The Lanterns of the Dead

28 August 2017

At some point in the early part of the 12th century, people in the center and west of France began to erect strange constructions – effectively hollow towers with a hole for a lantern at the top - near or in their village graveyards (and before you ask, most were nowhere near the sea).  Although many were moved or destroyed during the revolution, about a hundred survive to this day.  Known as Lanterns of the Dead (Lanternes des Morts) their precise original use is still debated.  However, there are a number of theories surrounding these unusual and enigmatic constructions.

Fenioux - Images

Interior at Fenioux - Image
It is perhaps difficult for us to imagine the impenetrable blackness of medieval night-time: we thrust so much light upwards and outwards that we must use the word pollution to describe its impact on our night sky. Yet in the 1100s, once the candlelit houses of the village had been shuttered for the night those venturing out had to pray for a clear sky.  In the French capital, Paris, a system of street lanterns did not evolve until the late 1500s. Even then, lantern-bearers earned a good living on the streets of Europe until the early nineteenth century, guiding night-time travelers through the dark and winding streets.  Imagine, then, what it must have been like in the countryside. So why did the French place the only significant night-time light near or smack bang in the middle of their graveyards?

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Superstition, perhaps?  Were these hollow towers, usually no more than two or three meters in height, built to guide the souls of the recently departed to their eternal rest?  Perhaps. It is thought that a lamp would be hoisted up at dusk to be a kind of lighthouse for souls.  It was also believed that the light emanating from these lanterns could restrict death to the confines of the graveyard, to stop its personified form seeking out new victims.

Atur, Cherveix-Cubas, Cognac-la-forêtImages 1
Moreover, in times of plague, the flame from the lamp might serve as a way for the villagers to quickly transfer fire to their hearths without coming in to contact with each other – a pestilential pilot light, as it were. People could visit the lantern in isolation so helping to slow or halt the spread of disease.  This sounds plausible enough, no?

Cellefrouin - Images
One would need a Tardis to ascertain the extent to which of these speculative uses were real; the lanterns do not significantly lend themselves to a Planet of the Apes, Statue of Liberty-style revelation except in the most basic of senses.  Plus, as the centuries passed, advances in medical science, not to mention the upheaval of revolution, would obfuscate the true original use of these lanternes des morts.  Those left collectively and gently reclined in to something approaching folklore. Associated with the irrationality of less enlightened times not to mention a plague mythology which highlighted the increasingly comfortable distance between us and the pestilential ravages of medieval Europe, it is perhaps surprising that the above are the tallest of the tales we have about the lanterns.

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As time moved on, churches would remain at the heart of the village but medical advances pointed clinical fingers at the sanitary implications of burying the dead so close to where the living resided.  Graveyards were moved lock, stock and coffin to the periphery of many villages and the lantern of the dead was taken along too.  Then came the revolutionary period of 1789 – 1799. It was a time of enormous social and political upheaval, to say the very least: the new revolutionary authorities suppressed the church; nationalized church property, banned pilgrimages and exiled 30,000 priests, executing hundreds more.  As a symbol of religion, many lanterns were simply toppled, their pieces used in new constructions, leaving at most a hundred standing.

Ironically, although the revolutionaries could discern no contemporary use for the lanterns of the dead, they did soon find that the new-fangled lampposts of Paris and other large towns and cities were a convenient place to hang aristocrats and other adversaries.

Lanterne des morts
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Yet although small in number, the surviving lanterns persisted and would ultimately have their true history rediscovered and their legends duly revised.  To do this, scholars turned to ecclesiastical records and these revealed something they had already suspected. One of them, François Eygun (1898-1973) was unable to find a single reference to lanterns of the dead in any books from the medieval period. Strange.

Chapelle Sainte-Catherine, Fontevraud-l'Abbaye - Image
He did, however, find texts which mentioned what could only be the lanterns. Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny in the twelfth century, wrote: "What occupies the middle of the cemetery is a stone building. It has at its top a cavity which can hold a lamp which, in honor of the faithful who rest there, illuminates this consecrated place every night. There are also degrees by which one ascends to a space sufficient for two or three men to stand or sit."  Where a name is to be found in medieval texts it is simply named as a cemetery lamp.  The term lantern of the dead turned out to be a neologism, coined many centuries after the original lanterns were erected.

Puy-de-Dôme, Château de Dormans, Coussac-Bonneval - Images
Yet even though they had served the purpose of honoring the dead, Eygun’s research uncovered another reason for their construction – one which was no doubt their primary purpose, at least in terms of utility. Incredibly, they are intimately connected with the First Crusade (1095-1099), the first medieval military expedition made by Europeans to recover the Holy Land and one church in particular.  The Church the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Caliph Hakem in 1009.  When the city was seized by crusaders ninety years later in 1099, orders were given for the church to be rebuilt at once.

It would serve to remind the population of Jerusalem who was now in charge. The builders constructed a spiral staircase leading to the top of the building.  There they placed a giant lantern to symbolize the resurrection of Christ which shone over Jerusalem from 1100 till 1187, when the city fell to Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Image Wikimedia
The lantern in the French town of Montmorillon (above) was erected in 1107 – just eight years after Jerusalem’s capture.  The person who ordered its construction and that of the associated funerary chapel, dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre? It was William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, who had just returned from the Holy Land (where he had lost his entire army, save six men). This can hardly be coincidental.

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Interior- Saint Genou - Image
In fact, churches and chapels built in the area during the period directly after the First Crusade are often dedicated to the Holy Sepulcher.  Saint-Genou (above) has a chapel of the Holy Sepulcher and lantern to match, a church in Parthenay is dedicated to the Holy Sepulcher as is one in Fenioux. The evidence for a connection to the First Crusade, while not overwhelming, is vastly superior to the oral history which, however pleasingly satisfactory, could only elucidate the origin story of the lanterns to a limited extent.

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Deux-Sèvres - Image
As such, it is now believed that the majority of the lanterns were erected by local nobility or monastics as an undoubted souvenir of the time they spent on the First Crusade. Specifically, they wished to evoke the presence of the remarkable church in Jerusalem where they worshiped in some awe of its magnificent lantern, the rays of which illuminated the city nightly.  There is, moreover, a definite correlation between the period of time during which the lanterns were developed in France and the era of the Latin Kingdoms in the Holy Land – the first three quarters of the 12th century. Although the concept has been somewhat downsized, perhaps a similar idea can be found in the modern habit of taking home miniature Eiffel Towers from Paris or Leaning Towers from Pisa.

Yet did they have another purpose atop even this?  Yes – in the medieval period utility and sacredness often went hand in hand.  Careful mapping of the original locations of the lanterns indicates that they were sited near ancient roads, particularly those associated with pilgrimages.  It should be noted here that the First Crusade began as a pilgrimage before it descended in to the brutality of a military expedition (but medieval Christian eyes may not have differentiated between them as radically as we might).  So, again, what better to mark the route of a pilgrimage than lanterns which echo the sight to be found at the endpoint of the most desirable of all – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem?

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The route that the French lanterns take does not, of course, terminate in Jerusalem.  Rather they guide travelers towards the city of Santiago de Compostela, the Galician capital in northwestern Spain.  This was one of the most important medieval pilgrimages, after those to Rome and Jerusalem: tradition has it that the remains of Saint James are buried there. Camino de Santiago or The Way of Saint James is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes taken from across Europe to get to the city.  The French lanterns of the dead comprehensively cover a section of one just route.

Cognac-la-Forêt, Haute-Vienne
Cognac-la-Forêt - Image
Spare a thought for William X, however, the chronologically named son of William IX (the one who had quite possibly kick-started the whole lantern trend).  In 1137, ten years after his father’s death, Ten decided to go on the pilgrimage. Perhaps he even started out from Montmorillon where his father’s lantern had been erected.  Yet he never made it to Santiago de Compostela, dying on the road.  He requested that the King of France, Louis VI, give protection to his only daughter and heir, Eleanor, who was just 15.  Louis agreed and married her off to his own son on July 25 of the same year. Louis then promptly died on August 1, meaning that Eleanor’s husband was now King Louis VII and she was the new Queen Consort of France. One can only wonder what was going through Eleanor’s head as this whirlwind of events unfolded.

Lanterne des morts, Fenioux
Fenioux - Image
This aside, its can only be hoped that most pilgrims who traveled the route arrived safely at their destination. The lights of the lanterns along their way must have given them much comfort and no doubt amplified their religious fervor as they traveled towards their Spanish destination.  And while the original purpose of the lanterns of the dead may have been clouded over the centuries by a more sensational reputation, abetted by the upheavals of plague and revolution, their true original purpose has been revealed for those who like to dig a little deeper.  In truth they will inevitably mean whatever they will mean to any individual who wishes to weave a story around their impassive presence, their extraordinary tenacity, their connection with both the spiritual and the superstitious, the living and the dead - and time will simply move on as carelessly as it has ever done.

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Thank you to the articles below for inspiration for this feature
Les Lanternes des Morts by Francis Cahuzac
Les Lanternes des Morts by Emile Boutin


First Image Credit


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