In this season of elections and of holy souls, it is fitting to recall one of the loveliest monuments to true democracy: the windows of the trades at Chartres Cathedral.
The stained-glass windows at Chartres are famous the world over, and rightly so. Thanks to the foresight of the town’s mayors and the determination of its people, Chartres enjoys the largest surviving collection of 12th and 13th century stained glass. It did not have to be that way. Not only did the windows survive the depredations of the English during the 100 Years War, the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion, the renovators of the Enlightenment (probably the most serious threat), the iconoclasts of the French Revolution, and the Germans during two world wars, they have also withstood the fires, hail, wind, and rain that have taken their toll on so many other medieval windows elsewhere. Is it too much to believe that a heavenly patron continues to watch over this Aula Beatae Virginis, Palace of the Blessed Virgin?
But why would Our Lady be so pleased by Chartres Cathedral, in particular? Perhaps from the sheer length of devotion to her there. In 876 Charles the Bald gave the Cathedral its precious relic, the tunic or veil of the Virgin Mary, a five-foot long piece of silk that experts have dated to the 1th century A.D. Just two generations later, that same relic not only saved Chartres, but quite possibly France as well. In 911, Rollo the Viking was laying waste to central France, but was stopped before Chartres and put to flight when the city’s bishop led a sortie against him holding the relic aloft. Later that year, Rollo converted and settled in the lands to the north of Chartres, creating the duchy of Normandy and thus laying one of the most important foundation stones of medieval Christendom.
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The church’s present foundations were laid in the 11th century under the bishop St. Fulbert. Remembered as the founder of the cathedral school at Chartres, Fulbert was also known for his devotion to Mary, in whose honor he wrote several sermons that circulated in manuscript after his death. A fire in 1134 destroyed the western portion of Fulbert’s church; the present towers and portals date from the 1140s and 50s. When in 1194 the rest of Fulbert’s cathedral burned, the Virgin’s tunic was saved by what seemed a miracle: one of the canons carried it down to the lowest crypt and stayed there with it for three days, emerging only after the fire had finally died down.
Over the course of the 13th century, the present nave, transepts, and choir were built. St. Louis IX was present for one of the dedicatory ceremonies, and, since then, the parade has continued steadily, some in pilgrimage to Our Lady, others to one of the world’s universally-acclaimed monuments of culture. In the medieval period, Chartres was one of the starting-points for the long walk to Compostela. In France’s glory years, Louis XIV trekked to Chartres to give thanks for the birth of his only son. Under the anticlerical 5th Republic, the poet Péguy made the walk to pray for his children. And today, for the feast of Pentecost, thousands of the faithful—including some Americans—walk for three days from Paris to Chartres to seek the Virgin’s intercession. Regimes have come and gone, but the real France remains loyal to her heavenly Queen.
Among the signs of that loyalty are the depictions of the tradesmen of Chartres in 42 of the 150 surviving medieval windows. In the lower corners of much larger windows depicting the lives of saints, miracles, and events from sacred history are modest images of workers with the tools and products of their trades. There are masons and cobblers, draperers and wine merchants, and even money changers: all long understood to have been the donors of the windows.
Long understood, that is, until the 1993 publication of Jane Welch Williams’ Bread, Wine, and Money. With admirable directness, Williams set out to raze the tradition right down to Fulbert’s foundation stones. There are no contemporary documents to prove that the windows were donated by the tradesmen. The guilds in 13th-century Chartres were not yet legally recognized, and so, presumably, not very wealthy, whereas the canons of the Cathedral were. So far from being the offering of popular piety, the windows of the trades were conceived by and paid for by the clergy, a clever work of propaganda that would “project [the] ecclesiastical ideology … of pious offering.” Her argument is a brisk restatement of the Marxist and Spinozist critique of religion. But is it credible?
The lack of documentary evidence should not hinder us from concluding that the windows were given by the tradesmen. Some 44 other windows at Chartres depict noble or royal figures and an additional 16 depict clerics. There is no reason to think that they were not the donors. Suger, the abbot of St. Denis, had himself painted into the stained glass there, and St. Louis graces the window of the relics in the Sainte-Chapelle that he commissioned in Paris. In the centuries to follow, guilds throughout France and Christendom would donate funds for chapels, altars, images, and candles beyond numbering. The burden of proof, therefore, should be laid upon Williams.
Nor should the absence of officially recognized trade guilds pose an obstacle to the traditional view. In Paris, although the majority of guilds were legally recognized only in the 13th century, the leading trades were already organized as corporations by the second half of the 12th century. Likewise in Chartres, in the 11th century the lower town saw the proliferation of street names that indicate the presence of trades grouped together in artisan’s quarters. Thus there was a rue des Corroyeurs in 1106 (named for the curriers who dress and color leather after it has been tanned), la Feutrerie in 1120 (named for the felters who worked with upholstery and saddles), and la Cordonnerie before 1158 (for the shoemakers). With the mid-13th century population of its region estimated at more than 200,000, Chartres was the center of a growing market. There is no reason to suppose, then, that the tradesmen were unequal to the expense of a stained glass window.
But did the windows nevertheless serve to project ecclesiastical power? The essential arguments against such a claim rapidly return to the conceptually prior question of whether Christianity really does make people happy and good, or whether, like opium, it merely gives them a temporary fix for their cares.
It is, however, possible to give an account with reference to the matter at hand. Williams provides evidence of a stark divide amongst the townsfolk of Chartres, between those subject to the count and those subject to the bishop. The former tended to be resentful of the immunities and privileges of the clergy; they were encouraged in their hostility by the counts, who sought to wrest control of justice and taxation within the city from the chapter. The latter lived within the boundaries of the cathedral cloister, an area several times larger than the building itself, and enjoyed some of the same immunities as the clerics. Within the cloister lived representatives of nearly all the trades. And of those trades who did not have members living in the cloister, they too enjoyed legal immunity during the privileged market days held within the cloister boundaries. These were the tradesmen who contributed most directly to the construction of the cathedral by their labor or by the provision of those goods necessary to those who worked on the cathedral. Even if we were to accept Williams’ dubious contention that the canons paid for the windows and themselves put the images of the tradesmen on them, their “visual lesson in Christian piety” becomes something other than what she suggests. Instead of a struggle between oppressed bourgeois and mighty clerics, the Chartres ‘class struggle’ was yet another of the countless jurisdictional disputes of the medieval period. And instead of a heavy-handed iconographic attempt to put the lower class in its place, it becomes a representation of the division between the clerical and the lay power, both wealthy, both with their clients among the lower classes. And so, even on the grimmest view, the windows of the trades tell the true story after all: the Church with her saints is the protector of the poor.
Yet the grimmest view, of course, need not be the one taken. It is eminently reasonable to interpret the windows of the trades at Chartres as evidence of the gratitude of the good souls of that bustling town for their union under Our Lady’s faithful and trustworthy care, a union not merely symbolized, but almost incarnated in the hewn stones of their beautiful cathedral.