Paris: religion

Origins / General

Clovis converted Paris to a Christian city. Most of the religious institutions of Paris grew up around the Left Bank of the Seine, where a hill called the Mountain of Saint Geneviève overlooks the river. There, a series of monasteries established themselves, first during the Merovingian Dynasty with the monastery of Saint Laurent [4]. Other religious schools followed suit, with the founding of the Abbey of St. Geneviève (itself merged from two existing schools) and the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés [8]. Much later, the Abbey of Saint-Victor would emerge in the same spot. These schools were all outside of the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Paris and reported directly to the Pope in Rome. However, the Bishop of Paris tended to agree with governmental matters, as did the churches on the Île de la Cité in the center of Paris. There, the original cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was ordered constructed in 528 by Childebert I next to the existing Church of Saint-Étienne, the first Christian church in the city [3]. This cathedral was easily within reach of the main governmental facilities on the same island. Its proximity to these buildings gave it an influence over the government. Ultimately, the old cathedral was ordered demolished to make way for the one we know today in 1163 [3].

Saint Denis, with original north tower


Many ecclesiastical synods took place in Paris, with especially noteworthy councils occurring in 552 and 829. The Council of 552 was initiated by Childebert, who was King at the time. Bishops gathered in Paris to try its bishop Saffaracus for an unknown but serious crime. The bishops themselves had travelled to Paris from many different places, some of which were very far off [9]. Paris must have been connected enough to the larger world to allow each of the bishops to come and a notable enough religious center for Childebert to select it for the meeting place. Later on, Louis the Pious created the Council of 829, most likely by imperial order, and attended the proceedings himself. Bishops were called together to discuss the issue of iconoclasm and the proper use of images in worship. The decisions were recorded in three manuscripts which discussed the conduct and expected virtues of many of the figures who would be involved in religious business, including clergymen, kings, and laymen who worked with the clergy [5, 9]. The choice of Paris as a gathering point for so many religious figures involved in making important decisions points to its status as, if not the thriving religious center it would become, a recognized force. Not only that, but the councils range over a broad time period suggesting that Paris maintained influence over many centuries.

Abbots and Monks

One of the most notable religious figures from Paris was Hilduin. Hilduin was the Abbot of the St. Denis monastery and arch-chaplain to Louis the Pious. St. Denis was an important abbey that was patronized by the Merovingian and Carolingian kings including Louis the Pious [1]. The official patron of the monastery was St. Dionysius (also known as Dionysius the Areopagite, Pseudo-Dionysius, or Saint Denis) who was converted to Christianity by Saint Paul and became a bishop of Paris. He was ordained and sent into Gaul in a time when there was great worry about heretics and was eventually martyred [2]. His connection to the monastery gives it a connection to apostolic history, linking Paris with the beginning moments of Christianity. In 827, Louis the Pious sent Hilduin a Greek codex with works supposedly written by Dionysius. The codex supposedly caused many healings upon its arrival. Hilduin portrayed the book as something that caused miracles, thereby making the book a religious artifact [1]. The more prestigious the gift from Louis was the more it reflected well on the monastery. Hilduin used the codex to build the cult of St Denis and thereby raised the influence of the religious community in Paris. He was asked by Louis to collect information on St. Dionysious and went on to write the Passiones Dionysii which further augmented the monastery’s reputation. Louis and Hilduin had an extended correspondence which was a sign of both his and the monastery’s significance [1].

The monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was another influential religious institution in the Paris area. The life of Usuard, a monk and grammarian at the monastery, gives some clues as to the details religious life at the time. He wrote a martyrology which is known for being well done and covering a broad range of topics. It would become the basis for Roman martyrology. The breadth of information included in the writings shows that the monastic library must have been comprehensive [9]. It was, in fact, known to contain a broad collection of religious and secular works [7]. However, Usuard also traveled in France, Italy, and Spain to collect sources [9]. His ability to travel extensively means that the monastery, and Paris in general, must have been well connected. The introduction of the martyrology claims it was written at the behest of Charles the Bald and, though this is impossible, Charles was personally interested in the project and helped spread it around the kingdom [9]. Once again, the interest of the king in the monastery demonstrates its importance. Abbo, another monk from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, is known for producing an eyewitness account of the Viking assault on Paris in 885-886 called the Bella Parisiacae Urbis. The first two books glorify the Viking’s resistance and Odo, who had been King since 888. Abbo was educated by Aimoin, another monk [9]. Aimoin himself chronicled many of the abbey’s goings on as well as writing hagiographies, histories, and the stories of various miracles. He was in charge of the abbey’s scriptorium and archive [6]. These monks place Paris as a site of manuscript production and various important texts.

Drawing of Saint Denis


Education in Paris was focused primarily in monasteries and most teachers were religious figures. Both Abbo and Aimon of Saint-Germain-des-Prés mentioned above taught in the monastery. Students often came to Paris to complete their education like Odo, who went to Paris and studied the liberal arts under Remi in course of his studies. By 1077, people were staying in Paris specifically for the schools and in the 11th C young foreign clerics were gathering there. There were several great teachers, including Drogo who was also archdeacon of Paris. Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint Geneviève, and Notre Dame all acted as schools [7]. Overall, the religious community of Paris also served as a popular educational community, drawing important students and known for both its resources and its teachers.


  1. “Books, Bones, and Bodies: Hilduin of Saint-Denis and the Relics of Saint Dionysius.” The Ends of the Body: Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013) Pp. 25-60.
  2. Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1974.
  3. “Historique De La Construction.” Institution de Notre Dame de Paris. Accessed March 11, 2019.
  4. MacErlean, Andrew. “St. Genevieve.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Accessed March 08, 2019.
  5. McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895. London: Swift Printer Ltd, 1977.
  6. The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 1 ed, edited by Robert E. Bjork. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  7. Richè, Pierre. Ecoles et enseignement dans le haut Moyen Age. Picard, 1989.
  8. “Saint-Denis: a Town in the Middle Ages.” Ministère de la Culture (France). September 15, 2006. Accessed March 11, 2019.
  9. Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Frankish Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.


  1. Wendy Erickson

    I found this part in one of the books I was looking at it might be of use to you:

    About 451: “The Huns’ entry into Gaul started with the destruction of Trier and the burning of Metz. The army swept westward, sacking towns, laying waste farmlands , murdering and raping. … he was turned aside from Paris by Saint Genevieve, who led the people of the city in a crusade of prayer and fasting (and consequently became the patron saint of Paris);”
    (The Birth of France, Katherine Scherman 1987).

    1. hicker

      Thank you so much! I’ll look into the book.

  2. hicker

    Hey Peter,

    I went to talk to Bill on Thursday and some of the things he suggested we search for were locations and monasteries associated with Paris (Notre Dame, St. Denis), Peter Abelard (a philosopher who comes to Paris), education within monasteries, the building of various religious structures, and Abbo of Saint Germaine.

    Some books that I have that seem useful are “The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895” by Rosamond McKitterick, “The Frankish Church” by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, and “Medieval Latin Texts and their Transmission” by Paolo Chiesa and Lucia Castaldi. Another document is

  3. hicker

    Some things I still haven’t found much information on: Peter Abelard and Aimoin of Saint-Germain

  4. hicker

    Ecoles et enseignement dans le haut Moyen Age. Fin du Ve s. – milieu du Xle by Pierre Riché paris 1989

    abbo and imo of saint germaine
    taught in the monastery
    students come to paris to complete their instruction
    early 10th C instructed in dialectic and music
    odo read the dialectics and read liberal arts stuff
    taught by a remi
    abbo of fleury (where aethelwold sends monks) (center of benedictine monasticism)
    preaches on the end of the world
    someone fled to paris to be educated at saint genevieve and became a teacher in the cloister
    young foreign clerics gathered in paris (11th C)
    saint germaine du près as an education center
    someone stays in paris “for the sake of the schools” (1077) implies presence of schools
    lambert of short becomes famous in teaching at beginning 11th C (dead by 1028-1033)
    worse from poor birthplace, gave lessons for profit and gained money by teaching the youths
    ~1040 master albert archdeacon dies
    “grammaticus” 10th or 11th C
    drogo – archdeacon of paris as a great teacher
    hard to tell what schools people attended
    saint germaine and saint genevieve and notre dame definitely had educational purposes
    catalog of the books of saint germaine – many secular books and religious books


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