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French Historical Conversations: Pope Edition

Sometimes people believe that walking under a ladder is bad luck. Sometimes people think that swallowing a watermelon seed means that a watermelon will grow inside their bodies, eventually killing them. This is silly. You know what else is silly? The notion that nothing of intellectual value was occurring between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

While it may be true that advances in science were lacking at this time in comparison to the Renaissance, it doesn’t mean that people were less creative or less intelligent than just a couple of hundreds of years prior. The Renaissance was born out of an acceptance of the self as a powerful being, capable of accomplishing large tasks. It has been said (by my tour guide in Florence) that before the Renaissance, instead of making great things happen, people simply prayed and hoped that God would make great things happen. It would be much easier that way, wouldn’t it?

With this in mind, we understand that the people of the Medieval Period were somewhat more hesitant to undertake grand construction projects and were very dependent on God. Much of Europe in the 11th century, through which we will take an historic adventure today (aren’t you lucky!), considered itself one great land area under the name of Christendom. In Christendom, spiritual needs were addressed by one branch of power, called the sacerdotium. Secular needs were addressed by a different branch of power, called the imperium. It was very important for the imperium‘s actions to be supported and recognized by the sacerdotium, given the importance of God in the medieval conscience. This division of power and responsibility was intended to meet all of the needs of the people. Therefore, it also meant that clashes between the two branches were about as pleasant as walking in on your parents giving each other a sponge bath. 

Now that I have provided you with this enlightening information about medieval society, you are prepared to enter proudly into the life of one of the most interesting characters in human history: William the Conqueror.

In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, waltzed himself across the English Channel and claimed the throne of England. He was a bit like the honey badger; he saw what he wanted and he took it. Way before William became William the Conqueror, however, he was known as William the Bastard. 

This can be a difficult title to carry around when one intends to rule a large territory. Just imagine poor William attempting to go about his business in any normal fashion:

“You there! Hello, I’d like for you to make a longsword with a snake on the pommel, please.”

“Yes sir, Mister Bastard, sir!”

How embarrassing! 

Poor William was saddled with this unfortunate title because he had been born to a powerful father and his mistress, who was not an important character in Norman society. We know so little about her that historians continue to argue about the simplest details concerning her. Historians are very good at arguing with each other. This is why I recommend never inviting more than one historian to a party.




Anyway, William’s mommy and daddy were not married; this meant that William was illegitimate. Despite this, he was given power over the lands his father held, but not without a great deal of anarchy that he was forced to work diligently to contain. Being illegitimate at this time was probably one of the worst things a person could be; William’s very existence was like a slap in the face of God. People who had been loyal to his father were loathe to grant fealty to someone like William. It was worse than cooties.

William was greatly concerned with retaining power over his lands, but he also wanted to bag a sweet chick. It was because of this that he became absolutely enamored with a sweet mademoiselle who was called Mathilda. Mathilda was remarkable for a number of reasons, one of these being that she came from the territory of Flanders.


I wonder if he called her “cupcake.”

At a time when William was working fastidiously against efforts to usurp him, he decided to marry the aforementioned cutie pie. This posed a problem because William’s contenders feared that they would be unable to remove him from power if he was also given control of Flanders. So, they concentrated their efforts against him. It was also problematic because William and Mathilda were cousins.

Understandably, opponents of William seized upon this unfortunate fact in a manner akin to an untrained mongrel devouring an unattended cut of beef. William’s intention to marry darling Mathilda was so unnerving that even some of his supporters threw their hands up in the air and declared, ” No way, dude!” (Probably).

According to the social norms of the time, cousin-marrying was pretty bad. It was an affront to God Himself.

William really, really like-liked Mathilda, though. So, he asked the pope to sanction their marriage.

If the sacerdotium was cool with it, the people of the court should be cool with it, too

Their conversation probably went like this:

“Oh, hey Pope! What’s up, dude?”
“Oh, you know,  just chillin’ and kickin’ it in the Vatican. It’s hot as hell, though. Heh heh. Get it?”
“Ah, yeah. That sucks, dude. Listen, Pope- have you heard about my new girlfri-”
“Yeah, dude. WTF. You gotta stop that, man. It’s like, gross.”
“Aw, but Pope! She’s so so cute!”

Charlemagne and the Pope

This is Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I, but we can imagine it all went down like this.

And then, William went ahead and married her anyway– even though the pope said it wasn’t cool. We know from historical evidence that William later asked the pope to make a declaration that his marriage wasn’t an absolute travesty and a sin breaking the laws of nature. The conversation probably went like this:

“WTH, man?! WTF. I told you that was super icky. I don’t even wanna be your friend anymore.”
“But, Popey! I couldn’t help myself!”
“Sick, dude.”
“Listen, what can I do to make you let this go?”
“Please, Pope!”

“Alright, I want you to build me some abbeys. I want one for men, and one for women, and hopefully their work with each gender will prevent this kind of atrocity from recurring.”
“Okay, you got it!”
“But wait! I want them to be, like, super awesome. I’m not kidding around, dude. I want towers and spires, and stonework, expertly carved.”

So, William commissioned the construction of two individual, distinct structures which were aesthetically pleasing and innovative. 


Women’s Abbey


Men’s Abbey

If you’d like to visit these enduring tributes to forbidden love and papal indulgence, you can find information about visiting hours here. 

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Written by Gwendolyn Arvidson

If you're reading this, I'm flattered! I'm an American expat with a strong interest in eating things without knowing what they are, learning tongue-twisters in new languages, and I feel most at home when I'm not at home. Currently residing in France, I often think of returning to South Korea, where I lived for just over two years.

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