Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages

By Frans Theuws; Janet L. Nelson | Go to book overview

CAROLINGIAN ROYAL FUNERALS*

Janet L. Nelson


1. Monarchic deaths and burials

The tombs of rulers, built to resist the ravages of time, often constitute the most imposing remains of historic cultures. Tombs conceived as statements of monarchic and dynastic legitimacy may survive as potent symbols of the continuity of states: official guides show visitors to modern China the magnificently refurbished tombs of the Ming emperors, and modern Egyptians take pride in the tombs of the pharoahs. While European state-builders have exploited similar resources, the tombs of monarchs are ambivalent symbols for republicans acting in the name of equality and fraternity. Successive decommissionings and recommissionings of monarchic tombs at St-Denis reflected the oscillations of French politics: in 1793, the royal bones were taken from their funerary monuments and thrown into a ditch, whence they were retrieved some years later at Napoleon's behest.1 The modern visitor to the crypt encounters a series of huge, black marble catafalques with elaborate inscriptions to the effect that the royal bones of each dynasty are within, en masse. In 1859, Violletle-Duc constructed, not far from the Bourbons' bones, a special new vault in which Napoleon III planned that his and his successors' remains would lie alongside those of his predecessors, the kings of France. After the Second Empire's collapse, the vault was discreetly dismantled. While Napoleon III's tomb is cared for, by Catholic monks, in exiled obscurity at Farnborough, Hampshire, that of his great-uncle is maintained by the French state not at St-Denis but at

* I should like to thank all my fellow-members of Group 5 for their helpful com-
ments. I am especially grateful to Frans Theuws and Mayke de Jong, to Julia Smith
(who joined the Group only when the preparation of the present volume was at a
fairly advanced stage), and to Stuart Airlie, for additional advice and criticism.

1 E.A.R. Brown, “Burying and Unburying the Kings of France”, Persons in Groups:
Social Bewhavioour as Identity Formation in Medieval and Renaissance Europe
, ed. R.C.
Trexler (Binghampton NY, 1985), pp. 241–266, repr. Brown, The Monarchy of Capet-
ian France and Royal Ceremonial
(London, 1991), ch. IX. In this chapter, I use St-
Denis (etc) to denote a religious institution, St Denis (etc) for the saint.

-131-

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