Our postcard match today is Rue Saint Romain, in Rouen. Despite many years and renovations the view is clearly recognisable, cherished by Rouen as a precious, historic highway.
This street is named for one of Rouen’s more exciting saints. Saint Romain was a seventh century hero famous for battling lasciviousness, pagans and a rather unpleasant dragon. In those days Normandy was very much troubled by dragons.
To tell the legend we are delighted to introduce guest blogger Frederic G. Stephens, who heard the story during his visit to Normandy sometime in the 1860’s. He then shared it in his excellent book ‘Normandy, its Gothic architecture and history’ published in 1865.
Frederic came across the legend when learning about a unique ‘privilege’ held by the the cathedral of Rouen; the right to pardon one convicted criminal, during Lent, every year.
Over to Frederic.
Saint Romain and La Gargouille
The legend of this ‘privilege’ contains a noble tale.
The neighbourhood of Rouen had been for years infested by a horrible dragon they called La Gargouille, who ate the young women and children, and killed more men than he could eat.
His damage to cornfields was like that of a great army, for he thought nothing of flapping his vast wings, the wind of which would lay a crop level with the earth as if a storm had passed over it. He leaned against trees and they broke off short at the roots. He rubbed himself against a church, and spire and tower came tumbling down.
La Gargouille lay across the Seine, and damned the river so that the city was flooded. He cast offensive things over the walls. He worried the workmen so grievously that they dared not carve on the tower they were building – which is why that part of the cathedral has no carvings on it.
He chased the acolytes of the saint along the roads, and left nothing but the Leper’s Hospital on the Mont Malade untouched.
Enough is medievally enough!
At length Saint Romain, his own acolytes being meddled with, saw that it was time to interpose. He was not inclined to go alone to the monster’s den, although he desired to show how easily a saint deals with dragons. But no-one would go with him on this quest, all stood out, some on one pretence, some on another.
At last a condemned criminal was induced to go, on promise of his life if the dragon spared it. There was a chance at least, and rascal as the fellow was he evidently had more faith in the Archbishop than any of his fellow-citizens possessed.
The pair sallied out together, Saint Romain conscious of the importance of the event, the criminal inspirited by the fresh air and hope.
The affair was soon over. The sainted Archbishop made the sign of the cross over the monster, tied his stole round its neck, and led it into the city. There the legend leaves him, a guest difficult to dispose of.
Gratitude and redemption, annually
In gratitude for the attention of his companion, Saint Romain stipulated that every future year, on the fete of the Ascension, his cathedral Chapter should have the privilege of redeeming a criminal, not a traitor, from death.
The way in which the selection was made was as follows: The Chapter’s agents heard the confessions of all the condemned culprits, wrote them down and laid them before their superiors, who determined as to the person to be saved, and named him to the Parlement, which assembled for the purpose. The man chosen was produced to the assembly with many ceremonies and conducted to the Old Tower – part of the palace of the Norman Dukes. There the convict was admonished by the Archbishop, and thence led to the cathedral, bearing a garland on his head and the shrine of Saint Romain in his hand, until he reached the high altar, where he deposited the shrine.
A mass was then performed and, after serious exhortation, the redeemed man was led to the boundary of the city and released, not without provision for his temporary wants.
Frederic G. Stephens, 1865
Of course Rouen was hugely grateful to Saint Romain and kept him in mind when naming future streets and towers. But there is a postscript to this tale that our good friend Frederic appears unaware:
The death of a dragon, the birth of the gargoyle
In some versions of the legend, La Gargouille was tied up to a stake and burned (quite likely, as Joan of Arc would confirm stake-burning was a habit of the Rouennaise), but his head refused to burn. So they threw ashes from his body into the Seine and hung his gruesome head up on the cathedral as a reminder of the power of god.
Then it rained, a lot. Water gushed down the roof, into La Gargouille’s hideous head and out of his mouth away from the building. This inspired a passing medieval architect and the architectural Gargoyle was born, protecting church masonry from rainwater ever since.
Read more from Normandy, it’s Gothic Architecture and History on Archive.org