The Legend of Saint-Denis and an Early History of the Basilica (by AL)

The legend of Saint-Denis, first bishop of Lutetia (Roman Paris), is a complex and controversial tale of a decapitated martyr. A man so imbued with Christian faith and devotion that immediately after his execution he was able to carry his severed head and recite psalms as he made a two-mile journey from Montmartre to his now famous resting place. The primary myth describes him as Denis or Dionysius the Areopagite who converted to Christianity in Athens under the Apostle Paul. Following Paul's death, Pope Clement I sent from Rome a contingent of bishops, including Dionysius and two companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, on a mission to Gaul to convert the pagans. Once in France, the Emperor Domitian persecuted all Christians and Dionysius and his friends were the first to be arrested, tortured and then decapitated on the slopes of Montmartre. Soldiers were ordered to throw the bodies of Rusticus and Eleutherius into the Seine but a noble woman named Catulla easily inebriated the Roman soldiers, stole the bodies and reunited all three men for a proper burial where she erected a small monument in their honor. The monks of Montmartre, in the 7th century, believed their residence to be the true site of his execution but evidence from early texts say it took place in Catulliacum or present day Saint-Denis. There is archeological evidence of a large Roman building and pagan and Christian cemeteries. The strategic location of Saint-Denis on the north road close to Paris and close to the Seine, would have presumably been a good location for a Roman castrum (Crosby7) or guardpost and camp. 'Normally, an execution such as Denis' decapitation would in Roman times take place outside of a city in an armed camp' (Crosby 7).

Saint-Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, is named as the one who inspired the building of the church in her devotion to the first Parisian martyr. But, it is Dagobert I who is considered the founder of the Saint-Denis Basilica. He is also responsible for seeding its reputation as the royal abbey. His patronage and generosity to the church in the 7th century allowed for its first major enlargement. Its incarnation as the first Gothic cathedral would come in the 12th century with the influence of Abbot Suger. Before Dagobert's interest, the Merovingian dynasty favored Saint-Germain-des-Pres. A few royal burials took place before his alterations, but after his death the basilica became known as the burial place of kings. 'By the end of the tenth century there were more royal tombs at Saint-Denis than in any other locality' (Crosby 9).

Dagobert also economically invigorated Saint-Denis by establishing the 'Foire de la Saint-Denis' (Crosby 10) in 635 or 636. This fair was very important as it drew foreign merchants to the area and was a precursor for later events like the Saint-Mathias and Lendit fairs. Thus, not only was pilgrimage to Saint-Denis owed to the miraculous legend of its namesake martyr but it was an important commercial center as well.