[spencer, p. 225]

OUR LADY OF CHARTRES

AND THE

VIRGIN'S NIGHTGOWN

Chartres was one of the best-known pilgrimage spots in medieval France. Its cathedral was a prime centre of devotion to the Virgin Mary. From the middle of the 12th century two items provided a focus for this veneration. One was a statue of the Virgin revered for its reputed miracle-working powers. This, like the famous statues at Rocamadour (245), Le Puy (244) and Montpellier (246g; see p 239), was a black Virgin, and copies of it were commissioned as far afield as Scandinavia and Iceland. The other attraction, regarded as so precious that it was guarded night and day by four armed men (de Lepinois & Merlet 1862, 61), was the sacrosancto camisia, the sacred shift or nightgown said to have been worn by the Virgin the night she gave birth to Christ. The garment had been given to Chartres in 876 by Charles the Lald, who brought it there from Constantinople, and it was said to have been used by the French as a rallying‑point during the siege of Chartres by the Normans in 911 (Forgeais 1863, 29). of all the many items of the Virgin's clothing that were claimed as relics, this was the most famous. Like [p.226] the various girdles of Our Lady owned by Westminster Abbey and several other pilgrimage churches, the nightgown was thought to ease the pain and reduce the hazards of childbirth. It was more important than rival garments of the Virgin held at Trier Regensburg and elsewhere, though the evidence of pilgrim signs suggests that by the 15th century the Virgin's nightgown at Aachen had become at least its equal in popular esteem.

 

The principal record of miracles attributed to Our Lady of Chartres, the great majority of which were cures, was made at the end of the 12th century. One of them involved a young English scholar who was on his way home with a present for his betrothed, but instead dedicated the gift and himself to Our Lady of Chartres (Thomas, A 1881, 528-31). On a more exalted level, Edward III and the Black Prince believed that they had been persuaded to make the peace of Bretigny in 1360 by the supernatural intervention of Our Lady of Chartres. They were also persuaded to seal the treaty with a pilgrimage to Chartres cathedral (de Lettenhove 1869, 281-2). Edward's great-grandfather, Henry III, was also a devotee. He undertook a pious journey to Chartres, and it was probably during his reign (1216-72) that two pilgrim signs from Chartres found their way back to London. Both are square plaques with trilobed tops.

 

The more complete specimen was recovered from the Vintry coffer-dam in 1990 (VHAsp h 43mm). on the front (239b, left) is depicted a figure of Our Lady on a portable throne, which is being carried in procession on a litter by two men moving from left to right. The Virgin has an exaggeratedly large head. The infant Christ holds a book and is given a cruciform nimbus. On either side of the Virgin is a pilaster, a censer on a chain and a candle in a tripod holder. At her feet lie several hand crutches, presumably left as ex voto offerings by those cured of paralysis of the legs. A retrograde inscription at the top and sides, in mixed Roman and Lombardic capitals, includes the Latin name for Chartres. Reading anticlockwise from the left-hand fleuron of the Virgin's crown, the inscription may be construed thus: S[IGNVM] BEA[T]E MARIE CARNOTENSIS TAE (? TABVLE, or perhaps its diminutive TABELLE or TABELLATE). High spots, like the Virgin's head and knees and the ends of the armrests, have been worn smooth.

 

On the reverse (239b, right) is depicted a chasse of Romanesque form, supported at the sides by two substantial columns with capitals and bases and tores at the middle. Beneath the chasse is shown the Virgin's nightgown, as if displayed on a pole‑like hanger. The stylised, tabard-like, depiction of this relic was to continue under the name of chemisette de Notre-Dame or de Chartres on Chartres pilgrim souvenirs until the 17th century (van Beuningen & Koldeweij 1993, 218, no. 445). The same form was also to be adopted elsewhere, notably at Aachen (Koster 1983b, pl 1-4; van Heeringen et al. 1987, 66-70). Here, on the Vintry find, the chemisette is flanked by fleurs-de-lys and beneath it, perhaps to remind the pilgrim of the vital importance of oblations, is depicted a coin, a denier Chartrain, bearing part of the arms of Chartres (Williams, J. W. 1993, 118-19). The prototype coin is considered to be of 13th century date (Forgeais 1865, 118-19, Lecocq 1876, 215-17; Vaultier 1958, 41). Judging from comparable pilgrim signs, this badge would originally have had four stitching-rings (Lecocq 1876, figs 8, 11).

 

The other badge found at London (BIGsp; Mitchiner 1986 263) retains two stitching-rings but has lost the top and most of its inscription. It is essentially similar to the Vintry find described above, the main difference being the introduction of two suppliant pilgrims at the foot of the Virgin's image (cf. Lecocq 1876, fig 2), a feature that was also to recur on 14th and 15th century badges from Chartres (ibid., fig 5; Lamy-Lassalle 1968, fig 24).

 

The sale of pilgrim signs at Chartres was carefully leased by the cathedral chapter to selected individuals, who paid an annual sum of between 8 and 11 livres tournois for the privilege (Lecocq 1876, 206-12). Badge sellers were then allocated a stall and cupboard in the cloister, where they often had to take their places alongside a multitude of other petty stallholders who, like the pilgrims they mainly [p.227] catered for, flocked to Chartres for the feasts of the Virgin, especially those in March and September. In the 14th and 15th centuries the sale of pilgrim souvenirs appears to have been linked with retailers specializing in the sale of distaffs. In 1494, for instance, Geoffrey Postel took a lease of a stall for the sale of distaffs and all manner of souvenirs of lead, tin and other metal, stamped with the image of Our Lady of Chartres (for a possible die-struck badge of this kind, found at Norwich, see Spencer 1993, 8, no. 17). That the cathedral was prepared to assert its authority in these matters was shown in 1453 when it confiscated 18 pilgrim signs of silver-gilt and enamel, which a goldsmith had tried to expose for sale without authorization (Lecocq 1876, 207).