The Basilica of the Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains is allegedly the oldest church in France, and one of the oldest in the world. Built between 380 and 395 AD as a Roman spa complex (back when Metz was the Roman city Divodurum) it was one of the few buildings left standing after Attila the Hun conquered the city in 451 AD. In 615, it was converted to a church, becoming the chapel of a Benedictine nunnery.
Charlemagne was fond of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains, and two of his sons were buried there. He liked the city and this church so much, Metz was almost chosen as the capital city of the newly founded Holy Roman Empire, but this honor was instead handed to Aachen.
In 984 AD, the monastery was so full of debauchery that the Bishop of Metz expelled two-thirds of the nuns from the abbey. (I simply found that tidbit of history hilarious. Dirty sexy nuns!)
During the 10th and 11th centuries, Emperor Otto der Große (the most famous medieval German ruler) enriched the abbey. The single room of the ancient Roman building was split into three, with a central nave and side aisles. The church would later receive upgrades like gothic vaults built above the nave and the aisles.
War comes to Metz
In 1552, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V wanted to bring Metz and the Lorraine region back under his control. He laid siege to the city and destroyed around forty religious buildings. Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains was “decapitated” so the army had better line of sight for their cannons firing across the Moselle.
From October until January, an army of 60,000 surrounded the city and its garrison of a mere 6,000 French soldiers. However, like many other would-be conquerors, they failed to capture Metz. 30,000 of Charles V’s men would die (mostly from typhus and dysentery) before the head of House of Habsburg hightailed it back home.
Only nine meters of wall still remained on the monastery. It was such a disaster, the Catholic Church abandoned it. With the French turning Metz into a garrison town, building the Arsenal and barracks nearby, the monastery was absorbed into a series of military buildings. Rather than tear it down, the French army turned the church into a warehouse for their equipment. The partially collapsed walls were flattened out, a new roof was built on top, a second story was added inside the spacious nave, and they “punched out” some windows for ventilation. It would serve as a military warehouse until the 20th century.
Imagine: the oldest church in France … used for storage!
After the First World War, with Metz handed back over to the French government, work on uncovering the past of the church slowed down, lacking funds for digs. By the 1930, the building was in terrible shape, and there were talks about destroying it to build something more sturdy and modern. Luckily, historians delayed that decision since they were still digging up historical artifacts, but it wouldn’t be the last time France flirted with the idea of demolishing the church.
Then World War Two broke out, and Germany once again came into possession of Metz. The Wehrmacht took control of the military buildings in the garrison town, including the “warehouse.” In 1941, German archaeologist Wilhelm Reusch took over the excavations. Due to its ties to Emperor Otto der Große, Nazi Germany hoped that archaeological evidence of Metz being “a German city” would solidify their claims to the region. The Wehrmacht agreed to move out some of the military equipment so archaeologists could rip up the floor, dig into the depths of the church, and see what mysteries were buried.
In 1942, restoration work began, clearing out over a meter of debris shoved up against the walls since the destruction of the steeple in the 1500s. They also tore down the fake second-story floor, got rid of modern defensive walls, and began to rebuild some of the brickwork. Slowly, the building was brought back to a specter of its former glory.
They uncovered artifacts that had been buried since its partial destruction in 1552, like the chancel, which was almost perfectly preserved for centuries and is now in the Musée de la Cour d’Or.
The basilica was classified as a “historic monument” in 1909.
Then, in 1944, Reusch discovered Roman plumbing running under the church. He realized this was not a church built in the 900s, but a Roman spa from around the 300s.
Although this was a great archaeological discovery, and Reusch—a professional lover of history—was excited that such an ancient building was so well preserved, Germany was decidedly less interested in continuing to restore something that was Roman and not German.
The site was abandoned as the Allies approached the city and the Battle of Metz broke out.
The picture here shows the building in 1941 when Reusch first arrived, with added defensive walls and additional windows above the church’s arched windows. The middle is photo after initial restoration work in 1944, with the second story windows removed as the nave was returned to its single spacious size, and modern defensive walls torn down to show the original Roman stone and brick. It was quite impressive, but still “decapitated.” The image to the right is how it appears today, after the steeple and outer wall were reconstructed.
War Comes to Metz … Again
During the Battle of Metz, the Americans knew the church was a Nazi military warehouse, and thus would have been an ideal target; however, historians fought to have the church spared, and pilots were instructed to avoid bombing it. Thanks to the work of preservationists fighting to have historic landmarks saved in times of war, many ancient buildings in Metz survived the war.
Starting in 1946, the city decided to demilitarize many buildings, including the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains. Once again, there were talks about demolishing it, as Metz was tearing down many of their ancient buildings to make room for modernization. Historians fought to defend what was deemed to be the oldest church in France and one of the best preserved Roman constructions in the world.
Finally, in the 1970s, it was decided that the church would be renovated, the steeple that had been missing for 400 years would get reconstructed, and the building was transformed into a concert and exhibition hall.
With a lot of luck (and being defended by lovers of history) the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains survived into the 21st century.
So, why am I so obsessed with this one building? It’s not just because it’s really old, although that makes it fascinating in its own right.
I’m a musician, I studied music in college, and since I’m a nerd, I also studied music history. The Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains is regarded to be “the birthplace of Christian, if not all European, music.” Or at the very least, it’s the birthplace of sheet music.
Birthplace of Sheet Music
Emperor Charlemagne (c. 742-814) loved church music, to the point of making music mandatory learning for both the privately-taught sons of nobles and commoners in public schools. While traveling through his empire, he realized that many regions came up with their own unique styles. Charlemagne believed that conformity led to strength. He wanted to sit down in Aachen, Bavaria, Paris, or Milan, and listen to the same songs he knew by heart, not a remix.
However, there was no sheet music back then. Music was taught word-of-mouth, all melodies had to be memorized, and it often got embellished as different regions added their own flair. Some churches came up with entire new liturgies. Charlemagne sought to eliminate such regional stylistic differences.
To make sure everyone was singing the same way, in 774 Charlemagne went to Rome and asked the Pope to let him borrow a couple of papal singers. One was sent to Soissons, while the other, a singer named Theodore, was sent to Metz.
Charlemagne enjoyed listening to the choir at Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains. He nearly made the city his capital and chief residence. So to him, Metz was one city that definitely needed to sing the songs correctly. Not only did Charlemagne task the papal singer Theodore with teaching the monks of Metz the way Rome sang Gregorian chants, he was also ordered to come up with a way to teach every church in the empire how to sing the chants in the same way.
Basically, Charlemagne ordered him to develop sheet music.
Theodore worked with the church choir, trying to come up with notation that could be marked above the lyrics of a hymn, was easy to learn, and would lay out the contour of the melody for a novice singer to learn.
This early style of music notation is called neumes. It’s why we know today precisely how Gregorian chants sounded 1300 years ago. Funny enough, the invention of sheet music was not lauded as brilliant at the time. It simply solved a need.
As someone who relies on sheet music as my band plays a three-set gig with 75 songs total (and no way can I memorize all 75 perfectly) I tip my hat to Theodore the papal singer and the Mets choir who helped him out.
Today, the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains is primarily used as a concert hall, a fitting tribute to its medieval musical history.
This early version of neumes is called chironomic or “in campo aperto,” written without staff lines, which would be invented later.
Special thanks to “L’archéologie à Metz – Institutions, pratiques et résultats des travaux de Keune à l’archéologie préventive (1896-2008)” and these websites.
- Take a virtual tour of the basilica: https://vimeo.com/29719903