Saint-Jean-Des-Vignes in Soissons:Approaches to Its Architecture, Archaeology and History

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Saint-Jean-des-Vignes in Soissons:Approaches to its Architecture, Archaeology and History. Edited by Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines. [Bibliotheca Victorina, Vol. XV.] (Turnhout: Brepols. 2003. Pp. 568; 85 b&w figs. euro120.)

This substantial volume is both a monograph on a little-studied Augustinian monastery in northern France and a broader study of the institutional and material history of several comparable houses in the region. It summarizes their fortunes from the eleventh through the seventeenth century in a useful Appendix (pp. 457-473). Architectural historians have not focused on canonial sites to the same extent as on Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, though the subject is important (p. 19). The present study goes far in redressing the balance, despite the lacunae caused by the ruined state of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes.

The editors, who actually wrote all the chapters except four in which they collaborated with Edward Boyden or Katherine Jackson-Lualdi, are drawing upon two decades of excavation and archival work. They have examined the stonework that remains above ground, including the twin-towered façade which is one of the most spectacular Gothic ruins seen anywhere (figs. 37-45), the refectory (figs. 54-63), and an almost complete fourteenth-century fortification wall. They have also sought the foundations of an eleventh-century church and every sign of deconstruction and construction since, including capitals and piers from the Romanesque church that were re-used in the Gothic structure (p. 179, figs. 35-36). With the help of the cartulary and nineteenth-century drawings of the monastery before serious dilapidation, they are able to trace changes to the fabric that were an almost continuous process.

Emphasis on this continuity is a hall-mark of their approach, as is the recognition of all parts of the complex, including a rare thirteenth-century siphon-driven aqueduct that brought water to the abbey from a spring on Mont Sainte-Geneviève two kilometers away (chap. 9, figs. 73-79). Minute observation of the way stones are worked and foundations laid are never redundant; the authors use them to bring the reader into dialogue with the medieval engineers and masons, though without personifying them as Master This and Master That. …