About 2 weeks ago, we stayed in the city of Poitiers in western France, taking classes at the ENSEMA campus located at Futuroscope just outside of the city. Poitiers was quite different than many of cities we had visited thus far during the program. Unlike Marseille, Poitiers has much older architecture. Unlike Carcassonne, Poitiers walls were destroyed and left to rot and not much of the original walls still exist today. Poitiers has its own personality and its own culture, different in many ways and distinct from many of the cities around France.
Located in western France, the city of over 90,000 inhabitants is located in a very strategic region, which made it a very important city during the Middle Ages. Poitiers was controlled by the Romans for a large period of time within the last 2 millennium, resulting in architecture derived from Roman design and culture. Many Roman artifacts were found in the town including old Roman baths, aqueducts, and tombs. The town was of extreme importance to the Roman Empire and may have even been the capital of the empire during the 2nd century. 3 centuries after the death of Christ, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and proceeded to convert the empire to the new religion, including the evangelization of Poitiers.
During the Middle Ages, the defensive advantages of the city were exploited. One of the world’s pivotal moments took place near Poitiers. It was said to be the location of one of the first Christian victories over Muslim power. During the 16th century, the town was under constant siege for 7 weeks and was still standing at the end. It survived the Hundred Year’s War and it has stood the test of time, even through multiple wars on religion that took place throughout France. Even the University, founded in the early 15 century, still stands today.
The city once served as the home of the parliament for France during the Hundred Years War, and the university continues that tradition through their law degree along with a focus on the sciences, history, languages, and economics. The university has modernized over the years and several other universities have sprung up around the town. The city is also the location of ENSMA, the ISAE campus that we took courses in during our stay. The city center holds many festivals throughout the year and is the center music, art, and culture for the city. The center was utilized for various purposes throughout the centuries including a center for executions, as barracks for various militaries, and a source of hope for the people of the town throughout the millennium.
When surveying the city of Poitiers, it quickly becomes obvious that the history of the city has been heavily influenced by Catholicism. Nowhere is this more obvious though, than in the major city landmarks, which reads more as a list of Catholic churches than otherwise. Of all of these churches, the most famous one is, as is common in France, Notre Dame la Grande. Construction started on the church in the 11th Century AD, and was built in the Romanesque style. Over time, the church was enlarged and remodeled, just like most of its brethren. It was first enlarged in the 12th Century, and then again in the 13th Century. What is unique about this church, though, is that the 13th Century remodel was done in the Gothic style, providing an interesting contrast in architecture. Beyond its somewhat unusual architectural mix, that church also houses a famous statue, the Virgin with the Keys. This statue, an image of the Virgin Mary holding the keys to the city, was built in the 19th Century and represents a local legend. This legend states that when the British besieged the city in 1202, the Mayor’s clerk tried to steal the keys and open the city to the invaders in return for monetary remuneration. When he tried to steal the keys, though, they were missing. The Mayor also realized that they were missing and went to Notre Dame la Grande to pray. There, he found the keys hanging on the hand of the statue of the Virgin. Furthermore, the English had fled during the night, terrified by the appearance of the Virgin.
Still, though Poitiers may be filled with a multitude of famous churches, it does have other landmarks, the most iconic of which is the Hotel de Ville. It was originally built in the 1860s to serve as the city hall. The Hotel de Ville was built in the post-revolutionary style, abstaining from any mention of the church or Christendom at all. Instead, the two statues the flank the clock are representative of Agriculture and Science. This revolutionary sentiment extends to the square in front of the building as well, where the only statues are pieces of modern art designed to be sat upon.
Overall, the city of Poitiers is one unique city, with a rich history and strong culture. Furthermore, it is easy to see the juxtaposition of the new and the old in the city from the modern university to the ancient churches and to the post-revolutionary city hall. Unlike many of the cities we had toured during the program, Poitiers had its only culture and its own unique history. The city stands as a proud example of old and new living side by side harmoniously.