It is the 14th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1434.
Today we remember the laying of the cornerstone of the great Cathedral at Nantes. So, I thought that I would take this momentous occasion about which you likely knew nothing to talk about two things in particular: Pronunciation and Etymology. You can slow down the pod to 1/2 speed if you really want to savor this seeming obscurantist dive into the Middle Ages. But really, stay with me.
First, what is a Cathedral? Perhaps you could guess "a special big church building." This wouldn't be too far afield, but we can be more precise. Let's break down the most popular names for "church-y" buildings.
First, the word church itself comes from a mixture of Greek, proto-germanic, and Old English. Kyriake or Kyriakon Doma would mean the Lord's House. (Think: "Kyrie" means Lord, and "Oikos" means home.) This becomes "Kirika" in Germanic and "Kirk" in English.
Something smaller than a church is often called a chapel. Why? This is a great story. It is said that Martin of Tours, in the 4th century, while serving as a Roman soldier, passed a beggar. As he did, he remembered Jesus' words about feeding and clothing the poor. As the story goes, he decided to cut his coat in half and give half to the beggar. That night, Martin had a dream in which it was revealed that the beggar had indeed been Christ. Martin built a small church and used it to house the miraculous half-of-a-coat. The word for a little coat? Capella, which would become "chapel." Fun fact: Chapels, or Capellas, are usually small and wouldn't have instruments, so to sing without instruments is to sing in the style of the chapel, that is, a-Cappella.
And then the Cathedral. The word comes from the Roman administrative building that held the seat of power or authority. "Cathedra," which means "seat," could be a literal lounging sofa. Still, the church would officially use "ecclesia cathedralis," meaning the "church seat," or more precisely the "church of a bishop's seat." When one speaks "ex-cathedra," it means that they are communicating with the authority of the Bishop.
It is tough to underestimate the grandeur of these Cathedrals in the Middle Ages. The creation of a Cathedral would ensure that the town would become a center of trade and activity. Consider the height of these buildings and imagine being a Medieval person for whom the building must appear as a kind of miracle. "Cathedral Towns," as they would become known, functioned as capitals before there were capitals. Furthermore, schools would be attached to cathedrals before there were colleges. Cathedral cities were both the capital and the college town.
On this day, the cornerstone for the Cathedral at Nantes was first laid; a couple of things about that.
- It is pronounced "Non" with an emphasis on the first N. And then, at the end of the word, start to pronounce the letter "T" but stop before you do. Congrats. You can also say "Nonce" or "Nance." Fun fact: it rarely matters how you pronounce a foreign word, and people that are picky about it are usually just insecure or a snob.
- Nantes, however you choose to pronounce it, has long held significance first as a Roman commercial center. You may be familiar with the "Edict of Nantes," which was an important document giving religious freedom to Protestants in 1598. The town has long been a center of action and controversy from the French Revolution up through WWII.
And of course, you would already know that it was important because it had a Cathedral. Well, eventually. Although the first stone was laid on this day 587 years ago, the building was not officially completed until 1891. Within decades, the church was bombed during World War II and caught fire in 1972 (and again in 2020). Unlike most castles or other magnificent buildings from days gone by, Cathedrals are often still in use today and used for purposes both ecclesiastical and tourism-related. The Cathedral at Nantes, technically the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, celebrates its 587th birthday today. You can remember that it is, in fact, a church, it contains a chapel, but it is a Cathedral. And now you know.
The reading for today, this month of favorite poems to wrap up our second season, comes from the brilliant Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. We move from the grandeur of the Cathedral to a much more humble building. This is "In A Country Church" by R.S. Thomas.
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind' s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man's body.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher "Chapel of Love" Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan "No Church in the Wild" van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.