This post I’m sharing the page with fellow traveler, gourmand, and bestest friend Lisa Glenn who’s special interest and bottomless well of information lie in medieval history and all the drama, intrigue, and unbelievable acts one would find in a royal family tree. She and I broke away from the pack one day during our “Labadie Ladies Meet-Up” in Paris to meet dead French Royals and explore St. Denis Cathedral in a northern Paris suburb. We also had to sip a few refreshing Monacos along the way of which there is a recipe at the bottom…enjoy! (And I’ve also added links in Bold Type to help those of us who did not pay as close of attention in world history class as Lisa did, god knows I needed them!)
I met Snow White’s stepmother and Mother Goose. That was way more interesting to me than ascending the Eiffel Tower or looking at impressionist art. I hung out with “My Girl Fredegund”, THE evil queen that fairy tales tell of. A Merovingian, mother of Charlemagne (who is less a beacon of light in an otherwise chaotic and oppressive age than he is an interruption of the fascinating mayhem of the day). Those crazy Merovingians, they rocked through life without training wheels. They LIVED … perhaps not in the most exemplary manner but they LIVED! And Fredegund she is my favorite of them all, and i “met her”, up close and personal on a Parisan day entirely dedicated to dead people and old stuff. This is one of my biggest takeaways from Paris. And I did it with the Rucksack Foodie!
We took a day off from cultural edification to visit St. Denis Cathedral in the distinctly non-touristy North Side of Paris. When we emerged from the metro station, (Metro Stop: Basilique de Saint Denis, line 13) we weren’t greeted by busking musicians, street artists, or a bustling city vibe- it was a quiet everyday existence, in a “normal” neighborhood with a flea market in progress on the town square. Note: Parisian junk is just like American junk. Honestly – I found my china pattern amidst all the brick-a-brack and gizmos. The cathedral is situated like so many of it’s kind, crammed cheek-by-jowl with a hodge podge assortment of old religious buildings, modern apartments, restaurants, gift shops and walk-up-flats. The only clear space is the cathedral plaza directly in front of
the west facade and this open space is encroached upon by sprawling tables and chairs from the surrounding cafes. Unlike the other major cathedral squares, this one wasn’t filled with tourists but with with local residents meeting over coffee to discuss the same stuff people discuss over coffee the world over – last nights sporting event and politics. We had to wait at one of these tables to allow a tour group of exuberant school children pass through St. Denis before Rucksack Foodie and I made our pilgrimage to the royal necropolis, and worth the wait it was.
St. Denis Cathedral, aside from being old, old, old, (1135) has been the preferred resting place for Frankish and French royals from the 10th Century through the French revolution, (Oct. 12, 1793 when sadly the rioting mob broke through the gates and doors, destroyed tombs and relics, pulled the resting ancient French Kings and Queens from their tombs only to be thrown into a neighboring ditch and buried
with lime). That is a LOT of dead royals. And I love them all. They’re primarily resting in the side aisles and apse of the cathedral, laid out in orderly family groupings with the oldest taking pride of place around the altar and the later monarchs filling the transepts and clustered along both sides of the nave. They’re actually fenced off from the nave so the Halls of the Awesome Dead are a separate destination from the worshipers. And these are some Awesome Dead people. I was giddy like a kid in a candy store at strolling through the orderly tombs with their peaceful recumbent monuments. The older sepulchers are not truly representative of their inhabitants but more recent representations,(post 13th Century) are likely to be styled after the inhabitants and it was fascinating to look on their faces and try to spot resemblances in the faces of modern Paris.
The entire premise of the royal necropolis is actually a political one, to legitimize a dynasty change by emphasizing a continuity between the previous rulers and the new regime, in this case the switch from Carolingian rule to the Capetians. To establish that they
were all the same family, the old rulers were gathered up and arranged together with their more recent counterparts in one central location – a pretty clever bit of PR, actually – See? We’re all one big happy family! My dad is buried just behind the Martel family! If they were legitimate kings (and who is going to call Charlemagne a usurper?) then so are we! Obviously! – seems legit. By the way, one of those Martel’s is the wife of Pipin the Short, Bertrada of Leon, aka Berthe Big Foot, aka Berthe Goose Foot, aka Mother Goose!!
But I digress. There was actually quite a bit of digression while Rucksack Foodie and I made our way through the necropolis. I was too excited to listen closely to the audio guide. I mean, really, who cares about 12th Century embalming methods when the man who brought the Renaissance to France is lying wracked in his eternal death throes just over there? (They boiled the flesh away and buried the bones, by the way.) I simply couldn’t attend to a recital of Abbot Suger’s account books when Catherine d’Medici was lying in
beautiful Renaissance style in the North Transept. (By the by, if you think Marie Antoinette was the most hated French queen – think again. That Italian Woman, Catherine d’Medici held the country under her ruthless little thumb for over thirty years as regent and puppet master for her children – four of whom became a monarch of France. She orchestrated a massacre [probably]. She was the most powerful woman in 16th Century Europe. That’s going to build some enmity!)
And somewhere in this tangle of tombs was My Girl Fredegund, just waiting for me. It turns out she and her family had the “good seats” just above the altar. Her grandson Dagobert has a special tomb adjacent to the altar. It’s currently being renovated so we couldn’t get a close up look, but there’s a great depiction of the wicked and naughty Dagobert being snatched from the gaping maws of hell just in the nick of time by his conversion (and HUGE gift of gold to St. Denis Cathedral). I’d like to point out that his current wikipedia article lists Dagobert as devoutly pious. This is a modern whitewash – don’t believe it. His contemporary, Gregory of Tours, describes him as a reprobate and hedonist. He kept a flock of concubines and regularly debouched the daughters of his court. Finally we found her, spending her eternity with her husband and father in law, Childebert and Clovis…..wrapped in plastic sheeting! There she was, no velvet ropes, no barricades, just Me, Fredegund, and 2mm plastic sheeting completely obscuring my view of her unique marble & copper inlay monument. (Everyone else in this cathedral has a 3d sculptured efigy which makes it a great place to study medieval clothing, hair and shoes, btw). But Fredegund was all covered up. NooooooOOoooo! I pulled up a chair and sat next to my heroine and her menfolk.
A bit of background/drama of this family would make HBO primetime seem like Saturday morning kiddie programming. Clovis’ big claim to fame is in being the first Christian King of the Franks. His was more a battlefield bargain with the almighty than a conversion, and he didn’t give up his other wives or other gods, but hey – wholescale conversion is a process. His son Childebert is most noted for being held in thrall to his lovely wife
Fredegund. Fredegund was actually Childebert’s mistress/slave/handmaiden. She convinced him to set aside his current queen in her own favor. But when Childebert decided to make a political match by marrying the sister of his brother’s new wife in a royal double wedding, Fredegund took matters (and necks) into her own hands and strangled the new Queen, sparking a 40 year feud with the poor dead queen’s sister – Brunhilde. These ladies waged a battle royale that tore through three kingdoms and slew eleven kings. If you’re counting victory by dead kings, Brunhilde wins hands down at 10-1. If you’re counting by their ultimate demise, it’s Fredegund by a mile as she died in bed while years later, her son had Brunhilde torn limb from limb by wild horses.
But that’s only part of why I like her. Fredegund is the archetype Evil Queen/Evil Stepmother. She is Cinderella’s stepmother. And Snow White’s. Fredegund became so jealous of her daughter’s beauty and influence with King Childebert that she lured her into the treasure room with the promise of a gift. As soon as she’d maneuvered her daughter into a vulnerable position leaning over an open chest, SLAM! Mother Dearest slammed the lid down on her daughter’s neck. Servants came to investigate the screams and save the princess. Later, when a marriage was arranged for the princess her servants and protectors stole her dowry and deserted her in the wilderness. Does any of this sound familiar? This woman still reaches out to touch us today – we read her stories and watch her in movies. She is the stuff of our fairy tales and our nightmares. She is eternal. And she shares that eternity with Mother Goose, in St. Denis Cathedral in North Paris.
Alas Fredegund was all covered up with plastic, disappointed i snapped a few forlorn photos through her plastic shroud, but I cannot lie – this was disappointing. I was content (pouting) to sit there next to Fredegund and say hello (sulk) quietly, but Rucksack Foodie marched straight off to find a museum curator or
cathedral caretaker or… well I’m not sure what her position was. At any rate she came trailing along after RF to greet me with the understanding that I was a Fredegund scholar who had traveled all the way from St. Louis Missouri to research our dear evil queen. So just like that I went from disappointed bystander to all access researcher. Fredegund’s plastic shroud was carefully removed and then it began: “Why, yes, you can take flash photos. Of course, you may walk around her tomb. Naturally, get as close to the surface as you need…” It was like being an academic rock star. Thank goodness the curator had only broken English so there was no reference to my credentials, though I suppose just being aware of who Fredegund was is credential enough in these circumstances. We talked about her unique effigy, the materials used for her tomb cover, whether her now blank features were painted or etched and subsequently worn away. Then I posed for a photo with Fredegund and just like that, my entire trip to Paris was triumphant! The stuff that history and fairy tales are made of!
St. Denis Cathedral evolved on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery of whom some residents still resides in the bottom most tombs of the cathedral, which are open to the public. In 475 St. Genevieve constructed the first church on this site with expansion in the 7th century by Dagobert I who was said to have brought St. Denis (one patron saint of France) remains to the site, making it a pilgrimage destination for centuries to come.
The cathedral, most of what we see today, had construction begun in 1135 and was THE FIRST example of Gothic architecture and the base standard for most all future cathedrals and abbeys in France. The cathedral is home to almost every king and queen of France from the 10th to the 18th century, with exquisite examples of effigy tombs, stained glass, and gothic architecture. A “must visit” on your next trip to Paris full of interesting and intriguing bits of history even if your not into Awesome Dead People!!
The Parisan Monaco… Via The Rucksack Foodie.
I love beer- all levels of quality, taste, thickness, potency. I do not however enjoy Fru-Fru drinks of sweetened concoctions so I was a bit hesitant on trying the Parisian warm day favorite, The Monaco. But I loved it! So simple and could easily consume too much in a party atmosphere. Simply : splash of Grenadine, 1 part lemonade, 2 parts Stella ..viola!