Royal Abbey of Saint Médard in Soissons - A Journey through Time

Four descriptive panels offer the visitor to the Royal Abbey of Saint-Médard a journey through time, from its royal origins, building history, importance, influence, and wealth to its decline and dismantling – a journey that illuminates the rich past of this great abbey.


The Royal Abbey of Saint Médard in Soissons


Saint Médard

Saint Médard in Soissons

Known for having led an exemplary life from childhood on, Médard took orders at a young age and was named bishop of Vermand about 530 and of Noyon in 531.

His lifelong miraculous healing of the blind, deaf, and mute made him one of the most celebrated holy healers of his time, in the tradition of Saint Martin. He inteceded on behalf of petty thieves, and prisoners invoked him in the hopes of gaining their freedom. Above all, his miracles continued posthumously. Bits of wood cut from the door of his Soissons basilica cured the most severe dental pain. For centuries after his death, his intercession was sought for a good harvest, since, as the saying goes, “If it rains on the day of Saint Médard (8 June), it will rain forty days later.”

Clotaire I and his queen Radegund were among those close to the bishop of Noyon. At Médard’s death, Clotaire vowed to build a basilica around his tomb. As his coffin neared Soissons in 561, it suddenly halted on the right bank of the Aisne, in the neighborhood of Crouy, thus marking the site for the basilica. This event, recounted in many hagiographies of the saint, established the renown of the future abbey, as well as underscored the role of the Merovingian kings in the construction of this dynastic mausoleum.

The presence of Saint Médard’s relics in Soissons excited great fervor, with pilgrims flocking to the tomb, especially on his feast-day of 8 June. This inevitably resulted in the wide dissemination of his relics throughout the Frankish kingom to the north: a tooth in Tournai, Belgium; his jaw in Jodoigne, Belgium; a leg bone in Noyon, and so forth. Churches dedicated to Saint Médard, or Saint Mard, are everywhere in France, forty of them in the diocese of Noyon alone.


Saint Médard in the Crypt

In the reign of Charles the Bald, Saint Médard’s remains lay in a stone sarcophagus in the crypt built beneath the apse of the church. As wide as the apse, the crypt had a long transverse corridor, with three chapels opening off it to the east and three deep vaults to the west. A corridor led down from the transept to the crypt and the tombs of Saint Médard, Clotaire I, and Sigebert.

Another source indicates that the saint’s remains were later placed in an ivory reliquary ornamented with gold and gilded silver, which was suspended in the choir, above the altar.

In the 13th century, the Pas de Dieu, a stone bearing a holy footprint, joined the crypt’s other relics. While some thought the stone came from the Mount of Olives, the monks of Saint-Médard believed it bore the footprint of their patron saint. During the Protestant sack of Soissons in 1567, the impression was effaced, but the stone itself still stood on its pedestal at the rear of the central vault, on the eve of the French Revolution.



The Age of the Tribal Kings

It was at the forest’s edge that the Franks, hunters and warriors, as well as savvy strategists, decided to settle. Their authority thus spread from the Gallo-Roman city to include vast rural domains. Clotaire I (ca. 498–561), one of Clovis’s four sons, unified many of those around Soissons, melding earthly and heavenly authority. Indeed, following Clovis’s victory over the Visigoths in 496 and his conversion to Christianity under the influence of Queen Clothilde, the Church buttressed the Franks’ dominion over Gaul.

At the same time, popular culture in search of visible manifestations embraced the cult of relics. So it was that the transfer of Saint Médard’s remains to a site opposite Soissons inspired the construction of a mausoleum, soon elevated to the status of basilica.

A Frankish queen, Saint Bathilde (ca. 630–680), daughter of an enslaved person, played a decisive role in the unification of religious practices by imposing the Benedictine Rule on the kingdom’s great abbeys, prime among them Saint-Médard.

Royal women enjoyed an eminent position in the warrior Merovingian society, dividing their kingdoms equally among their offspring. As a result, Queens Fredegonde and Brunehaut, spouses respectively of Chilperic I and Siegebert I, initiated and were major figures in interminable fratricidal conflicts.



The Mystique of the Roman Empire: The Carolingian Renaissance

In the reign of “Good King” Dagobert, we see dynastic change. The Pepins, an illustrious Frankish family, had been chipping away at Merovingian power. In 687, Pepin of Herstal became Mayor of the Palace, and the de facto ruler.

In 782 at Poitiers, Charles Martel enhanced his family’s prestige by stopping the Arabs’ northward advance into France. Finally in 751, with papal support, his son, Pepin the Short, was elected king and crowned at Soissons by the Frankish bishops. His grandson, Charlemagne, promoted the mystique of the Roman Empire, assuming in 800 the title of Emperor of the West. In 813, the Roman Emperor of the East, following the pope, formally acknowledged Charlemagne as his occidental counterpart.

The term “Carolingian” refers to the political and cultural dynamism of the period. Cathedrals and abbeys sprang up throughout the region; the arts flourished. Thanks to its copying of classical literary texts, the imperial Palatine School became a brilliant intellectual center.

But the Carolingians also waged war, for which they appropriated revenues from the abbeys. Saint-Médard avoided this to a certain extent. From 823 to 860, its abbots were the clergymen scions of royal and aristocratic families. Hilduin I, abbot of Saint-Médard until 830, for instance, simultaneously held the offices of abbot of Saint-Denis and Saint-Germain-des-Près. Carloman, son of the emperor Charles the Bald (d. 877), followed suit, serving as abbot of Saint-Médard and elsewhere.

With the rise of feudalism, centralized Carolingian power waned. To stem this slow decline, the Abbey of Saint-Médard sought to position itself under the aegis of the pope.



The King as Emperor in His Kingdom

From Philip Augustus (1165–1223) to modern times: The birth of the State, cities, and the university.

The Cluniac monastic reforms around 910 and the Gregorian reforms from 1076 on enabled the Church to regain a certain measure of autonomy in the face of royal power, thanks to the very influential abbeys of Saint-Denis, Saint-Germain-des-Près, and Saint-Médard.

In the 13th century, King Philip Augustus’s kingdom was the most powerful in Christendom. Paris became his capital, which he protected with a wall and flanking towers. At Saint-Médard, he financed construction of the abbey’s enclosure walls. Louis IX (1214–1270) continued to centralize power, establishing a royal judiciary and inspectors, and minting gold coinage. Under Philip the Fair, king from 1285 to 1314, these efforts reached their apogee. He created a finance department and consulted with a national assembly. Royal administrators, or “legists,” reflect the supremacy of the crown.

From now on, “the king was emperor in his kingdom.” The foundations for absolute monarchy had been laid, but an unfavorable combination of historical and religious events hindered its development. The Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the Black Death (1347–1352), and the crisis of the Great Schism (1378–1417) mark the end of this formative period.

But the most challenging times were yet to come. The Wars of Religion, which pitted Catholics against Protestants, devastated religious institutions. During the second war (1567–1568), Soissons was occupied for six months by the Prince of Condé’s troops. Churches and abbeys were despoiled and vandalized. Saint-Médard did not escape this massive destruction, and the monastery was left in ruins.



From gradual secularization to the fully secular State

To reward deserving subjects, the king had the power to name them honorific abbots and to grant them an abbey’s revenues: this practice in commendam accelerated the process of secularization. The best-known commendatory abbots of Saint-Médard – Cardinal Jean de Lorraine, confidant of François I; Mazarin, Cardinal without being a priest; the Marquis de Pomponne, ambassador to Venice; Cardinal de Bernis, foreign secretary – were often, from the 16th to the 17th centuries, shrewd managers, but added nothing to the abbey’s spiritual life. This system attests to the economic might of the great abbeys. In 1636, the latest Benedictine reform, initiated by the scholarly Congregation of Saint-Maur, was instituted at Saint-Médard. The abbey thus enjoyed a certain cachet, soon to be challenged by the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century.

The French Revolution confiscated Church property for the benefit of the State, suppressing all the monastic orders and expelling both monks and nuns. Abbey holdings were seized. Saint-Médard, very dilapidated, was almost entirely razed and the stones sold in 1793.

Symbol of the collapse of traditional societal values, a tannery was built in 1803 over the relics of saints. Then new operations were drawn to the site, attracted by the vast potential its now-vacant buildings offered. In 1840, an institute for the deaf-mute was founded there, prefiguring a return to the notion of good works, which endures to the present, with the installation of the educational center La Cordée, under the auspices of the Child Welfare social services department.