Rouen Rue Damiette

Rouen 911 – 1300

Book Review: Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen 911 – 1300

To a large extent the city of Rouen represents an unknown quantity. Originally it was founded by an ancient tribe, the Veliocasses, and used to control the lower Seine Valley and the estuary. They called it Ratumacos. Later it was renamed by the Romans as Rotomagus. It still holds the foundations of an amphitheatre and Roman baths. In the 5th century it became the seat of a bishopric and later – in Merovingian Gall – it functioned as capital of Neustria.

However, Vikings repeatedly sacked the city in the late 9th century; in the aftermath they finally took over and turned it into their main capital in what later became the Duchy or Normandy. Finally it reached its apogee in the 11th to 13th century, during which period the inner city and its suburbs exploded while its political and economic significance was unparalleled (it even out-distanced Paris).

However, before this – on the eve of the Scandinavian raids – Rouen probably still looked much as it had in late Antiquity. At that time the Gallo-Roman Walls were presumably still intact as was the plan of the city. Outside the walls lay a suburban cemetery, churches, orchards and a commercial district. However, during the first attack in 841 the Cathedral burnt down and the monasteries were abandoned; a while later a new episcopal palace was built against the rampart, basically constituting a small fortified camp inside the city. During this phase the suburbs were abandoned and the relics were moved inside the walls of the city. Later the Viking attacks intensified. This forced the administration into exile. However, the city seems to have been continuously peopled by refugees from the countryside, contributing to the reorganization or the city [1].Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen, 911-1300 cover

It was – probably – during this period (the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century) that significant changes in the urban landscape took place. To present it simply, the main orientation shifted 90 degrees, from North-South to East-West. Excavations have revealed that houses during this period were laid out with the house ends facing the streets and with their naves running parallel. It has, of course, been suggested that this shift in the fundamental layout of Rouen mirrored the layout of Viking cities like e.g. Haithabu at the border between Denmark and Germany.

On the other hand, it stands to reason that French historians, who still wish to consider the Viking invasion of Normandy as a very short-lived parenthesis in the on-going and “natural” acculturation of the Norman immigrants, have contested this (some of them have even coined the phrase: “infatuation with Normanism”). Applying Ockhams Razor tells us otherwise: a major shift in the orientation in the layout of a city, where new buildings are erected on top of the former main fairway and with a new direction must have meant that newcomers were able to take over a virtually abandoned site and make their stamp upon it.

Curiously this story is not told in a new book, collecting articles from a number of distinguished scholars on the “Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen, 911 – 1300”; one reason obviously being that none of the articles do anything, but barely touch upon the period between 911 and 989!

Thus the title is obviously a misnomer! However, the question remains what the book DOES contain and if this is worth spending time on.

Apart from a preface by David Bates (East Anglia University) and an very well written introduction by the editors, Elma Brenner (Cambridge University) and Leonie V. Hicks (Canterbury Christ Church University), the collection includes twelve papers divided into three themes: space and representation, Rouen as a religious centre and social networks.

The book opens with an overview of the urban development of Rouen (post 989) by Bernard Gauthiez, in which he sums up and refreshens his earlier work on the architectural development of the city. In the next chapter, Fanny Madeline explores the building politics of the Angevin kings and locates this in the context of wider Normandy and the surrounding landscape. In the article she also presents a new interpretation of the layout of the city walls. The next article presents a vignette of people moving through the city streets as seen by the Norman Chroniclers. This article is written by one of the editors, Leonie Hicks, and incidentally does touch upon the history of the city in the 10th century, when Widukind famously called it “urbs danorum” – the city of the Danes [2]! It is also one of the articles, which takes its time to describe the wider context of the city and to effect a real sense of place in the reader. This is obviously part of a wider project considering “the place and importance of the landscape within Norman historical writing”. To this section belongs a fourth article focusing on Rouen as another Rome, written by Elisabeth van Houts. Here a number of poems are presented lauding the city as a new Rome; at the same time the poems are located in the distinct life of the city during the reign of the Empress Mathilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou.

While the next two articles by Richard Allen and Grégory Combalbert zoom in upon ecclesiastical careers of the archbishops from the 10th to the 13th centuries and their administration, the last six articles explores different aspects of the wider social life in the city in the 11th – 13th centuries; thus once focus is shifted from the early towards the later history. The articles touch upon different social groups: women (Kirsten A. Fenton), burgesses (Manon Six), aristocrats (Daniel Power), royals (Paul Webster), the sick and needy (Elma Brenner)  plus the Jews (Elma Brenner and Leonie Hicks). Some of these articles are in themselves interesting case-studies, for instance Elma Brenners survey of the care of the sick and needy in 12th century Rouen , in which she tells the story of hospital of La Madelaine, the mixed leprosarium of Mont-aux-Malades and the female leprosarium of Salle-aux-Puelles. All this sheds life on a complex welfare system operated by a series of diverse benefactors and institutions. Another article, which deserves to be mentioned is an article by Daniel Power on “Rouen and the Aristocracy of Angevin Normandy. Here the reader gets the opportunity to get a vivid idea  of how the anglo-norman aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the urban elite and how their lives were de facto enmeshed in each other. The prize, however, goes to the dense article by Manon Six, who outlines the history of the different ruling families in Rouen, which gravitated around different institutions – abbeys, churches and the ducal administration. In her words Rouen was a “diverse, rich and lively town” in the late 12th and early 13th century.

The book is the result of a very sympathetic and engaging project: to present the English reader with the sense of place of Rouen during the period, in which the city peaked in terms of commerce and as an administrative centre; first as a capital of the Duchy and later as a semi-capital in the Norman and Angevin “empires”. As such it presents the reader with a lot of fascinating insights into the workings of not only Rouen but also medieval cities as such. However, as an introduction to the history of Rouen it falls somewhat short. The book is very dense and simply has to be read alongside too many other publications [3] and articles in order for the reader to get a proper feeling for the city. On the other hand, it represents a clear call for further work; not only the rethinking of the history of Rouen in the 10th and 11th centuries, but also (as mentioned by David Bates in the preface), a proper excavation and edition of the huge collections of unpublished documents still lying around in the local archives and waiting to be dusted off and perused.

Karen Schousboe

Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen, 911 -1300.
Ed. by Leonie V. Hicks and Elma Brenner.
Brepols 2013
ISBN: 978-2-503-53665-1


Preface – David Bates

Introduction – Elma Brenner and Leonie V. Hicks

Part I. Space and Representation

The Urban Development of Rouen, 989–1345 – Bernard Gauthiez

Rouen and its Place in the Building Policy of the Angevin Kings – Fanny Madeline

Rouen as Another Rome in the Twelfth Century – Elisabeth van Houts

Through the City Streets: Movement and Space in Rouen as Seen by the Norman Chroniclers – Leonie V. Hicks

Part II. Rouen as a Religious Centre

‘Praesul praecipue, atque venerande’: The Career of Robert, Archbishop of Rouen, 989–1037 – Richard Allen

Archbishops and the City: Powers, Conflicts, and Jurisdiction in the Parishes of Rouen (Eleventh–Thirteenth Centuries) – Grégory Combalbert

Part III. Social Networks

Women, Property, and Power: Some Examples from Eleventh-Century Rouen Cartularies – Kirsten A. Fenton

The Burgesses of Rouen in the Late Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries – Manon Six

Rouen and the Aristocracy of Angevin Normandy – Daniel Power

King John and Rouen: Royal Itineration, Kingship, and the Norman ‘Capital’, c. 1199–c. 1204 – Paul Webster

The Care of the Sick and Needy in Twelfth and Thirteenth-Century Rouen – Elma Brenner

The Jews of Rouen in the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries – Elma Brenner and Leonie V. Hicks


[1] Le Maho, Jacques: “Les fouilles de la Cathedédral de Rouen de 1985  à 1993, esquisse d’un premier bilan”. Archéologie Médiévale, XXIV (Caen 1994), pp. 1 – 49.  See also: Mazet-Harhoff, Laurent: The incursion of the Vikings into the natural and cultural landscape of upper Normandy. In: Viking trade and Settlement in Continental Western Europe. Ed. by Iben Skibsted Klæsøe. Museum Tusculanum Press. University of Copenhagen 2010, pp. 81 – 122. For a recent review by Le Maho, see also: La Seine et les Normands Avant 911. In: Naissance de la Normandie. 911, le traité de Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. Ed. by Michel Pierre. Éditions S.P.M 2013.

[2] Exinde collexcta ex omni exercitu electorum militum manu Rothun Danorum urbem adiit (From there he [=The holy Roman emperor Otto the Great] proceeded to Rouen, the city of the Danes, with a handful of chosen men from the whole army…In: Widukind von Corvey. Res gestae saxonica III:4.  Hrsg. Von Hans-Eberhard Lohmann und Paul Hirsch. Hannover 1935. (Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in Usum scholarum bd. 60

[3] In the introduction the editors themselves points to: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology at Rouen. Ed. by Jenny Stratford. British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, 12. Leeds: Maney Publishing 1993. Another


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