views updated


c. 1165-c. 1184

French Engineer

Bénézet, sometimes known as Benedictus, remains as enigmatic a figure as any in the history of engineering. It is not clear if he received any formal training as a builder, and indeed he claimed he had received his knowledge through divine inspiration. Only one thing about Bénézet's story is clearly defined and that is the creation for which he is known: the Pont d'Avignon, first great medieval bridge and one of the first to be built in France since the fall of the Roman Empire seven centuries earlier.

Bénézet would later be canonized, with a feast day on April 14, but some listings of saints do not include him—no doubt because so many aspects of his story have a hint of legend about them. It is worth noting that the account of how he came to build the Pont d'Avignon is similar to the story of King David in the Old Testament. Like David, Bénézet was a shepherd boy from the hinterlands suddenly thrust into the spotlight, claiming special powers; as with David, these claims drew an understandably incredulous reaction from persons in authority; and again like David, he amazed all when he lived up to his claims, all to the greater glory of God.

The dates of Bénézet's life are unclear, as is his original profession. He is sometimes referred to as a priest, though more often he is described as a shepherd. The distinction is crucial, because if he were the latter, it is extremely unlikely that he had any education, and would almost certainly have been completely ignorant of reading, writing, and mathematics.

As for the city of Avignon, located in southeastern France near Marseilles, during the period from 1309 to 1417 it would serve as the seat for a series of popes and antipopes. But this was long after Bénézet's time, and in his era Avignon faced a powerful obstacle in its quest to be recognized as a great town. The city stood on the Rhône, which at that time served as the boundary between France and the Holy Roman Empire, and the current alongside Avignon was so strong that no bridge could span the river.

The problem of the Rhône bridge had discouraged even talented Roman builders in ancient times; but in the early 1170s, an untutored shepherd went to the bishop of Avignon with a plan he claimed to have received from God. Naturally, the prelate approached Bénézet's claims with skepticism. One legend maintains that Bénézet overcame the bishop's qualms by lifting a giant stone block and casting it into the river at the spot where, according to Bénézet, God had told him to build the bridge.

Regardless of the specifics, Bénézet won approval for the project and work began in 1177. Over the years that followed, the builders encountered numerous challenges—challenges that Bénézet is alleged to have overcome through miracles. He either died in 1184 or 1186, several years before the completion of the bridge in 1188, and was buried in a chapel on one of its piers.

The completed Pont d'Avignon, built of wood, would be destroyed in 1226, after which it was reconstructed in stone. It would undergo numerous renovations over the years that followed, and became immortalized in a French folk song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon." Today the bridge is a United Nations World Heritage Site.