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Order and Abbey of Fontevrault

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The monastery of Fontevrault was founded by Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel about the end of 1100 and is situated in a wooded valley on the confines of Anjou, Tours, and Poitou, about two and a half miles south of the Loire, at a short distance west of its union with the Vienne. It was a "double" monastery , containing separate convents for both monks and nuns. The government was in the hands of the abbess. This arrangement was said to be based upon the text of St. John (xix, 27), "Behold thy Mother", but want of capacity among the brethren who surrounded the founder would seem to be the most natural explanation. To have placed the fortunes of the rising institute in feeble hands might have compromised its existence, while amongst the nuns he found women endowed with high qualities and in every way fitted for government. Certainly the long series of able abbesses of Fontevrault is in some measure a justification of the founder's provision.

Fontevrault was the earliest of the three orders which adopted the double form and it may be useful to point out the chief differences in rule and government which mark it off from the similar institutions of the English St. Gilbert of Sempringham, founded in 1135 (see Gilbertines), and that of the Swedish princess, St. Bridgett, founded in 1344 (see Brigittines ). At Fontevrault both nuns and monks followed the Benedictine Rule (see below, II), as did the Gilbertine nuns, but the male religious of that order were canons regular and followed the Rule of St. Augustine. The Brigittines of both sexes were under the Regular Salvatoris, an adaptation and completion of the Augustinian Rule. The Abbess of Fontevrault was supreme over all the religious of the order, and the heads of the dependent houses were prioresses. Each Brigittine house was independent, and was ruled by an abbess who was supreme in all temporalities, but in matters spiritual was forbidden to interfere with the priests, who were under the confessor general. The head of the Gilbertines was a canon, the "Master" or "Prior of All", who was not attached to any one house; his power was absolute over the whole order. All three orders were primarily founded for nuns, the priests being added for their direction or spiritual service, and in all three the nuns had control of the property of the order. The habit of the Fontevrist nuns was a white tunic and surplice with a black girdle, a white guimp and black veil; the cowl was black. The monks wore a black tunic with a surplice and above it a hood and capuce; from the centre of the last, in front and behind, hung a small square of stuff known as the "Robert". In winter the monks wore an ample cloak without sleeves. The original habit was in both cases more simple.


It appears certain from the biography of Blessed Robert, which is known as the "Vita Andreæ", that the Rule was written down during the founder's lifetime, probably in 1116 or 1117. This original Rule dealt with four points: silence, good works, food, and clothing, and contained the injunction that the abbess should never be chosen from among those who had been brought up at Fontevrault, but that she should be one who had had experience of the world (de conversis sororibus). This latter injunction was observed only in the case of the first two abbesses and was abrogated by Innocent III in 1201. We have three versions of the Fontevrist Rule (P. L., CLXII, 1079 sqq.), but it is clear that none of these is the original, though it is probable that the second version is a fragment or possibly a selection with additions by the first abbess, Petronilla (for the argument see Walter, op. cit. infra, pp. 65-74). This Rule was merely a supplement to the Rule of St. Benedict and there were no important variations from the latter in the ordinary conventual routine, though some additions were necessitated by the conditions of the "double" life. The rules for the nuns enjoin the utmost simplicity in the materials of the habit, a strict observance of silence, abstinence from flesh meat even for the sick, and rigorous enclosure. The separation of the nuns from the monks is carried to such a point that a sick nun must be brought into the church to receive the last sacraments. The subjection of the monks is very marked. They are men "who of their own free will have promised to serve the nuns till death in the bonds of obedience, and that too with the reverence of due subjection. . . . They shall lead a common conventual life with no property of their own, content with what the nuns shall confer upon them." The very scraps from their table are to be "carried to the nuns' door and there given to the poor ". A fugitive but penitent monk "shall ask pardon of the Abbess and through her regain the fellowship of the brethren." The monks cannot even receive a postulant without the permission of the abbess.


At the death of Robert d'Arbrissel , in 1117, there are said to have been at Fontevrault alone 3000 nuns, and in 1150 even 5000: the order was approved by Paschal II in 1112. The first abbess, Petronilla of Chemillé (1115-1149), was succeeded by Matilda of Anjou, who ruled for five years. She was the daughter of Fulk, King of Jerusalem, and widow of William, the eldest son of Henry I, of England. The prosperity of the abbey continued under the next two abbesses, but by the end of the twelfth century, owing to the state of the country and the English wars, the nuns were reduced to gaining their livelihood by manual work. The situation was aggravated by internal dissensions which lasted a hundred years, and prosperity did not return till the beginning of the fourteenth century, under the rule of Eleanor of Brittany, grand-daughter of Henry III of England, who had taken the veil at the Fontevrist priory of Amesbury, in Wiltshire. The next abbess was Isabel of Valois, great-grandchild of St. Louis, but on her death there succeeded another period of trouble and decadence largely due to the disaffection of the monks who where discontented with their subordinate position. During the fifteenth century there were several attempts at reform, but these met with no success till the advent to power, in 1457, of Mary, sister of Francis II, Duke of Brittany. The order had suffered severely from the decay of religion, which was general about this time, as well as from the Hundred Years War. In the three priories of St-Aignan, Breuil, and Ste-Croix there were in all but five nuns and one monk, where there had been 187 nuns and 17 monks at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and other houses were no better off. In 1459, a papal commission decided upon a mitigation of rules which could no longer be enforced, and nuns were even allowed to leave the order on the simple permission of their priories. Dissatisfied with the mitigated life of Fontevrault, Mary of Brittany removed to the priory of La Madeleine-les-Orléans in 1471. Here she deputed a commission consisting of religious of various orders to draw up a definite Rule based on the Rules of Blessed Robert, St. Benedict, and St. Augustine, together with the Acts of Visitations. The resulting code was finally approved by Sixtus IV in 1475, and four years later it was made obligatory upon the whole order. Mary of Brittany died in 1477, but her work was continued by her successors, Anne of Orléans, sister of Louis XII, and Renée de Bourbon. The latter may well be styled the greatest of the abbesses, both on account of the numbers of priories (28) in which she re-established discipline, and the victory which she gained over the rebellious religious at Fontevrault by the reform, enforced with royal assistance in 1502. The result was a great influx of novices of the highest rank, including several princesses of Valois and Bourbon. At Renée's death there were 160 nuns and 150 monks at Fontevrault. Under Louis de Bourbon (1534-1575), a woman of sincere but gloomy piety, the order suffered many losses at the hands of the Protestants, who even besieged the great abbey itself, though without success; many nuns apostatized, but twelve more houses were reformed. Eleanor of Bourbon (1575-1611) saw the last of these troubles. She had great influence with Henry IV, and her affection for him was so great that, towards the end of her life, when he was assassinated, her nuns dared not tell her lest the shock should be too great.

The Abbess Louise de Bourbon de Lavedan, aided by the famous Capuchins, Ange de Joyeuse and Joseph du Tremblay, sought to improve the status of the monks of St-Jean de l'Habit and made various attempts to establish theological seminaries for them. Her successor Jeanne-Baptiste de Bourbon, an illegitimate child of Henry IV by the beautiful Charlotte des Essarts, has the credit of finally giving peace to the order. In 1641 she obtained royal letters confirming the reform and finally quashing the claims of the monks, who sought to organize themselves independently of the authority of the abbess. The following year the Rule approved by Sixtus IV was printed at Paris. The "Queen of Abbesses ", Gabrielle de Rochechouart (1670-1704), sister of Mme. de Montespan and friend of Mme. de Maintenon, is said to have translated all the works of Plato from the Latin version of Ficino. The abbey school was frequented by the children of the highest nobility, and her successors were entrusted with the education of the daughters of Louis XV. The last abbess, Julie Sophie Charlotte de Pardaillan d'Antin, was driven from her monastery by the Revolution ; her fate is unknown. Towards the end of the eighteenth century there were 230 nuns and 60 monks at Fontevrault, and at the Revolution there were still 200 nuns, but the monks were few in number and only formed a community at the mother-house. In the course of his preaching journeys through France, Robert d'Arbrissel had founded a great number of houses, and during the succeeding centuries others were given to the order. In the seventeenth century the Fontevrist priories numbered about sixty in all and were divided into the four provinces of France, Brittany, Gascony, and Auvergne. The order never attained to any great importance outside France though there were a few houses in Spain and England. The history of the order is, as will already have been seen, that of the mother-house. The Angevin kings were much attached to Fontevrault: Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Guienne, Richard Coeur de Lion , and Isabel of Angoulême, the wife of King John, were buried in the Cimetière des Rois in the abbey church, where their effigies may still be seen. The remains were scattered at the Revolution.


The Abbey of Fontevrault was in four parts: the Grand Moustier, or convent of the nuns, the hospital and lazaretto of Saint-Lazare, the Madeleine for penitent women, and, some distance apart, the monastery of St-Jean de l'Habit for the monks, destroyed at the Revolution. The most notable buildings were naturally those belonging to the nuns with the great minster dedicated to Our Lady. This was consecrated by Pope Callistus II , in 1119, but the church was probably rebuilt in the second half of the same century. It is a magnificent specimen of late Romanesque and consists of an aisleless nave vaulted with six shallow cupolas, transepts, and an apsidal chancel with side chapels. In 1804 the abbey became a central house of detention for 15,000 prisoners, and the nave of the church was cut up into four stories forming dormitories and refectories for the convicts, while the choir and transepts were walled up and used as their chapel. Five of the six cupolas were destroyed, but the nave has recently been cleared, and a complete restoration begun. The length of the church is 84 metres (about 276 ft.), the width of the nave 14m. 60 (about 48 ft.), and the height 21m. 45 (about 70 ft.). The interesting cloisters and chapter-house may be visited, but the magnificent refectory, dating from the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, is not shown.


These were the Priories of Amesbury, in Wiltshire, and Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, and the Cell of Westwood, in Worcestershire, with six nuns. Amesbury had been an abbey, but on account of their evil lives the nuns were dispersed by royal orders and the monastery given to Fontevrault in 1177. The community was recruited from the highest ranks of society and in the thirteenth century numbered among its members several princesses of the royal house, among them Queen Eleanor of Provence, widow of Henry III. A survey of the English houses was taken in 1256, when there were 77 choir nuns, 7 chaplains and 16 conversi at Amesbury, and 86 nuns at Nuneaton. In the fourteenth century the officials were appointed by the Abbess of Fontevrault, but the bonds uniting the English nunneries to the mother-house were gradually loosened until from alien they became denizen, that is to say, practically independent. In the last days some of the Prioresses of Amesbury seem to have resumed the ancient abbatial title; at the dissolution, in 1540, the house was surrendered by Joan Darrell and thirty-three nuns. A Prior of Amesbury is mentioned in 1399, but it does not seem certain that there were at any time regular establishments of the Fontevrist monks in England.


In 1803 Madame Rose, a Fontevrist nun, opened a school at Chemillé, the home of the first abbess, and three years later was enabled to buy a house and start community life; only temporary vows were taken, and the constitutions were approved by the Bishop of Angers. A few years later the habit of Fontevrault was resumed. Twelve more Fontrevists joined the community, and the ancient Rule was kept as far as possible. In 1847 permission was granted by the government to remove the relics of Blessed Robert from Fontevrault to Chemillé, and by 1849 there were three houses of the revived congregation: Chemillé in the Diocese of Angers ; Boulor in the Diocese of Auch ; and Brioude in the Diocese of Puy. In this year a general chapter was held, in which certain modifications of the Rule were agreed upon: the many fasts were found ill adapted to the work of teaching; the houses were made subject to the ordinary; and the superioress elected only for three years. There are no Fontevrist monks.

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