Tuesday, May 7, 2019


As I mentioned briefly in a recent post on double monasteries, one of the very few double monasteries (a house with both monks and nuns) in the High Middle Ages was Fontevraud, in Anjou (western France).  Both men and women in religious orders, as well as lepers in a separate lazar-house, were under the direction of an abbess, a woman.

Fontevraud is worth further discussion.  It became a royally-favored monastery, where kings and queens of England were buried in the late twelfth century (because these kings and queens also controlled Normandy and Anjou in France), but its origins were far from elegant or royal.  Below is the tomb of Richard the Lionheart.

The monastery was originally founded at the beginning of the twelfth century by a man named Robert of Arbrissel.  He had been a preacher and a hermit in the late eleventh century, like many men who read (or heard) the New Testament's call for radical rejection of things of the world.  He soon gathered other hermits around him to form a small monastery.

But he always wanted to preach as well as to withdraw from the world.  He managed (exactly how has never been clear) to become officially recognized by the pope as an apostolic preacher, and he spent much of his life wandering around, going from city to city to preach salvation and the importance of giving up worldly things.

These days we tend to cross the street to avoid someone shouting about salvation.  At that time, without all the forms of entertainment we take for granted, a preacher was interesting and exciting.  And Robert was apparently very persuasive.  He would often gather a group of penitents who would then follow him when he left town, full of religious enthusiasm.

A lot of these were women.  Probably most of them soon said, "What was I thinking?" and turned back, rather than sleep out in a field on the way to the next town, but some persisted.  This was very disturbing to the local bishop.  He essentially accused Robert of luring women away from their families to satisfy his own sexual urges, especially since some of the penitent women appear to have been prostitutes.  Both Robert and the women said this was most certainly not the case.

But Robert was persuaded to found a nunnery for these women, rather than have them continue to wander around with him.  This nunnery was Fontevraud.  Men who had also followed Robert were welcome at Fontevraud, but in a separate structure away from the nuns.  A woman was made abbess of the whole congregation.  Robert ordered that all abbesses should be women who had previously been married and who had experience in worldly administration, rather than women who had become nuns as young girls.

You notice that Robert did not become abbot himself.  This is because an abbot would have had to stay with his monks, whereas Robert was soon off preaching again.  He did not dress in proper clerical garb (or what the bishop considered proper clerical garb), but rather went around looking like a hermit, barefoot, in rough and dirty clothes, and did not bother with hair and beard grooming.  This was very disturbing to the bishop, who accused him of looking like a madman or the village idiot.  Exactly what constituted holiness was contested territory.

Robert's biography was written twice after his death in 1117, probably in the hope (ultimately unsuccessful) that he would be declared a saint.  Both versions of his "life" have been translated by Bruce L. Venarde in Robert of Arbrissel:  A Medieval Religious Life (Catholic University Press, 2003).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on monks, nuns, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing a fascinating piece of history. Origin stories of powerful and respected institutions are usually fascinating, but this one was even more so because of the dichotomy of character in Robert of Arbrissel: a coupling of extreme spiritual fervor with remarkable pragmatism. And what a legacy! I wish that there was still an Abbess at Fontevrault today.