[4] AMIENS - Cultural Geography: Control of Space in Amiens

Among founders of the Amiens commune were a group of wealthy men in service to the count or the bishop who had supervised or controlled monopolies from which they had amassed fortunes, and who seized communal power after 1117: Maineir the money changer or minter (monétaire), Herbert le Tonloyer (tax on transactions, tonlieu), and Arnoul the Provost. Their descendants made up ten wealthy families who monopolized municipal offices, controlled the market, money and lucrative traffic until ca. 1200 and beyond. The oligarchy controlled the two most powerful and prosperous trades in Amiens, woad (for the dying of cloth) and wine. Together with the cathedral canons, they built the Grand Pont in the curve of the Somme River in a faubourg to the north just a few years after the commune was established. The capillaries of this river, formed by seven branches, provided the power for Amiens’s woad mills. 

The commune was ruled by a council of twenty-four aldermen elected annually by propertied burghers headed by a mayor. The aldermen and mayor became the principal magistrates of the commune, subsuming comital justice under their own authority. The magistrates (échevins) exercised a broad range of public justice. Except for capital cases, such as murder and rape reserved to the king, all other crimes and misdemeanors were heard before their tribunal, which sat before a royal representative. The cathedral chapter was also dominated by a relatively small group, especially sons of the patriciate. (And it is worth note that often the same families were leading members of the commune.) Throughout the twelfth century, the patriciate lost power to rising merchants and artisans engaged in the wool and dye trade. The canons, for their part, were numerous, possessing perhaps fifty prebends in the cathedral and eight for the churches of St.-Nicholas and St.-Firmin-Confesseur. 

By the end of the communal rebellion in 1117 (see Section II, pt. 3), the bishops of Amiens controlled ecclesiastical property in the comital half of Amiens, of which there was not much. The foundation of three new churches, suggests the effort to extend episcopal authority, beginning with the foundation of the parish church of St.-Firmin-en-Castillon, consecrated in 1117 on the site of the razed comital fortification. So the foundation of St.-Firmin-à-la-Porte, the destruction of the castillon, and the reclamation of site of Firmin’s martyrdom can be seen as evidence of the slow transformation of urban space coincident with the diminishing of comital and expansion of episcopal power. By 1127, the bishops of Amiens had extended their authority into areas beyond episcopal jurisdictions, principally into the former terrain of the count, continuing their campaign to associate themselves with their most prestigious, sainted predecessors (Ott, “Urban Space,” 69). Ott observes that the commune, like the bishops, understood the importance of controlling urban space. They moved parallel to the episcopal reclamation of sacred sites, most acutely in building the hôtel-de-ville from stones of the razed castillon, adjacent to the church of St.-Firmin-en-Castillon built on the site of the demolished fortification (Ott, “Urban Space,” 74-5).

By 1160 the lordship of Amiens had passed through the daughters (and their husbands) of Countess Adèle (addressed in Section II, pt. 3) to the Count of Flanders, Philip of Alsace, husband of Elisabeth of Vermandois. In 1185, without heirs and after a short war, Amiens was incorporated into the royal domain of France under Philip Augustus, who assumed the office of count. Whatever elements of lordship the bishop might have enjoyed from the time of the commune ended with the king as royal vassal. The bishop’s temporalities amounted by then to no more than the “small canton” where the magistrates of the commune possessed no authority (Hubscher, 62). But the king seems to have found it useful to support commercial development in Amiens. The charter of 1185 confirmed the commune’s liberties, providing a strong base for its authority throughout the following century.

In the thirteenth century, tensions arose among the groups who formed the commune, as well as between the cathedral chapter and the commune, intensifying over the century. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the Amiénois launched insurrections against their own town council, a response to frequent surcharges (extra normal taxes) prompting accusations that the officers of the city were squandering funds. Moreover, in the same era, the landed patriciat lost their monopoly on power to wealthy merchants and master artisans. The text of a second custom, dating sometime before 1292, suggests the outline of a new regime. Between 1250 and 1350 yet another set of names appear among the council, representing new fortunes and a new oligarchy, and replacing the dozen families who made up the highest ranks in the city the twelfth-century. It must be said, however, that in general Picard towns do seem to have had more peaceful municipal relations in this era than did those in Flanders and Artois (Desportes, 3-40).

As for the cathedral hierarchy, the bishops of Amiens possessed few jurisdictions within the town, outside the cathedral precinct. And notwithstanding urban jurisdictions derived from joint ventures and agreements in the aftermath of the communal rebellion, the chapter could not have gained what it might have expected. The commune, that is, protected its interests, documented in charters throughout the thirteenth century. 

Abou-El-Haj observes that the collaboration of commune and bishop in Amiens’s rebellion in 1117 (Section II, pt. 3) has suggested to art historians a durable partnership between the town and the chapter over the following two centuries, which crystallized in building the new cathedral after the fire of 1218. However, the documents assembled by Augustin Thierry reveal the town consistently acting in its own interests. In Ott’s account of the bishops’ efforts to solidify community by use of space, sacred sites in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, he does not suggest that these activities might reveal a necessity that would play out in repeated and increasing jurisdictional disputes in the thirteenth century. But for Abou-El-Haj, disputes revisited time and again reveal a pattern of tension between town and chapter over the jurisdiction of property under communal and ecclesiastical courts. 

Bibliography for Cultural Geography: The Control of Space in Amiens 

Primary Sources

Roux, Joseph and Edmund Soyez eds., Cartulaire du chapitre de la cathédrale d’Amiens, vol. I (Amiens: Yvert et Tellier, 1905), 1-5.

Thierry, Augustin, ed., Recueil des monuments inédits de l’histoire du Tiers état: première série, chartes, coutumes, actes municipaux, statuts des corportations d’arts et métiers des villes et communes de France, region du nord (Paris: Didot, 1850-70).

Secondary Sources

Cohn, Sam J. Jr., Lust for Liberty (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2006), esp. 112, 161, 169, 197-8, and 227.

Desportes, Pierre, Aspects de la Picardie au Moyen-Âge (Amiens: Centre d'histoire des sociétés de l'Université de Picardie, 1995).

Leguel, A., “Les troubles urbains dan le nord de la France à la fin du XIIIe et au début du XIVe siècle,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale (1976): 281-303. 

Guest, Gerry, “Space,” in Medieval Art History Today – Critical Terms, a special issue of Studies in Iconography, ed. Nina Rowe 33 (2012).

Hubscher, Ronald, Histoire d’Amiens (Toulouse: Privat, 1986).

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)


  1. John Ott’s work helps Abou-El-Haj conceptualize the way a contest for authority among rival political and social authorities played out in the urban topography of Amiens. Gerry Guest (in a presentation in celebration of Barbara Abou-El-Haj at the International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, MI, May 2016) suggested that Abou-El-Haj was a cultural geographer, in her drive to examine how people in the Middle Ages functioned spatially, especially in relation to the monumental Gothic architecture dominating city centers from the thirteenth century on. How would you draw Abou-El-Haj’s discussion of political dynamics in Amiens back to the cathedral itself? Do elements of the façade’s iconography register a striving for topographic control? 
  2. How might different interpretive communities in the medieval city of Amiens respond to this façade differently?