Saint-Martin de Moissac. Source: Wikipedia

St. Martin in Moissac – the Oldest Church in France

In late Antiquity, a Roman bath fell into disuse in Moissac. Soon after, the church of St. Martin (Saint-Martin de Moissac) was built inside the ruins while a cemetery was laid out outside. The church is considered to be one of the earliest churches constructed in France.

Saint-Martin De Moissac. Source: Pinterest
Saint-Martin De Moissac. Source: Pinterest

Moissac is generally considered a sleepy little town on the northern bank of the river Tarn immediately after its confluence with the confluence with the Garonne. Were it not for its Romanesque Abbey it might very well be overlooked. However, visitors should also make a detour for another reason: St. Martin. Regarded as one of the oldest churches in France, it deserves a visit.

In the beginning, there was a bathhouse belonging to Roman Villa. Identified by its system of hypocausts and basins, this edifice seems to have fallen into disuse sometime in the 4th century. The Roman Villa is believed to have been located on the hill behind, with a view overlooking the river.

Later in the 6th century, a chapel or church was built reusing the foundation and the walls of the bath. The Roman fabric has been identified up to nine metres indicating that the early chapel was more or less constructed by reusing a building, which was still standing. The choir thus covered the area occupied by the tepidarium and the caldarium, while the nave corresponds to the frigidarium. It is possible the hexagonal plunge basin served as a baptismal pool, thus indicating that Saint-Martin functioned as more than a just a funerary chapel in the midst of the cemetery, which was partly excavated during a campaign in 2012. Numerous stone coffins have been found from the 7th to the 9th century.

Moissac lies on the french part of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. A mural of St. James in Saint Martin in Moissac. Source: tourist office
Moissac lies on the french part of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. A mural of St. James in Saint Martin in Moissac. Source: tourist office

In the later Carolingian period, the church was endowed with relics stemming from Saint Ansbert, who had been archdeacon at Rouen and Abbot and Fontanelle. At this point, the dedication of the church shifted to be named after him. It is not uncommon that funerary chapels would later be turned into proper parochial churches

Around the 11th century, the chapel turned into a church used for the local community until the 18th century. Part of it still holds interesting murals from the later Middle Ages.

The chapel was nearly torn down in 1922 when a railroad was built at the back of the building. Locals succeeded in preserving the monument, but the surroundings were unfortunately destroyed and the aim of the latest excavations, which was to date the exact time, when the baths were turned into a chapel eluded the archaeologists. Unfortunately, no coins or other material was discovered which might help with a more precise date.

The church at Moissac is definitely unique. However, it was by far not the only paelo-Christian church, which was built on the fringes of the old Roman villas, which littered the countryside in the 4th and 5th centuries until they gradually lost out to the new patterns of agricultural exploitation, which took over in the Early Middle Ages.

Notre Dame de Baudes near Labastide-du-Temple

Less than ten km to the east of Moissac lies a small bastide, Le Bastide-du Temple. Here a church, last mentioned in the 17th century, was recently identified by ground penetrating radar survey. Probably in use for more than 1100 years, its proximity to a Gallo-Roman villa of the 3rd and 4th centuries indicate a close linkage between the two sites. This villa was discovered in 1956, when a superb mosaic covering a floor, 7 x 5 metres, was stumbled upon by an amateur archaeologist.

In 2014 a large scale survey of the area was undertaken as part of the construction of a TGV train line between Toulouse and Paris. As part of this, the villa was soon located. However, the church, which was witnessed by archival material eluded the archaeologists until a radar survey was able to pinpoint the site.

This church was found along the shore of the river on silty bottomland soil. Flooding had regularly taken place, and as the farmer had only seldom ploughed deeply, it was estimated that the walls might be reaching up to 25 cm above the floor.  The archaeologists concluded that the church might very well have been built in close connection to the villa, perhaps reusing a foundation as was the case at Moissac. Other examples of such churches built near or on top of Roman villas can be found at other villas in the region.

Lalonquette in Bern and Seviac in Gers

Seviac near Montréal de Gers. Church can be seen to the left. Source: Wikipedia
Seviac near Montréal de Gers. Church can be seen to the left. Source: Wikipedia

The villa at Lalonquette was located in the valley of the river Gabas. Excavations from 1958 – 1972 revealed a residence complete with baths and a gallery, which gave the view over the river. There was also a curved portico with a garden. Sometime after the c. 450, the villa was fitted with a Christian sanctuary.

More, however, may be seen at Seviac, 100 km west of Moissac, where a large luxurious Gallo-Roman villa near Montréal-du-Gers was built in the Augustan era. Later the villa was partly reconstructed on a larger scale. The site witness to how the landed gentry lived in the 4th and 5th century.

With a gallery constructed of Pyrenean marble columns and more than 30 preserved mosaics, the residential area covered an area app. 110 x 120 m. From a second courtyard, there was access to a bath with running water and an indoor pool, covering an additional 500 m2. It is one of the largest private baths known. To the east of the residence was a funeral monument constructed along the road. The owner apparently emphasized its more public side, installing mosaics and building a reception room with the layout of a basilica. Towards 500 BC a room to the southeast was turned into a baptistery, connected to a church and cemetery. Finally, in the 7th century, the palace was taken over by a peasant community, which had a new church erected further to the east. (The place is currently closed (March 2017) but is expected to open at the end of the year).

Valentine at Haute Garonne

His body bound fast by eternal slumber, here lies Nymfius, his pious soul enjoying heaven. His soul looks upon the stars while the silence of the tomb embraces his limbs, and his holy faith trampled upon the sad darkness of death. In return for the merits of your virtue, your destined fame carried you to the stars, bringing you to heavens on high. Immortal you shall be, for your glory will live and thrive with much praise through peoples (generations) to come. The entire province honored you as its own parent, and public vows desired life for you; the public services (games) formerly given at your expense received expressions of joy throughout rows of cheering people.

Through you, your fatherland that nurtured you summoned the council of the chief men, saying that it spoke more solemnly through your mouth. Public mourning (grief) now afflicts the bereaved cities, and the confused fathers sit like an anxious crowd, as with the loss of the head the numb limbs grow stiff, and as with the loss of its leader the powerless flock mourns. Oh husband, as a small consolation of her immense grief, Serena, full of sadness, dedicates this inscription on the tomb to you. She, always present as the inseparable sharer of your couch, devoted herself single-mindedly to you through eight lustra. Sweet was life with you. Your wife, keenly desiring eternal light, hopes that this life be short.

Translation: Town, Country and Province in Late Roman Gaul: the Example of CIL XIII 128. By H. S. Sivan. In: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 79 (1989) 103 – 113.

This villa was probably just as impressive as those at Lalonquette and Seviac. Built in the 4th century, it had the largest hypocaust in the region. Unfortunately, part of it was destructed when a canal was dug, and the total layout is not known. On the other hand, the place can be precisely dated, as a milestone from Constantine was discovered, as was also the inscription plaque of the funeral monument of its former owner, Nymfius; reused as an altar table in the local church, the plaque holds an intriguing inscription, which has often been considered Paleo-Christian. Part of this identification rests on four incised crosses. These may, however, have been incised at a later time, when the monumental slab was moved to the church. Also, the inscription mirrors poetry from Late Antiquity, and the identification has been challenged. Recently, however, Hagith Sivan conducted a close and comparative reading of the text and found that it was definitely Christian.

Gallo-Roman Villa at Valentine, Haute-Garonne, Occitanie
Gallo-Roman Villa at Valentine, Haute-Garonne, Occitanie. Source: Pinterest

Naturally, this invites us to explore the text closer, a feat, which Sivan obligingly enough has carried out for us. Sifting through the expressions in the text, he tells us that Nymfius in all likelihood fulfilled the role of a patronus provinciae of Novempopulana (the region) as well as that of patronus civitatis for Lugdunum Covenarum (now Saint-Bertrand de Comminges). Here another early Paleo-Christian basilica was recently excavated. More precisely, Nymfius emphasised as having been the local representative at the Council of Novempopulana before the edict of Honorius in AD 418.

But where was the chapel or church at his villa located?  The site was excavated between 1940 and 1980. As part of these excavations, the archaeologist identified a complex 50 m south of the residence, which he claimed consisted of a Roman temple measuring 34 x 45 metre. According to Fouet, it was dedicated to Jupiter and a local deity, Bouccus.

Fouet further claimed that a small funeral sanctuary or chapel was erected in the 4th century, inside of which the mausoleum of Nymfius was erected. He also insisted that this was destroyed by Vandals and that it was not until the 6th century a small Merovingian church was built ten metres further to the south, measuring no more than 5 x 6 metres. Later, several churches were erected, the latest of which was a Romanesque church, which survived until 1739. The cemetery, though, had already been abandoned in 1287, when the locals moved to the nearby bastide, founded in 1287. All in all the archaeologists, who originally excavated the site, believe they found five different sanctuaries, beginning with a family mausoleum and ending with a Romanesque church.

However, renewed excavations and studies by Marie-Geneviève Colin have led to a somewhat simpler conclusion. It is now believed that the so-called temple or perhaps banqueting hall was, in fact, the grand mausoleum of Nymfius, which was intended to set its mark near the road leading through the countryside to his city, Lugdunum Covenarum, known now as Saint-Bertrand de Comminges. Later, the mausoleum was used as a burial ground for Christians, but the precise date of the transition from a pagan to a Christian worldview eludes the archaeologists. As to the smaller “mausoleum”, it is now believed to have been the transept of the later church. The identification of the early fragments of sculpture as Paleo-Christian studies has shown that a precise date cannot be achieved.

Luckily, though, we still possess the inscription of Nymfius, indicating that Christianity did indeed arrive early at the Villa in Valentine, in the late 4th century. Even though the multiple “churches” can no longer be securely identified, we still get a sense of a place in rapid transition.

The plaque can now be seen at the “Musée Saint-Raymond” in Toulouse.

Inscription of Nymfius from Valentine
Inscription of Nymfius from Valentine. © Musée Saint-Raymond, musée des Antiques de Toulouse / Photo J.-F. Peiré.


Etude archéologique de l’ancienne église Saint-Martin, Moissac
By Lefebvre, B., Posthomis, N., Sédilleau, J.
Université de Toulouse – Le Mirail, Toulouse 2013

Discovery and appraisal of the early Christian church of Notre Dame de Baudes near Labastide-du-Temple, France
By Ted L Gragson, Florent Hautefeuille, Victor D. Thompson and David S. Leigh
In: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6 (2016) pp. 584 – 593

Town, Country and Province in Late Roman Gaul: the Example of CIL XIII 128
By H. S. Sivan
In: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 79 (1989) 103 – 113.

Valentine. Découvertes acheologiques.
By Fouet Georges.
In: Bulletin Monumental (1983) Vol 141, pp. 297 – 299.

Christianisation et peuplement des campagnes entre Garonne et Pyrénées, Ive – Xe siècles.
By Marie-Geneviève Colin. Prèface de Jean Guyon, Directuer de recherché au CNRS.
In: Archéologie du Midi medieval. Supplément no 5, 2008.


The Roman West. An Archaeological study.
By Simon Esmonde Cleary
Cambridge University Press 2013







Gallo-Roman villas with remains of early Christian sanctuaries or churches. 1. Valentine 2. Moissac 3. Seviac in Gers










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