Cover image for The Art of Medieval Urbanism: Parthenay in Romanesque Aquitaine By Robert A. Maxwell

The Art of Medieval Urbanism

Parthenay in Romanesque Aquitaine

Robert A. Maxwell


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02956-6

400 pages
9.5" × 10"
95 color/190 b&w illustrations

The Art of Medieval Urbanism

Parthenay in Romanesque Aquitaine

Robert A. Maxwell

“This volume is as important for the history of medieval urbanism as it is for its close examination of medieval sculpture. Few studies integrate the analysis of the origins and growth of a town and its social and religious structures with the broad web of concerns and ideologies that frame the character and messages of its medieval monuments.”


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Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association

The Art of Medieval Urbanism examines the role of monumental sculpture and architecture in the medieval cityscape, offering a pathbreaking interpretation of the relationships among art, architecture, and the history of urbanism. In the first study of its kind, Robert Maxwell shifts attention away from the great Gothic cities of the later Middle Ages to focus on the urban context of art making in the earlier Romanesque era.

Maxwell concentrates on Parthenay, a flourishing town in eleventh- and twelfth-century Aquitaine. Exploring Parthenay’s exceptionally well-preserved structures, the author charts two centuries of urban development in southwestern France. Drawing on the methods of historical anthropology, Maxwell brings the monumental arts into dialogue with courtly romance literature, the iconography of seals and coins, history writing, and contemporary mythologies of place to show how the urban experience inflected the invention of history, aristocratic self-fashioning, and urban identity. Maxwell’s interdisciplinary approach shows that medieval urbanism should be understood as a fabric of constructed identities of history, self, and place grounded in the monumental arts. The Art of Medieval Urbanism offers a fresh model for urban studies and proposes a new approach to the study of medieval art by restoring an urban dimension to our view of Romanesque production.

“This volume is as important for the history of medieval urbanism as it is for its close examination of medieval sculpture. Few studies integrate the analysis of the origins and growth of a town and its social and religious structures with the broad web of concerns and ideologies that frame the character and messages of its medieval monuments.”
“A groundbreaking book, The Art of Medieval Urbanism revolutionizes the paradigm within which scholars have customarily discussed the period’s monuments.”
“This interdisciplinary approach results in a unique publication on the topic of medieval Parthenay and medieval urbanism in general.”
“Maxwell’s penetrating analyses of Parthenay’s churches, supported by his stellar photography, afford the reader an intimate encounter with the extraordinary iconographic and architectural personality of these buildings. It is in these jewel-like settings that Maxwell richly develops his acute insights into the cultural implications of locally based systems of urban construction.”
“The book is handsomely produced with excellent graphics and phased plans of Parthenay and the region. The Art of Medieval Urbanism will be the definitive statement on Parthenay and on visual approaches to urbanism, and will serve scholars and students well for years to come.”

Robert A. Maxwell is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has appeared in Art Bulletin, Art History, and Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, as well as in collected volumes.


List of Illustrations




1. Parthenay and the Landscape of Romanesque Aquitaine

2. From Castrum to Oppidum: Constructing a Domain

3. Style and the Politics of Urbanization

4. Constructing an Urban Identity

5. Constructing History: Family Romance and Urban Legends

6. From Castrum to Signum: An Iconography of Urbanism

7. The End of an Era?

Epilogue: Urban Orientations


A. Foundation Charter of St-Paul (ca. 1070–1075)

B. Foundation Charter of St-Pierre (1092)

C. Donation Charter of St-Pierre (1119)






The twelfth-century romance epic Perceval follows a young knight’s quest to resolve the Holy Grail’s elusive mysteries. In one scene Perceval, winding his way through the forests, emerges into a clearing. He spies in the distance a marvelous cityscape, the castle Beaurepaire:

When he emerged from the forest [he] came upon a most beautiful land, finely labored on all sides, filled with wheat and barley. . . . Perceval greatly wondered to what country he had come, for it was at least two years since he had seen a land so richly endowed with all good things, so plentiful and populous. Then he looked across the country and saw a very fine castle, of which all the walls and battlements were whiter than new-fallen snow. And to describe it truthfully, it had five splendid and handsome towers, all identical: one in the middle and four all around. . . . There was a great township inside the walls, nobly peopled with knights and serving-men, burgesses and merchants, liberal, courteous and well-bred, trading in furs of white and gray, in silk, samite and the finest cloth, in . . . vessels of gold and silver and every other material, in pepper and wax . . . in spices of many kinds, most precious and expensive. [. . .] There were two abbeys in the town [ville], magnificently housed, and beautiful churches, with handsome towers and splendid belfries, richly roofed with lead. Perceval was delighted by the sight of this handsome city [chastel], and spurred his horse on toward the bridge.

From the edge of the forest, the distant city appears to rise from the finely tilled croplands that encircle it. Perceval’s eyes fall quickly on the castle fortifications, and as in the many other descriptions of cities and castles in this epic, the conglomeration of walls and towers are the decisive attributes that distinguish the town from its surrounding farmlands and the wilderness beyond. Perceval then glimpses the town’s interior, as if transported magically over the forbidding gates from the dark forests outside, and he inventories the intramural environment. His attention fixes on the town’s social bustle: the city-dwellers’ myriad activities, peddling wares and preening in their urbane frippery, bring to life this built environment of streets, squares, and churches. Unfolding before Perceval, the fortified city is an enchanting, dazzling vision of worldly riches and chivalric achievement.

Beaurepaire of course is not an actual place but a literary fantasy fashioned in the years around 1200. Here, through Perceval’s eyes, the poet collapses experiences of time and space, of landscape and architecture, of artisans and objects, to produce an all-encompassing snapshot of urban life’s diversity and complexity. This image would have resonated in the ears of all listening to the tale, summoning familiar experiences. The picture in fact is not so different from other, even less florid, descriptions found in more matter-of-fact texts, such as the twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela, the De Commendatione Turonicae provinciae, or Lambert of Ardes’s turn-of-the-century chronicle of the territories of the counts of Guines. These and others (discussed elsewhere) similarly draw attention to towns’ high sturdy walls, gleaming churches, and the prosperous croplands all around, offering an image not unlike Beaurepaire. A nobleman, such as the count of Flanders for whom Chrétien de Troyes began Perceval, may well have seen in that poem’s crisp images the imagined reflection of his own urban court or the many castle towns in his domain. Even if these verses did not reflect a tangible, mirrored reality, they at least provided an idealized vision to inspire the courtly imagination.

The subject of this book is a medieval town not unlike the one imagined by the Perceval poet. Today Parthenay is a small quaint city, home to twenty thousand people in the Deux-Sèvres département of southwestern France and a hub of cattle trading and goat-cheese production. The tourist industry also celebrates the town as the birthplace of Aimery Picaud, sometimes credited as the author of the twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide, but its significance in the cultural economy of Aquitaine was in fact much greater than that creditable to this one enigmatic figure. Historians rightly remember medieval Parthenay as a pivotal military stronghold and booming urban center. By 1200 the town boasted no fewer than ten impressive churches: one collegiate church, three Benedictine priories, one Augustinian priory, four parish churches, and a leprosery. The lord’s vast château sat strategically on a promontory above the Thouet River, and the town’s two rings of walls (reputedly impregnable) protected the inhabitants and their lucrative trade in textiles and leather. Defense was indeed a constant concern, for the ascending stature of Parthenay’s ruling lords favored the town as a significant player in the duchy’s combative politics. The town was often fiercely embroiled in local conflicts—among rival castellans or with the counts of Poitou—as well as regional causes, becoming the bloody stage for battles pitting the Plantagenet kings Henry II and Richard the Lionheart against the Capetians Louis VII and Phillip Augustus. With so rich an urban panoply and historical legacy, Parthenay was surely “the complete vision of how we imagine the typical medieval town,” as the eminent art historian René Crozet wrote.

Today Parthenay surprises the visitor with its ensemble of surviving Romanesque churches, its winding streets lined with half-timber houses, and its ample ruins of fortified walls, gates, and towers. The impression must have been even greater in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, for Parthenay’s urban profile—its skyline, its built topography—announced a site of uncommon grandeur in Romanesque Aquitaine. The medieval world was still largely a rural one, and much of the population—those not living in the great cities of bishops and kings—was scattered in agricultural hamlets, villages, and around small castles. Parthenay originated as merely an isolated castle in the middle of the forests before gradually assuming full prominence as a significant urban center. Its lords added one borough after another, founded parishes and priories in rapid succession, including a vast rotunda church dedicated to the Holy Sepulcher, and erected mills, ovens, and fortifications, all of which contoured the town’s topography and established its monumental presence in the Aquitainian landscape. Parthenay progressively rose in status, becoming even the subject of historical legends and the benchmark of aristocratic self-fashioning. With such mythography heroicizing Parthenay’s emergence, the town became a sign of itself, of its own history of construction and courtly ascendance.

This book recounts that spectacular transformation. Tracing Parthenay’s development from a simple castle settlement to a thriving urban agglomeration, I chart the history of its monumental production to understand the role of monumental art in shaping the townscape. The construction of churches, the tracing of roads, and the erection of imposing walls all provided finite contours and fixed elevations to the protean urban topography. The material processes of building also contributed to urbanization’s social processes, necessitating an influx of masons, sculptors, carpenters, and glassmakers, and the exploitation of quarries, forests, and kilns. The arrival of religious communities, the erection of lordly foundations, and the tracing of extramural boroughs, as well as the changing roles of masons and sculptors in the town, likewise had important implications for the social organization of the urban space.

Perhaps most important, this reconstruction of the town’s growth serves as a means to explore monumental art’s contribution to Parthenay’s identity as a specifically urban locus and, more broadly still, its role in defining “town” in the medieval imagination. This book examines how the monumental arts concretized the meaning of a place (perhaps of “place” generally) and lent definition to the landscape in an unprecedented way. The care with which the Perceval poet described Beaurepaire, for example, and emphasized its demarcation from the surrounding countryside and forests hints at the importance that built places had acquired in the geography of the twelfth-century mind. Moreover, the notion of “urban,” as we shall see, was one that was constructed relationally among towns and across rural landscapes. Furthermore, I argue that the monumental arts generated distinctive visual qualities particular to one place or another that helped to characterize sites undergoing significant growth. Those qualities conditioned the recognition of one site as “urban” vis-à-vis its neighbors, thus a stature or identity defined relationally.

Parthenay is an ideal case study for such an investigation. More of its eleventh- and twelfth-century structures survive than in perhaps any other French town. Thankfully (from my vantage point) the town faded from the spotlight in the early thirteenth century, never experiencing later medieval building booms that would have put its Romanesque treasures in peril. A good number of churches in the surrounding seigneurie and in neighboring urban centers also survive, offering important comparative evidence and the opportunity to draw a broader picture of urbanism in the region. The exceptional state of preservation of Parthenay and its environs clearly evinces the extraordinary richness and vitality of town-based activity in the Romanesque period, though historians do not usually acclaim the eleventh and twelfth centuries for their urban progress.

Indeed, the widespread loss of the period’s urban monuments has lulled many today into thinking of these centuries as a nonurban epoch, a historical moment remarkable primarily for its reclusive monasteries or majestic pilgrimage churches. Most scholars tend to treat urbanism and urban art as later medieval achievements, a view understandably nourished by our more generous historical knowledge of later medieval cities and of later artists’ and authors’ representations of cities (both real and imagined). At the mere evocation of the subject, our minds invariably conjure the image of a soaring Rayonnant cathedral or a sumptuously decorated royal palace, both commonly considered requisite of a medieval city. Later cities also best satisfy modern cravings for “typical” medieval institutions, such as guilds, a rising bourgeoisie, secular art patronage, universities, and scholastic theory. Romantic visions of the Gothic popularized in the nineteenth century by, among others, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Victor Hugo continue to inspire our imagination as well. We tend to condense centuries of historical differences into one grand, idealized city, allowing a later medieval metropolis like Gothic Paris to represent urbanism in the Middle Ages.

Consciously or not, this prejudice overlooks smaller centers that in fact constituted the majority of urban sites (that is, if by “urban” we do not limit ourselves to a description of only the largest or most densely populated sites). It diminishes—one might even say effaces—the urban context of art production in earlier periods. Urbanization was not unique to the later Middle Ages or to metropolitan or royal cities, with their cathedrals and palaces. On the contrary, the majority of men, women, and children in the Middle Ages lived outside the great cities and settled instead in smaller towns and villages. The Perceval poet’s emphasis on walls, towers, and the castle (all surrounded by meticulously cultivated lands and forbidding forests that evoke the rural quality of this period’s landscape) identify his city as a fortified agglomeration of the sort that most characterized feudal Europe, namely the castle town. The startling emergence during the eleventh and twelfth centuries of hundreds of such towns dramatically transformed Europe and fundamentally altered medieval societies. Without such a precedent, the later medieval city would not be imaginable.

The year 1000 marked the turning point in this development. Across the continent, in unprecedented numbers, the widely dispersed rural populations began clustering together, some in small rural vici, or hamlets, others in oppida and burgi, or towns and boroughs, and still others in the great cities, or civitates. The civitates, survivors of Gallo-Roman civic culture, continued as administrative centers through the early Middle Ages. Early clerics adopted them for diocesan administration, seats of their bishoprics, while kings, dukes, and counts exploited civitates for political capitals. What was new around 1000, however, was the increasing number of substantial settlements dotting the countryside. Although almost always secondary in rank and population to the ancient civitates, these new towns filled in the geographical voids between the often widely spaced metropolitan and princely cities. Whether grouped around a castle, a parish church, or a monastery, new population clusters and their accompanying cultural activity replaced the dissipated demography of the ninth and tenth centuries.

Parthenay stands as a classic example of this phenomenon. Castle towns like Parthenay became ubiquitous in the urbanization movement around and after the year 1000. So common were they that historians regard them as a particular “type” of agglomeration, with predictable features and growth patterns. A castle town, viewed within an urban historian’s taxonomy, follows model stages of development, and one can reasonably diagram its evolution from a castrum (castle) to an oppidum (town) and urban center. The presence of a market, an extramural borough or two, various trades worked by craftsmen, and certain legal rights are all—in the vocabulary of urban historians—notches on the yardstick by which growth is measured. The gradual rise of Parthenay and other towns shortly after 1000 has, for many historians, come to symptomize the feudal “revolution,” a marker of the passage from the Carolingian era to a new epoch. This moment signals the beginning, or the rebirth, of the long narrative of European urban development that continues today.

When making such assessments, however, historians all too easily ignore a town’s visual appearance. There is a tendency to consider growth along the disciplinary models devised by urban specialists, namely geographers, economic historians, sociologists, and so on. Each field has its own criteria for defining cities and towns, as well as its own methodologies for analyzing elements of urban society. Art historians, however, have been more reticent to weigh in on discussions regarding the conception, definition, and evolution of urban patterns. Art history’s traditional concerns for the physicality and the prolix meaning of objects should, however, counterbalance other disciplines’ concerns. For example, in the language of urban historians, the changing morphology of the town reveals the essential traits of urban existence. From the plan alone one can investigate the town’s constitutive units (e.g., of habitation, commerce, jurisprudence) and thus offer hypotheses on the empirical growth of the town. But viewed another way, the urban historian’s city plan is little more than a shadowy trace of actual urban construction: a plan reduces the details of a structure’s elevation, decoration, and style to mere line. A productive avenue of inquiry would be to address a town’s three-dimensional features, not collapsed to the sheet of a plan but considered as monuments in space and constituents of an expanded visual discourse. At Parthenay, the arcaded church facades, towering town gates, and sculptures of biblical rulership all cast a particular stamp on the town’s image. Urban history, when rewritten in the vocabulary of art history, would consider the visual impact of monuments in shaping the urban landscape.

The mere insertion of art-historical methodologies into scholarly discussions on the trajectory of urban growth is not my objective. To do so would construe monumental sculpture and architecture as a simple reflection of the town’s evolution and, more specifically, as the result of other more putatively determinant factors (e.g., economic or political forces). Such an approach would deny the authority of images in shaping the topography and, moreover, their importance in generating meanings that structure the town’s identity—what it was and what it would become.

My concern, therefore, is to write a history (rather than the history) of a single town as told through its monumental art. How did the introduction at Parthenay of ten churches over time—with their elaborate sculptural programs consisting of Apocalyptic visions, royal equestrian figures, a panoply of sins and vices, and a menagerie of beasts—shape the town’s rise from a castrum to a regional center? How did the monumental sculpture and architecture in the extramural boroughs impact the intramural urbanization, and what does such an interrelationship suggest about urban spatial organization? How did the monumental arts define Parthenay’s place in the urban transformations unfolding across feudal Aquitaine? More broadly, what defines a town in the central Middle Ages? What is the role of church building and art making in the construction of town life, town identity, and local power in early urban societies? In answering these questions, I will argue that the array of visual elements helped define Parthenay as a specifically urban entity.

By identifying the monumental arts as signal elements that shaped the social and political relationships within the early urban environment, this book aims to broaden the terms of urban history. I contend that the forging of built space was central to a town’s cultural economy, for it is through monumental sculpture and architecture that Parthenay laid claim to town status. Parthenay’s building campaigns responded to—or, more appropriately, were in dialogue with—the building campaigns in other nearby towns, both ancient, heavily patinaed civitates and freshly minted castle towns. Both types mutually participated in an ongoing construction of the terms of urbanism and town status: on a landscape under constant transformation, urban discourse was perpetually under construction. Close analysis of the monumental arts brings to the fore the material inscription of this ever-changing dialogue, built layer upon layer over time on the urban palimpsest.

What is more, the ideology of urban growth intersected and at times collided with concurrent political and social discourses. Urbanism assured its lords, as the following chapters argue, access to privileged seigneurial relations, fueled their courtly aspirations, and accredited them with noble heritage that was otherwise foreign to their social rank. Castle towns gave their lords a foothold on an otherwise exclusive social landscape, and, once held firmly, the upstart castellans gradually managed to upend the hierarchies of that very landscape. They managed to inscribe their personal and familial history in local cultural traditions even though they, like their new castles intruding on territories at first occupied only by ancient civitates, enjoyed no venerable authority. Constructing an urban environment was for these castellans paramount to claiming (and often inventing) their own past. These myriad ideological strains—social, political, religious—met and found expression in the medieval urban environment. Close study of these discourses demands a reassessment of our very notions of what defines a medieval town and medieval urbanism.

“I have no idea why this place is not called a city [civitas],” remarked the astute civic chronicler Gregory of Tours (d. 604) upon visiting Dijon. With this simple declaration, Gregory put his finger on the problem of defining a city, no less thorny then than now. What does “city” mean, and what ideas does that term convey? How is it different from a town? How do the built elements structure conceptions of urban status? In Gregory’s case, the impressive skyline at Dijon predisposed him to call it a civitas: he observed Dijon’s great size and evident wealth, and, after noting the rings of walls, he tallied the gateways (four) and towers (thirty-three) of the imposing fortifications. Dijon seemed grand enough and large enough to merit the term civitas more than any other, such as villa or vicus, both of which implied a settlement of reduced size and often one largely agricultural in occupation. But since civitas was usually applied only to seats of bishops and archbishops and Gregory knew that there was no bishop at Dijon, he was perplexed. What he saw of the masonry fortifications and buildings contradicted what he knew of the place’s ecclesiastical rank, which, furthermore, contradicted the term he felt inclined to employ. Clearly, certain elements conveyed the sense of a city to Gregory, even though the words failed him.

The episode speaks to one of this book’s central concerns, namely defining “urbanism.” Terminology alone is inadequate, no matter what term one employs, and in reeling off the most eye-catching traits of Dijon’s skyline, Gregory was getting at something else: urbanism existed as a powerful idea. The built topography, as the following chapters demonstrate, was central to that idea and worked forcefully to define what a city or town could, or should, be. The urban idea, of course, was not restricted to the actual space or physiognomy of towns, with little extension beyond the world of landholders and masons; notions of “urbanness” bore on a range of social and political practices. Even the image that one formed of “urbanness” was not based solely on the skyline or grid of streets and alleys. Perceptions resulted from urban imagery on diplomatic seals, poetic descriptions in romance literature, or a town’s name stamped on currency, as much as from towering fortifications and market squares. More than ashlar and mortar, the idea of urbanism behaved within the broader cultural formation of the period and occupied a crucial place in the cultural imaginary. This book’s pursuit of an “anthropology” of urbanism through its images, real and imagined, thus necessarily draws upon the various cultural strains that made up that urban notion. These strains sometimes overlapped but at other times resisted one another, producing contradictory conceptions that nonetheless still offer comment on how the urban idea operated culturally. From this point of view, one could say that Gregory’s confusion and consternation reveal something far more interesting about contemporary urbanism than the lexical accuracy of the terms at his disposal.

Defining a city is no less fraught today than it was in Gregory’s time, and part of this problem is historiographical in nature. It is fair to say that a certain disciplinary shortsightedness has long fractured the modern study of towns. In fact, there are probably as many definitions for “city” and “town” as there are disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Each academic tradition has its own view of what makes a city or town, what sustains it, and what sends it into decline. When the medieval city first attracted the attention of scholars, for example, it did so within a philosophical context, and some of the greatest thinkers of the modern and early modern eras identified medieval urbanism as the linchpin of European civilization. For the eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, the medieval city’s progress in commercial organization was a sign of a new era, one whose “dispositions [constitutions, Verfassungen] first gave the public Spirit room to breathe.” Karl Marx, too, romanticized the early medieval city, arguing that it favored the contented urban artisan, responsible for his own production; it was only later that the burgher classes of Gothic cities spurred on the exploitation of surpluses, leading early modern Europe into a capitalist society. In the view of the sociologist Max Weber, the medieval city was a microcosm of social behavior, a space in which human interaction conditioned the makeup of governing social institutions. Even urban historians of the twentieth century were prone to caricaturizing the Middle Ages to meet their expectations of premodern society. For example, Lewis Mumford’s discussion of medieval urbanism, in which the monastery was a type of ideal planned community, can be read now in hindsight as a wistful spin of modernist ideology.

The medieval city has not been simply a foil for theories of the origins of contemporary civilization. Specialists of the Middle Ages likewise have offered definitions and theories of urban movements occurring in various periods and places. Specialist research, however, has hardly led to unanimity, and a range of definitions for “city,” “town,” and “urbanism” persist along disciplinary lines.

Inspired by the compelling thesis of Henri Pirenne developed in the 1920s and 1930s, the search for economic criteria has been foremost among these approaches. Pirenne argued that cities, since they were market based, went into decline when the warfare and instability of the late antique and early medieval periods suffocated long-distance trade. Accordingly, cities rose again only after the threat of Muslim control of the Mediterranean subsided in the late ninth century and international trade could resume. For Pirenne, the market made the town, and when the commerce took on an international flavor, the place achieved true urban, or city, status. Many historians now disagree with the Pirenne thesis, and new research, especially in archaeology, demonstrates the continued vitality of communities of all shapes and sizes throughout the so-called Dark Ages. Still, economic debates continue to dominate discussions of urban formation and classification. Of late, local markets (instead of long-distance relations) and local manufacture of goods have been the new focus. This research, though offering a corrective to Pirenne’s thesis, continues the economic orientation of much urban study.

The cultural and political institutions that gave rise to cities or towns, rather than economics, have preoccupied other historians. They argue that the accumulation of certain rights, such as franchises or royal charters of incorporation, effectively demarcated “urban” from “nonurban.” From this vantage point, the urban condition was essentially a juridical designation. Yet for other institutional scholars the increasing specialization of classes and social hierarchies—the presence of a burgher class or an intellectual class or guilds or mendicant communities, for example—elevated a town to the status of a city. On the other hand, historians of urban geography tend to take many of these varied definitions into consideration, along with data of population growth and land use, as they analyze the various units that contribute to topographic growth.

One consequence of such differing conceptions of town formation is that the criteria proffered by one discipline often contradict those of another. A town with walls and a fortress does not qualify as a city, according to some scholars, until it possesses a market. According to others, however, even with a market or rights to regional fairs, a walled town is not considered a city unless it also offers communal liberties or contains diversified social organizations. Given such requirements, it is not difficult to understand why, for many scholars, medieval urbanism did not truly begin until the thirteenth century, when a good number of these elements coalesced and the medieval urban experience appeared closer to our own. On the other hand, these same criteria leave out the vast majority of built sites in the central Middle Ages, particularly the abundant castle towns like Parthenay, which have too few of these criteria to qualify in modern terms as “urban.”

Yet while the legal structures, economic activities, and ecclesiastical institutions overlap as constituent elements of a city, medieval urbanism is unquestionably also a consequence of the built environment. The development of organized space and architecture, as well as monumental arts and other artistic forms, participated fundamentally in the urban transformation. As a simple illustration, it is worth remembering that throughout the early Middle Ages timber was the primary building material in most villages and small towns. Large ashlar constructions were not introduced to towns on a wide scale until the tenth or early eleventh century, when gradually new stone churches, castles, and defenses replaced older timber structures. In Parthenay, for example, there is no evidence of any stone constructions before ca. 1050, yet at least three (perhaps four or even five) stone churches stood by 1100, perhaps along with a new masonry castle replacing an earlier wooden one. This implied important transformations, ranging from the new security and demographic stability afforded by the masonry constructions, the commitment of a host of craftsmen and exploitation of varied natural resources, and the gradual definition of urban spaces for the nobility, clergy, peasants, and poor. Art history’s methodologies compel investigation of the meaning of these material changes for a given society and, above all, focus attention on the formal appearance of the constructions, including their stylistic and iconographic characteristics. Art history, thus, offers other criteria for assessing urban culture and thereby augments and enriches the perspectives yielded by other disciplines.

The physical contours and monumental aspect, moreover, often bore on the very terminology employed for a built place. The specific nomenclature drew upon a site’s characterizing qualities, whether physical (e.g., defenses, as reflected in the designation castrum), religious (civitas, burgus monasteri), or occupational (an agricultural villa). These different names implied fairly finite expectations of the site’s general appearance while taking into account other constituent elements. Even those designations that putatively reflect a place’s religious or occupational status also conjure an image of the site’s physical qualities, indicating, for example, at a burgus monasteri the presence of walls or other enclosures but the absence of a castle. And if a decisive topographic feature changed, then so might the appellation: the Merovingian chronicler Fredegarius wrote of King Rother’s insistence that when the walls of a civitas were destroyed, the town had to be called a vicus (unfortified settlement) from that time forward.

Nomenclature based on origin, constitution, or appearance could thus be a powerful means of urban definition, but one not reliably understood by all. Studies of a range of sources and literary contexts indicate that the usage of these terms was considerably fluid. For some medieval authors, for example, castrum denoted the entire fortified agglomeration encircling a castle, while its diminutive form castellum signified just the castle itself; for other authors, this relationship was reversed, and for still others the two were simply interchangeable. Knowing just what an author meant or what aspect of a given site predominated and thus determined the appropriateness of one name over another remains difficult. The expectation conveyed by a name could find itself contradicted by the observed reality, as Gregory of Tours discovered. Cassiodorus (d. 580?) similarly evoked the conundrum of definitions when he viewed a large, flourishing city. Unable to understand why it lacked walls and proper defenses, he rhetorically asked if he should call it a “ruralized city” or an “urban rurality.” More than a verbal quandary, naming had much to do with conveying ideas associated with urban qualities and observers’ expectations.

Over the centuries these were as much visual as anything else, although in the early medieval period those ideas had still to overcome a more deep-seated tradition: most early authors were still steeped in the classical notion of the Greek polis, with its emphasis on the community of men rather than on place or built environment. This attitude was given its most important—and certainly most lasting—definition by Augustine (d. 430). City of God, a monumental and prolix meditation on religious belief in fifth-century (urban) life, sweeps aside the material qualities of the city, including the architecture itself, to vaunt the bonds between men. Two hundred years later, Isidore of Seville (d. 636) perpetuated this view when he defined a city as “made not of stones but of men.” Isidore’s formulation was one of the most often repeated, turning up nearly verbatim in a variety of later works, such Rabanus Maurus’s (d. 856?) encyclopedic work De universo. These later writers, however, were confronting jumbled cityscapes that no longer jibed with ancient traditions. They clung to the classical polis even though the cities and people before their eyes had little in common with that ideal. In this regard it is worth noting that when Rabanus’s text was copied at Montecassino two centuries later, in 1023, and embellished with illuminations, one accompanying image showed the so-called community of men to be just two pairs of figures lodged in an extravagant masonry jumble of walls, towers, and public buildings (fig. 1). While made of men, the city, in this representation, was a constructed place, its built features dwarfing the inhabitants. The illustration hints that for some medieval minds built space had gained ground over the classical, anthropocentric definition.

The Montecassino illustration brings us closer—both chronologically and conceptually—to the central issue of this book, namely the contribution of the monumental arts to the idea of urbanism in medieval Aquitaine. Indeed, it was only in the years around 1000 that the construction of walls, gates, palaces, parish churches, and abbeys enjoyed a widespread efflorescence not seen since the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The notion of just what a city was or could mean was evolving, adapting to the appearance of newfangled towns and cities, many of whose built features began to look less and less like their polis or urbes forebears. The legal, economic, or demographic traits are of course important to modern discussions of medieval urbanism; but a new way of thinking about cities and towns is required, one that takes into consideration how visual codes and visual polemics helped define urbanization and shape the urban field of cultural formation. Far from being merely accessory to “proper” history’s march, the monumental arts contributed fundamentally to an urban idea.

How, then, to study the architecture and sculpture of an entire town over a two-hundred-year period, a town with only a fragmentary monumental record and relatively few contemporary documents? Scholarship on artistic production in urban contexts has generally focused on later periods or environments for which copious textual resources can corroborate art-historical observations. Castle towns like Parthenay, however, were not necessarily places of significant textual production, benefiting neither from episcopal or princely notarial bureaucracies nor from a significant abbey serving as a diplomatic repository. Given the lack of textual information, but also the quite different social stature of a castle town, it would be unreasonable to pose the kind of questions most frequently raised for metropolitan or princely cities. In addition, not all of Parthenay’s edifices display equivalent artistic production; the Spartan decoration and foliate motifs of the eleventh century, for example, pale in comparison to the iconographically rich portals of the twelfth century. The methodology used in studying a castle town like Parthenay, therefore, needs to respond to the available data and, at the same time, to adapt to the town’s changing artistic contours.

This kind of investigation also requires modifying some of the traditional methods and categories that have shaped the study of medieval art and especially architecture. Art-historical projects, for example, usually take as their subject a single work or family of works associated stylistically or united by a common patron or a shared iconographic theme. Such studies may explore the depth of these affinities, relating them to other artistic currents or tendencies, or they may even disprove and dismantle them. A town, however, is not so easily dissectible or so easily sundered into discrete entities that permit investigation according to a particular style or motif; if one were to isolate for study a single style or architectural type found in a town, some works would be left out. The appearance of unexpected styles, ruptures and stoppages in building programs, and renovations made to update earlier structures all characterize the artistic contribution to urban development. A town signifies much more than the sum of its individual parts, so in this book tangible (though mutable) topographical limits, rather than a family of styles or motifs, determine the study’s parameters. In addition, the typical scholarly aim of locating a work in its original context meets certain difficulties in a townwide study. When the subject is a town, the context is ever changing. Each edifice, iconographic ensemble, portal, and style takes its place in a landscape already populated by other standing urban constructions, and each of these, in turn, like every successive construction, modifies the landscape for the next arriving element. Context, especially in such urban matters, is both elusive and allusive.

With this said, the study of a town also presents a number of special methodological possibilities. Monumental urban production, after all, is an event, an ongoing process. A town and its significations are perpetually under construction: change, rather than stasis or a teleological endpoint, constitutes the urban condition. Some scholarship working in this vein has therefore opted to treat the city as a text to be read or, more accurately, as several texts layered upon one another over time. In this formulation, developed in a range of disciplines from semiotics to historical geography, the city is equivalent to so many collapsed layers of cultural sediment. Removing the layers, examining them one at a time to discover the original disposition of each, allows an appreciation of the accumulated effect of time. In the discipline of art history, students of iconography have proceeded along similar lines, interpreting urban codes as symbols of larger institutional or intellectual ideas. Some practitioners of this approach, including Wolfgang Braunfels, the author of several seminal studies, considered cities and towns as built repositories of cultural symbols. For Braunfels the urban signs were not only transparent but thoroughly predictable: “Every meaningful city represents a political system,” he wrote. “Visible in each city is who rules it and how it is ruled.”

Recent critiques of the iconographic method question this assumption of legibility. Some have recognized that the material culture and symbols of a past society are not innocently encoded but constitute ideologically motivated discourses. Those discourses overlap in a complex texture of associations whose relations are not always apparent. The city fabric indeed often dissimulates certain voices, beliefs, and rites that nonetheless existed in the urban field. The contributions of other disciplines have thus helped to expand our expectations of what kinds of histories the urban palimpsest might tell us. Newer inquiries have considered the relational quality of actions, objects, and time over the course of a city’s development. If the city is still a text, one must examine the texture of that text—or, better, the variable depths of its layers.

At the core of such an outlook is the belief that urbanism, including the production of urban space itself, is a process. The relations among urban elements, their builders, their users (e.g., varied social groups), ideologies, and time all shape the emergence of city patterns. These patterns always remain in dialogue with one another and thereby may affect or deflect one pattern’s trajectory or another. The work of the sociologist Henri Lefebvre, to cite but one example of this type of research, is well known even to nonspecialists, and scholars in other fields—from landscape studies to archaeology—are making similar assessments. This research demonstrates that various environmental elements have an effect on the further production of the built environment, as well as one’s conception of and relation to it. To the extent that it is possible, then, one may concentrate less on what an object in the urban environment means than how it means, how its various formal qualities produce an effect on observers and on other objects that come to take their place within its field. Such an approach, unlike earlier iconography-oriented studies of urbanism, implicitly acknowledges the variability of meaning and encourages not simply the reading of the urban palimpsest but its deconstruction.

For art historians, defining the urban environment as a process reminds us that individual monuments, too, are events in their own right. As sites of construction, they have histories, which in the form of shared masons, materials, or artistic ideas, intersect with those of other buildings simultaneously under construction. Monuments also rose to completion while in dialogue with already completed edifices, echoing the forms of older ones or rejecting them, in part or altogether. Charting the appearance and disappearance of styles and motifs over time, discerning and interpreting the dialogue between contemporary and noncontemporary elements, is essential for understanding the materiality of urban discourse. This allows one to determine not only how meanings were generated but even how these transformations themselves—the active processes of change—signified urbanization and conveyed to observers a historical experience of urban growth. At Parthenay, this self-signifying aspect is particularly evident in the imagery and building styles of the later twelfth-century constructions, which offer commentary on the town’s very own building history.

The chapters that follow attend to this dual consideration. Close study of each monument—the circumstances of its foundation, construction, style, and iconography—permits investigation of that structure’s formal appearance and its place within artistic currents of that particular moment. That research lays the groundwork for pursuing then a comprehensive diachronic study of the urban field, with its succession of monuments and evolving spatial tactics. This dual perspective yields an understanding of a monument’s importance at the time of its appearance in the urban topography, as well as an appreciation of its changing meaning as the topography subsequently evolves. Those changes in topography, however, also represented shifts and realignments in the contours of urban discourse itself. The transformation of the landscape inflected notions of feudal power, local identity, and family history as constructed through the urban field, and along the way shaped the understanding of what constituted “urban” existence. As the environment changed, so did the discursive construction of urbanism.

Following Chapter 1, an introduction to Parthenay’s layout and Aquitaine’s urban profile in the years around 1000, the chapters proceed chronologically, each looking at various stages of Parthenay’s growth. Those addressing the earliest period, Chapters 2 and 3, look primarily to the archaeological and documentary records of settlement, permitting a general reconstruction of Parthenay’s eleventh-century appearance. Chapter 2 also considers the town’s development in relation to urbanization patterns elsewhere in Aquitaine. The settlement and organization of several new boroughs, with perhaps as many as four or five churches built before the end of the century, including the largest imitation of the Holy Sepulcher ever built in western Europe, engaged Parthenay in an urban discourse propelled by the feverish building activities of more powerful elites nearby. Chapter 3 turns more closely to the surviving architectural and sculptural elements to evaluate this dialogue on art-historical terms. Parthenay’s earliest constructions reiterated forms and styles favored by the counts and dukes of Aquitaine for their own projects. At the end of the century, however, changes in Parthenay’s monumental appearance signaled a shift away from the models established by the elite rulers to a discourse centered on the local production of Aquitaine’s small-time lords.

By the early twelfth century, the focus of Chapter 4, Parthenay’s urban growth looked less to outside models than to internal ones. The town had acquired status as a center of monumental stone production, not to mention of political power and mercantilist influence. Against this backdrop, Parthenay’s own patterns of urban construction significantly found an echo in the surrounding towns of its own seigneurie. I argue that these constructions demarcated a kind of “artistic domain” and consequently confirmed Parthenay as a specific center of artistic production, conferring a kind of urban status. This status as a distinct “urban” entity finds confirmation in another medium: the town’s monumental arts had become so important that the seigneurial family adopted and appropriated symbols of the churches for its own personal seals.

The conflation of urban and personal identity in the twelfth century ran deeper still, as Chapter 5 illustrates. Looking again to personal seals but also to coins, as well as invented genealogies and mythic legends, this chapter establishes how personal constructions of identity were closely associated with urban structures. In the evolving urban discourse, issues such as rulership, seigneurial legitimacy, and family history mixed without distinction. Chapter 6 continues this inquiry by turning to the facade sculptures of one church to explore how specific images could be woven into those concerns. The iconographic examples show how the discursive layers described in Chapter 5 came to achieve a kind of ideological sublime: the city ultimately became a sign of itself, a symbol of its own building history. The town not only came to symbolize “urbanness” but also invented its own urban history, relating its own processes of becoming an urban entity.

Throughout the twelfth century, Parthenay’s lords drew upon myths of construction and legends of fantastic ancestry to fabricate their personas against the backdrop of the town. By the start of the thirteenth century, however, these histories resonated differently in contemporary society. Chapter 7 demonstrates that, as persuasive and effective as those aggrandizing myths were in particularizing claims to seigneurial legitimacy, they gradually became important as vehicles of urban assimilation, assimilation into the larger horizons represented by the respective royal domains of England and France. This shift is evidenced as much in the building styles as in the new declension of the town’s topography, with socially segregated units responding to the changing regional landscape informed by Capetian interventions.

The relegation to the background of a locally spun urban discourse in favor of pan-regional royal perspectives at the start of the thirteenth century represented a movement common to towns across Aquitaine. Indeed this history outlined for Parthenay is quite like the urban developments of countless other castle towns across France, all partaking in the broader wave of urbanism unfurling after the year 1000. Castle towns shared many concerns, and the example provided by Parthenay sheds light on the broader implications of the urban movement. Not least among the shared concerns, and one that Parthenay illuminates as a core concern of urban discourse in the period, was the negotiation of the past. Cherished ancient traditions deeply marked the Aquitainian landscape, and the new towns that appeared around the year 1000 occupied an uncertain position within such a historicized horizon. New castellans discovered ways to legitimize and valorize of their own past and that of their towns, no matter how recent their confection may have been. Indeed, the invention of multiple pasts—which cobbled personal, familial, and town history to forge new urban traditions—emerges as a crucial consideration in this period’s urban movement. In the two centuries following the year 1000, building a town went hand in hand with an artful construction of history.