Sacred Landscapes? Aristocratic Estates & Spiritual Identities in Early Modern France

Dr Jennifer Hillman is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow 2013-17 and Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester. In 2014-15, she was the recipient of a Faculty of Humanities Early Career Research Award which allowed her to carry out research on a case study related to, but distinct from, her postdoctoral project. This project was entitled

Sacred Landscapes? Aristocratic Estates & Spiritual Identities in Early Modern France


On 29 October 1656, the archbishop of Rouen carried out an episcopal visitation at the château de La Roche-Guyon. The purpose of his visitation was to verify the authenticity of the saintly relics preserved in a silver reliquary inside the chapel. Among the holy objects in the château was a relic recently translated from the nearby monastery of Saint-Nicaise at Meulan. The relic was a finger of the third-century noble virgin martyr Saint Pientia (or Pience). Pientia was converted to Christianity at La Roche-Guyon through the evangelizing of the missionary Saint Nicasius and his companions Scubiculus and Quirinus during their journeys along the Seine. During my doctoral research, I became interested in how and why this relic relocated to the chapel at the château during the mid-seventeenth century. In 2015, I devoted my Faculty Early Career Research Award to investigating the circumstances surrounding the relic translation.

In early modern France, the château de La Roche-Guyon (depicted above by Israël Silvestre) was situated on a commercial route between Paris and Rouen. In fact, the château still survives today and is open to visitors: The seventeenth-century proprietors of the château were Roger du Plessis and Jeanne de Schomberg – duke and duchess of Liancourt, and distinguished patrons of the Cistercian convent of Port-Royal. They were also practitioners of the severe, penitential strand of post-Tridentine Catholicism associated with Port-Royal and the ‘Jansenists.’


The duke and duchess procured the finger of Saint Pientia from a larger collection of relics at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Nicaise in Meulan, around 30 kilometres from the château. The other agent in the translation of the relic was Nicolas Davanne (d. 11 June 1660), superior of the monastery. Some twenty-six years prior to the translation of Pientia’s finger, he had published the first edition of his ‘Life’ of Nicasius and his companions, with a second edition appearing in 1643. Archival documents tell us that during the translation of Pientia’s finger bone to the château in 1656, Davanne’s histories were regarded as proof that Pientia was ‘former lady of La Roche-Guyon’ and companion of Nicasius ‘the first bishop of Rouen.’ The relic translation was thus about celebrating the local spiritual heritage of the château.


By researching the connections between the procuring of the relic of Saint Pientia for the chapel at the château and the writing of a local, sacred history, I was able to show that Davanne was working to raise the profile of the regional cults of saints like Pientia, which culminated in the placing of her relics in the chapel of the local seigneurs at La Roche-Guyon.

This research has allowed me to engage with a burgeoning historiography on saints, relics, sacred history and the sacralisation of the landscape in Counter-Reformation Europe. I presented my initial research questions at a workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum in May 2015 and a more detailed discussion at the Ecclesiastical History Society conference in York, in July 2015. A paper on this research is forthcoming in the next issue of Studies in Church History, as “The Martyr in the Chapel: Relic Translation and Sacred History in the French Vexin.”









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