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Abbeys & Churches

Lost in Translation – the big difference between roman & romain
by Lorenzo Bohme

Roman Art, Burgundy, France

Foreigners travelling in rural France are often bewildered by signs, as they approach many a charming village, proudly announcing the place’s “église romane”, or, in a more general way, claiming to be famous for its “art roman”.

Does this mean, the English-speaker may wonder, that the Romans actually built that picturesque but humble church with its squat belfry and roughly-hewn façade? The ancient Romans did not espouse Christianity until the last years of their empire, so they didn’t have time to leave us many purpose-built churches, even in Rome itself, let alone the backwaters of ancient Gaul.

As for art, the Romans were better known for their roads, bridges, coliseums and other practical constructions. Their statues were decidedly Greek-looking, and although they did pave their floors with some nice mosaics, these were easily outshone by their Byzantine heirs.

"Some say that the fever of church-building which ensued was meant to thank God for not having destroyed the world at the turn of the millennium."

In fact, neither the church nor the art on those signs has anything to do with Rome or the Romans, at least not more than most other things in our Western civilisation. And here is the big surprise - the word “roman” in French, and its feminine version “romane”, does not mean Roman at all!

The word for Roman in French is “romain” or “romaine”, with an i – a little letter which makes a big difference. And in case you are wondering what the difference is phonetically, roman is pronounced roe-MON and romain roe-MAN, as long as you nasalise the n.

The precise English translation of the French word “roman” – adjective, really, because as a noun it means novel, of the kind Balzac wrote - is Romanesque. This is the official, albeit unsatisfactory, term used for the architectural style which emerged in Europe after the year 1000, when the first stone churches were built.

Some say that the fever of church-building which ensued was meant to thank God for not having destroyed the world at the turn of the millennium. Doomsday preachers had warned that the corrupt and lax would be punished for their sins on the fateful night, which in fact never came, and that may well have been one of the reasons.

But what is certain is that European society had, around that time, begun to put behind it the chaos and insecurity which, until then, made it impossible to make fine buildings not of wood but of stone. The year 1000 marked the end of what we call the Dark Ages, and heralded in a heightened sense of morality and devotion, and ways of expressing it which resulted in what we today think of as artistic beauty.

Roman Art, Burgundy, France
La Chapelle-sous-Brancion, southern Burgundy

The masons of the 11th century were unprofessional, but they saw all around them the constructions of the Roman Empire. Some were still in use, while others had become abandoned ruins, but the pagan temples and amphitheatres were all admired as the heritage of a tragically truncated civilisation. So when medieval men began to build their humble churches and monasteries, using very basic tools and devices, they tried to model them on these Roman remains.

However, the results fell far below the mark, both technically and, by classical standards, aesthetically. In this sense they failed, and were laughed at in later centuries. The first stone churches were undeniably crude, chunky and asymmetrical when compared with the soaring, graceful arches and columns of the Romans. And the statues and reliefs with which they decorated their gates and arches were downright grotesque, sometimes even obscene.

"It would be simpler for the tourist, indeed, if those signs which pop up around almost every village in Burgundy and Charentes and Perigord simply said - in English of course - “11th (or 12th) Century Medieval Church”."

For the enlightened architects of the Renaissance (16th century) who finally unravelled the geometrical secrets of the ancients, these poor efforts were nothing more than the pathetically primitive work of country bumpkins. The great Italian artists of the day even called the far more visible style which followed Romanesque, but with which it was generally lumped together, “Gothic”, because the Goths destroyed the wonders of Rome. Therefore, their name was synonymous with “barbaric”.

But there was no term at all for the obscure style of the 11th century and the first half of the 12th until, around the time of the French Revolution, an art historian gave it one – “roman”. By this he meant that it was Roman-ish or Roman-like, because it attempted to look Roman. In different regional forms, the style was also prevalent in England, where it is now called Romanesque, and in Italy and Spain, where it is known as “románico”.

It would be simpler for the tourist, indeed, if those signs which pop up around almost every village in Burgundy and Charentes and Perigord simply said - in English of course - “11th (or 12th) Century Medieval Church”. But the French have a natural dislike for simplification, as many straight-forward Anglo-Saxons have to their dismay discovered.

It is just part of their infuriating cultural superiority, one might say, at the risk of seeming snobbish. The literary and artistic schooling Frenchmen receive is firmly based on 19th century tastes, when the Romantic Movement was at its height, and when writers such as Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand and George Sand re-discovered the spirituality and mystery of the Middle Ages.


Romanesque murals at Moutiers in the Puisaye

This makes French people see a clear distinction between a Romanesque church and a Gothic one, even though it can often be lost on us barbarians from the north! An “église romane” has a personal, homemade flavour of its own, it is usually small – with some notable exceptions such as the basilicas of Vézelay and Autun – and, above all, it satisfies modern man’s nostalgic need for basic, unpretentious, human values. Aesthetically, it gets us back to the basics.

As I have said, the early religious architecture of which we are speaking gave way, in about 1150 with the Cathedrals of Paris and Chartres, to the much more sophisticated Gothic style. Even so, we would do well to remember that Gothic, in turn, was for a long time known throughout Europe as the “French style”, before receiving the pejorative name we unsuspectingly call it by today.

Of course, the Gothic style, with its amazing technical superiority - making it possible to build much taller and more complex churches – has greater fame, because it lasted much longer, right up to the Renaissance and beyond. It also became an international style used in churches all over the known world, and even, in the 19th century, in the “neo-Gothic” churches which abound on both sides of the Atlantic.

"...the Gothic churches lacked the earlier style’s earthy, authentic and – why not say it - quintessentially French quality which appeals to us, in the era of faceless globalization and technological wizardry. "

But this meant that it also lost its freshness and spontaneity. Although more elegant and spectacular than their humble predecessors, the Gothic churches lacked the earlier style’s earthy, authentic and – why not say it - quintessentially French quality which appeals to us, in the era of faceless globalization and technological wizardry. Add to this the sad fact that most of the early medieval churches were torn down to make way for bigger and better ones and you will understand why the few survivors are fussed over so lovingly.

In a nutshell, this is why each French village that is lucky enough to have an “église romane” proudly announces the fact on the signs which greet you, along with the names and addresses of a few good eating places, as you head towards it in your car. And that is also why you should rejoice, if you truly love all the fine things of France, not just the food and wine.

For, just beyond those tall rows of trees on either side of the country road, a squat belltower with a spire like a dunce-cap and made of roughly hewn stone is about to appear before you, poking up among the rooftops and chimney pots. And what better way to describe it than as being like a shepherd standing, eternally, among the huddling sheep of his flock.


Lorenzo Bohme studied at the University of Madrid and the Sorbonne in Paris.
Among the many trades he has plied are UNESCO translator, postcard designer and self-styled architect. He is author of a historical guide to Granada and the Alhambra Palace in Spain where he has lived for over 20 years, entitled ‘Granada, City of My Dreams’.