The Expansion of the French Idea

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THE "French miracle" was such a miracle indeed, that it stupefied the people of the cities and compelled the poor of the countryside to come as often as they were able to see, rising higher every year above the slopes of the tiled roofs and the sharp gables, the blue and gold embroidery of the painted stones, the blood of the stained glass glowing in the light, and the massive or tapering sweep of the towers and the spires that vibrated with the throb of the bronze. Their work done, the masons and image makers looked upon it with as much astonishment as if they had come from the other end of the world to view it. Each one had labored in his workshop, had made fast a window, had cut a statue, or erected his wall—stone on stone; each one had seen only a leaf or a blade of grass in the forest; many had died, even, without raising their eyes from the bud that had grown under their hands, from the fruit whose ripening they had guarded and not always had the time to gather. And now that the scaffolding was removed, and the trestles were torn down, here were tall, solemn vaults, rays of light in cataracts, a slender mountain of columns and statues filling the familiar heavens. Whence came this formidable unity in which the presence of faith, of hope, of the living god who dwelt in the heart of the crowds affirmed itself without anyone, not even the master builder who had made the plan for the edifice, dreaming of expressing it? Not one of them knew that it pre-existed in him, not one of them knew that his own humility and his neighbor's and his own weakness and his neighbor's—proceeding in the same direction, at the same pace, and with the same rhythm—were fusing more and more each day to bring forth the huge, anonymous power which should burst upon history as the highest manifestation of collective idealism. When they turned to view their work not one of them remembered that he had set his hand to it, but they knew that that way was paradise.

And so people came from the country, and even from a greater distance. They came to see, they came to take lessons, they came to ask the master builders to cross the sea or the mountains at the expense of the rich cities, all of which wanted to have the most beautiful church or the highest rampart. For two centuries, moreover, France had been the great hearth of the Occident. Through the Normans, it had conquered Sicily and England; under the ingenuous and powerfully stimulating pretext of delivering the Holy Sepulcher, it was incessantly sending forth colonizing expeditions to the Orient, covering Syria, Greece, and the islands with French settlements, and attempting to occupy Egypt and northern Africa. French barons were wearing the crowns of Athens, of Constantinople, of Cyprus, and of Jerusalem. There emanated from the French soul that energy for expansion which permitted it each year, at a hundred points in France, to dig canals, to build bridges, aqueducts, and fountains, to open hospitals and schools, and to hang the pointed vaults, in majestic flight, a hundred feet from the soil. As it was to teach the world, five hundred years later, that the revelation of monarchy was outlived, so it ingenuously and joyously denounced theological revelation by sowing action, life, experience, and liberty everywhere.

Where the military men were unable to gain an entrance, thought still would penetrate by means of the merchants and the artists. On all the rivers of Europe, boats were carrying the material and the thought of the West. French romances sped all over the world. Almost all the heads of the foreign universities had passed through the University of Paris, where the nations maintained permanent colleges. Philippe Chinard, the French master builder, followed Frederick II everywhere. Charles of Anjou had called another, Pierre d'Angicourt, to Sicily. St. Louis, prisoner of the Saracens and spiritual king of the earth, was accompanied to Palestine by Eudes de Montereau, who fortified Jaffa. After the great Guillaume de Sens had broken his legs by a fall from the scaffolding in the nave of Canterbury, a hundred others had answered the call from foreign communes or vestry boards. Martin Ragevy and Villard de Honnecourt built churches in distant parts of Hungary. Companies of masons left for Germany. A master builder of Troyes built the temples, convents, castles, and commanderies of Cyprus. Mathieu d'Arras, who made the plans for the cathedral and the bridge of Prague, came from Avignon. The greater part of the Spanish cities, in the fourteenth century, called in French architects. Others went as far as Poland, and even Finland. The Benedictines, the Dominicans, and the Cistercians, above all, founded houses and orders that spread the vital thought over Europe. The Order of the Templars, the Order of Calatrava, and the Teutonic Order spread with a continuous activity in which, from one end of Christendom to the other, men recognized for an hour their sole and puissant hope. The great moral unity of Catholicism everywhere took on the appearance which the social idealism of the French communes irresistibly imposed on it.

Almost everywhere, at least in the beginning, the master builders would bring a first plan inspired by Amiens, or Rheims, or Chartres, or Notre Dame, or Beauvais. But the building of a cathedral often went on for two or three centuries, native architects succeeded the French masters, the masons, and image makers, who were recruited in increasing numbers from the local corporations, took root in their soil. The sky and its sun and its clouds, the surrounding plain, the bare or woody mountain that rose at the gates of the city and the age-old forces established in the race by the regime of the seasons, by the nature of the work done in the country, its trade, peace, war, and food—all took form, little by little, in the profile of the naves and of the towers, in the disposition of the bays, in the transparence of the stained glass, and in the projections which distributed light and shadow on the front of the monuments. But the fact that the style was originally a borrowed one was always a drawback to the work; never, or hardly ever, did any town or country again have the impulse from which, for an hour, there issued forth the spontaneous agreement of the French crowd with the enthusiastic creation and the logic of the artisans who expressed it.

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