Sunday, November 22, 2015

Buying One's Way Out of Penance

Rouen Cathedral, The Butter
Tower on right 

Being a medieval historian—and a lover of all things from those magical Middle Ages—I have made a point in my travels of extensively touring the European cathedrals.   I have seen most of the great ones—Paris, Chartres, Cologne, Toledo, Seville, Westminster Abbey, York, Bamberg, Reims—more than once.  The most curious, to my taste, is Aachen and its corresponding church of San Vitale in Ravenna.  The most unique is Cordoba, the current Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which had been built as a mosque and served as such for over four centuries.  I think the most mystical is Chartres where there is some indescribable ether that seems to rise from the earth and permeate the very stones of the sanctuary. But today I want to focus on the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen in Normandy, or more precisely, on its southwest tower: the “Butter Tower.”
Those of you who have seen the 2009 comedy, Julie and Julia, documenting (in part) the famous chef Julia Child discovering her culinary vocation while married to the cultural attaché at the American embassy, remember the opening scene where Ms. Child has her initial exposure to Sole Meunière, the flaky white fish cooked in vividly rich Normany butter. (Other than the south-west of Ireland, no place on earth produces a quality of butter that surpasses Normandy.)  The restaurant in which Ms. Child discovers French cuisine—and its irreducible component, butter—was La Couronne, a dining establishment established in 1345 and still serving.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake just yards away from what was an already flourishing restaurant on Wednesday, May 30, 1431.  Bon appétit. 
The connection between Julia Child’s La Couronne and the Rouen Cathedral’s Tour de Buerre is that they are both located in Rouen, the capital of Normandy.  Normandy is rare among the provinces of France in as that it does not produce notable wines.  But where the grape fails, the apple and the cow excel.  The apple gives Cider and the liqueur Calvados.  The cow some of the best cheeses and above all butter.
Through the Middle Ages, the calendar of the Catholic Church was marked by rigid fasts: Septigesima to Easter (70 days), Advent (approximately 28 days), 12 annual ember days, the vigils of approximately 25 feasts ranging from Pentecost, to Saint Martin, to the Birth of John the Baptist to the Holy Cross.   Moreover, on these days not only was meat prohibited but dairy products.   So when Archbishop Robert de Croismare wanted to build this tower for his cathedral he found an ingenious way to finance it.  The citizens of Rouen could receive a dispensation from the fast enabling them to cook with butter in return for financial support for the new tower.  The response was overwhelming.
The new tower was magnificent.  Built in the flamboyant gothic distinct to 15th century France, it appears in certain light to be carved of butter due to the intricately sculpted arches and pinnacles.  
We are tempted to look back on past centuries and romanticize a world of deeply religious people who stand in contrast to our secularized and shallow fellow citizens of our day and place. There were saints and mystics in the fifteenth century and there were many others who liked the creature comforts of good food and drink and soft bedding and elegant clothing.  (Well, given the hygiene habits of the day, elegant might not be exactly the word.)  The fact of the matter is that there are saints and mystics in our day too.  And there are those of us who keep the abstinence with lobster ravioli or Dungeness Crab.  But if you ever go to Rouen, enjoy la Couronne but then hike over to the Cathedral and see the Butter Tower.


  1. The churches of Europe fascinate me. So many of them took decades, some more than a century to complete, and while the goal of competing to have a better church/cathedral than the towns around you is probably not the most Christian ideal, I am amazed at the staying power the people had.

    Even running a church then was labor intensive - how many people had to pump bellows to feed air to the organ, for example? How many to ring bells? Clean the church? A mason could spend his entire career on one church; so also a glazier or a carpenter. However motivated by the clergy, you have to admire the ora et labora nature of the endeavor. The Archbishop's dispensation was ingenious in that it was successful in raising funds, but also in the sense that everyone who wanted to be was invested in the construction.

    I haven't been to Normandy yet, but with luck I will go and visit the Butter Tower and others. And the next time I am making sole meuniére I will think of all that effort.

    1. great insight to how the church was the center of life and employment for so many be sure to make it to Normandy---great churches in Caen, and other towns as well