The Norwich artist John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) published numerous etchings of buildings in Norfolk, Yorkshire and also Normandy in France. The Library has a copy of one of his Normandy etchings, showing the chapel of Saint-Julien at Petit-Quevilly near Rouen.
The etching was published in 1820, and depicts a view of the chapel with detailed images of the doorways. It is evident that the building was of architectural interest to Cotman, with the details clearly showing the Romanesque arches of the doors. Indeed, this chapel was built in the late 12th century, and is one of a handful of structures from this period that survive today in and around Rouen. However, while the etching vividly captures the building’s fine architectural features, it does not tell its full story.
The chapel was built by King Henry II of England (1154–89) at a time when the English kings were still the dukes of Normandy. Although the king had it constructed for his royal manor at Petit-Quevilly, soon afterwards he granted the chapel and the manorial complex to a community of female lepers. Charity for lepers was very fashionable in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Henry II supported a number of leper hospitals in Normandy and England. Following the king’s grant, a leper hospital was established on this site, with the chapel serving as its church, in fitting with the instruction of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1179 that all communities of lepers should have their own church, cemetery and priest.
This hospital became known as Salle-aux-Puelles (Maidens’ House), and it is traditionally believed to have catered for high status female lepers. It would have been fitting for such women to worship in a former royal chapel. The building’s interior was also adorned with remarkable wall paintings showing the Infancy of Christ, which survive and were recently restored. While most medieval leper hospitals were mixed communities, their residents were expected to follow a chaste, religious life. The creation of a single sex institution like Salle-aux-Puelles ensured the chastity of the leprous residents.
By 1820, the leper hospital at Petit-Quevilly had long since disappeared, and, following the French Revolution, it was being used as a stable or barn. A visitor in 1832 lamented the ruined state of the building, and in 1869 it was finally granted the official status of a historic monument.
Cotman captures the chapel for us at a particular moment in time, showing the importance of art for charting the history of monuments over the centuries. In his etching it has a thatched roof, which today is replaced by tiles. This serves as an important reminder that historic artefacts (not just buildings but also books, manuscripts and other objects) as we see them today reflect every stage of their history, including recent conservation, restoration or damage. While surviving artefacts, and their artistic representations, powerfully evoke the past, they are also material objects located in the present.
Author: Dr Elma Brenner is Specialist, Medieval and Early Modern Medicine at the Wellcome Library.