloister of Moissac: the First Capitals that Tell Stories

This cloister is famous for having the very first carved ‘historied” capitals of any monastery in France. That means that the 116 thin marble columns that surround the cloister garden, either single or double, have large triangular tops, 46 of which tell stories from the Bible in astounding details, instead of showing vegetal or animal motifs.

Some of the capitals are worn down, but some are in such good condition that you can still look at them and see what “story” they are telling: Genesis, Daniel in the lions’ Den, the Good Samaritan; Jesus entering Jerusalem are among the more “legible” and popular of these.

Whoever the stone sculptors were who worked on this cloister, they used their skill and imagination to create a beautiful series of works that are like lessons from the Bible. There were three important abbots in the 1100’s who were responsible for giving the stone sculptors directions and ideas, but it was the sculptors themselves who figured out how to carve a full story onto a four-sided piece of stone not higher than about 50 cm.

Walk Around the Capitals with the List in Hand

These sculpted capitals are remarkable and with a list in your hand, you can walk around and see the details of these Biblical scenes. The cloister of Moissac and its sculptors were the inspiration for many other monastic stone works in the region like two monasteries in Toulouse, the Daurade and St Sernin, and are rightly still very famous.

There are also flat relief sculptures of the different abbots who directed and enriched the monastery from the end of the 1000’s through the 1100’s. All the pieces are the originals making this the largest collection of Romanesque cloister sculpture still standing in France.

None of the other cloisters still exist in their original place, or in relatively good condition, except those in Moissac, which is one of the reasons they are so precious.

The Romanesque Doorway

Besides the lovely cloister, there is the famous Romanesque doorway to look at and appreciate. Carved at about the same time as the cloister, between 1110 and 1130 it is absolutely unique. Considered as a magnificent example of the best of Romanesque relief sculpture, it is huge.

Composed of several elements, this doorway is impressive even from far away. About 6.5 meters wide, the bottom part is made of carved double doorposts, scalloped like a paper cut-out, but with animal figures blending into human forms into the posting. On the outer sides are two carved figures, St Jeremiah on one side and St Paul on the other. Nowhere is there plain stone; everything is sculpted with either human or animal or vegetal forms in a very elegant, elongated style.

The Tympanum of the Moissac Cathedral

Above the doorway is a huge tympanum (an enormous semi-circle relief sculpture) and in this case, the “theme” is the Apocalypse of St Jean, which basically announces the end of the world and the coming of Christ. (A very popular theme in the 1100’s!) What makes this special is how lovely and dynamic the sculpture is; there is a Christ on the Throne in an almond-shaped form in the center, his feet on clouds, dressed in Roman style, his right hand raised.

Around him are the four Evangélistes, and underneath him, in dynamic curves and movement, are the 24 wise old men, each one different, all looking up in wonder, all holding and playing a musical instrument (the music of the heavens!!) Looking at the tympanum is like reading a graphic novel. And you can see a typical Romanesque feature – the feet are tiny compared to the heads and the bodies!!!

On each side of the central doorway are carved illustrations from the Bible. On the right (looking at the doorway) is the story of Jesus told in several episodes, and on the left are “lessons” about what not to do. There are many sculpted doorways and tympanum on medieval churches in France, but this is the most ancient and one of the most interesting for its imaginative sculpted pieces.

A Gothic Church in the South of France

And finally, there is the church itself. The entrance to the church is through this doorway. Half Romanesque and half Gothic, rebuilt in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s it includes some precious Gothic sculpted pieces and yellow-orange painted ceiling and walls with geometric patterns. The oldest part of the church is close to the altar, still Romanesque style from the 1200’s and the rest of the church with high ceilings is Gothic.

A big surprise is just next to the altar; on both sides you can see the results of some archeological digging which has revealed the ancient Roman ruins that were there before. The church like all of the monastery, was in fact built on top of the ruins of a Roman temple dating from the first century and the finds have been left so that you can appreciate how ancient all of this is.

From the outside you can see that the bottom half of the church is made of stone (as is the church tower) and the top half is made of brick (dating from the 14th century).

There is a large, long esplanade in front of the doorway that allows you to stand far back and take in the whole building to see the many different parts.

To enter the cloister you need to go to the back behind the doorway to the church and enter next to the Tourist Office. The first two chambers before you enter the cloister have many pieces of the monastery that were saved when it was partially destroyed. And there is a detailed scale model that shows the full monastery when it was complete. There is also a small but good bookstore that has books about many things from the Middle Ages, not just about Moissac, and it also sells some souvenirs.

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Categories: French Culture, French History, Toulouse Area