A good historian, like a good scientist, needs imagination as well as an ability to store facts. Not to make up our history but to see connections others miss to explain the purpose of a found object or give insight to an event. They do not always get it right. Let us tell you the story of the ‘Lit de Justice’ from the Manoir d’Argentelles…
It is 1844 and our first historians have already spent weeks in the Orne, a place chock full of adorable architecture, when they came across the 15th century Manoir d’Argentelles.
Antiquary Léon de la Sicotière is touring the region for a book ‘Le département de l’Orne, archéologique et pittoresque’ due for publication in 1845. The book will set him up nicely as a local expert. Very handy for business. He is accompanied by colleague Auguste Poulet-Malassis and draftsman Dieudonné-Auguste Lancelot.
Unremarkable except for…
Hard to believe but by the time they had staggered down miles of muddy lanes to see yet another medieval marvel, they were immune to the elegant simplicity of Manoir d’Argentelles’ high walls and nicely proportioned pointy turrets.
They were even underwhelmed by the ornate 1632 (or 1639) windows added to the front added by a forbear at great expense. They described the whole thing as ‘unremarkable’! The interior they said was ‘poorly distributed, poorly lit and somewhat roomy’.
The manor had been inherited by Léon Alexandre and Clémence Geoffroy, Comte and Comtesse de Charnois in 1841, who lived at the distinctly grander and less draughty Château de la Trinité des Laitiers a few km away.
Our explorers did find something inside the building to admire, and rightly so. Leaning against a wall were large oak panels carved with exquisite skill.
Sadly our translation skills are not up to French 19th century expressions of surprise and delight, but they probably said something along the lines of ‘I say! Lick my eye, that’s a wild bit of wood whittling what!’
Sicotière‘s draftsman, Dieudonné-Auguste Lancelot got to work capturing their discovery, carefully adding himself into this historic moment.
What had they found?
Oak, highly decorated ‘kind of canopy topped with turrets’ nearly 3m long, a large back wall panel 4m high, 2m wide ‘decorated with extreme richness’ and the pieces of a plain side wall panel.
Among the curves and twiddly bits of the two ornate sections were carvings of medieval characters; elegant ladies posed in beautiful dresses, bearded men looked fiercely through undergrowth. A nest of mice was so well carved it looked alive. People were depicted eating, playing instruments, brandishing swords and their bottoms, generally going about their medieval business.
Léon was horrified to report a decision by the owners to lean this fine object against a wall resulting in many of the finer details breaking. Scraps of gold leather hung tattered from the canopy, suggestions of a glorious past.
The explorer were frustrated to learn the origins of the canopy and carvings were unknown, but Léon confidently goes on to say it is called the ‘Lit de Justice’.
Dispensing medieval justice
The phrase ‘Lit de Justice’ originates from descriptions of canopied cushion beds used by kings of France when reading edicts to the Parlement of Paris, or presiding over trials.
Léon pointed out the similarity between the Argentelles oak pieces and ancient Lit de Justice illustrations. He then went on to link the area of Villebadin to various impressive aristocracy, to back up the claim.
Not long afterwards the discovery was reported in the 1847 ‘Le Magasin Pictoresque’. Doubt seems to have crept in as the second, plainer panel is included in the reconstructed design, placing the entire piece in the corner of a room. Its role as a dais for a feudal lord dispensing justice is uncertain, the writer stating that although ‘was obviously a place of honour’ but ‘reserved for what circumstances no one can say’.
That’ll look nice in the billiard room
Sometime later, newly widowed Comtesse de Charnois had the Lit moved to her billiard room at the château de Laitiers. Records show a cabinetmaker called Moreau was employed in 1877 to repair damages to the pendentives (dangly bits on the canopy).
In 1880 the old Comtesse died and the property was inherited by Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Courtivron. The couple made a thorough inventory of their inheritance and, delighted by the Lit, had it transported to Paris to be publicly displayed in the Palais d’Industrie in 1882.
The Lit on show in Paris was not exactly the same as the one found by our explorers in 1844.
A new ornate side panel replaced the earlier plain incarnation. Possibly created by the cabinet maker Moreau, it was decorated with linenfold panelling, pointed trefoil tops and faded fleurs-de-lis.
One very rich visitor excited to see this flamboyant piece of gothic history was Edmond Foulc, renowned French collector of Renaissance and Gothic art and heir to a manufacturing fortune.
The amateur collector
A slight hiccup in provenance did not put off Edmond. After complex French negotiations, in 1885 his new treasure was given pride of place in a room created for the best of his collection at his apartment on rue de Magdebourg. The Lit de Justice resided happily in Edmond’s cluttered rooms for many years, considerably warmer and more appreciated than it had been in the Orne.
Edmond proudly displayed the Lit to sympathetic historians who celebrated its quality while cheerfully disagreeing over its purpose.
Scholar Alfred de Champeaux described it as ‘one of the most interesting monuments from the private life of our ancestors to have been preserved’ and debated its history as simply a very ornate move-able bed made to fit in an alcove. Collector Edmond Bonnaffé suggested curtains would have been attached from the canopy. Both listed comparable historic beds as evidence and poo-hoo’ed the idea of a medieval ‘Lit de Justice’ existing in history at all.
Saving a precious collection
At the beginning of the 20th century, now in his 80’s and concerned for the future of the collection, Edmond tried to find a buyer who would keep it together. Relief at selling his complete library to the American financier and banker John Pierpont ‘JP’ Morgan was short lived. When JP died months later in 1913 the heirs ignored promises to keep the collection together in perpetuity. They put it all up for sale stating it ‘did not come up to expectation’.
Edmond’s reaction was recorded by the New York Times on 15 May, 1914: ‘M. Foulc, who is 85 years old, is much distressed by the forthcoming sale…he is in bad health and refuses to see anybody’.
Edmond died in 1916 and his heirs promptly disposed of the remaining collection, selling it to dealers Wildenstein & Co. In the catalogue, Henri Leman uses the label ‘Lit de Justice’ but also describes it obliquely as a corner decoration for a vast chamber.
The sale came to the attention of Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fiske knew Edmond Foulc’s collection of medieval and renaissance art would transform the reputation of his museum. He worked hard to raise funds and negotiate down the dealers’ asking price.
As the stock market crashed in October 1929 the museum paid $1.1million for the Foulc collection.
The Lit de Justice now found itself installed in a vast Gothic hall for ‘The art of the middle ages’. Keeping the name ‘Lit de Justice, the museum said it was ‘one of the most important monuments of Gothic woodcarving which has been preserved’. The plainer side panel was not included in the installation. A grand Savonarola chair was placed dramatically under the canopy, in case anyone missed the Lit’s role as a ceremonial stage for a grand seigneur.
And so for most of the 20th century that is how the Lit de Justice was presented in the medieval galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Regret for treasures now overseas
Meanwhile in France, a sense of regret for history lost overseas was growing. In 1954 French archaeologist Robert, Comte du Mesnil du Buisson presented a paper to the Société historique et archéologique de l’Orne titled ‘La fée et les revenants du manoir d’Argentelles’ – The fairy and the ghosts of the manor Argentelles. He decried the loss of the Lit de Justice and recalled previously unrecorded legends; a corrupt judge whose ghostly figure was seen stomping around the room that held the Lit de Justice and a good fairy who also inhabited the manor house, somewhere.
These rather imaginative tales were followed up with further papers that claimed the Lit de Justice originated as a bed alcove at château of Exmes, a royal residence near Argentelles, given in 1462 by King Louis XI to his brother, Charles de Valois, Duc de Berry. Compte du Mesnil du Buisson suggested the canopy was later used at judges’ assizes before being broken down and hidden in Argentelles during the Revolution.
There are no documents that mention the Lit de Justice until it was discovered at the manor house in 1844, which weakens Compte’s argument a little.
More questions, new answers
Back in Pennsylvania, curator David DuBon’s looked at the Lit de Justice from time to time, somehow unconvinced by its unique construction. He occasionally raised concerns suggesting the different pieces didn’t quite fit together. He was ignored.
By the 1990’s, understanding of medieval furniture, combined with scientific advances changed the story of the Lit de Justice for ever.
A major reorganisation of the medieval galleries was planned and the Lit de Justice carefully deconstructed, cleaned, mended a little and studied a lot.
What is it?
What did they find? Pieces of spectacular medieval carvings rearranged with hefty doses of imagination. The likelihood is these pieces were removed from large churches, perhaps an Abbey around the time of the 1789 revolution, when all things catholic were in danger of destruction. The rude little sculptures may have put our 19th century historians off the ecclesiastical scent, but similar figures are found in Rouen cathedral.
The interior of the manor was indeed very dark. The ‘nest of mice’ admired by Sicotière and Poulet-Malassis cleaned up to reveal a flock of carefully carved sheep
The Philadelphia Museum of Art now labels the Lit de Justice as ‘Fragments from a Canopy and Choir Stall’. The fairy? Comte du Mesnil du Buisson admitted the fairy was invention by his sister to entertain her children.
The Lit de Justice fared better than the Manoir d’Argentelles for many years. You will see from our postcard it was in a terrible state of repair. From 1969 Robert, Compte du Mesnil du Buisson worked to ensure it’s restoration. The manor house remains the home of his fortunate descendants.
To our embarrassment it wasn’t quiet the day we visited Manoir d’Argentelles because it is tucked deep in the countryside. Neither of us had checked the opening days properly and this was not one of them.
We sailed up the drive without a care in the world before realising our faux pas. Our sincere apologies to the owners for disturbing their domestic bliss.
After realising our mistake, a quick ‘Pardon!’ click of the camera as we did a 360 and were out of there. Our more sensible readers can check the opening times here.
Jack Hinton is the brilliant Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He very kindly shared his research on the ‘Lit de Justice’ with us. After the piecemeal facts we had assembled following our visit, his paper was a revelation, suddenly the story made sense. Thank you Jack!
- Have a look at the (not) Lit de Justice in the Philadelphia Museum of Art here
- Read the Department of the Orne archeologique et pittoresque by By Léon de La Sicotière 1845 (French)