Last modified: 2022-07-04 by ivan sache
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Flag of Chelles - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 24 September 2021
The municipality of Chelles (55,154 inhabitants in 2019, therefore the department's second most populated municipality; 1,590 ha) is located 20 km east of Paris.
Paleolithic artifacts were discovered by chance at Chelles by the pioneering anthropologist Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet (1821–1898), who named the corresponding Paleolithic tool industry Chellean or Chellian, nowadays Oldowan.
Chelles was already a small town in the Gaulish period: an old cemetery was discovered in 1902 at the place called La Chapelle de Souffrance. The inhabitants practiced animal husbandry, cultivated barley and wheat, and traded on river Marne. In the early 6th century Clovis, King of the Franks and ruler of the north of Gaul, stayed in Chelles as the court moved. After his death, his widow, Clotilde, retired to Chelles where she founded a small womens' monastery. In 584, Chilperic, Clovis and Clotilde's grandson, was murdered in Challes. During the Merovingian era, rulers frequently stayed in Chelles, which was considered by some to be the "capital" of France. Chelles was the site of the royal archives and treasures. In the middle of the 7th century, Queen Balthild, widow of Clovis II, after having exercised the regency for some time, retired to Chelles. Under her leadership, Clotilde's small convent became in 656 an abbey. Until the end of the 18th century, the history of Chelles was linked to that of the royal abbey. At the end of the 8th century Abbess Gisela, Pippin the Short's daughter and Charlemagne's sister, decided on the construction of a basilica, which was visited in 798 by the future emperor. Several foreign rulers retired to the abbey of Chelles during the centuries of its existence.
The inhabitants of Chelles mainly exercised trades linked to the land (wine growers, mowers, shepherds, butchers), crafts (masons) and in particular crafts dependent on the Abbey (skin workers, goldsmiths, candlesticks and lamps). Among the outstanding figures of the Middle Ages, Jehan de Chelles, one of the architects of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, can be mentionned.
During the Hundred Years' War the nuns withdrew to Paris. >hen returning, they found the town sacked and the monastery devastated. The abbess asked King Charles VI for permission to fortify the town. In May 1430, Joan of Arc and French troops fought the Anglo-Burgundians in the plain of Vaires, near Chelles.
In the 17th century the village of Chelles organized two annual fairs and weekly markets. At that time, many young Parisians were placed by nannies in Chelles. In the first half of the 18th century the abbess was Madame Louise-Adélaîde d'Orléans, daughter of the Regent and therefore granddaughter of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. Under her tenure, Chelles was a real royal residence.
The abbey was closed in 1790. Before being sold as national property in 1796, it was looted, while the library and archives were dispersed or burnt.
Olivier Touzeau, 20 November 2020
The flag of Chelles (photo,
photo) is white with a dark blue emblem composed of a shield derived from the municipal coat of arms, "Quarterly, 1. and 4. Azure a fleur-de-lis or, 2. and 3. Argent a ladder sable in bend", with the mural crown, oak leaves and laurel leaves, and War Cross 1939–1945.
The arms were originally those of the abbey, reported by Charles Torchet (
The ladder is first documented on a seal of the abbey used in 1300. In 1788, the newly formed municipality used a circular seal featuring two ladders crossed in saltire and cantonned with three fleurs-de-lis, two in chief and one in base.
[Rotary Chelles Marne et Chantereine]
Stones engraved with the abbey's coat of arms used as border markers to delimit the vast territory ruled by the abbey. The stones were of critical significance in the southern lands located in Noisy and Le Vaudoué, where the abbess' jurisdiction was challenged by the counts of Milly. In 1260, the Parliament confirmed the rights of the abbey against Philippe de Milly; in the 16th century, the conflict was still vivid, although all cases had been arbitrated in favor of the abbey.
Charles Torchet reported in 1889 that a few stones erected to delimit the abbey's domain were still found in the fields, engraved with a scale. Interest for these stones, however, resumed only in the 1970s when they were surveyed and recorded by local archeologists. Gilbert-Robert Delahaye reported variations in the design of the arms on the stones: the full arms were sometimes used, but also sketchy designs featuring only a ladder and a crozier in different arrangements.
For whatever reason, the six stones surveyed in the disputed area have an even more simpler representation of the arms, usually a ladder surmounted by a hook representing the crozier. The design, probably evolved from the complete design used near Chelles, is so sketchy that some of the stones were only recently recognized as border markers erected by the abbey of Chelles. The most striking of these stones is the menhir of Pierre aux Prêtres (Priests' Stone), registered as an historical monument on 10 February 1913; erected on the border between the municipalities of Tousson and Noisy, the menhir was subsequently engraved with a "hooked ladder". The drawing was published in 1975 by Louis Girard and Philippe Gavet, who did not propose any interpretation; identification of the "hooked ladder" with the abbey of Chelles was proposed only in 2017 by Michel Rey.
Datation of the stones used as border mark is not an easy task. Chartularies mention early delimitations in the 13th century. The stones featuring the complete version of the arms of the abbey could be dated to the delimitation performed in 1755.
The interpretation of the crozier is straightforward: the crozier is both the outer ornament of the shield of a bishop, an abbot or an abbess and the symbol of an ecclesiastic jurisdiction. A portrait shows Louise Adélaïde d'Orléans, abbess of Chelles from 1719 to 1734, with a crozier in the background.
The ladder is unknown to French heraldry, except in the arms of the neighboring town of Le Vaudoué, as a reference to Chelles, while it is found in German and Spanish heraldry, as a device used to assault fortified towns and fortresses.
In the Middle Ages, the ladder of justice was a kind of pillory used for public exposition of convicts; this practice, abolished in France only in 1832, is recalled in Paris by Ladder Street. Accordingly, the arms of the abbey could represent the religious and civil powers exerted by the abbess. This hypothesis is, however, not solid because the ladder is not used in any other religious body.
In Antiquités de Paris (1612), Du Breuil claims that Chelles was named for Latin scalae, "a ladder". As reported by Torchet, a ladder appeared to St. Balthild, the abbey's founder, short before her death. This would explain the presence of the ladder on the shield. L. Michelin (Essais historiques et statistiques sur le département de Seine-et-Marne, Vol. 3, 1841) debunked this convenient etymology, pointing out that the place was known as Cala, Villa Cala, Villa Calensis in the 6th century, long before the establishment of the abbey. The name of Chelles would be related to the Celtic root *cala / *kala, "a cleared place".
A simpler explanation of the odd use of the ladder is the fad for canting arms that started in the 12th century. The arms of the abbey of Chelles are given as an example of such canting arms in Claude-François Ménestrier's famous heraldry treatise (La nouvelle méthode raisonnée du blason, 1754).
[M. Rey. 2018. Les bornes de l'abbaye de Chelles dans le Gâtinais : un réexamen. Noisy-sur-École, Tousson, Le Vaudoué, Boissy-aux-Cailles (Seine-et-Marne). Bulletin du GERSAR 72, 45-55]
The foundation of the abbey is related in Vita Bathildis, the hagiography of St. Balthild, which was written short after the saint's death in 680/681 and published in 1888 by B. Krusch (M.G.H., Scriptores rerum merovingiarum (SRM) 2, 475-508). Written in often erroneous Latin, the text was corrected and increased in the first third of the 9th century. An Anglo-Saxon slave sold to Mayor of the Palace Erchinoald (d. 658), Balthild refused to marry him; through her humility and charity, she became queen consort after her marriage with King Clovis II. After the king's death in 657, she acted as the regent during the young age of her son Chlothar III (652-673), Together with Bishop of Paris Chrodobert, Abbot of the Palace Genêt, Bishop of Rouen St. Ouen and Mayor of the Palace Ebroin, she worked for the "honor" of the kingdom of the Franks and the "concord" between the three rival components, Austrasia, Burgundy and Neustria. Balthild also cleansed the religious practices of the time, prohibiting simony and the sale of Christian slaves on outer markets; she also founded two prominent abbeys in Corbie and Chelles.
In Chelles, Balthild increased in 657/660 the cenobiolum (small monastery) founded by St. Clotilde in the royal villa and built a new church dedicated to the Holy Cross. The new foundation was granted to nuns led by Abbess Berthild (d. 692), coming from the neighboring abbey of Jouarre.
The cause of the retirement of Balthild in Chelles in 665/666 is presented quite confusingly in her hagiography. Balthild had allegedly thought to her retirement, but was asked by her political councilors to postpone it. They eventually allowed her to leave the power only after "troubles caused by unfortunate bishop Sigobrandus ended with his murder by the Franks due to his insolence". Nothing is known about Sigobrandus, who might have been a councilor of Balthild; the hagiographer subsequently writes that "scared by punishment, the councilors allowed" the regent to retire in Chelles, but "undoubtedly, they acted by malevolence". It seems that the regent was indeed forced to leave the power, probably by Ebroin, who is quite oddly not mentioned in this episode of the hagiography. The hagiography concludes that "Balthild eventually believed it was God's will".
In compliance with the hagiographic style, Balthild's death turned to be supernatural. Short before her death, Balthild has the vision of herself climbing on a ladder heading to the heavens, helped by angels. Her goddaughter died a few instants before her.
Balthild's sanctity was officially proclaimed on 17 March 833 when her body was translated to the "new church", behind the altar, upon order of King Louis the Pious (r. 814-830) and in presence of Erchanradus, Bishop of Paris.
[Robert Folz. 1975. Tradition hagiographique et culte de sainte Bathilde, reine des Francs. Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 119:3, 369-384]
Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 3 October 2021