Great cities of the Norman World

Caen : topography of a medieval city

Fouilles du vicus gallo-romain de CaenNo structure of any kind that can be dated before 1025 - the year in which Caen was first mentioned in a text – survives above ground within its urban area. Archaeological excavations (1973-1993) mean that the early stages of development of the town are now better understood.

Fouilles d'un cimetière mérovingien, paroisse, Saint-Martin, Caen, VIIe s. Musée de Normandie.An artisan’s settlement (vicus) emerged and developed at the beginning of the 1st century AD. From this time onwards the site was continually occupied. From the 7th century, small churches and oratories were established on the edge of the Roman road which crossed the site: St Martin, St Julien, St Pierre, and St Jean.
This early phase of development was interrupted for at least a century as a consequence of the piratical activities of the Vikings. Although the site itself was probably not directly involved, circumstances were hardly conducive to the expansion of settlement.

Caen aux XIe-XIIe s., le développement des paroisses urbaines.Without it being possible to be more precise, it was towards the mid 10th century, at the time of the great revival of the duchy of Normandy, that the beginning of the second phase of development began which then lasted until the first years of the reign of William the Conqueror. At least four new churches were founded in Caen during this period: St Stephen, which became known as ‘le Vieux’ [the Old] after the building of the abbey for men (Abbaye aux Hommes), St Saviour in the Market (Saint-Sauveur du Marché), St George in the Castle (Saint-Georges du Château) and St Giles. It is probable that on the right bank of the Orne, St Michael, whose worship was spreading during the Carolingian period, also belongs to this time.

The feature of this pivotal period was that all new buildings had the effect of creating out of what already existed a much more densely settled area and the two nuclei of St Martin and St Peter became linked. A large market town therefore grew up on both sides of the two rivers. In addition, there is no doubt that during the 10th century a genuine parish network was formed which was to be completed during the 11th century.
As far as these new developments are concerned, we may refer to the first description we have of Caen, in 1027, in an act of the Duke of Normandy: ‘The town which is called Cathim, on the river Orne, on both banks, with its churches, vines, meadows, mills, with the market, the tonlieu (stall rights) and the port, and all its dependencies’.

L'église Saint-Etienne de CaenIn order to ease the transition from a large anarchically constituted market settlement to an important town, Duke William, with all the money derived from the conquest of England, was to establish two abbeys to the east and west. The abbey for men (Abbaye aux Hommes), with its considerable estates, was to lead to a new extension of the town towards the west. The churches of St Ouen and St Nicholas which were founded to be the heart of the new urban areas, were only moderately successful, as the town had now reached its limits, which it retained until the 19th century. From an architectural point of view, the reigns of William the Conqueror and his sons were marked by the reconstruction of virtually all the older buildings. Furthermore, the number of chapels, often of great quality, increased considerably, thereby giving a new face to what had now become the second capital of Normandy.


previous page  The Anglo-Norman Territories  next page