St. Denis: Stories of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Nik Pontasch / Dr. Sarah Jane Murray / French Art & Architecture / 10 February 2011

Stories of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

While stories of the martyrdom of Saint Denis are varied and incongruous, his place as one of the first important Christian figures in Paris has indubitably lasted into the modern era.  His quick veneration testifies his wide popularity in his time; and, when coupled with the construction of the formidable basilica in his honor, it is safe to say that his story and legacy have been successfully preserved, catching the attention of many a Christian pilgrim along the way.  While the enchantment of various legends surrounding him (most notably, that he was a cephalophore—a decapitated man, typically a saint, who carried his head posthumously as if he were alive) have added both to the mockery* and the mystique of Saint Denis, his role as a martyr is a sobering thought to consider.  This reveals—if nothing else—that Saint Denis was vocal enough about Christianity in its pre-Constantine stages to be considered a threat requiring extermination.  When Christianity came to prominence, his selfless act naturally lent itself to the church claiming to host his body.  His sacrifice, like many others, served as a rallying point for Christians, and has been depicted by various artists.  It also recalls a famous line:

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” –Tertullian

Saint Denis, the second figure from the right, stands side by side several other saints, head in hand.


It would not take long for the church to grow in power and stature in France, however, as revealed by the elaborate craftsmanship and reputation of the cathedral of Saint Denis.  What seemed especially interesting was the story of Hunus, a sixteen-year old monk who was buried at the church and identified by various obituaries as well as an inscription on his sarcophagus.  As the website points out, these clues reveal that Hunus “was born to noble parents. When the child was seven, they entrusted him to the abbey, in return for a donation of money or land, so that he would be educated by monks.”  The idea of royalty being educated in the monastery was apparently no astonishment, as the website goes on to say, “the reputation of the monastic school had been established since Charles Martel had his son Pepin educated there.”  Another specific example, recorded several hundred years after Hunus, comes specifically to mind.  In this other case—Marie de France’s lai, Le Fresne—it is, interestingly enough, a girl of noble birth who is “thrown” into the care of a monastery to be trained and practiced in skills suitable for a noblewoman in medieval Europe.

*A good example of mockery appears nowhere other than the official website, sporting a “Saint Denis has lost his head” interactive puzzle game, playable here:

The lai, written in the mid to late 1100’s, informs us of this bond between nobility and the church by its usage of the word meschine.  According to Bill Kibler in his book An Introduction to Old French, meschine, while “frequently translated too simply as ‘girl’ or ‘servant,’ often refers to a young girl of noble birth sent  (usually after the age of seven) to be raised and properly educated in the home of a nearby noble, sometimes on an exchange basis.  There she learned such skills as embroidery, weaving, conversation—and even reading—until she reached the marriageable age of thirteen or fourteen” (34).  Between Hunus, Pepin, and Le Fresne, the reputation of the church as a place for exchange, just as if not more desirable than another noble’s house, is clearly well-established.



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