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During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we hear of the existence of various religious associations founded for the purpose of building bridges. This work, which tended greatly to the relief of travelers and particularly of pilgrims, was regarded as a work of piety quite as much as of public utility. Even where no religious organization was formed it was customary for the bishops to grant indulgences to those who, by money or labor, contributed to the construction of a bridge. Of this the register of Archbishop Grey of York, for instance, in the thirteenth century, affords many examples. But in the South of France, regular associations were commonly formed for the purpose, and these it has been the custom to regard as religious orders living under vows. Upon more accurate investigation, however, this idea has proved to be erroneous. The brotherhoods in question seem rather to have been of the nature of guilds or confraternities, or, at most, to have been organized in something the same way as a "third Order", wearing a habit with a distinctive badge, but not being bound by perpetual vows.

In many cases, these associations were constituted of three branches: knights, who contributed most of the funds and were sometimes called donati ; clergy who might be in the strict sense monks, and artisans who performed the actual work of building. We also hear sometimes of "sisters" belonging to the same association. Besides the construction of bridges, the lodging and entertainment of travelers, as well as the quête , or collection of alms commonly entered into the scope of the brotherhoods. The origin of these institutions is wrapped in much obscurity. The brotherhood known in particular as the Fratres Pontifices ( Ponti-fices = bridge-builders) or Frères Pontifes , is commonly said to have been founded by St. Bénézet (a Provençal variant of the name Benedict), a youth who, according to the legend, was Divinely inspired to build the bridge across the Rhone at Avignon. Although the Bull supposed to have been addressed to the Fratres Pontifices , in 1191, by Clement III may not be authentic, it is certain that a number of bridges were built about this time in that part of France ; also that the old bridge at Avignon, some arches of which still remain, dates from the end of the twelfth century, and it is certain that St. Bénézet was a historical personage. The Fratres Pontifices were certainly very active, and if they did not construct the Avignon bridge they built others at Bonpas, Lourmarin, Mallemort, Mirabeau, etc.. On the other hand, the famous bridge over the Rhone at Saint-esprit was certainly constructed by a separate association. Many of the official documents connected with it are still preserved.


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