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Robert of Arbrissel

Robert of Arbrissel

Circa 1047-Circa 1117
Itinerant preacher


Marginal People . There are few records of the people who have lived on the margins of society, because most could not themselves read or write nor were they amid others who could write or cared to read or write about them. The only times the lives of marginal people were recorded in the Middle Ages were when they ran into trouble with religious or secular law or were needed to bring others out of trouble. Tribulations and trials were undoubtedly a part of the account. Only under major changes in circumstances do the lives of such figures, as even Robert of Arbrissel, and particularly his followers, come to light.

Background . At the time of Robert’s connection with marginalized Christians in 1096 at the monastery of Saint Mary of La Roë, he was already about age fifty, having been born at Arbrissel (now Arbressec) in Brittany, circa 1047. Robert had, just three years before, been archpriest (vicar general) to Bishop Sylvester de la Guerche in his native Diocese of Rennes, a calling which, though assumed at the invitation of the bishop, became dangerous upon Sylvester’s death. Robert’s enemies forced him, becuase of his overly zealous efforts to suppress simony (the buying or selling of a church office), lay investiture, clerical concubinage, irregular marriages, and feuding, to disassociate himself from the diocese, so threatening had been the bishop’s desires to reform his flock. Without benefice or connections, Robert went to Angers, commencing there the severe ascetic lifestyle of a hermit in the forest of Craon. Although not from the region, he attracted followers impressed by his piety, eloquence, and strong personality. After keeping itinerant company with Bernard, subsequent founder of the Congregation of Tiron, Vitalis, later the founder of the Abbey of Savigny, and other aesthetes of considerable note, Robert founded the monastery of Canons Regular of La Roë, becoming its first abbot. Robert had done some preaching of “the word of God in villages, at castles, and in the cities” between leaving Rennes and establishing La Roë, although he was never officially upbraided for taking such liberties. In his fiftieth year he was, however, summoned to meet the Pope, who was traveling in France. So impressed was Urban II with a sermon he heard by Robert that he gave him the firm prospect of future security: Robert became a “preacher” (semini verbus) answerable only to the Pope “with orders to travel everywhere in the performance of this duty.”

Naked Poor . Although little is known of his missionary journeys over the whole of Western France in the last two decades of his life, with the exception of his last year recounted in the Vita Andrea, Robert did in fact realize his commitment to preaching. When Robert died at around seventy years old, he had left La Roë and had founded the double monastery at Fontevrault which in seventeen years had grown to house three thousand nuns. It is not clear what role Robert intended to play upon his resignation as archpriest, but he ended, like several contemporary preachers, as an example of destitute poverty. For Robert, poverty was crafted as “nakedness,” “as Christ naked upon the Cross”; generally his sermons were given to the indigent population, whom he would have known only as the “poor of Christ.” By 1097 Robert’s disciples were of every age and condition, including even lepers and reformed prostitutes. Canons of the La Roë community, once “outsiders” themselves, who had now embraced the monastic state under Robert’s leadership, objected to the number and diversity of the postulants. That fact did not stop the poor from coming, however, and in 1099 Robert embraced the many whom La Roë could not accommodate by founding the double-gender Benedictine monastery of Fontevrault. The same situation of overflow capacity was repeated several times, with one Fontevrault priory, or dependent house, being founded by the penitent Bertrade at Hautebruyère and another at Orsan, where Robert duly came to his final rest. After years of traveling from town to town preaching the theme of the abandonment of the world and the adoption of poverty, Robert had undoubtedly been exposed to another sermon subject: the Crusades of Urban II. Some historians assert that Robert did indeed preach the Crusades at Nantes, and although not a military man, Robert was portrayed iconographically wearing a coat of mail next to his skin, enjoying a vision of the crucified Christ, Virgin Mary, and Saint John. His own orientation engaged him, however, rather in the other necessary, if less honorable, battle: “This man preached the Gospel to the poor, he called the poor, he gathered the poor together.” Women with unsavory pasts were a marginal group of relatively recent concern to the twelfth-century itinerant preachers, redefining the practice of encompassing sinful womankind and rescuing the lowest among them with religious communities. Robert became a savior of women, then their protector. Since the governance of the double abbey of Fontevrault was in the hands of its female population, Robert became known for his respect and vote of confidence for the Fontevrist nuns, who were reciprocally staunch supporters of Robert and all his foibles. His second biographer, Andrea tells how Robert at the approach of death assembled the canons of Fontevrault around him to say: “Know that whatever I have wrought in this world I have wrought as a help to nuns.”

Odd Rules . Robert continued throughout the latter decades of his life to wander “barefooted in various sections of France,” with ever more followers forthcoming. He and his friends Bernard and Vitalis reacted to the demand by creating the monastic communities of Fontevrault, Tiron and Savigny, which were copies of Benedictine Order houses, either in a new setting or, where possible, with new conditions for the double abbey. The Benedictine Rule adapted for Fontevrault enjoined the utmost simplicity in the materials of the black-and-white habit, a strict observance of silence, in food—abstinence from meat even for the sick—and rigorous enclosure. In the first Rule of Fontevrault, the topics of silence, good works, food, and clothing were taken on especially, as well as the issue of the succession of an abbess. At first a new abbess was not to be chosen from among those who had been brought up at Fontevrault; she should be someone who brought to her position experience of the world (de conversis sororibus) and who could perhaps thereby submit wayward monks to ask her pardon to regain the fellowship of the brethren. As a less conventional side for the male community of an abbey, the subjection of its monks to the abbess and nuns was marked. The monks “shall lead a common conventual life with no property of their own, content with what the nuns shall confer upon them.” The scraps from the monks’ table were to be “carried to the nuns’ door and there given to the poor.” On the more traditional side of religious gender relations and the superior sacramental authority of men, the separation of the nuns from the monks was carried to such a point that a sick nun had be brought into the church to receive the last sacraments from the male priest. Over the course of its initial twenty years, Fontevrault established itself solidly under its first two abbesses, Hersende of Champagne and Petronilla of Chemillé, testifying to the fact that among the nuns Robert had confidently found women endowed with high qualities and in every way fitted for governance.

Trials . After twenty years of scraping by on the margins of orthodoxy without attracting much attention from Church authorities, Robert of Arbrissel was, upon his death, throroughly scrutinized, having been denounced as extremely indiscreet in his choice of exceptional ascetic practices by Geoffrey of Vendôme and Marbodius of Rennes. There was no clear evidence to support their claims, but they placed Robert under a cloud of suspicion. The normal procedure of consideration for canonization would have gone forward from the time of Robert’s death after a fairly lengthy period of investigation. Unfortunately for him, the suspicions came at a moment when official and popular concern for double abbeys and aberrant ascetic practices was building, so instead of receiving Robert’s somewhat unusual, but theologically informed behavior (from his training at the Parisian schools of Nôtre-Dame or Ste-Geneviève), his accomplishments and devotion as itinerant preacher became snagged in controversy. Robert, sensing his approaching death, took steps in 1116 to ensure the permanence of the monastery at Fontevrault: he imposed a vow of stability on his monks and summoned a monastic Chapter meeting to settle the form of government and the house Rule. His preparedness led to the survival of the double abbey for many generations of abbesses, who did everything in their power to discredit the attacks on their founder. Other evidence of eccentric actions on Robert’s part and scandals among his mixed followers may have helped to give credence to negative rumors. Since male and female cohabitation in the same monastery had been abused by earlier generations, double abbeys had generally died out by the eleventh century. With memory of them freshly revived by Robert of Abrissel’s monastery at Fontevrault, it is not surprising to find that such institutions were still an object of solicitude and strict legislation at the hands of ecclesiastical authority. Further, three characteristics of Robert’s own life—his severe penance, his strikingly ascetic appearance, and his metaphorical “nakedness” in following Christ—made him personally a target. Horrified by sexual impropriety, however, Robert supported the papal legates at the Council of Poitiers in 1100 in excommunicating King Philip I of France on account of his immoral union with Bertrade de Montfort. Certainly there were other testimonials to Robert’s spiritual sincerity and purity, but the twelfth-century tone was that of the least respectable impressions expressed by his contemporaries, with the resounding exception of his biographies, especially the Vita Andreae, written by Robert’s chaplain Andrew, a loyal subject and witness to his death. Although never formally beatified, Robert is nonetheless usually given the title of “Blessed.” A letter of exhortation to Countesse Ermengarde of Brittany is all that remains of Robert’s own hand, hence the poor, “naked” scholar-priest-hermit-preacher-abbot, representing the spiritual needs of the marginalized, can no longer speak in his own defense.


Rosalind B. Brooke, The Coming of the Friars (London: Allen & Unwin, 1975).

Jacqueline Smith, “Robert of Arbrissel, Procurator Mulierum” in Medieval Women, edited by Derek Baker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978).

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