A Fantastical (and Historical) Deep Dive into Medieval France

Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are far from pioneering. The heroic fantasy genre, which is wildly popular today, draws its aesthetic from the Middle Ages – a mysterious, little-known period which can now be discovered at the Musée National du Moyen Age in central Paris!
The 1500s, a junction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, saw the coexistence of Gothic works and others inspired by Roman antiquity. © Jean-Marie Heidinger/Musée de Cluny-Musée national du Moyen Age

Parisians are largely unaware that the secret of the unicorn is hidden in a room at one of the oldest mansions in the French capital, a stone’s throw from the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter. Originally built in the late 15th century as a home for the abbots of the Order of Cluny, it is located next to the ancient thermal baths of Lutetia, the name given by the Romans to the main city of the Parisii tribe. Today, it is brimming with mysterious medieval collections, which include the six beautiful, enigmatic tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn.

This spellbinding series depicts a young, noble woman (judging by her finery) looking at her reflection in a mirror, playing the organ, smelling a flower, choosing a fruit, and stroking the horn of the legendary animal. But what does it mean? Aside from the delicately woven threads and rich colors, some historians believe that the first five tapestries offer an allegory of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Since ancient times, these were supposed to define humanity. However, the sixth panel is more obscure. Named A mon seul désir, according to a gold embroidered inscription, it features the lady and her servant outside a blue tent. Some claim that it is an allusion to the heart, the sixth sense and the only one capable of understanding true beauty. Others prefer to see a celebration of desire itself. The mystery has never been solved, much like the identity of the person who commissioned this masterpiece (Was it Jean IV Le Viste, Baron of Montreuil? Or perhaps his nephew, Antoine?). One thing is for sure: It is enough to make anyone want to explore the secrets of the Middle Ages, which began with the fall of the Roman Empire and ended with the discovery of the Americas. Long seen in the collective imagination as a dark time defined by cruel lords, famines, epidemics, and wars, this period has directly influenced the current heroic fantasy trend so popular in movies, TV shows, and video games.

With its rooms devoted to cathedrals, sculptures, stained-glass windows, and the goldsmith craft, the National Museum of the Middle Ages, which reopened in May 2022 after 11 years of renovation work, helps to debunk the clichés and misconceptions surrounding this era. The flamboyant Gothic building is set back from the street, separated by a courtyard and a crenelated outer wall, with a garden at the back. As soon as they enter, visitors will be surprised by the elegant windows and the harmony of the main buildings, designed for aristocrats accustomed to the luxury and space of their country residences. You also have to imagine a hanging garden, which disappeared many years ago. Built above the frigidarium, the vast cold room in ancient Gallo-Roman thermal baths, it overlooked the streets of old Paris between the Seine River and the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève (named after a fifth-century nun who supposedly drove Attila and his Huns away from Paris, and who remains the city’s patron saint).

The former mansion of the abbots of Cluny, in Paris, now houses the National Museum of the Middle Ages. © Alexis Paoli/OPPIC
Romanesque and Gothic art, two major styles of the Middle Ages. © Alexis Paoli/OPPIC
The end of the Middle Ages marked a turning point in French religious art. © Jean-Marie Heidinger/Musée de Cluny-Musée national du Moyen Age
Five of the six tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, woven in the early 16th century. © Alexis Paoli/OPPIC

The Age of Cathedrals

The construction of the Hôtel de Cluny, commissioned by abbot Jean III de Bourbon and continued by Jacques d’Amboise, spanned two centuries – as long as for Notre Dame! In fact, the museum’s collections remind visitors that cathedrals were the architectural gems of this period of religious devotion during which kings received their power from God at coronations. One room features the capitals from the columns of the abbatial church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Saint-Denis basilica, and the Sainte-Geneviève abbey. Another displays stained-glass windows from the Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cité, showing the sophistication of these centuries incorrectly associated with savagery. Originally designed to filter light, their motifs and colors have since seen them become works of art, just like other religious objects such as reliquaries, croziers, and crucifixes, as well as intricate Limoges enamel, famous across Europe.

Renaissance enthusiasts will also find something to suit them. After the 13th and 14th centuries, which were marred by famine, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, an artistic trend began to flourish. This movement was driven by the expansion of urban societies, innovations from the Italian Renaissance, and the revolution in Flemish painting. Alongside The Lady and the Unicorn, whose background strewn with plants and flowers preempts this new era, the Musée du Moyen Age showcases paintings, tapestries, and miniatures freed from the influence of the Catholic Church. These works all depict the pleasures of a peaceful and prosperous land. With 14 million inhabitants by the end of the 15th century, France was the most populous country in Europe. Its cities, whose merchants and nobles are portrayed in the paintings, were the drivers of this change.

After this trip back through four centuries of history, take a seat at the Café des Amis! Located within the museum, it offers a delicious break between the medieval and modern worlds. Lighter than the spitted game and poultry enjoyed in the Middle Ages, the cuisine invites us into the refined universe of The Lady and the Unicorn.

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.