Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

The Aître Saint Maclou

The Atrium of Saint Maclou
186 Rue Martainville, 76000 Rouen, France
Telephone: 02 32 08 13 90
Established: 1348
Number of interments: none any longer
Open:  Daily. April – October from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Between November and March, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission: Free.

Aître Saint Maclou is tricky to find, in that the sign is up overhead. You walk through a passage between buildings to reach the atrium.

The sign is over your head.

Rouen, on the River Seine, is the historical capital city of Normandy in northwestern France. Once one of the biggest, wealthiest cities of medieval Europe, Rouen served as a capital of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of France from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

When the Black Plague struck Rouen in 1348, it wiped out three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants. To accommodate the dead, a new cemetery was built near the Church of Saint Maclou. Without regard to social standings, all bodies were dumped into the mass grave.

For centuries, Christian philosophy taught that the soul was fundamental and the body mere dross, to be discarded. Simultaneously, the Church preached bodily resurrection. When the trumpet sounded on the final day, all the dead around the world would rise out of their graves to be judged. Bodiless spirits would not rise. Therefore, bones could not be cremated or otherwise destroyed. They had to be buried, preferably in hallowed ground. They could not later be discarded.

Once Rouen recovered from the Black Death, shops and homes surrounded the little cemetery. Many of these half-timbered medieval buildings still survive in the area.

The Plague returned in the 16th century. All the bones remaining in the Atrium of Saint Maclou were exhumed and placed into a cloister surrounding the cemetery, so that the ground could be reused to bury the new dead. This time, two-thirds of the surrounding parish succumbed to the Black Death.

Spades, mattocks, and coffins decorate the buildings. The weathered figures below perform the Dance of Death.

The cloisters, begun in 1526, were decorated with skulls and grave-digging implements, including spades, mattocks, and coffins. A fourth building was added to the cloister in 1651 to be a charity school for boys, even though the cemetery was still in use. These buildings were taken over by the regional Fine Arts school in the 1940s.

The cemetery itself was closed by royal decree in 1781. The area became a designated historical monument in 1862. Today the lovely, macabre courtyard remains as the only medieval ossuary still in existence in a European city center. Tour groups in every possible language often disrupt the atrium’s peace, but despite that, it is a breathtaking, thought-provoking little space.  Every city in Europe once had a space like this — and this is the only one left.

Useful Links:

French wikipedia page

Satellite photo

Travelers’ reviews

Other Rouen gravesites on Cemetery Travel:

Richard the Lion-Hearted

Joan of Arc