Historians today tend to focus on the famous ones, like Cluny, whose church was the biggest in Europe, or Cîteaux, head of an order of austere "white monks" (so-called because unlike most monks they did not dye black the wool for their habits), or Fontevraud, where English kings and queens were buried.
But there were a whole lot of other monasteries, smaller for the most part, "lost" to historians today because most of their documents were lost, by the French Revolution if not indeed during one of the upheavals (or fires) of the preceding centuries. Even their buildings have in many cases fallen into ruin, been deliberately destroyed, or sold. During the Great Depression, some churches sold their buildings to American collectors. The "Cloisters" in New York City, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came from St.-Michel of Cuxa, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Less well known are the remains of the monastery of St.-Laurent, in the Puisaye region of Burgundy. But the large Romanesque portal of the church is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where probably most people who see and admire the portal have never heard of the monastery. The portal is shown below.
The majority of the monasteries about which little is known today seem to have had their origins in the Merovingian period, from the late sixth through the early eighth centuries. Multiple small houses were founded then, many in cities. Wealthy laypeople founded such houses and endowed them with property, and saints retreated to hermitages that became monasteries as the saints gained followers. The monastery of St.-Laurent may have been one of them, if it can be identified with "Saint Wulfin's monastery" mentioned in the sixth century.
But St.-Laurent (or St.-Wulfin) then disappears from the records, as do most other Merovingian-era foundations. The following centuries were difficult ones for religious houses, between rapacious laymen appropriating monasteries as their own—the Carolingians, the family of Charlemagne, were noted for such appropriations, and many great dukes and counts followed suit—plus attacks by Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars. Not until the eleventh century did these old little monasteries start to be reestablished. New, rural monasteries, such as Cluny and Vézelay, were founded in the late ninth and tenth centuries, and during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries there was a concerted effort to reestablish the ruined Merovingian-era houses.
Most became houses of canons regular. Such canons lived essentially like monks (sharing possessions, living simply in chastity and obedience) but they did interact with the outside world, saying mass for laypeople, baptizing and burying. Because they were paid for such services, they could subsist on less property than could cloistered monks. Old ruined monasteries in cities mostly became houses of canons regular.
So did St.-Laurent. It was located on one of the major pilgrimage routes to Compostella, and it gained a good deal of attention and pious gifts, which was why it built so large a church, to serve both the canons and the pilgrims. Never affiliated with any of the better-known monastic orders, it still commanded respect and admiration in its time, and it supervised the priests (and received the revenues) of a number of parish churches. But like many other smaller medieval monasteries, it has few or no surviving records and is now essentially forgotten, except perhaps by the local historian of the village where the monastery once was established (St.-Laurent-l'Abbaye).
© C. Dale Brittain 2020
For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.