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First Projects: Medieval Academy Support of Kenneth J. Conant’s Cluny
–Janet T. Marquardt, Eastern Illinois University

In 1928, Speculum published a short piece by Kenneth John Conant entitled "Five Old Prints of the Abbey Church of Cluny" (3:401–404). It was the first mention of a project that would link the Medieval Academy with Conant's work in France for the next forty years.

Anticipating that he would need additional funding beyond the Guggenheim grant that he had received for 1927, before he left for Cluny, Conant turned to the newly formed Medieval Academy of America (1925) to propose a publication project.[1] In line with the avowed goals of the organization, Conant outlined the potential for an important monograph to include a "complete and accurate restoration of the great abbey church as it was before the lamentable demolition of a century ago." In addition, he promised data on the pre-Romanesque churches and partial restoration of the medieval conventual buildings. He clearly stated that no comprehensive study of the buildings had ever been undertaken and that the site represented "one of the greatest masterpieces of mediaeval building." He attached drawings from sketches he had made since his first visit in 1924 and listed an impressive retinue of friends in high places who could help pave the way for permissions to dig. He also mentioned that he had been received as a member of the Academy of Mâcon.

In this outline, Conant proposed four summers of excavations and study including a second one funded by the Guggenheim. He promised an efficient plan of attack based upon existing old plans which indicated where to dig first. He did not guarantee any finds aside from foundation walls which would yield measurements for his drawings. Though he admitted sculpted stones would surely be found in the process, clearly the artistic decoration was not on his agenda. Finally, Conant anticipated the expense of the campaigns from 1928 to 1931 to run about $5,000 plus an additional $1500 for his own expenses with the following closing caveat: "Events may prove this estimate wide of the mark, but it allows for the uncovering of about half a mile of foundation at the rate of two dollars a cubic yard for removing and replacing earth. Interesting and unexpected discoveries might call for further digging, but the program of excavation could doubtless be adjusted to the appropriation."

In October, copies of the proposal were sent to the members of the executive committee for review. Only one, Charles Rufus Morey, gave unconditional approval.[2] The others suggested various things such as only promising funds for two years at a time or finding another scholar to review extant documents and coordinate with excavation findings, etc. Overall, however, Rockwell's comments from his position at the Union Theological Seminary sum up their interest in the work: ". . . I feel that the significance of Cluny is very great indeed. When I made a flying visit to it in 1922, I was distressed to see how little of the mediaeval Abbey remains. . . . It would be worthy of the Academy to arrange for the publication of an adequate volume at a price between five and ten dollars, publishing not merely the results of excavations to be made under its oversight, but also reproductions of old prints and miniatures which show Cluny as it was in the days of its leadership." He felt that the Academy should only pay for excavations if "friends of Harvard" provide the money. Otherwise he felt it was "putting money into a bottomless pit." Publication was his first interest in all things. "How interesting it would be to have an American scholar publish under our auspices a worthy volume illustrating the evolution of those monastic buildings whence went forth during the middle ages so many noble impulses for the reform of art and of religion."

This proposal came at a crucial point in the Medieval Academy's history. Having just made the decision in December of 1925 to incorporate as a national organization, the first members stated as their purpose: "To conduct, encourage, promote and support research, publication, and instruction in Mediaeval records, literature, languages, arts, archaeology, history, philosophy, science, life, and all other aspects of Mediaeval civilizations, by instigating and maintaining research, and by such other means as may be desirable, and to hold property for such purpose." They applied for membership in the American Council of Learned Societies and solicited dues for individual membership as well as seeking important academics to serve as various administrative advisors. Already one year later, in December of 1926, the Medieval Academy had 746 paying members as well as one "patron," one "benefactor," 3 "sustaining members," 25 "life members," and 91 "contributing members," these terms representing the level of donations from generous individuals. One of the "life members" (representing a one-time payment of $100) was Arthur Kingsley Porter, who sat on the first Board of Councillors. In 1928 the Committee on Research was founded, to free up the editors of Speculum on whose behalf the Executive Committee applied and were granted a revolving publication fund of $25,000 from the Carnegie Corporation. The Committee on Research included John Nicholas Brown and Porter, both of whom knew and encouraged Conant's study.

The Cambridge architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was elected Clerk of the Academy. He worked with Conant for a short time after 1920 and introduced him to Isabella Stewart Gardner. According to Conant's son John, it was during this time that Mrs. Gardner became aware that, though married to a Roman Catholic, Conant had never been formally baptized and insisted that she stand as his sponsor for the Episcopal Church if he was going to make plans with Cram for the monastery she was donating to monks in Cambridge.[3] Through this project and previous plans made for another abbey outside Boston, Conant became exposed to planning conventual and church architecture, as well as to the lifestyle it supported.

Cram, working at the American Church in Paris during 1928, gave a copy of Conant's M.A. thesis on Compostela to Marcel Aubert who was then the president of the Commission of Historic Monuments in France. He was impressed and began helping the American ambassador to France, Myron T. Herrick, to obtain permissions for digging to be undertaken at Cluny. (Herrick had been contacted by John Nicholas Brown and an opportunity was arranged for Conant to meet with the ambassador before his departure for France.) On 23 March 1928, the cable came from Cram: "CLUNY CONCESSION GRANTED HURRAH LETTER FOLLOWS."

On 4 March 1928 the New York Times Magazine ran a story on the upcoming expedition. Calling Cluny "the greatest center of learning in the Middle Ages," the author, Thomas S. Bosworth, gave American readers a brief history of the abbey. "The town of Cluny, which is quite off the beaten track, set in its 'black valley,' is a town of comparatively little interest to travelers. By automobile it is not far from its vastly more interesting neighbor, Autun, with its roman gate and fine church; nor from Lyons." Making reference to the remaining transept with its "orphaned tower", Bosworth goes on to tell of the abbey's glorious past and the power of her abbots, ending with its demise: "In the violence of the French Revolution all the monastic buildings disappeared, save the abbot's lodging, a small bit of the abbey walls, and that part of the transept that was saved for a parish church—now gloomy, silent and bare under its covering of whitewash. The walls of Cluny no longer echo to the music of psalms, and the old abbots lie in nameless graves." Bosworth apparently had done a bit of research, finding some of the more romantic nineteenth-century accounts to paraphrase!

On 25 May 1928, the Medieval Academy served Conant with "A Letter of Instruction."[4] Acceptable expenses were specified as well as requirements for recordkeeping. He was to send short monthly reports to the Medieval Academy office "from the field" and a full report of the season was due 30 October 1928. The letter also claimed all publication rights for the Medieval Academy. Conant wrote to acknowledge receipt and acceptance of terms on Medieval Academy letterhead, so probably in the office under John Marshall's guiding eye (first executive secretary). Meanwhile, on 25 May, John Nicholas Brown also confirmed his verbal offer to donate $12,000 to the Academy, payable in three annual installments, for excavating and publishing Cluny.[5] A letter of credit was issued through the Harvard Trust Company for Conant's use in France. Apparently on the same day a press release was delivered to the Boston Evening Transcript because on 26 May, W. A Macdonald authored an article entitled: "From Harvard to Recompose the Lines of a Ruined Abbey: Kenneth J. Conant, Assistant Professor of Architecture, going to France for His Second Summer at Cluny, Over Whose Structure the Records Disagree." Five illustrations took up the greatest proportion of copy space, two of which represented an engraving done before the demolition and a model constructed shortly after but which are labeled "inaccurate."

The focus of the story was on Conant's purpose not only to prepare restoration drawings for publication, but to reconcile extant materials which do not agree as to the exact form of the former buildings. "Last summer Mr. Conant measured things remaining above ground; this summer he hopes to dig below. The testimony of the past disagrees on measurements, on vaults, niches, ornaments. The task is to patiently make a new record of labor impatiently erased." Macdonald drew out the human-interest angle for his story, and he gave us a sense of Conant's own trepidation before departure:

"Then it will be possible for architecture to know again all the problems of the men who built at Cluny. It may be that there was pioneering there: that difficulties were solved in a manner never devised before. The history of architecture has paid scant attention to the place. . . . The work in which Professor Conant will engage himself . . . involves problems sometimes forgotten by laymen: the human problems of social relations with those who may by their attitude help or hinder the investigator. The activities of the technical school, of the breeding establishment of the Government, of the people of the town must be considered, their convenience consulted. "They may not want us digging around year after year," says Mr. Conant. He is a young man and he has enthusiasm. He must be seen and questioned by the authorities before the permission he seeks is finally granted. They will want to know, he is aware, what his attitude will be toward the work he desires to do. They will want to be assured what kind of person he is. That he will pass this test cannot be doubted by anyone who has talked with him. A scholar who is a likeable and attractive human being is not too often found. . ."

Letters were also prepared to introduce Conant to the appropriate authorities, in particular to Marcel Aubert, to whom he was to present himself directly upon arrival in Paris. Caution had been recommended by Cram in his follow-up letter of 24 March: "It appears from what I have learned from Mr. Lafond and Mr. Aubert that Professor Conant [sic], was not altogether wise in some of his actions at Cluny in the past, that is he did not, so I am told, act always with official authority and did one or two other things in the way of investigations which slightly prejudiced his case for the future."[6] A three-person commission was formed in Paris to advise Conant, consisting of Mr. Herriot (Minster of Education and Beaux-Arts), Aubert, and the chief architect of the Commission of Historic Monuments, Paul Gélis. The architect appointed for Burgundy by the Commission, Edmond Malo, had begun to consider excavations at Cluny in 1913, before the war intervened, so he was assigned as the local liaison.

Conant's written French seems to have been quite good since there is no indication that he procured help with his letters. According to current residents of Cluny who knew him well, his spoken French was passable but he never lost a harsh and awkward American accent. One has to imagine that his style and personality carried Conant through more of the early meetings and negotiations than fluent language skills.

Obtaining permission to work on the site from the government and town was not all that was at stake. The former abbey grounds, including portions of the church, were being utilized by the École Nationale des Arts et Métiers (an engineering school) as well as the National Haras or horse-breeding stable. Thus the Ministries of Education and Agriculture became involved in the proceedings, as did small shopkeepers and the proprietors of the Hotel de Bourgogne, where Conant was lodged.

Conant left for France on 1 June, sailing from New York and arriving at Le Havre on 8 June. He met with Aubert on the eleventh and with Gélis on the thirteenth. He was given the title "Director of Excavations at Cluny." Before heading to Cluny, however, he participated in an archaeological conference at Dijon, where excursions to relevant sites were planned. He was able to meet several important French archaeologists and interest them in his project, and he was particularly pleased with scholars who were rethinking the development of the Romanesque, as he clearly hoped to influence their assessment of Cluny's role.

Arriving at Cluny on 24 June, the director of the engineering school had been briefed on the situation and offered his unconditional consent as long as Conant waited until after school closed on 15 July to begin work. Thus he had time to set up his bank account, to present his letters to the city authorities and gain their cooperation, and to query Malo about recommendations for a contractor. Malo showed up with the man who, with his son, would be the contractor for the work throughout Conant's years—Cartier et fils. Cartier had extensive knowledge of restoration as ordered by the Commission of Historic Monuments and was able to immediately draw up estimates of the costs to submit to both Conant and Malo and then send on to the Medieval Academy. Since they had arrived on 29 June, the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, who were the patrons of the old abbey, and the date on which rents had always been collected, Conant thought it nicely symbolic to make a ceremonial beginning to work on that day. The president of the tourist office found a pick and Conant appropriately offered Malo "the first stroke, because it was he who was in charge of the excavations begun in 1913 and interrupted by the war. He is resigning into my hands, with the utmost good will, a project which he held very dear."[7] They began at the narthex portal, and photographed the occasion.

Unfortunately, permission was not as forthcoming from the Haras director as was expected since he had not been notified in advance and was unwilling to proceed until he received the requisite signed papers from his Ministry. Since the planned excavation work would have upset the daily routine of the stables, Conant recognized that for the meantime, he would "have to be content with soundings in this area." In the first monthly report to the Medieval Academy, however, Conant does address the Haras issue at length. He nurtured great hopes for a few years that it would be relocated so that he could raze the entire area and open extensive excavations. This was never entirely possible, even though Malo drew up estimates of the cost and Conant specified a deficit of about $20,000, which no agency in France at the time could bear. He felt that the opportunity was one not to be missed both for clear access to the outline of the foundations and "the likelihood of finding sculptured fragments." It must have been a shock to those back in Cambridge to find that already, in his first report home, Conant is serving to engender notions of American gold. ". . . I have been asked particularly not to approach Mr. Rockefeller, who has been so generous at Reims and Versailles. I hope that something might be done through the Academy."

John Marshall, as executive secretary of the Medieval Academy, wrote in response to Conant's first monthly report that they were using the photographs he sent together with short write-ups on his commencement of the work to begin a press coverage of the project. Although the traditional word on Conant among the next generation's scholars was that he never missed an opportunity to toot his own horn about Cluny, reading through the materials of the Medieval Academy interventions suggests that rather it was John Marshall and perhaps Cram, who are to be credited with the intention of keeping the project before the public eye. In the report of the executive secretary for the Council meeting of 26 April 1929, plans to reproduce Conant's restoration drawings on postcards appear. They were to be available at the meeting of the Corporation and at Cluny. In addition, a prospectus was sent to members of the Archaeological Institute announcing a series of articles on the Cluny work to appear in Speculum.[8]

During the first excavation in 1928, Conant kept in close touch with Cambridge. On the fifth of July, he cabled the Medieval Academy office: "DIGGING PORTALS SMALL FRAGMENTS IMMEDIATELY" and followed that on the twenty-third of the same month with: "IMPRESSIVE NARTHEX EXCAVATION MERITS PRESERVATION PLEASE INDECATE [sic] LIMIT FROM SEASON SURPLUS OF TWO THOUSAND" (provincial French telegraph operators are apparent in numerous misspellings, including his name which in this instance is recorded as "CONAY"). Being a question of money, the matter was turned over to John Nicholas Brown as Medieval Academy Treasurer and he replied: "IS PRESERVATION NECESSARY TO YOUR WORK STOP CABLED INFORMATION INSUFFICIENT STOP ON RECEIPT OF DETAILED REPORT WILL CABLE DECISION STOP SEND MORE PHOTOGRAPHS." Conant wrote a detailed letter the same day as his original letter. He referred to photographs previously mailed and two drawings he attached (elevation and section of exposed fabric) as well as a postcard showing the state of the portal before current excavations.

"Now we have a hole from twelve to fifteen feet deep embracing it. No one who has gone down into the excavation has failed to remark how fine it would be to preserve it. It gives an entirely new idea of the portal."

He doubted the Commission of Historic Monuments could assist with the expenses but promised to ask.

The cables from the United States are undated and it is therefore unclear how much time passed until Brown replied saying: "AUTHORIZE EIGHT HUNDRED DOLLAR LIMIT FOR UNDERPINNING WITHOUT SETTING PRECEDENT." A photograph of 1929 shows town dignitaries peering into this preserved opening: the pit around the base of the narthex portal, protected by iron fencework. The town was beginning to take notice of their monument.

In Conant's report for the excavations during July 1928, he records that real work began on July fifth with a crew of "four good men." He began with the two west portals (the later narthex and the original entrance). Conant also employed a student, René Folcher, as his assistant for 1000 francs for the summer. The men immediately encountered difficulties in their working relationship.

"…M. Cartier had not made it clear that I was in command and that he would back my orders financially. The men were not used to sifting their earth, and took my archaeological vigilance as a personal matter. They disliked the constant changing of orders, necessary of course when trial trenches are being run and unexpected conditions met. Neglect to observe my order (conflicting with orders left by M. Cartier) led to a thoroughgoing explanation on July 9. At this time I decided that, on account of the exceptional character of the work, each man should, during good behavior, receive in addition to his pay a half-bottle of wine daily (price six cents). The results of this interview have been extremely happy; I have a contented and satisfactory crew, and the personal relations and esprit de corps are all that could be desired. I have given the men photographs of themselves, of the excavations, and of the interesting finds, believing that it would help to give the men an indispensable interest in their work."  

The rather dichotomous/contrasting notions of "good behavior" and "esprit de corps" show Conant's awkwardness with his elite status as privileged overseer among ouvriers. Photographs taken in 1931 portray the same striking contrasts; in one Kenneth in his three-piece suit complete with fedora, stands stiffly to the side of the men who are in two rows, seated and standing at the edge of a pit in the court of the Haras.

Their rough clothes, suspenders, casquettes, and wooden clogs remind us of the extraordinary cultural and class differences inherent in a project conducted in rural Burgundy by a Harvard professor at this time.

Conant arranged with the local photographer, Loury, to document all the sculptural finds on uniform heavy photographic paper of 7 1/4 by 9 5/8 inches.

He designated one set to serve as an "archive," later placed in Paris with the Commission of Historic Monuments (now in the Cluny Museum), and retained the other for his own study purposes.

The two first pits yielded rewarding finds. In later articles on his method, Conant remarked that the locals thought he was a magician to know exactly where to dig.[9] But he was using plans made in the eighteenth century when the monks were planning to replace major portions of the conventual buildings. Their accuracy allowed him to chart dimensions in such a way that his excavations were at first really only confirmed measurements. The first pit exposed the foundation of the northern narthex portal including the column bases. This is the one he requested to make a permanent exhibit. The other, pit II, was less interesting to look at but turned up more exciting fragments such as, on 9 July, a polychrome head. It was the subject of an emotional letter to Verdier, head of the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris, describing the circumstances of discovery, the remarkably fresh-colored paint on the piece when first unearthed, and the heart-wrenching experience of watching that color fade—literally in the moments that Conant took to record what he saw.[10]

The best sculptural finds and most complete blocks of stone were numbered, photographed and then placed into a holding area for the municipal museum, still the former abbot's palace. This would soon prove to be too small for all that Conant was unearthing. The smaller bits and pieces were boxed into wooden cases labeled with the appropriate pit number. The archeological daybooks now on file at Cluny show how carefully Conant kept track of the exact section of earth excavated each day, coordinated with the numbered box. These cases were stored in the basement of the museum. Already after one month of work, 42 cases were thus lodged.

Malo visited and seemed satisfied to Conant. The press picked up on the event and local coverage began. Conant claimed to have sent information only to the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune, which ran a story on July 26 headlined: "Americans Excavate Site of Mediaeval Abbey at Cluny—Townspeople Believe Golden Treasure Is Being Shipped to U.S.—PORTALS LAID BARE—Harvard Professor Directs Work on Largest Romanesque Ruin in France." The first two paragraphs of the story seem to represent the material Conant would have supplied, explaining the method and purpose of the excavations, beginning with the fact of the visits of Malo and Jean Virey, "observers for the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts." But then the story seems to take off with the journalist's flair for the dramatic, and accounts for the mixed headline. "The excavators have been much entertained by the local excitement over their work: the popular imagination has credited them with finds in solid gold and wrought iron, and the objects found (actually deposited in the local museum) are said to have been shipped to America. The children of the town believe that the enterprise has been undertaken in order to unearth a mummy like the one in the museum."

In the report for August, Conant continued his account of the activity according to the numbered pits. Pit 1, at the western entrance of the narthex, continued on into the garage of the Hotel Bourgogne, whose owner authorized an open pit so that the workers would not have to tunnel. As we have seen, based upon Brown's authorization of up to $800 for this project, Conant offered 5000 francs toward the retaining wall for preserving the excavation, Marcel Aubert was grateful and found Commission of Historic Monuments funds for the remainder.[11]

Pit II yielded the most interesting fragments after refilling the area around the portal jambs and digging to either side. Although his official report is rather dry, mentioning eight heads with three in good condition, many small figures in fragments and architectural pieces, Conant's cables home suggest he was reading more into the material:



In his final, detailed report for the 1928 season, Conant identified each object and discussed size, material, and possible subject matter. He did not mention in the monthly reports any finds related to dating the east end of the church, the issue which would become hotly debated between Parisian scholars and those who followed Porter's suggestion, yet a cable sent to the Medieval Academy August 22 must have made the folks back home smile:


In the final report, this claim is explained. He derives the conclusion from photographs taken by Monsieur Loury who was busy on scaffolds in the remaining transept, documenting both general views and architectural details. He describes the capitals and mentions that similar ones exist in the smaller tower then goes on to say:

"…It suffices here to say that an inscription, painted in red upon a coat of stucco overlying the original stucco finish of the interior, certifies in characters of the first quarter of the twelfth century that the chapel was dedicated and relics were deposited in the altar by Peter, Bishop of Pamplona (=1115). The date is given as the II Ides of March; the year has been lost, but 1100 plausibly fills the lacuna, and it seems certain that the construction is to be dated within a few months or years of that time. This necessarily means that the transept was built at that time also. There is indubitable evidence that the capitals in the chapel and transept were carved when they were set.
Thus we may say that seventy-one fine pieces of sculpture surely dated close to the year 1100 have been introduced on the field of a hotly contested archeological battle. It is the coup de grâce to the system of certain French and German scholars who would have us believe that Cluny was largely the work of the twelfth century well advanced. . . . "
More interesting still, the ivy on the east wall of the great transept yielded a capital which, so far as I am aware, was unnoticed and unpublished. It formerly supported the west end of the arch between the westernmost bays of the south choir aisles; it is in situ in a portion of the building surely ascribed to the end of the eleventh century. The undercutting of the capital is so disposed as to constitute preremptory [sic] proof that is was sculptured at the time of setting. In style it is as advanced as any of the rest, and in design and execution it is patently related to the ambulatory capital devoted to the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth tones-so patently related that it is probably a work of the same artist. A similar capital, executed at some time after 1104, exists at Vézelay. But the important thing is that this eleventh-century Cluny capital, taken in conjunction with the other evidence presented above, makes it infinitely probable that the ambulatory capitals were carved at the same period—that they were quite possibly completed at the time of the dedication of 1095, and are to be counted as masterpieces of the eleventh, not of the twelfth, century.
This conclusion has implications which run counter to the conceptions of many as to early history of Romanesque sculpture. It corroborates the doctrine of those—notably M. l'Abbé Terret, M. Oursel, and Mr. Porter, who have done battle to prove the priority of the great Burgundian abbey and the significance of the work which was done there. . ."

The "battles" to which Conant refers in this passage have been reviewed by David Walsh in his recent paper, "Medieval Art Wars: French-American Academic Conflict in the 20th Century" (given at the ICMA session of the International Medieval Congress, Leeds University, Jul 2004). The positions of the Parisian scholars later became entrenched against those who supported the early Porter/Conant dating of the east end of the church, based on the belief that it was finished when the pope came to consecrate the altar in 1095. Eventually these supporters included the Burgundians, Americans, and, through such friends as Joan Evans and later disciples as Neil Stratford, the English. We find many references to this argument among the proceedings for conferences at Cluny, in articles written by Conant and Francis Salet (from Paris), and in letters between Conant and colleagues.

The reports for July and August, as well as the overall season, were translated into French and sent to the head of the Commission of Historic Monuments. Conant's final paragraph for his season report is picked up by those who wished the French government to support the project with funding from the Commission of Historic Monuments. It is wildly acclamatory and dismissive, in the best Henry Adams style, but it was apparently effective at the time:

". . .The renaissant art of monumental sculpture is seen to have received a wonderful impulse at the very start from the great genius who carved Cluny ambulatory capitals, just as the art of architecture did from the designer of the giant church. Both rose fully to a stupendous opportunity in producing this splendid witness to the grandeur of the order and the greatness of the builder abbot. Cluny was then a focus like the Constantinople of Justinian or the Florence and Rome of the Renaissance. We should no more be asked to explain the achievements of the artisans of Cluny by mechanically regular steps in development (as some writers propose) than we are in the case of Isidoros and Anthemios, Donatello, or Michelangelo. Once the inspiration of Cluny is recognized, and its activity between 1088 and 1109 admitted, the flowering of Burgundian art and architecture which followed the closing of its chantier early in the twelfth century needs no further explanation."

Conant reapplied to both the Guggenheim and Medieval Academy for another season in 1929. He continually underlined the value of the abbey church building in these proposals, echoing the kind of affirmations found in earlier letters to the French ministry requesting repair funding. He places himself into a position of history-making: "I have, as a result of my studies, a profound conviction that the great structure which I am making available to the workers in architectural history was as important in Romanesque architecture as St. Sophia in Byzantine, or Chartres in Gothic architecture. And I have besides, as a result of my work, a profound appreciation for the majestic beauty of the building, which will be in a way re-created by my restoration drawings."

In January of 1929, the Medieval Academy published an article with Conant's first technical report of the excavations in Speculum ("Mediaeval Academy Excavations at Cluny the Season of 1928," 4:2–26). Like his daybooks, these reports are professional, dry, and informative. They evidence none of the personal turmoil or enthusiasm which clearly accompanied his excursions. Although the arrivals of visitors are recorded, their impact on his self-esteem or accomplishment is not. He had married in 1923 and had one small son, Kenneth John, Jr. The family stayed at home the first year. Finances must have been tight. Conant was young, not yet well established at Harvard, with doting parents who expected great things. It is from extant letters home that one can begin to get a glimpse of the more personal side of this effort. Letters to his parents were often done on a series of postcards (often as many as 45 to 50 at a time) recording excursions he took to other monuments. Every year he complains about being eaten alive by mosquitoes, regales them with stories of wild tours around the area in cars with local luminaries, reviews every fragment of architecture he visits. He also brags a bit and expresses hopes and fears and financial plans, as one would expect. It makes him real for us and it makes the entire project come alive:


". . .on the return, M. Oursel, my special friend in Dijon at the Library, gave a talk on the Cistercian manuscripts there, and after dinner a talk on the school of Cluny in monastic and cathedral architecture. It revolved around the chapel I discovered a year ago. It is fun to hear oneself referred to on the lecture platform. It must happen often! I must be a good archeologist!"

". . . (you amuse me, by the way, by adding 'archaeologist-Cluny abbey' to my address—I am as well known here now as the mayor or the town drunkard)"

". . .The 19th century lithograph on this card is the one which has been used to give me an idea of this portal. It is all wrong, and I can prove it"

". . . My work on this portal will really add to my reputation—I have had requests for information from England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and the United States. So I got started first on the portals—awaiting the departure of the students and the arrival of the official paper for the other areas. I had enough to do—I get up at 6—work begins at 6:30 and keeps on until 6:30 p.m. with two hours for lunch. That really means a 12 or 13 hour day for me, for I have to watch the excavations, make no end of arrangements and explanations, and do my paper work besides. Among my visitors was the chief of the Archives Service of the League of Nations. After in the evening, for a relief, I have strolled out to this villa [Villa St. Lazare, Cluny] with my friend M. Gargnet, Bursar of the school . . ."

"Back to work the next day of course—I work six days a week, I tell you, and I shall really have to come home to get a rest but I am thriving on it. Ten hours a day in the sun does me no harm, and the work is of course endlessly interesting. Think of my beginning my career as an excavator with one of the greatest mediaeval sites in France—but their 'prentice hand will make a good job I think, don't you?"

The work at Cluny continued for another twenty years, most of it supported by the Medieval Academy in the hopes of the promised monumental publication. Instead, annual reports in Speculum had to do until the monograph finally appeared, in French, in 1968. It was a grave disappointment to many scholars who felt that the conclusions were passée by that point. Yet without Conant's singleminded devotion to the site and his generous and exuberant personality, it is unlikely that the fragmentary architectural relics which remain today at Cluny would mean much to anyone.

July 2004



[1] Copy on file with the Medieval Academy of America in their Cambridge, Mass., offices. All of the following quotes are taken from this document.


[2] These letters are on file at the Medieval Academy offices in Cambridge, Mass.


[3] Interview with John Conant (Brother Gregory) at Stillwater Monastery, Harvard, Mass., January 2002


[4] Appendix A of Council minutes for 27 May 1928 (not bound in with minutes, however, rather kept in loose Cluny file folders).


[5] Medieval Academy files, Cluny 1927–1931. A summary prepared in 1933 by John Marshall also clearly lists Brown’s contributions from 1928–1932 along with tentative budgets for 1934 and 1935. It is interesting to note that the Academy planned on a reserve toward publication (of $2,500) and that budget concerns were such that a final paragraph reads: “Mr. Conant is quite willing to postpone for a year the work now planned for 1934 and 1935, if financial considerations make postponement desirable.”


[6] Letter of 24 March 1928 from Ralph Adams Cram on American Church of Paris letterhead to John Marshall, executive secretary of the Medieval Academy of America.


[7] First monthly report to the Medieval Academy, dated 3 July 928, on file in the Medieval Academy offices, Cambridge Mass. Subsequent quotations from this period come from same document.


[8] Minutes of the Meeting of the Council of the Medieval Academy of America, Appendix 2: Report of the Executive Secretary, p. 4.


[9] Kenneth John Conant, "Excavations at the Monastery of Cluny," The American Society Legion of Honor Magazine IX, No. 2 (Autumn 1940), 171.


[10] Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Paris: Box 81/71, 181/1, 17.


[11] Postcard from Aubert to Conant in Medieval Academy files for 1928, Cambridge, Mass.


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