Straying into a room in a museum where you don’t expect to find anything particularly different and then finding you are seriously wrong: that is always such fun.
This happened to me again in Troyes, a city whose centre is a veritable museum itself, with wonderful Gothic churches, timbered buildings leaning at slightly crazy angles in companionable drunkenness, cobbled streets and laughter floating out into the wide shady squares and flower-lined canal. I was in the Musée Saint-Loup, a fine arts and natural history museum that has occupied the Saint Loup Monastery next to the Saint Peter-Saint-Paul Cathedral since 1831. I had just finished seeing a small, interesting exhibition on early Gallic Celts from the region whose main claim to fame, as Senones, was that they were the soldiers who had conquered Rome in 390 BC, the famous time when the geese woke up the Romans on the Capitoline and warned them of the enemy’s approach.
Before leaving that part of the museum, I went to the adjacent room, supposedly full of medieval sculptures. Indeed, there were a lot of rather damaged pieces of sculpture saved from churches and other notable erstwhile buildings, which made me reflect once more, rather sadly, on the depredations of rampaging French during the Revolution and other such social upheavals. But there was a delightful recompense.
In the middle of the room were various displays and I suddenly felt that magical and unexpected surge of interest one sometimes gets. There, laid out in careful logic was a small collection of Medieval and Renaissance floor tiles, some by subject matter, some by manufacture, others by era. The display proved so unusual that I lingered and was then rewarded by finding a small catalogue at the front desk. That for me was different, for I always seem to fall in love with something that is never either in form of a catalogue, a postcard nor any other tangible form of record!
The Champagne-Aube area, along the river valleys and in other specific areas, is rich in clays that are perfect for ceramics and especially for bricks, tiles and pavers. Along with this asset came numerous forests which supplied the firewood necessary to fire the ovens used to bake the ceramics. Both in the Aube and adjacent Burgundy area, there were ocre mines to provide pigments. In other words, by the 12th century, the area was a tile-making centre and these floor tiles were exported to adjacent areas like the Yonne to the south and even to Paris, conveyed there along the river Seine. Marble quarries had been exhausted or marble was becoming very expensive for floors, so tiles became a substitute.
These stamped tiles, with patterns in yellow, green, black or brown, with many different shapes and luxurious finishes, became very fashionable, even in monasteries where the Cluniac/Benedictine love of opulence reigned. However St. Bernard of Cîteaux condemned such luxury in the 13th century and the fashion swung to much more sober monochrome colours, with geometrical or stylised flowers and leaves as patterns. Around the same time, new tile-making techniques were developed, using a depressed area in the tile surface for the pattern, filled with different coloured clay that allowed for two-coloured stamped tiles. The tiles were also finished with a lead-based lustrous glaze. Their popularity spread far and wide across Europe and the British Isles, thanks to the Cistercians. As time went on, more complex patterns were developed and regional distinctions evolved, until the fashion for these floor tiles waned in the 15th century. Nonetheless, their use continued well into the 17th century.
As I studied the displays of tiles in the Museum, there seemed to be so many stories told – society described itself in a way, underfoot. There were tiles from the Middle Ages about hunting, with dogs, the deer, the hunters; not only was it a rather ritualised method of obtaining food, but it also allowed the nobility to train for war, to display their courage and strength and reinforce their status and authority. Interestingly enough, I learnt that hunting was also considered as a religious moral force to turn people away from laziness whence came all sorts of vices and sins! The poor unfortunate animal being hunted thus became a symbol of evils against which man had to struggle.
The fashions in tiles changed of course according to the times. Tiles with inscriptions on them were fashionable in the Middle Ages, while heraldic devices became very popular during Renaissance times, when royalty and nobility, merchants and even churches used them to distinguish themselves from others.
In the Aube area, churches selected a multiplicity of types of tile decoration ranging from simple geometrical to stylised animals and plants, with a few religious motives occasionally being used. Since the Champagne and Burgundy regions were closely connected, commercially and also technically in terms of tile-manufacture, the same tiles appeared in different buildings throughout the area. Of course, like today, special tiles were manufactured for a chateau; the Château de Chaource, for instance, was restored in the 14th century by Marguerite 1st of Burgundy, when she became the Lady of Chaource, and the Musée Saint Loup has some of the remaining very rare tiles from her Château.
Mesnil-Saint-Père, to the east of Troyes in the Aube department, is an area rich in clays and thus in tile manufacturers, right up to the 20th century. Many tiles manufactured in that region were sent to Burgundy, especially in the adjacent Yonne department, where Renaissance châteaux such as Maulnes and even Ancy le France had floors of tile. However, by the Renaissance, the popularity of tiled floors began to wane as parquet floors and imported marble became fashionable. Even technical exchanges and innovations that came from Italy did not save the tile manufacturers, and their production faltered.
I saw later at Ancy le Franc, the magnificent Renaissance Château east of Tonnerre in Burgundy, some really interesting early floor tiles. Some had clearly been recycled. while others seemed of later manufacture. Many other floors in the Château's grander rooms were indeed of parquet wood or tile, indicative of the Renaissance transition away from the ceramic tiles of previous centuries.
All the tiles that I saw in Troyes and later at Ancy le Franc told so much about the Middle Ages and Renaissance ways of life - what was important to society, how people hunted, dressed, or wanted to make people understand hierarchies or activities. Even in the limited sample of tiles that I saw, there was an astonishing amount of information in these small ceramic glazed squares.
My straying into another exhibition room and finding the tile displays gave me much delight – serendipity is always kind!