Where it all began

Today our travels took us to the birthplace of the Norbertine order. (Particularly appropriate for me, since I’m celebrating my own birth today! I’m not quite as old as the order – although I feel it, after a week of bus travel.)

We began the day in the walled medieval city of Laon, where Norbert resided before leaving to establish his order. He would return to Laon several years after his departure to form a new abbey, and our first stop was at St. Martin, the church of that now-defunct abbey. Built in stages during the 12th and 13 th centuries, St. Martin reflects both Romanesque and Gothic influence. Like so much of what we’ve seen in recent days, it is both ancient and stunningly beautiful.

And yet, not as ancient or (if it’s possible) as beautiful as the next place we visited in the city, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon. Built beginning in 1160 on the site of an even earlier church, this magnificent and massive structure is 100 meters long, soaring 60 meters high and boasting five towers. It is considered one of the purest and most important examples of Gothic architecture in all of Europe.

Especially memorable were the cathedral’s exquisite stained glass windows, many of them dating to the original construction. One in particular caught the attention of our contingent: The north rose window includes scenes depicting the sciences and the liberal arts, two subjects dear to the heart of St. Norbert College.

Following the cathedral tour, we capitalized on a beautiful day with lunch at a quintessentially French outdoor café, then made the short trip to Prémontré. It was here that St. Norbert, with the support of the bishop of Laon, founded the order that would bear his name.

A remote and wild place, Prémontré was not considered “prime real estate” at the time; other monks had tried to cultivate the land, to no avail. But Norbert and his followers persevered, and within six months they had built a church on the property.

It thrived for centuries. But the Prémontré Abbey, like so many others, was a casualty of the French Revolution, and many of its older structures were demolished around that time. The remaining 17th and 18th century buildings were converted to a hospital in the 1860’s, but we were permitted to tour the grounds, and were granted access to what had been the abbot’s home and chapel.

In addition, we toured the abbey’s church, still in use by the local parish. It contains a lone pillar from St. Norbert’s original, 12th century church – a single candle to commemorate what was born here.

Late in the day we set out for the city of Rouen, from which we will continue tomorrow to Bayeux.