Date of Degree
Access restricted until 02/23/2018
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
By the early fourteenth century, the royal basilica of Saint-Denis had become the most visible sign of the union between the rule of secular kings and the enduring French church. Two notable abbots had been entrusted as regents for the throne, many of the abbots of the Carolingian period had been lay abbots and local nobles, and the basilica had claimed the right to bury the kings of France for centuries. However, the success of the abbey in creating the privileges they enjoyed has obscured the work needed to claim these rights. Powerful abbots in the course of the history of Saint-Denis used the tools they had to construct an argument to the kings; that in Saint-Denis alone did the kings have the best hope of finding salvation. Only St.-Denis himself could guarantee that a king, who may be stained with sins of a different nature than those of ordinary people, would gain heaven.
By the mid-ninth century, Abbot Hilduin of Saint-Denis had composed a consolidated account of the life of the saint he served. In his hands, Denis became the early convert of Paul and first bishop of Athens, author of two essential early Christian visionary accounts, first bishop and missionary to Gaul, and the martyred bishop of Paris. Scholarship on Hilduin’s vita has picked apart his sources, noted where he created references wholesale and ignored the discrepancies in the time line, in order to create the most important and international of saints. What has been less well noted is the creation of another kind of vita, this one commissioned from Hilduin’s pupil Hincmar, who was later to take on the role of archbishop of Rheims Cathedral. The Gesta Dagoberti regis, composed around the same time as Hilduin’s Post beatam et salutiferam, created the myth of the roi fondateur which was to serve the purposes of the abbey well in later centuries.
Dagobert I became the founding king of the abbey, despite evidence that he did little other than decorate the shrine of the eighth century and be buried there. In the Gesta Dagoberti regis, Hincmar wove together some of the chronicle accounts of the Merovingian king with miraculous visions and deeds of St.-Denis to construct a powerful argument for royal patronage of the abbey. Dagobert thus discovered the abandoned shrine, constructed a new building, designated it a monastery and funded it lavishly, then had himself buried there. He was the exemplar for later kings, and the abbots of Saint-Denis utilized the ninth century account of Dagobert as they struggled to retain the loyalty of the kings and made a bid to be the official necropolis for Frankish royalty.
Over the course of five centuries, the tale of the founding king grew, as such stories do. Each expansion of Dagobert’s biography, and by extension, the biography of the abbey, came during points of stress between the kings and the royal basilica. For while the monks of the abbey may have believed, by the eleventh century, that the bodies of the kings belonged in their church, the royal family at times had other ideas. As newer competing institutions offered advantages not available at Saint-Denis for those buried on their sites, the monks produced new and enhanced accounts of the founding king and the benefits of taking St.-Denis as the patron.
This dissertation begins with the fundamental question: why was King Dagobert so conspicuously present in the production of art and Dionysian symbolism? Covering the mid-ninth century through the year of 1319, the best answer must be that the abbey believed the story of this otherwise obscure Merovingian king served them well in promoting their site as the proper final resting place for the kings. In the process, Saint-Denis became the most enduring and powerful religious institutions of medieval France, gathering a reputation as a site for miraculous healing and the foundation for the claims of legitimacy made by the ruling houses of France. So successful was this campaign that, during the French Revolution, Saint-Denis was stripped of the bones of the royal dead and partially demolished. It is worth noting, however, that at its foundation, Saint-Denis was only one of several abbeys founded by kings, and was one of many that housed the royal dead. Its rise to prominence was not foreordained; it was carefully constructed, gradually, over the course of centuries. King Dagobert was one of the essential elements used to gain ascendancy.
Dagobert, Hilduin, Hincmar, Saint-Denis, Suger
Copyright © 2016 Renee Lynn Goethe