A deep well and a cathedral built upon. An archaeologist of the turn of the last century considerations on a druidic heritage bishop Fulbert did not repudiate.
But the Chartres Cathedral planner seemed to be the last one to look for those Saints Forts, a french short for “Saint Powerful Sites”. In fact just a few decades after Fulbert death the well in Chartres crypt was earthed up and all the druidic structures walled up or destroyed. Because of strange pilgrimages which, at the end of eleventh century, could no more be tolerated.
The synopsis and excerpts I translated from french come from Les Puits des Saints Forts e les Cryptes de la Cathédrale de Chartres , or wells of saint powerful sites and crypts of Chartres cathedral, by Eugène Lefèvre Pontalis, director of the Société Francaise d’Archéologie and member of Comité des Travaux Historiques et de la Société des Antiquaires de France, Caen 1904. I must admit this book caught my attention at first for its publication date: the turn of the twentieth century. A harsh period, in spite of the “belle epoque” gorgeous fashion. An age, moreover in France, during which adjectives like strident and savage were more than proper. Nevertheless a daring period. Too much, if regarded from our after profit times. Since you cannot make money if you are not allied with establishments. Apart from these considerations, I was looking for a rational and acute approach to a cult topic as Chartres Cathedral. In fact back in 1904 Notre Dame de Chartres, from an archaeological point of view, was just a mount of bricks.
Eugène Lefèvre Pontalis starts trying to give a rational to the ancient name these wells are known: Les Puits de Saints Lieux Forts, or Saint Powerful Sites Wells. He puts forward the idea these wells were intended to provide water to a citadel. However, first there is no evidence of a citadel in the nearby (but a later tower, as we will see). Secondly he focuses on the adjective “powerful”, giving it a military sense, but forgets to try an explication to “saint”.
The utmost importance, in my opinion, will be the well depth, the presence of groundwateras well asof grottos and towers over the well. Let’s read from Eugène Lefèvre Pontalis presentation to find out more:
“The archaeological researches made in 1901 by M. Merlet inside the Chartres Cathedral crypt were targeted to rediscover the Saint Forts wells as well as the ancient site of Notre Dame Sous Terre, or Our Underground Lady. In a session of the Archeological Congress of Chartres M. Merlet revealed that all previous excavations did fail because they had not paid attention to pilgrimages chronicles to Chartres before seventeenth century. In fact the well have been discovered in the exact place where it was mentioned in historical records of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the moment the underground of this part of the crypt has been totally excavated from 1843 to 1903. Consequently Merlet was sure the well he found is the only one existing in that locus. According to Merlet this discovery is important to draw conclusions on the cathedral successive transformations.
As the Chartres region bishop courtyard wells, the well had been cut, without any masonry coating, in the tufeconstituting the upper part of Beauce limestone. It is 33,55 m. deep; the water height is 3,35 m. In the chalky ground, roughly called marne it has been discovered that the well section is square and measures 1,20 m. for every side. On a thorough examination it was evaluated a difference of 0,10 m.”
Sadly just the paragraph with well depth measures presents weak prints and renders. But according to some further author lines reporting a big verticality and a further definition of the well as a 33 m. hole in the crypt, and together with recent news on the same well encountering the groundwater at 33,55 m. , I assume to arrange a right depth at 33,55 m.
“At the bottom of the square part there is an ovoid bowlcut into a bed of flint. “
An author note states the square section of the Chartres well reveal a great antiquity. In fact in France do exist many wells dated back to gallicand gallo roman periods, and they are all square. But Lefèvre Pontalis fails to point to the ovoidbowl. We will see in some next engravings that this ovoid shape was instead present at the end, or beginning according to points of view, of some philosophical and mythological wells.
“The well was destroyed and earthed up in 1650 together with the whole crypt, but there are chronicles of the well completely filled up already in 1580. In 1901 the well was completely rehabilitated removing all the earth inside. But the well history remains puzzling. It seems reasonable that it was out of use since the end of twelfth century, some 50 years the present cathedral was build over . The author who wrote “ la Passion de Saint Savinien” in eleventh century witnessed a big verticality of the well. He wrote “magnae profunditatis”, or a huge deepness. We also know that inside a gallery, in the nearby of the well, there was an hospital, known as “Hopital of Saints Lieux Forts, or hospital of the saint powerful sites, where patients were nursed for nine days.
The carthusian monk composing “le Cartulaire de Saint Père” in 1080 observed that the well was targeted by very crowded pilgrimages and many miracles took place. Analysis of the excavated earth have led to the conclusion that the well was carefully earthed up already at the “Cartulaire de Saint Père” chronicle time.
After the sixteenth century the area occupied by the crypt was known as Druidic Grotto. Nevertheless in 1650 the grotto, the gallery of the ancient hospital together with the steps of a downward stairs and a statue of the virgin were walled up. Nowadays nothing remains of those ancient ruins. Examining the different building materials archaeologists have placed the Druidic Grotto three metres below the present crypt floor. Ancient engravings witness the grotto appearance.
Bishop Fulbert when, in 1020, established the crypt foundation strangely did not plan to destroy a very ancient wall of about 8,50 m. long and 1,70 high which stopped at the well orifice. Nowadays (1901) about 1,40 m. of this wall has been demolished to access the well. Probably Fulbert didn’t want to erase an ancient building witness. Archaeologists are presently not able to determine the wall age, but they consider it as probable part of a later carolingian building. More interesting are the evidences of a very ancient excavation in the nearby of the well (proved by a clear difference of the replenished material). This digging might be as much ancient as the well, that’s to say before gallo romaine age. Probably we are before a druidic sanctuary, grotto or niche shaped. M.Merlet has found a vault remains and some steps to reach the place have been discovered too. Ancient engravings and eye witnesses placed the well exactly under the grotto vault. When, in 1901, M. de Lasteyrie and I ( Lefèvre Pontalis) were appointed to analyse the earth we sieved a typical outdoor soil with medieval earthen remains, nails, little pieces of oxidized iron, and a lot of birds, chicken and little animals bones. A further analyse of the rocks beneath the well bottom did reveal a layer of tiny earthenware pieces of the same medieval age, apparently the end of eleventh century. Thus it seems the well had been carefully kept neat till Fulbert age and only towards 1080, as witnessed by the chronicler of “le Cartulaire de Saint Père” was started to be neglected and then earthen up, firstly with earthenware wastes and successively with clay.”
I stop here my synopsis, I ‘m not going to make a summary of all later excavations to establish if previous medieval churches had ever been in existence in the Chartres site. But I avail my article with the plan we can find in Lefèvre Pontalis book, representing a M.Merlet design of the crypt reported findings at 1893. You can find it enlarging the image on the left. With the warn that “Mur Gallo Roman” means “Wall Gallo Roman” in french. As a matter of fact this is what is of great interest to me. The same Lefèvre Pontalis pointed at the strange presence, in the middle of the crypt, of two Gallo Romanage very large walls. They supposedly are the remaining part of a tower now completely ruined.
Concerning the “our Underground Lady” above mentioned by Lefèvre Pontalis in the book’s beginning, and which he has no more refered to, it would be interesting to know why many high medieval cathedrals were built upon a crypt. The same bishop Fulbert, reporting the works progress to duke of Aquitaine wrote: “ cryptas nostras persolvimus” or we have settled-satisfied-celebrated (1) our crypts-caves. Strange enough since there were no graves of martyrs. In addition he failed to mention the well in the letter.
From the Arabic version of ” Tabula Smaragdina” : ……so as to draw the lights of the heights to itself, and descends to the earth; thus within it are the forces of the above and the below……;” Whatever is falling from the sky, we are able to gather and collect it only on the ground, and allow me: “in the deep of the ground”. In Alchemy this can be defined as our underground lady (2).
- “Resolvimus” is the same in first plural present and perfect. So we are not able to understand if Fulbert is talking of a past or a present action. But, I presume, some nine centuries after, this is of relative importance. Considering also that the letter was wrote four years after the starting of the cathedral works.
- Special thanks to Postgarder for having mentioned this Tabula Smaragdina excerpt in a very recent mail of his. The quote I needed. With just the final effort to think a comment.