Tuesday, March 3, 2009
To and from Rouen
I do not often think of Rouen, where I have never been, but when I do it is first of all as the sad place where Joan of Arc was imprisoned and then burned, on the last day of May 1431, which just so happens to be the year François Villon was born.
Even now, half a millennium later, I still lament the auto-da-fé of young Joan. A girl. Years ago when I was in the habit of swimming laps in my then mother-in-awl’s swimming pool I started thinking about Joan, burning in Rouen, and now all I have to do is start swimming in a relatively straight line, and I will think of her again. It is my fervent hope that some kind soul slipped her some hemlock before they ignited the faggots.
After Joan I think of Flaubert who was born in Rouen and lived there all his life, writing perfect sentences. He did not become a doctor like his father and brother, and for years I thought that his father was the French doctor and father of a great writer who was responsible for the concept of the cordon sanitaire, a quarantine to keep sickness from spreading. But in fact that was Proust’s father, Dr. Adrian Proust, not Flaubert’s father. Still, it seems a reasonable confusion, given that Proust and Flaubert are both French, obsessive; they never married, they wrote brilliantly and I read them both in French class decades ago. My dictionary was attached to my wrist.
But I am thinking of Rouen because today, no yesterday, was the feast of St Leo of Rouen (who is not in Butlers Lives of the Saints at all, putting his entire existence in doubt). Aside from his being bishop of Rouen – known for its rather fabulous ecclesiastical architecture (viz. numerous paintings by Monet) what we know of Leo is that Saracen pirates beheaded him in 900 AD. But that did not stop him. His headless body picked up the removed head and carried it back to the church where he had given his last sermon. And then fully died. Another glorious cephalophore.
And if you know me, you know that I have an unjustifiable fascination with cephalophores. There is something compelling about the notion that the body would object to its untimely truncation. And poignant about the literally mindless impulse to bear one’s head to a place of safety.
The theory I have read, and it makes sense, is that the concept of cephalophores results from the frequent representation in art of beheaded saints holding their heads. If you are carving a saint for the front of a cathedral (St Denis for example) it is much easier to have his body and head be in the same place, even if not in their normal relations. And seeing such images the populace came to the conclusion that the represented saint really did carry his or her head somewhere. However it evolved into yet another category of saints, it clearly relates to the human impulse to make whole what was sundered.