In Marca Hispanica VIII: pilgrimage to see Emma

A long long time ago, as I know I’ve mentioned before, I wrote a paper about a woman called Emma, who was Guifré the Hairy‘s daughter, and whom he gave to the nunnery he founded at Sant Joan de Ripoll, as it then was. I wrote about how she built the place up by aggressive purchase and legal confrontation but eventually died without leaving it properly organised and how it went to the dogs thereafter. And, bless them, Early Medieval Europe decided they liked it and it was my first paper in print. So once finally out in Catalonia, it was obviously important to get up there, even if only to say `thankyou’ to Emma somehow for giving me the means to make my first break.

The town of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, as it now is, which stands just along the Ter valley from what is now bustling industrial Ripoll, is far tinier and very very focussed on its tourism industry. As well as Emma, who is remembered here, they make great play with the legend of Comte Arnau, a legendary evil ruler who is supposed to have abducted the abbess and caused the nunnery to collapse as a result. As I mentioned before, Comte Arnau was not real, and the real story of the nunnery’s dissolution is actually even more messy, but I can’t blame them for running with it, any more than I do Nottingham for making the most of Robin Hood. It did mean that a lot of their stuff also has nuns on it, but worryingly racy nuns, with visible ankles as they run through cloisters and so on.

So yup: this is the cloister through which they would have run:

Cloister of the abbey of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The actual abbey, and its attached museum which is rather nice, are extremely small. The nuns and priests must have lived elsewhere in the town, or else, when this thirteenth-century building was done for the Augustinian canons who were by then the occupants, the whole thing was just a smaller concern. This is almost entirely belied by the church to which the cloister is attached, which is a fine example of a particular Catalan architectural theme, squeezing maximum geometrical splendour onto a fairly small ground footprint:

Apse and apsidioles of the west end of the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The nave and apse of the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Here, I believe, the building is late eleventh-century. Still not the church Emma would have known, but probably its immediate replacement. Inside it’s a vast-seeming space that’s actually quite closely bounded, but the massive pillars in the nave, of which there are only two, make it seem as if there is actually much more that simply can’t be seen all at once, and the transept and apsidioles hide small devotional foci that, indeed, you can’t see from the main space, like this one to Guifré:

Memorial to Count Guifré the Hairy in the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

And this church wasn’t even where the people of the town worshipped. It may have been, when first built, but the canons and monks who variously replaced the nuns thought better of their seclusion and instead sent the plebs to a new church, of Sant Joan and Sant Pol (John and Paul—Ringo and George were presumably commemorated at Santa Maria), through this very door here:

Portal of the church of Sant Pol, in Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Unfortunately, due to an earthquake in 1429, going through that door now doesn’t get you very much…

Missing nave and present tower of the church of Sant Pol in Sant Joan de les Abadesses

And after that, the monastery being long gone by then anyway, they let people back into the abbey church. But back over there, or wherever she is actually buried, Emma had rested sound through the whole thing and you can still sort of meet her there:

The memorial stone for Abbess Emma in the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Salute, domina. Gratiam tibi debeo.

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9 responses to “In Marca Hispanica VIII: pilgrimage to see Emma

  1. Lovely place and great pics.

    Re. towns claiming history: there are several towns at the Baltic Sea coast that say Vineta has sunk right at their coast, and hold Vineta festivals and have hotels called Vineta. The tourists don’t really care as long as they can have some ‘Medieaval’ fun. :)

  2. I know just what you mean, but the irony is this town actually has lots of messy history, but the unhistorical story has taken off much more thoroughly!

  3. Same with the Hansa Towns. But obviously, a sunken city tops even a bunch of pirates and the Teutonic Knights – though Störtebekker gets his festival as well where he becomes a Robin Hood of the Baltic Sea, as if his real life wasn’t interesting enough.

  4. I should add that Professor Jordi Bolòs i Masclans has a map of the town up at one of his blogs, which adds nicely to this post.

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