One of the earliest—if not the earliest—confraternal movement in Europe began in the mercantile town of Arras in the early 12th century. It was contemporaneous with the formation of urban commune and a system of self-governance. One of its most successful, and unusual, guild was the confraternity of jongleurs. How did it become the cultural powerhouse of the entire region for two centuries?
Arras was situated on the Franco-Flemish border. There were at least four charitable professional associations sponsored by the local abbey of Saint-Vaast in Arras, each of which collected annual dues from its members in exchange for the monks’ pastoral care, which guaranteed dignified burials and memorial prayers for members and their families. Money was also collected and set aside for the care of those who were unable to work, due to illness or injury.
One of its most successful guild was the confraternity of jongleurs, sponsored by the bishop of the diocese. Not only was it the first and best-documented confraternity of the era, pioneering the legal and literary uses of the French vernacular, it was the cultural powerhouse of the entire region for two centuries. Indeed, it is intimately tied to another phenomenon—the burgeoning cult of the Blessed Virgin. The entertainers of Arras used their narrative and performative skills to compose and disseminate the story of their guild’s divinely sanctioned foundation by the Virgin herself.
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Our Lady of the Burning Ones
According to this legend, the people of Arras had been suffering from a terrible plague of ergotism—a degenerative and potentially fatal form of poisoning brought about by the consumption of cereal grains contaminated by the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea). Because one symptom is an excruciating burning sensation, this disease was known locally as the mal des ardents, or ‘burning sickness’.
In Arras, the Virgin thus became Notre Dame des ardents, ‘Our Lady of the Burning Ones’ because she had miraculously appeared to a pair of rival jongleurs in the cathedral of Arras and given them the gift of a holy candle whose wax, dissolved in water, became a potion that could cure the disease.
With the sanction and support of the bishop, this Carité de Notre Dame des ardents d’Arras was accepted as an official organization by 1175, and the leaders of the confraternity continued to practice the quasi-priestly ritual of creating and dispensing this potion at three annual guild feasts, as well as during an annual ceremony that became a major pilgrimage and tourist attraction in the 13th century. Papal indulgences for the remission of sins were still being granted to those making a pilgrimage to Arras up to the time of the French Revolution.
The Episcopal Charter
This extraordinary professional organization in Arras, therefore, upended the entertainer’s usually suspect status, and it was ratified by an episcopal charter which the jongleurs themselves copied into a precocious set of bylaws, begun in 1184. Had the original redaction of this text survived, it would be the oldest extant legal document written in any northern French dialect.
As that document put it: “This Carité is held from God and from Our Lady, Holy Mary. … For God wrought many miracles on the day that it was founded. … And after this the brotherhood formed this Carité, so that neither they nor any of their children should ever burn with the fire of Hell, nor ever die a sudden death, so long as they had faith and belief. And since that time, the guild’s brothers and sisters are the beneficiaries of the church of Notre Dame in Arras, in masses and in matins, and in all the prayers that are said there.”
Attracting Entertainers and Aristocrats
This same document goes on to state that: “This Carité was founded by jongleurs, and the jongleurs are lords of it. And whoever they keep out cannot be in it if they say no. Because without jongleurs we have no lordship.”
By 1200, the jongleurs’ guild also had a chapel in the middle of the town’s marketplace, the most valuable real estate in Arras, and later a meeting hall and small hospital. It also came to possess and use its own seals.
Moreover, the guild’s meetings became occasions for the composition and performance of songs, polyphonic motets, and debate poems, to which entertainers and aristocrats flocked from all over Europe. The first medieval composer to produce vernacular polyphony—that is, multi-voice part songs in French—was a member of this confraternity; his name was Adam de la Halle.
As a contemporary song puts it:
Arras is a school no one ever forgets.
Whatever he wants, in Arras, a guy gets
And can take somewhere else to sell big, no regrets.
The fame of Arras spreads where sun never sets:
The other day, I saw the clouds split their nets
‘Cause God wants to come here, to learn some motets.
The customs and privileges of the Arras guild were copied widely, even in Paris, where the French king attempted to prevent its establishment. As one of the first established royal capitals in Europe, at a time when most monarchs were itinerant, the proximity of the king’s court fostered a dizzying array of luxury trades in addition to those common to most medieval towns. In time, this meant that guilds were formed for the copyists and illuminators of deluxe manuscript books, as well as a silk-weaving guild for women, another for prostitutes, and guilds for the cutters and carvers of ivory imported from sub-Saharan West Africa, and many more.
Common Questions about the Confraternity of Jongleurs
The entertainers of Arras used their narrative and performative skills to compose and disseminate the story of their guild’s divinely sanctioned foundation by the Virgin herself.
In Arras, the Virgin became Notre Dame des ardents, ‘Our Lady of the Burning Ones’, as she had miraculously appeared to a pair of rival jongleurs in the cathedral of Arras and given them the gift of a holy candle whose wax, dissolved in water, became a potion that could cure the disease.
With the sanction and support of the bishop, this Carité de Notre Dame des ardents d’Arras was accepted as an official organization by 1175.