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Saint-Omer and the Growth of Urban Power

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 August 2020

Andrew Kirkman
University of Birmingham


This first chapter introduces the primary source materials that make historical study of an institution possible, going on to sketch the patterns and ranks of employment - from choirboy, through chaplain, vicar, canon, dean and provost - that shape the functions of a collegiate church such as St Omer. It goes on paint a picture of the history and development of the town of Saint-Omer – its geography, population, politics and trade – to give a larger social and historical context to the story of the large collegiate church which constitutes the rest of the book.

Music and Musicians at the Collegiate Church of St Omer
Crucible of Song, 1350–1550
, pp. 1 - 21
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

To open a fabric account from a late medieval church is to open a window onto the workings of a distant culture. These are accounts concerned not with the lofty achievements of a society but with the raw materials of its day-to-day functioning, the details of the payments and purchases through which its needs were shaped. This is clear straight away in the lists of payments for the commodities which underpinned and articulated those needs: the petrol and supermarket receipts of today yield to costings for vast quantities of torches and candles, the perishable materials of the constant round of divine services which shaped the daily life of an institution and – through the income it generated from members of church and community fearful for their souls – filled its coffers. More details of those needs emerge in the costings for the upkeep of the church and its contents: heavy emphasis, for example, on the maintenance of the clock reminds us of the vital role of timekeeping in ensuring the smooth running of what must have been an elaborate choreography of choirboys, chaplains, vicars and canons crossing and recrossing the nave to perform the plethora of Masses – for church and individuals – being celebrated at altars around the building.

Such accounts allow us also to piece together a vivid image of the sight which would have greeted the visitor to a great religious institution in the late Middle Ages. Even to approach such a church, its walls gleaming with immaculate white stone, and pass under its great tympanum with its brightly painted Last Judgement must have been awe-inspiring. But to enter the building itself, especially from a landscape that – as in fifteenth-century Artois – was frequently wracked by pestilence and warfare, must have been an experience of almost frightening intensity. To view the hive of ordered clerical activity and intricately painted and gilded figures of angels and saints via the light only of hundreds of candles and the sun streaming through stained glass windows must truly have evoked a vision of the new Jerusalem.

Compared with this heavenly picture, the image presented by the acts (or minutes) of a church’s chapter often appears distinctly, and much more recognisably, prosaic. Here we see a picture of humanity which feels immediately closer to home: human nature, warts and all, reveals itself in an all-too-familiar round of squabbles, backbiting and jockeying for position, often elevated into long and bitter legal proceedings. The objects of such disagreement – usually ecclesiastical benefices and privileges – may belong to a bygone age, but the enmities and petty jealousies they generate are universal enough. Striking about such disputes is the contrast between their vehemence and the refined legal formulas in which they are garbed, a contrast that seems to mirror the incongruity which, on the political stage, pits the extreme violence and chaos of the warfare so frequently being waged against the language of politesse and legalese used in tidying up its effects.Footnote 1 Such conflicts – which often, as we shall see, involved the church’s musicians – provide invaluable insights into the infrastructures of ecclesiastical institutions: snapshots of the society in question, they are at the same time reflections of the professional and social structures which generated them.

For all too many religious houses, though, such vignettes, evocative and suggestive as they may be, are almost all that remains. Five centuries in one of the most volatile regions of Europe, to say nothing of the effects of the French Revolution, have left their mark in the destruction of innumerable documents and records. For some institutions nothing survives, and for most what is left is incomplete. For records of an important medieval religious house to have remained – over a period of some four hundred years – more or less continuous is therefore remarkable; even more so when the archive in question has, from a musical viewpoint, received little attention. Such is the case with the great collegiate church of St Omer.Footnote 2

Continuity of this nature offers the signal advantage to be able to trace the developments of an institution as they unfold through history. Threading its way through that history, and enmeshed with the other aspects of its functioning, is its musical establishment. We thus have a rare chance to follow in detail such shifts as the steady growth in musical income and provisions, the turnover of its functionaries and – although, as more or less everywhere else, the music itself has been lost – its provision of notated polyphony. The archives of Saint-Omer, then, present an unusual opportunity: while perhaps not so opulent as that of such musical pinnacles of the region as Cambrai Cathedral and St Donatian in Bruges, the musical life of St Omer reflects its high status as a wealthy collegiate church which, since the thirteenth century, had answered for its authority directly to Rome. Still more importantly, in allowing such an extended, largely unbroken view, it affords valuable insights into northern European musical culture more generally.

Of course the documentary richness of the kinds of material that form the substance of this study has long been recognised. The work of local antiquarian societies – of which few are more venerable than Saint-Omer’s own Société des antiquaires de la Morinie continues to feed the curiosity of modern citizens concerning the lives of their forebears; and the now classic studies of music at St Donatian in Bruges, Cambrai Cathedral and Notre-Dame of Paris built on traditions of musical antiquarianism extending back to Haberl and beyond.Footnote 3 Each generation, each specialist body has sought answers to its own questions, ways of understanding past societies that can offer enrichment to its own; and each has sought them in the same corpus of source material. Given all that has already been written, and given the level of destruction alluded to above, it is sobering to observe the scale of documentation that remains to be mined; yet even if, in some future time, the process of initial ‘discovery’ were to come to an end, it seems hard to conceive that representatives of changing societies would not continue to seek, in historical documents, insights into a continually reimagined past.

Various kinds of musical story, from different stages in the church’s history, could unfurl from its voluminous archives, still preserved in the town library. Still, I feel that what I am offering here has a particular significance, and one not addressed in the same way elsewhere. In examining one closely circumscribed musical environment and its key players with particular scrutiny this book allows us to approach our musical forebears more closely than is typically possible. This is not a story of great men, though a few of them arguably achieved greatness; it is a story of day-to-day life, albeit lived in a society very different from anything familiar in today’s world. That society was one that fostered high achievement – the source, ultimately, of its interest to modern music historians – but it did so amidst patterns of interaction that are essentially timeless and (I would argue) timelessly absorbing.

My historical focus here though is on a particular time: the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the ‘golden age’ of music in the Low Countries and, perhaps not coincidentally, that for which the archives offer the richest yield. St Omer during this period had the prestige to attract an impressive roster of singers and composers, many of them familiar from service in some of the great musical establishments of Europe. Although the active singers, including the master of the boys, seem at least largely to have been restricted to the rank of vicar, a number of the twenty-nine canons (resident and otherwise) were known musicians. In fact interconnections of personnel between the chapter of St Omer and the chapels of the Burgundian court, St Donatian and the Papal Chapel are such as to suggest close relationships between the musical establishments of these great institutions. As for other wealthy northern religious houses, though, the key to its musical importance, in its own region and far beyond, was its choir school, or maîtrise.Footnote 4

Every student of late medieval music knows that the maîtrise was the crucible of contemporary sacred music. Without it the shape of music from the time as it has survived would be unimaginable. Most of the composers whose names resonate with us today began as choirboys in the choir schools of the cathedrals and collegiate churches of northern France and the Burgundian Netherlands, and the quality of their training flowered in music that held sway across the great courts and ecclesiastical establishments of western Europe for more than a century. At the same time, the development of the maîtrise is inextricable from that of polyphony, in which boys’ voices played a signal part and whose developments came so closely to reflect shifting patterns in the ritual and social needs of institutions and individuals.

Our story begins, therefore, as it must, with the choirboys themselves. From their arrival, aged eight or younger, at the maîtrise, it will trace the surviving material threads of their young lives, gathering what can be gleaned of their duties and other activities, the priorities and structures that sustained them, and the rapidly augmenting status that accrued to them in the course of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Teasing out individual identities, we will follow post-pubescent careers through the ranks of ‘escotier’, vicar and chaplain, and on to the university training sponsored for so many by their host institution.Footnote 5 Even before their physical change, though, the best young singers, their voices prized by even the greatest of magnates, could become embroiled in priorities of much larger dimensions, their gifts conducting them as far as the chapels of the ruling dynasties.

If political forces could guide musical careers from their outset, they became all-embracing as, talent and connections permitting, former boys progressed up the ladder of ecclesiastical preferment. Local institutional patronage could lead only so far; major careers depended on the structures of the larger European stage: the ducal House of Burgundy, the chapels of the Habsburgs, even Medici Florence, and – ultimately for the very best – the papal curia. Such power structures could build careers of truly international currency. But the soundscape to which they contributed was generated not only by voices: enveloping, augmenting and announcing the messages articulated by human tones to the greater church building and beyond were the grander voices of organs and bells, the subjects, respectively, of Chapters 4 and 5.

Only a few former choirboys achieved elevation to the major church benefices of canon, cantor, dean or provost; such a post – which brought with it a ‘prebend’ (comprising property and revenue), a vicar assigned to perform the canon’s ostensible ritual duties, a house and considerable status – tended to be the province of wealthy families and even (at the upper stratum) of the nobility. Talent and industry, even of the highest levels, were seldom sufficient on their own to make the leap to the security of tenure that such posts would bring. But connections forged by talent, as for major figures such as Du Fay and Josquin, could lead, via patronage at the highest level, to eventual attainment of high ecclesiastical office on home terroir. Chapter 6 will enter the St Omer chapter to trace the careers of three senior figures who, via success in the chapels of the Burgundian and papal courts, established themselves as major players on the St Omer stage. Looming largest at the turn of the fifteenth century is the figure of Nicolas Rembert, canon and, from 1494 until his death in 1504, dean of the collegiate church (henceforth the collégiale). Sewing together an international tissue of professional musical traffic by means of connections and diplomacy, Rembert’s career provides a vivid demonstration that musical influence in the late Middle Ages need not necessarily involve the direct practice of musical skill. Exercising – typically at considerable expense to its beneficiaries – his influence and political adroitness in Rome in the offices of papal preferment, Rembert offers a striking case of a musical ‘fixer’ of a kind without whose aid most international musical careers at this time would have been scarcely feasible.Footnote 6

Besides its intrinsic interest, then, the story of late medieval music at the church of St Omer has a far broader reach: it affords insights into the musical (and hence broader political) life at great religious institutions more generally, and across the musical melting pot of the north and beyond. With this observation we can begin to see how the main series of documents with which this discussion began, evocative as they are on a local level, also beckon us out again into the larger world, into the social, economic and political landscape which enabled and sustained the opulent, if sometimes myopic, society of church and cloister. Before entering more fully into institutional musical machinations, then, it will be valuable to offer a brief sketch of the origins of the larger civic polity which enveloped and (to at least some degree) sustained them.

Saint-Omer in the Late Middle Ages

However one might characterise the political landscape of fifteenth-century Saint-Omer, it was not, at least in a political sense, French.Footnote 7 Rooted historically in the larger region of Flanders, and subsequently on the eastern edge of the County of Artois, it became in 1384 part of the northern territories of the dukes of Burgundy when the first Valois Duke, Philip the Bold, married Margaret, daughter of Louis de Male, Count of Flanders.Footnote 8 Via this brilliant nuptial strategy Philip acquired (among other territories) the counties of Flanders and Artois, the latter already inherited by Count Louis on the death, two years earlier, of his mother. Artois, from the tenth century a southern part of the territory of Flanders, had in 1180 been cleaved away as part of the dowry of Isabella of Hainault in her marriage to King Philip Augustus of France. While Saint-Omer, Aire and Guines were briefly regained for Flanders in 1198 they were soon firmly back under royal control, where they remained for almost two centuries.Footnote 9 Embroiled in the penury and destruction of the Hundred Years War, the city’s identity in the fourteenth century became strongly wedded – especially through its role as a frontier town with Flanders – to the French crown, and a sense of loyalty to the king lingered long after its joining of the territory of his (at least technical) vassal the duke of Burgundy. But from 1384 Saint-Omer, nudging the eastern border of Artois defined by the river Aa, returned to political union with the Flanders that, economically and culturally, it had never completely left. In terms of its growth and rising prosperity it was closely bound up, as I shall outline below, with the (particularly waterborne) commerce of the nearby trading centres of Ypres, Bruges and Ghent.

Map P.1 Artois, Flanders and environs, late Middle Ages

With its inheritance of the regions of Flanders and Artois the Duchy of Burgundy assumed control of the most populous and urbanised region in Europe north of the Alps,Footnote 10 and also, at least periodically, one of its richest. For the city of Saint-Omer, though, the best was yet to come: the Burgundian takeover ushered in a period of prosperity rooted in a peace that reigned for almost a century; and if parallels between wealth and cultural efflorescence can perhaps too easily be drawn,Footnote 11 there is no doubt that conditions in the city were exceptionally propitious for urban and ecclesiastical display. Not least of these was the example of the dukes themselves: Philip’s joyeuse entrée into Saint-Omer on 22 November 1389 was the first of an effusion of grandiose entries, festivals, aristocratic weddings and tournaments that included two meetings (in 1440 and 1461) of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the 1449 tournament of the Belle Pèlerine to name but a few. There can be little doubt that the Burgundian taste for pomp and ceremony rubbed off on the elite individuals and institutions of the city, including the collegiate church of St Omer, whose personnel – singers included – were enmeshed in deep and continuous patterns of Burgundian clientelism.

In a region studded with proud and prosperous cities, then, Saint-Omer was one of the jewels in the Burgundian crown; this in spite of the fact that, to quote David Nicholas, it ‘developed in the least promising physical location of any Flemish city’.Footnote 12 Hence it is worth considering the source of the prosperity that enabled such wealth and high status and as a consequence that, in turn, of its collegiate church.

The origins of the city’s status rest in its great antiquity as a place of learning and devotion. Its story begins in the seventh century with the arrival of its founding, and eponymous, saint and his disciple Bertin in the proselytysing wake of the Frankish King Dagobert. In this marshy, unworkable and scarcely habitable terrain they founded what was to become the great Benedictine abbey of St Bertin, situated in what was then known as Sithiu in the lower part of today’s town. By the ninth century, when the region was ravaged by Norse invaders, the abbey and its dependencies stood alone. But around 820, the Abbot Frigudise dispatched thirty observants up to the butte, the one point of elevation and the centre of the present town, where they were to serve God, albeit under the rule of the single abbot, not as monks but as canons according to the rule of the 817 Council of Aix.Footnote 13 With this cleavage the foundations were laid of the division, often uneasy, between abbey and collegiate church which were to persist until the dissolution and despoiling of St Bertin at the Revolution.

The surrounding marshland and dense forest being unsuitable for agriculture, the future Saint-Omer owed its development to trade, marketing produce from the rich soils of Artois to its west to the heavily populated cities of the Flemish marshes to its east. Even with increased drainage and cultivation this was a role that was to expand hugely over the centuries, with a relatively low, agriculturally based population and fertile soil to the west supplying a relatively high urban population to the east.Footnote 14 Its catalyst was probably the sale of tithed grain that was surplus to the sustenance of the abbey, which already by the mid-ninth century held sway over some fifty villages and fifty thousand hectares. Around the year 1000 the first walls were built around the butte, the location, from 874,Footnote 15 of the grain market and the site of the collegiate church of St Omer.

With the ascendancy, in the late ninth century, of the counts of Flanders, their co-opting of the estates of the abbey, and the establishment – the first in the region – of the market came a shift in the power structure and an economic tilt away from ecclesiastical service to trade; the development, in other words, of a town, as opposed to a large composite monastic institution. This is not to imply that the prior history of Sithiu was one only of disinterested service to the opus dei: foreshadowing the similar power structures of the future collegiate church, the abbots had already long been scions of great temporal dynasties including, in the ninth century, a bastard son of Charlemagne and the uncle of the king of France. In the later part of that century, however, the abbey was given over by the king to the counts who for the following century functioned – either directly or via an intermediary – as abbots.Footnote 16

From this point on, control of the surrounding populace, its housing and its produce came directly under comital aegis, as did the upper church, now for the first time under the separate leadership of a provost. Even at this early stage, relations between the temporal powers and the canons of the upper town were symbiotic, with the provost typically an appointment of the count, while the canons, being literate, managed the comital accounts. Thus the first citizenry of Saint-Omer came together within the ramparts of the upper town, generated by the market and the needs of the adjacent comital château, in the environs of the early collegiate church. Urbanisation, once started, accelerated rapidly: from a population of a few hundred around 900, Derville estimates a rise to c.35,000 by 1300, with a similar shift over the same period in relative numbers between town and locality from c.6 per cent to c.60 per cent.Footnote 17

If grain was always fuel to the city’s economic engine, its wealth in the high Middle Ages was built on the Flemish cloth trade. Like neighbouring cities heavily dependent on English wool, Saint-Omer was in the twelfth century the pre-eminent city in the English trade, with perhaps half its workforce engaged in the production both of moderately priced and luxury cloth, much of the latter destined to be sold back to its country of origin. If by 1215 it had lost its primacy in English wool importation to Ypres and Douai, its international marketing of cloth of various grades – including a strong presence in Iberia, Italy and southern France – continued its momentum into the late thirteenth century. In fact it now seems clear that the decline in the trade once thought to have swept the urban north in the early fourteenth century has been overstated. In reality, the Saint-Omer business, although necessarily flexible in terms of the quality of its produce, continued to be buoyant into the fifteenth century, when it benefited particularly, if intermittently, from sales to Hanseatic German traders.Footnote 18

Expansion and commerce on this scale was only possible via the draining and cultivation of marshland and the opening of major transport thoroughfares. With ever-improving methods of cultivation, by 1409 the grain trade was the most important source of revenue, with Saint-Omer and Douai emerging as the principal markets exporting French grain to the north.Footnote 19 Such was the power wielded by the city’s grain market in the fifteenth century that in the 1430s Philip the Good made it exempt from the ban otherwise preventing the export of grain from the duchy’s French territories to Flanders, Zeeland and Holland; reciprocally, when famine in Flanders led to a ban on its food exports, the duke made an exception for Saint-Omer, allowing delivery of livestock and dairy produce in return for grain.Footnote 20 What really set Saint-Omer apart, however, driving the fortunes of its merchants, and in turn of its institutions – including the collegiate church – was its waterborne trade.

The major turning point came in the twelfth century with the digging of a network of waterways culminating in the deep-water canal following the route of the old river Aa along the Artois–Flanders border to the coast at Gravelines. The initiative of the enterprising Count of Flanders Philip of Alsace, via his chancellor, Robert d’Aire, provost of the collégiale, the ‘Great River’ allowed access to large seagoing vessels such as even the contemporary Oudezwin canal to Bruges could not accommodate. Besides revolutionising direct trading capability the canal amassed huge tax revenues from the surrounding region, since the town, enforcing a wholesale ‘staple’ on the waterway, forbade the discharging of any cargo between Saint-Omer and the coast.Footnote 21 All cargos had to pass through the city’s Haut Pont, making Saint-Omer the main marketplace in the region for everything from grain to fish to cloth and wine. The ‘bons vins de Saint-Omer’ were renowned across the north throughout the later Middle Ages,Footnote 22 with a number of fifteenth-century canons of the collégiale – which was itself a prodigious wine consumer – directly involved in the trade.Footnote 23 Still more strikingly, the city’s production and marketing of fine-quality Flemish textiles inflicted, at least in the twelfth century, major damage on the indigenous trade of England.

Saint-Omer’s access to a network of waterways continued also to broaden its inland market reach to an extent with which, by the late fourteenth century, only Bruges and Ghent could compete. Like Ghent and Ypres, it also had a lucrative grain staple that, around the turn of the fifteenth century, extended its wholesale control far beyond the radius of twenty-five or so kilometres which had circumscribed its earlier operations. By 1485 its range had pushed from two leagues to three, with staples on wine and general wholesale goods further augmenting its income and restricting those of potential competitors, while attracting merchants from as far away as Holland, Zeeland and Brabant to join the city’s bourgeoisie.Footnote 24

This same shift in fortune fed the fabulous wealth of merchant families whose scions would in turn raise the fortunes – and assume the canonries – of the collégiale. Certain key factors guaranteed the financial and political domination of a handful of families. One was the sheer financial muscle needed to cope with fluctuations of cash flow, spread risk and pay the kinds of advances necessary to exercise control over the markets; another was membership of the Hanse, which restricted access to distant markets to members, and which the high cost entailed kept in the hands of the few.Footnote 25 Financial control was paralleled by civic control: aldermen, initially appointed from among the wealthy oligarchs by the count to maintain order on his behalf, steadily acquired their own independent power, solidifying the grip of the merchant class. Appointed theoretically for only a year, aldermen in fact conventionally chose their successors who in turn reinstated their predecessors, resulting in alternations, year on year, between the same pairs of appointees.Footnote 26 By the late thirteenth century their power was effectively absolute, controlling commerce, levying tithes, taxes and fines, determining all rights of citizens and imposing all levels of discipline.

If the thirteenth century, like the fifteenth, was one at least mostly of stability, the intervening years witnessed death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. As ever the nexus point between Artois and Flanders, Saint-Omer was caught up from 1297 in war between the crown and the County of Flanders; and if the well-defended city itself held firm in 1303 even against the overwhelming force of the Flemish army, it was at the cost, as so often, of the burning of its suburbs. But behind the military success lay civil disquiet, and resentment at the oppressive power of the oligarchs erupted in 1305–6 in communal insurrection. In the end this proved of sufficient force to elicit concessions on representation, wages, commerce, punishments and taxes, many of them lasting, from the redoubtable Mahaut, Countess of Artois; in the following years, though, the dominant families, some of whom would continue to provide the city’s dramatis personae into the fifteenth century, re-assumed more or less gradually their customary positions of power.Footnote 27

But the disruptions caused by the communal revolution were relatively minor compared to the cataclysms of the mid-fourteenth century. From its first outbreak in 1349 and with devastating recurrences thereafter, it has been estimated that roughly two-thirds of the populace succumbed to the Black Death, reducing the population from c.35,000 to between 10,000 and 15,000, a level at which it was to remain until the later seventeenth century.Footnote 28 Added to this was the re-eruption, in 1337, of the Hundred Years War and some fifty years of intermittent predation by English and Flemish troops. While, as at the beginning of the century, the defensibility of the high ground of the butte meant that enemies could usually be repelled from the city itself, this was at the repeated expense of flooding the marais and of burning any buildings outside the ramparts that could provide aid for invaders. The city was in more or less constant fear of attack and/or infiltration by hostile forces and, neither for the first nor the last time, deprived regularly of the sustenance of its – necessarily external – food production, commerce and rental revenues. In inverse proportion to the squeeze on its resources were the rising demands of royal levies for the costs of the ongoing war for which Saint-Omer, as one of the two major cities of Artois, was hit particularly hard. Rampant inflation and the ability, shamelessly exploited, of the oligarchs to avoid the payments collected universally from the less fortunate rump of society combined to exacerbate still further the prevailing state of misery.Footnote 29

After decades of strife and pestilence, Burgundian rule brought a flowering of renewed prosperity. The Hundred Years War as well as the internal conflicts of the Kingdom of France mostly stayed at a safe distance. No amount of ducal splendour could spare the city – including the collégiale – from plague, however, nor indeed from famine, which particularly in 1437–9 tore into a populace still struggling to recover from waves of epidemic. At around ten thousand in the early fifteenth century, the city’s population was still struggling to reach a third of what it had been at its high point some two centuries earlier. At the same time, though, records show an unprecedented rise in enrolment of new members of the bourgeoisie, across all the city’s many lucrative trades. In times of peace, Saint-Omer’s location between the fertile soils of Artois and highly populated and urbanised Flanders would always bring market dividends; and while maintenance of waterborne commerce via the dock at Gravelines would require civil engineering on a vast scale, it continued, via the ‘Great River’, to guarantee a powerful seafaring presence, as well as, beginning in the fifteenth century, bringing in tax revenue at the point of maritime access.Footnote 30

In all this the most enterprising of the city’s oligarchs were always key players, with its aldermanic public servants, like today’s politicians, never far from the centre of economic transaction. In tandem with commercial advancement they almost invariably sought to burnish their financial status, developed in the marketplace, with noble preferment, acquiring positions in the ducal administration and seeking for their scions advantageous marriages and university training, the latter often culminating in lucrative canonries.Footnote 31 Preferment by the dukes also brought with it still greater aldermanic control, as when, in 1467, an uprising in protest at their imposition of increased duty on barley culminated in an appeal to ducal power that resulted in brutal suppression. A small coterie of families was in almost untrammelled control of all the city’s dealings, including its finances, a situation that led, unsurprisingly, to rampant abuses. While an inquiry instigated by the duke in 1446 into this wildly unbalanced state of affairs seems, at least in the short term, to have had little effect,Footnote 32 by the end of the century the situation had shifted radically, with aldermen no longer drawn from the mercantile class. More typically wealthy property owners or members of the legal and medical professions, aldermen had by this time essentially risen beyond the marketplace to the status of individuals ‘living nobly’.Footnote 33 Perhaps the most significant result of the inquiry of 1446, however, was to tighten still further the grip of the duchy on the reins of the city’s control, and to entrench still more deeply the clientelism through which it was exercised.Footnote 34

Whatever the inequalities of life under Burgundian rule, the city remained steadfastly loyal to the duchy when, following the untimely demise in 1477 of Charles the Bold at the Siege of Nancy, the French crown reasserted direct control of Artois. As in the past, the city held firm against French siege, but again as in the past, at the cost of burning down the suburbs. Even at the Peace of Arras in 1482, marking the betrothal to the dauphin of France of Margaret of Austria, granddaughter of Charles the Bold and daughter of the Emperor Maximilian I, Saint-Omer was able to stay neutral, and it officially returned to the rule of Maximilian in 1487. Only four months later, however, the city fell victim to a coup, supported by the aldermen, that saw the French army breach the city wall on the side of the Marais and take the town. But its triumph was short-lived: on 11 February 1489, counter-plots supported by the peasantry and bourgeoisie restored the inheritors of the Valois dukes, and although conflicts that persisted until 1493 saw much of the city reduced to ruin, it was to remain from this point under control of the now Habsburg-Burgundian dynasty until 1678. While warfare returned in 1521 and again, with intervening respites, until 1559, Saint-Omer itself was at least spared the miserable destruction of the surrounding countryside and of many of its neighbours. This culminated, in 1553, in the complete demolition by the Habsburg army of the fiercely French episcopal city and great cathedral of Thérouanne, its demise leading to the foundation of the new see of Saint-Omer and the raising of the collégiale to the status of cathedral.

Saint-Omer Then and Now

Internal rumblings notwithstanding, to an outside observer Saint-Omer in the greater part of the fifteenth century must have appeared the epitome of civic stability and prosperity. Peace and commerce brought with them an elegant cityscape of broad streets and elegant houses, crowned by the towers and steeples of its many fine churches and convents. Those towers afforded a sonic stratum for a plethora of bells whose timbres, each of them distinct to the well-attuned ears of a late medieval citizenry, combined with a ground-level soundscape of commerce, criers, processions, mystery plays, entertainments, tournaments and music to mark out the daily round and the events, cyclic as well as occasional, of the city’s life.

That prosperity is reflected in an opulence that emerges vividly from the accounts of the collégiale in the later fifteenth century and on into the sixteenth, resonances of a pride and sense of status beyond what is detectable hitherto and that, arguably, would not be replicated. For us today they are tantalising witnesses to the vanished world of a wealthy church in one of the great cities of the urban north; and for Saint-Omer, they are essentially all we have: the accounts of Saint-Bertin, lost to the carnage of 1915, plus any that once existed for the parish churches and other religious houses, are long gone, their affairs refracted only through mentions in the documents of the city and collégiale.

Saint-Omer in the late Middle Ages boasted six parish churches, houses of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, Poor Clares, and sundry religious hospitals and Beguinages, not to mention the great Benedictine abbey of St Bertin and the grand Marian ‘chapelle sur le marchiet’, built for the veneration of its thirteenth-century figure of Notre Dame des Miracles. Richest by far was the abbey of St Bertin, its abbot taxed, according to the 1362 records, on an estimated income of £8,300. A famous seat of learning for centuries, St Bertin was home to an important scriptorium and library, of which a large proportion is now housed in the town library. Two of its fifteenth-century abbots, Guillaume Fillastre and Jean de Lannoy, were chancellors of the Order of the Golden Fleece, meetings of which were held at St Bertin in 1440 and 1461. The taxable income of the abbot clearly dwarfed the already substantial income of the provost of St Omer, taxed at £800. By way of comparison, the assumed income in the same accounts of the dean and twenty-six major prebends of St Omer was £80 each, with the church’s three minor prebends estimated at £40 and its chaplaincies ranging from £12 to £25. Curacies at the parish churches, some of them, as we shall see, held by canons of St Omer, varied in estimated income from a relatively paltry £26 at St Martin in Insula to a combined income of two curates at St Denis, the substantial church of the mayor and aldermen of the town, of £120.Footnote 35 For most of these buildings, documentary mention and old cityscapes are their only surviving mode of existence. Victims of an anti-clericalism of particular virulence even by broader national standards, most of them succumbed in the late eighteenth century to revolutionary zeal.

The reduction in 1791 to four parishes – the cathedral (former collégiale), St Bertin, St Denis and St Sepulchre – signalled the neglect of the former parish churches of St John, St Aldegonde and St Margaret, culminating only two years later in their demolition. All those in holy orders were expelled from their convents, now decreed to be state property. First to go from the buildings themselves, perhaps unsurprisingly, were their bells, transforming at a stroke the centuries-long soundscape of the city along, it was surely hoped, with all their associations, fraternal, hierarchical, ritual, disciplinary. Along with the sale of the buildings came the emptying of their contents. Everything in precious metal – including the entire treasury of the cathedral – was sold or melted down, while buildings were stripped of their furniture and no fewer than 5,563,686 books. But more was to follow: 1793’s renunciation of the Catholic faith saw the repudiation of the priesthood. All devotional images were targeted: metal ones melted down, wooden ones burned, those in stone defaced.Footnote 36

One signal act of destruction did not even need to wait for the Revolution: in 1785, after many years’ deliberation and in the face of strenuous objection from the cathedral and confraternity of Notre-Dame-des-Miracles, the chapel on the marketplace succumbed to anti-clericalism in the secular administration and was pulled down.Footnote 37 On 23 June the icon that it had housed for five hundred years, so long the symbol and patron of the city, was ceremoniously carried by canons of the cathedral, followed by all the city’s clergy and most of its populace, to the cathedral and installed in the south transept. In this space formerly occupied by the chapel of St Nicholas, almost exactly coextensive with her former home and with its surrounding walls and pillars covered by accounts of her miracles, she stands to this day.Footnote 38

For St Bertin the reprieve of 1791 was brief: sold off as state property in 1799, its first indignity was the stripping of its roof. Decades of insouciance culminated, in 1830, in the city’s giving it up to quarrying, under the pretext of providing work for the unemployed. Through all this, the elegant fourteenth-century west tower clung on; a landmark from which, on a good day, even the coast of England was visible until, as recently as 1947, it finally succumbed to neglect and collapsed.Footnote 39

To stand today before the rump of that tower and its meagre associated ruins is to confront a sorry sight indeed. It can easily come as a relief to turn one’s back and tread gently uphill to the butte and the centre of modern-day Saint-Omer. As one follows the sleepy streets, their quietness disturbed by little beyond the rumble of tyres on cobbles, one can at least trace the outlines of the medieval city. Yet what rises above them is almost exclusively of a later time: Saint-Omer today is every inch a French provincial town, its white stone and yellow brick evocative of earlier days, yes, but now put to the service of tall houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A detour off to the right quickly affords access to the fifteenth-century tower of St-Denis, lacking the steeple that in 1705 collapsed into its nave, the latter rebuilt in the succeeding years in contemporary style. A further detour opens up visual access to the single steeple that still graces the city’s skyline, that of St-Sepulchre; yet even this is a nineteenth-century reconstruction, while the greenery on the medieval building beneath is slowly clawing it back to nature.

Reaching the summit of the butte, passing by, in the vieux marché (now Place Victor Hugo), the elaborate fountain marking the spot once occupied by the parish church of St Aldegonde, the view of the great cathedral, sheltered to the last seconds by tall townhouses, looms finally into view (Figure P.1). The massive Gothic building is even more striking given the almost total destruction of the medieval city over which it once presided (Figure P.2). In the interior, though, the student of the archives of the collégiale feels quickly on familiar ground (Figure P.3). Entering from the south under the recently restored tympanum of the Last Judgement, one finds oneself face to face with the thirteenth-century figure of Notre Dame des Miracles (Figure P.4), standing watch here since the fateful day, more than two hundred years earlier, when she was carried from her former home. Turning from her chapel into the building proper, one is quickly among friends: fifteenth-century epitaphs, surviving in profusion, invite us to pray for the souls of the canons and vicars who will people our story. The names are instantly evocative: Wissoc, Breion, Toussains de Le Ruelle, Rembert. We have come home.

Figure P.1 St Omer: view of the west tower from the north

Figure P.2 St Omer from the air

© Carl Peterolff

Figure P.3 St Omer: interior looking east

© Carl Peterolff

Figure P.4 Notre Dame des Miracles


1 In the case of Saint-Omer this is most starkly revealed in the mid-sixteenth century in the delicacy of requests made to the dean and canons of Saint-Omer by Mary of Hungary on behalf of the canons of Thérouanne in the aftermath of the destruction of their cathedral, and indeed their entire city, by her brother, Charles V (letters preserved in II. G. 193).

2 Throughout this study ‘St Omer’ will refer to the church, ‘Saint-Omer’ to the city that houses it.

3 On St Donatian and Bruges see Reinhard Strohm, Music in Late Medieval Bruges (2nd, rev. ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). On Cambrai Cathedral see Craig Wright, ‘Performance Practices at the Cathedral of Cambrai, 1475–1550’, Musical Quarterly 64/3 (1978), 275–328; ‘Musiciens à la cathédrale de Cambrai, 1475–1550’, Revue de musicologie 62/2 (1976), 204–28. On Paris see Craig Wright, Music and Ceremony at Notre Dame of Paris, 500–1550 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Franz Xaver Haberl, Bausteine für Musikgeschichte I: Wilhelm Du Fay; II: Katalog der Musikwerke welche sich im … Archiv der päpstlichen Kapelle im Vatikan zu Rom vorfinden; III: Die römische “schola cantorum” und die päpstlichen Kapellsänger bis zur Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von Breitkopf und Härtel, 1885–8; repr. Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms, 1971).

4 For a useful introduction to the term and the growth of the phenomenon see Laurenz Lütteken, ‘Maîtrise’, in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2002), 2, Sachteil 5, cols. 1597–1602.

5 ‘Escotier’, a term seemingly particular to St Omer, refers to a category of poor clerics, aged eighteen or over, verbally and musically literate, who were fed and maintained, in their own ‘escoterie’ situated in the cloister, at the expense of the chapter. For more detail see below, pp. 48, 67.

6 A rare and important earlier discussion of this function (focusing on the career of Johannes Puyllois (or Pullois)), can be found in Pamela Starr, ‘Music and Music Patronage at the Papal Court, 1447–1464’, unpublished PhD dissertation, Yale University (1987), 38–62.

7 For a survey of the history of the city see Alain Derville (ed.), Histoire de Saint-Omer (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1981), especially chs. 1–3, 11–105 (all by Alain Derville). For a more detailed account up to c.1300 see his Saint-Omer: Des origines au début du 14e siècle (Lille: Presses universitaires de Lille, 1995).

8 On the emerging political, economic and cultural identity of Artois see Carola Small, ‘Artois in the Thirteenth Century: A Region Discovering Its Identity?’, Historical Reflections 19 (1993), 189–207.

9 David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders (London and New York: Longman, 1992), 73, 75. Nicholas offers a synoptic view of the history of the region, including Saint-Omer, until the division of Flanders and Artois in the twelfth century. See also Derville, Histoire, 48.

10 For detailed (and vivid) analysis of the remarkable relative population density from Artois to Liège, see Norman J. G. Pounds and Charles C. Roome, ‘Population Density in Fifteenth Century France and the Low Countries’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61/1 (1971), 116–30, and Norman J. G. Pounds, ‘Population and Settlement in the Low Countries and Northern France in the Later Middle Ages’, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 49/2 (1971), 369–402.

11 See John H. Monro, ‘Economic Depression and the Arts in the Fifteenth-Century Low Countries’, Renaissance and Reformation 7/4 (1983), 235–50, which points out the frequent disjunction between artistic flowering in the Burgundian Netherlands and economic depressions associated with fluctuations in (especially cloth) trade and population depletion.

12 Nicholas, Flanders, 36.

13 Derville, Histoire, 17.

14 See Pounds and Roome, ‘Population Density’, 127 and passim, and Pounds, ‘Population and Settlement’, 392–3.

15 Derville, Histoire, 18–19, 21.

16 Footnote Ibid., 18, 25.

17 Footnote Ibid., 29; Derville, ‘Le nombre d’habitants des villes de l’Artois et de la Flandre Wallonne (1300–1450)’, Revue du Nord 65/257 (1983), 277–99.

18 Nicholas, Flanders, 55, 112–18, 167–8, 173–5, 203–4; Derville, Histoire, 42–4, 85. The literature on this topic is considerable and has seen substantial interpretative shifts. Among useful (comparatively) recent contributions see Marci Sortor, ‘Saint-Omer and Its Textile Trades in the Late Middle Ages: A Contribution to the Proto-industrialization Debate’, American Historical Review 98 (1993), 1475–99, and Derville, ‘Les draperies flamandes et artésiennes vers 1250–1350’, Revue du Nord 54/215 (1972), 353–70.

19 Marci Sortor, ‘The Ieperleet Affair, the Struggle for Market Position in Late-Medieval Flanders’, Speculum 734 (1998), 1091; Derville, Histoire, 85–6. For a sense of the sheer scale of this market see Derville, ‘Le grenier des Pays-Bas médiévaux’, Revue du Nord 69/273 (1987), 267–80.

20 Sortor, ‘Ieperleet’, 1093. The same practice could work in reverse, however. When, in 1456, the merchants of Saint-Omer placed a ban on grain exports this was reciprocated by a similar ban on dairy, beer and agricultural provisions going in the opposite direction, with the net result that Saint-Omer farmers were driven into bankruptcy.

21 Derville, Histoire, 36–8; Nicholas, Flanders, 118.

22 On the huge significance of the wine trade to the city see Derville, Histoire, 38–40 and passim, and particularly his ‘Le marché du vin a Saint-Omer: ses fluctuations au XVe siècle’, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 40/2 (1962), 348–70, a study that draws heavily on the detailed cellar accounts of the collégiale.

23 Derville, ‘Le marché’, 350–1.

24 Sortor, ‘Ieperleet’, 1094–6.

25 Derville, Histoire, 57.

26 On this practice see Claude Petillon, ‘Les élites politiques de Saint-Omer dans la première moitié du XVe siècle d’après l’enquête de 1446’, Revue du Nord 91 (1999), 86.

27 Derville, Histoire, 64–71.

28 Derville, ‘Le nombre’, 278–9; Histoire, 29, 74.

29 Derville, Histoire, 73–80.

31 Derville, Histoire, 88–90; Petillon, ‘Les élites’.

32 On this enquiry and the insight it provides into the functioning and, particularly, abuses of the city’s ruling body see Petillon, ‘Les élites’.

33 Derville, Histoire, 104.

34 Petillon, ‘Les élites’, 115–16.

35 For these details see August Longnon, Pouillés de la province de Reims, vol. 6, part 2 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1907), 608–9. Alain Derville points out the elevated value of the St Omer prebends compared to those of other nearby institutions, comparing them with, for example, those of Arras (£62), Thérouanne and Tournai (£60), and Lille (£45). Yet the real sum, he notes, was considerably higher, including numerous pre-tax deductions and reliefs. He cites the example of Canon Jean Pigouche, who died in 1443, and whose annual income could amount to £550, including £200 gross, £99 from daily distributions for attendance at Mass and office, and more then £44 for attendance at obits. This, compared with a maximum income of around £50 per annum for a master craftsman, gives some indication of the relative wealth of St Omer canons, many of whom, of course, held a number of canonries with associated prebends (Derville, ‘Les chanoines de Saint-Omer’, 92–3).

36 Martine Le Maner, ‘De l’ordre ancien à l’ordre nouveau’, in Derville (ed.), Histoire, 158–64.

37 For a three-dimensional reconstruction of the building see, accessed 30 October 2018.

38 The story of the building, history and demise of the chapel is told in detail in Oscar Bled, ‘La Vieille Chapelle du Grand Marché à Saint-Omer, 1270–1785’, Bulletin de la Société des antiquaires de la Morinie 12 (1907–12), 767–802.

39 Jacques Thiébaut, ‘L’art monumentale’, in Derville (ed.), Histoire, 242–4.

Figure 0

Map P.1 Artois, Flanders and environs, late Middle Ages

Figure 1

Figure P.1 St Omer: view of the west tower from the north

Figure 2

Figure P.2 St Omer from the air

© Carl Peterolff
Figure 3

Figure P.3 St Omer: interior looking east

© Carl Peterolff
Figure 4

Figure P.4 Notre Dame des Miracles

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  • Prologue
  • Andrew Kirkman, University of Birmingham
  • Book: Music and Musicians at the Collegiate Church of St Omer
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  • Prologue
  • Andrew Kirkman, University of Birmingham
  • Book: Music and Musicians at the Collegiate Church of St Omer
  • Online publication: 31 August 2020
  • Chapter DOI:
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