[2] AMIENS - Saints and the City at Amiens

Drawing on the work of Ronald Hubscher, Pierre Desportes, and John S. Ott, Abou-El-Haj was to re-examine the role of history and collective memory in the projection of episcopal authority in the town of Amiens. As she saw it, the political history of the town and chapter of Amiens and the setting in which the cathedral was built are critical to the distinctions between the suffragan and metropolitan church (of Reims). At Amiens, the construction of a prestigious Christian past required distinguished local saints, preferably early Christian martyrs. Missionaries occasionally provided martyrs, but they were far outnumbered by confessor saints, among whom Martin, who founded the first monasteries in Roman Gaul and became the celebrated bishop of Tours, was outstanding. His life and miracles formed a template for medieval lives of saints.

As John Ott has pointed out, bishop-saints were the most important to the construction of Amenois history. The earliest is Martin of Tours, who in his early life was Roman soldier and a catechumen. Sulpicius Severus’ account written in 397 describes how, while garrisoned in Amiens, Martin divided his cloak in order to give half to a poor, naked man in the middle of winter. Later that night while asleep, Christ appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the part of his cloak. Sepulcius cites Matthew 25:40 to bring home the moral: “As long as you did it to one of these, my least brethren, you did it to me.” After his vision Martin was baptized. According to medieval lore, the event took place at the gates of the city of Amiens. Bishop Guy of Ponthieu founded the church of St.-Martin-Aux-Jumeaux on this spot in 1073 as a means of commemorating Martin’s good deed and emphasizing the important place of Amiens in early Christian history.

Amiens’s most notable bishop-saint is Firmin the Martyr. Born in Spain, he was ordained a priest in Toulouse, and returned to Pamplona as its first bishop. On a later voyage to preach the gospel in Amiens he was beheaded (feast day: September 25). Just after his death, his body was buried in secret by his devoted follower Faustinus, a Roman senator whom Firmin had converted upon his arrival in Amiens. His body remained hidden for several centuries until it was miraculously discovered by the Amiénois bishop Salve at the beginning of the seventh century. This vita of St. Salve reports that the bishop was led to Firmin’s tomb by a ray of light descended from the heavens. When he opened the tomb, a sweet scent emerged and drew the populations of the nearby cities of Thérouanne, Cambrai, Noyon, and Beauvais to the site. Along with his clergy and the lay populations of the region, Salve then translated Firmin’s body to Amiens. The procession of the relics was famously accompanied by a miraculous change of weather, where the January cold gave way to a warm, spring-like day that prompted flowers to bloom. Scores of sick and crippled townspeople were also said to have been cured of their ailments by the saint’s relics during the procession.

Salve’s predecessor, the confessor-saint Honoré, also played an important role in the hagiographic history of Amiens. Honoré’s vita is composed of two distinct parts, written more than four hundred years apart, and combined over the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries into a single narrative. The earlier portions of the text recount miraculous events from the saint’s life, including his consecration by a stream of holy oil that descended from the heavens, and his vision of the hand of God during Mass. The second section of the text describes a series of miracles performed centuries after the saint’s death during processions of his relics around Amiens. Notable among these were a series of healing miracles and the famous “inclining crucifix” in the church of St-Firmin-the-Confessor, that was reported to have bowed to Honoré’s relics during a ritual procession. Using internal evidence, these later miracle collections can be dated to the episcopacies of Guy of Ponthieu (1058-74) and Geoffrey of Amiens (1104-1115). John Ott argues that both Guy and Geoffrey exploited these later texts to assert that Honoré’s relics continued to work miracles during their time and, by extension, highlighted the contemporary bishops’ connections to the local cult of saints.

Not until the tenth century, following the Norse invasions, was a local hagiography for Amiens expanded in the standard manner, by acquiring saints who were authenticated by newly composed vitae. The tenth- through twelfth-century hagiographical texts constructed a continuous, sanctified history centered upon Amiens’ earliest bishop saints – among them the vitae of Firmin the Martyr, Honoré, and the narrative of the invention of Firmin the Martyr’s body.  

In Ott’s view, urban space was the arena in which Amiens’ bishops projected their spiritual authority, using sites sacred to the community: “The town’s holy spaces loomed large in the collective identity and memory of the populace precisely through their association with the lives and deeds of the community’s patron saints” (“Urban Space,” 46). This view of the community might also be seen in the collaboration between bishop and commune against the count and castellan. Ott further observes, “feast days, when both townspeople and religious institutions tendered their annual rents and obligations, further rendered explicit the connections between the town’s sacred spaces, contemporary social bonds, and the collective memory of Amiens’s holy patrons” (“Urban Space,” 48). Ott deals with the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but Abou-El-Haj found his insights to provide important background information for analysis of thirteenth-century conditions, at the time of the construction of the Gothic cathedral of Amiens.

Bibliography on Saints and the City at Amiens

Primary Sources

De sancto Firmino episcopo et martyris Ambianis in Gallia. AASS Sept. VII: 0024B-0057E.

De sancto Honorato Episcopo Ambianensi in Gallia. AASS May III:0621B-0615B.

De sancto Salvio confessore Episcopo Ambianensi in Gallia. AASS Jan. I:703-707.

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum, vol. I (Hannover, 1937).

Sulpitius Severus on the Life of St. Martin, trans. and notes Alexander Roberts, vol. 11, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, New York, 1894. (Transcribed online at: http://www.users.csbsju.edu/~eknuth/npnf2-11/sulpitiu/lifeofst.html#3)

Secondary Sources

Cadoux, Jean-Louis, “Amiens dans l’Antiquité: Samarobriva Ambianorum,” in Histoire d’Amiens, ed. Ronald H. Hubscher (Toulouse: Privat, 1986), 7-46.

Corblet, Jules. Hagiographie du diocèse d’Amiens, 5 vols (Paris: Dumoulin, 1868-75).

Desportes, Pierre, Diocèse d’Amiens, Fasti ecclesiae Galicanae I (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996).

Fossier, Robert, Histoire de la Picardie (Toulouse: Privat, 1974).

Fossier, Robert, La Terre et les hommes en Picardie jusqu’à la fin du XIIIe siècle (Paris: B. Nauwelaerts, 1968).

Hansen, Lindsey, “The Bishop Performed: Sculpture, Liturgy, and Episcopal Identity in Thirteenth-Century France” (PhD dissertation, Indiana University, 2016).

Ott, John S., “Urban Space, Memory, and Episcopal Authority: The Bishops of Amiens in Peace and Conflict, 1073-1174,” Viator 31 (2000): 43-77.

Ott, John S., Bishops, Authority and Community in Northwestern Europe, c. 1050-1150 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Salmon, Charles. Histoire de Saint Firmin: martyr, premier évêque d’Amiens: patron de la Navarre et des Diocèses d’Amiens et de Pampleune (Arras and Amiens, 1861).


  1. How does consideration of local history and hagiography challenge the traditional models of the development of Gothic architecture? Can this sort of history be reconciled with one that focuses upon stylistic change and technical innovation? Or religious history?
  2. If one mark of political power is the official control of urban space, how can one search for evidence of authority or transgression in the fabric or ornament of a building? How about at Amiens in particular?